Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Don't Be An Oxymoron. Focus on the Little Picture.

Recently, I was told by a pair of company leaders that I was "too focused" in defining the brand. They proceeded to say that we needed to "broaden the focus." Isn't that kind of like saying, anarchy rules, barely dressed, friendly argument and one size fits all?

Yes, “broaden the focus” is an oxymoron.

It’s not the first time I’ve been told by executives and even colleagues that I’m too narrow in defining brands. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard things like, “there’s no way everything can live the brand.”

Oh, really?

Shame on Pixar for only focusing on family movies and sticking to it’s “less is more” approach. Did you know it takes five years from concept-to-completion to make a picture? That didn’t seem to bother Disney, which shelled out $7.4 billion for the company.

Pity the Whole Foods fools for focusing on organic and ringing up profitable quarters and shares at a two-year high even in a tough economy.

And I’m guessing the end is near for Southwest Airlines, whose barebones (but fun) focus the past 37 years has yielded 37 consecutive years of profitability and counting.

Then again, Pixar isn’t really focused on movies nor is Whole Foods on food and Southwest on flying. If they were, Pixar would make movies for adults, Whole Foods would stock as much non-organic as organic foods, and SWA would nickel and dime customers like every other airline. No, they are all focused on building brands. And as such, they are focused on the “little picture.”

You see, I was also told by one of the aforementioned leaders that they had to look at the “big picture.” I believe he was insinuating that I wasn’t. I wonder if he would have approved Hooters Airline, Coors Rocky Mountain Spring Water or Bic Underwear?

Okay, you could argue no one in their right mind would rubber-stamp those ideas. Except, that CEOs did. What about examples that don’t seem so obvious like a Mercedes for the price of a Camry? Even Forbes Magazine wasn’t buying it:

Finally, an inexpensive Mercedes is an oxymoron, since the three-pointed star is all about prestige. A Mercedes is something people have always felt they had to work for; to "achieve" a Mercedes for a mere $26,000 might undermine the value of the brand.”

Forbes’ concern was validated when the Mercedes brand itself suffered and the cheap Benz was ultimately sent to the scrap yard.

To really be focused on the big picture means to really focus on the small picture. But this is counterintuitive to conventional thinking. Broadening focus might just work in the short run, but inevitably, you undermine the core brand and over time your brand will lose its meaning and market share. Like Boston Chicken, which was looking big picture when it expanded its menu beyond chicken and even changed its name to Boston Market to be all-inclusive. Shortly thereafter it went bankrupt.

Statistically, nine in 10 expansions fail yet companies continue to think big picture. Did you know that Papa John’s started out selling pizza, subs, cheese steak sandwiches, fried vegetables, etc? When it found the courage to slice off everything but pizza and think small picture, it eventually became the third largest pizza franchiser in the world.

And how do people emotionally connect with the big picture? Take cities for example. Atlanta is touting itself as “A City Too Busy to Hate.” Huh? Broad, confusing and uninspiring. Then there’s, “What Happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” Its focus is small and crystal clear. Now wipe that smirk or smile off your face.

If category-dominating, often category-creating laser focused brands like Apple, Facebook and Fox Newschannel aren’t enough to convince you that focusing on the little picture – i.e., your brand - rather than expanding is the key to dominance, then you’re just clearly confused.

These are my Guts Feelings.


  1. Good read, Kurt. I'm sharing this one.

  2. Thanks for great reminders and solid examples. When you got to the Forbes quote, I immediately thought of the Cadillac Cimarron - will bring back some ugly memories.

    The "broaden" request clearly implies that they want to stretch the brand to cover all the things they're doing right now, yes? They're unwilling or unable to shut off an off-brand revenue stream, maybe?

    Do you tend to advocate for branding only those products/services of an existing business that "fit" or to hack off completely then non-fits (like Papa John's subs)?

  3. Ethan,

    Good to hear from you. You are correct...the leaders (if you can them that; I define leadership not as coming in early and staying late but as staying focused)do want the brand to encompass all of their initiatives and there is money tied to them all. But they are feeding the beast and starving the brand as their continual market share slide so clearly reflects. Another definition of leadership...not burying your head in the sand.

    In terms of your final question, it depends. Sometimes, an intiative can fit within the framework of a brand, though it's not very often. For example, an interior design company that I'm working with on redefining it's brand, is only really making money on marking up furniture. But it needs to monetize it's unique service offering rather than give it away. But furniture can fit into it's unique process by being an extension and the finishing touches of its process. It's all in how you position it. Conversely, interior design is a strategy so it must divorce from "decorating" projects, which conspire against the image of being an interior designer.

    Ethan, you always bring up good points. Hope to catch up with you again soon.