Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Strategizing Vs. Sloganeering

In the past, I have had the pleasure of working with Charlie Rath, the advertising genius behind a number of great TV ads, including the famous “Where’s the Beef?” campaign for Wendy’s.

As a slogan, “Where’s the Beef?” was an instant hit. It became part of the pop culture of its time and was a catch phase used by millions of people in their everyday life. Even to this day, the “Where’s the Beef?” commercials are considered to be among the most memorable and recognizable commercials ever made in the history of television. As far as having impact on its culture, these commercials would have to be ranked as being among the most successful ever.

So what was its impact on Wendy’s? To hear Charlie tell the story, he would say that at about the time the “Where’s the Beef?” commercials aired, Wendy’s was pretty much at an all time low in its ability to execute its strategy. On the factors of cleanliness, quality and service, Wendy’s was noticeably lacking in its ability to live up to customer expectations. About the only thing the stores were succeeding in was in disappointing the customer.

Therefore, when the commercials aired, they accelerated the rate in which people were exposed to this disappointing atmosphere, which accelerated the rate in which people were rejecting Wendy’s as an option. Sure, the ads got Wendy’s noticed, but people did not like what they saw. It just made a bad situation worse.

Eventually Wendy’s figured it out and dramatically improved its strategic execution on quality, cleanliness and service. It once again became a credible option in the fast food industry. Charlie got the company to bring back founder Dave Thomas and make him the chain spokesperson. Although the commercials may not have had as great a slogan as “Where’s the Beef?”, they were plenty good enough, and Wendy’s was able to rebound.

So in the end, one would have to say that:


Coming up with a comprehensive set strategic activities which are well coordinated and executed well throughout an entire organization can be hard work. It is a lot easier to just try to come up with a catchy slogan. The hope is that if the slogan is catchy enough, it will bring customers to your business in droves. They will love your slogan so much that they will overlook that fact that the slogan has no basis in reality and that they will patronize you in spite of your flaws.

Well, that’s a nice hope, but it rarely becomes true. Most examples are like what occurred at Wendy’s. A clever slogan was not enough to overcome poor strategic execution.

The thought that a strategic process is finished once you come up with a catchy slogan is ludicrous. If anything, that is just step #1 in a long journey. Now you have to link that slogan to supporting activity which justifies your use of the slogan and makes the slogan more meaningful in describing your firm than for the competition (a point of positive differentiation). Success requires more than clever slogans. It requires linking many different activities together in the direction of your positive differentiation (see blog "Strategy is Like Blood").

Advertisements are nothing more than promises. They are making promises about what a customer should expect when they patronize your firm. If your company’s strategy (or its level of execution of that strategy) is weak, then you are not living up to the promises in your ads. At that point, the only image you are creating is that of being a liar. You are saying one thing, yet doing another. It is difficult to build loyalty when your broken advertising promises are destroying your ability to get people to trust you.

At that point, you would be better off saying nothing. Otherwise, you will suffer an accelerated defection, as Wendy’s experienced.

Although it is nice to make great promises to your customers about how wonderful you are, it is so much more important to actually be a wonderful company. That’s what strategic planning is for. It is to first help companies find a unique place where they can be distinctively wonderful. Then, strategic planning helps coordinate the list of activities which need to occur in order to obtain and own that wonderful position.

At that point, a clever slogan which captures the essence of your strategy is the icing on the cake. If all you have is the icing, people will like the taste at first but will eventually be sickened on all of the sugar. You need the whole cake (slogan and strategic execution) to build a long-lasting treat.

What good would it be for Wal-Mart to shout “Always Low Prices” if it had a strategy built around a high cost structure? People would see “Always Low Prices” and think “Always High Prices.” Either that, or you will go out of business pricing everything below your cost. The only way that slogan works is if the entire company is devoted to a strategy centered around developing the lowest possible cost structure in your industry. Even just being average with your peers is not good enough. People will see “Always Low Prices” but think “Always Average Prices.” You’re still seen as a liar.

Unfortunately, reality can get in the way of a great slogan.

A recent example of someone who tried to get this right is Staples. Back at the turn of the century, Staples was having problems. Consumer complaints were outpacing kudos by a factor of 8 to 1. After doing some customer research, Shira Goodman, EVP of Marketing for Staples, discovered that what customers wanted was “a simple, straightforward shopping experience. They wanted knowledgeable and helpful associates and hassle-free shopping.” She also discovered that customer prioritized hassle-free shopping over lower prices.

At that point, Shira knew what the right advertising approach needed to be. However, she also knew that the store was not ready yet to deliver on that promise. Staples, in 1981, was not an easy, hassle-free place to shop.

Therefore, the next step was to build a new corporate strategy centered around making Staples the easiest, most hassle-free place to buy office supplies. First, the company removed about 800 superfluous items, such as Britney Spears backpacks. Then Staples improved store signage, making it easier to find where items are located. Sales associates were trained to be more helpful by walking shoppers to the correct aisle rather than just pointing. Since customers said that the availability of ink was one of their biggest concerns, the company introduced an in-stock guarantee on printer cartridges.

According to Shira, “It took about a year to get the stores up to snuff.” It wasn’t until the end of 2002 that the advertising could finally and truthfully make the promise which customers wanted to hear—that Staples was the easiest and most hassle free place to buy office supplies. Therefore, Staples waited until then to introduce the “That Was Easy,” advertising campaign. This clever campaign, with its sales of over $7.5 million in easy buttons, has had a level of cultural impact approaching the “Where’s the Beef?” campaign, but with a big difference. “That was Easy” was being promised by a store that was strategically working hard to execute well on being easy.

Shira Goodman put it this way, "Staples' new advertising campaign illustrates our long-term strategy to truly make buying office products easy. Our new tagline, 'Staples. that was easy' goes far beyond an advertising campaign -- it represents a fundamental shift in our approach to selling office products. It is evolving the Staples brand and guiding every business decision that takes place at the company."

Did you hear that? She said “every business decision.” It’s not just a clever slogan with a clever easy button. That’s just the icing on the cake. The focus on “easy” is a way of life in all aspects of the business; just like low cost is a way of life for Wal-Mart.

Clever slogans are nice, but they are no substitute for a well thought out and well executed strategy. Clever slogans make a promise about what to expect from a company. Clever companies use strategic planning to build a way of life that supports the promises of the slogan. When the two work together, wonderful things can happen. When the two do not work together, you may be doing nothing more than accelerating the rate at which customers defect from your business.

Just for fun, study they way you portray customers in your advertising (how they look, how they act) and then study your real customers. How similar are they? Would your customer be offended by they way in which you portray them?

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