Monday, June 15, 2009

Strategic Planning Analogy #261: How Does It Feel?

Back when I was a teenager (in the 1970s), muscle cars were all the rage (especially if you were a teenager). These were gigantic hunks of metal with massive engines. They shouted of power. They had names like GTO, Barracuda, Javelin and so on.

One of the distinctive features of these muscle cars was their paint job. No dull and boring colors need apply. They were bright yellows, bright oranges, bright purples and bright reds. They looked like shiny plastic toy cars…only a lot bigger.

Of course, nowadays, cars truly are made of plastic and other non-metal parts. However, you could not tell by looking at the paint job. Most of the cars of today seemed to be painted in metallic colors, like gray and silver and copper. Even when other colors are used, they often have metallic flakes in the paint to give it more of a metallic look.

So why is it that when the cars were made of metal, we made them look like plastic, but when the cars are made of plastic, we make them look like metal?

The automobile industry understands the importance of appearance. Just being a good car is not enough. You also have to look the part. Fast muscle cars are like “toys for older boys.” The plastic colors helped reinforce that image. It makes them feel more “fun.” By contrast, today’s cars are all about quality and durability. The illusion of metal helps reinforce that image.

Image is not just important to automobiles. Every strategy should have an image component. And every image is reinforced by visual cues, even if the visual cues have little to do with actual performance.

Is a plastic car any stronger because is has a metallic paint job? That depends on whether you ask the automotive engineer or the customer. The engineer would say no, but the customer seems to feel more secure in the strength when the appearance is metallic.

Are you adding the right visual cue to your offering to evoke the image most relevant to your strategy?

The principle here is that reality lies in the mind of the consumer. If bright, plastic colors make muscle cars seem more fun in the mind of the customer, then one should use bright plastic colors. If metallic colors make a plastic car feel more durable in the mind of the customer, then metallic colors should be used.

It doesn’t matter what rational measurements say. What matters is how customers feel. Strategic positions are not just held by rational measurements, but also by whether the position “feels right” in the customer’s mind.

Principle in Action
If you are a bank, you probably want a strategic position which includes being strong, stable and secure. That’s why banks tend to be located in brick buildings, rather than ones with cheap plastic siding. The physical reality of bank security may have nothing to do with bricks versus plastic siding. But in the mind, bricks make a bank seem much more secure.

When I was younger, I was hanging out at a shopping center that had a bank in it. It was a nice, sturdy brick building (or so I thought). I accidentally kicked the building and a piece of the thin brick fa├žade fell off, exposing chicken wire and a little plaster. It was all a fake. Suddenly, my opinion of the security of that bank went down. It was all emotional, based on the illusion of fake bricks. When the visual cue broke down, so did my opinion. It didn’t matter that the reality of what was happening inside the bank had not changed. The opinion in my mind changed, and that is all that matters.

A similar principle applies to lawyers. A lawyer may not be any smarter if they are sitting in a plush, ornate office, but it sure feels like it.

To reinforce the strategy, everything should have an appearance which reinforces the image behind the strategy. For example, Apple owns the position of cool. They do it by making sure EVERYTHING is cool. Sure, the technology is cool, but so is the user interface, the esthetic design, the advertising, the software/apps, and even the store you buy it in. Everything helps to reinforce the coolness of everything Apple. As a result, it makes the people who use Apple products feel more cool.

Many of Apple’s competitors stop at just trying to make the technology cool. That’s not enough when all of the other visual cues are telling customers that Apple is cooler.

The cues don’t have to be rational…just effective at the mental level. For example, I worked with a grocer whose strategy was based on having an image of low prices. Through research, they determined that having employees bag the groceries lowered costs, because it sped up the checkout line, requiring fewer cashiers. Lower costs would help create lower prices, right? So what did the company do?

Rather than using baggers, the store used the less efficient process of having the customers bag their own groceries. Why? Because the visual cue of bagging groceries yourself created a greater mental perception of “low price” than would arise if the efficiency of baggers was applied to actual prices. Baggers do not “feel” like low price, even if they are.

What to Do
So what is a strategist to do? First, come up with a compelling strategic position. Second, determine which attributes reinforce that position. Third, make sure there are enough practical attributes imbued in the product to deliver on the promises inherent in the position. Fourth, surround the offering in visual cues so that every experience reinforces the mental perception of delivery on the promise.

When I say everything, I mean everything. If a customer has to call your customer service line, will that experience reinforce what you stand for? Do you ever consider the customer service line when designing the strategy?

Even if it doesn’t make sense from a rational perspective, if it helps with mental persuasion, do it. If needed, make the plastic car look like sturdy metal or the metal muscle car look like fun, colorful plastic.

And remember, although the smoke and mirrors are important, the product still has to deliver. A cool environment will not save an electronic gadget whose internal technology sucks.

Spend some time trying to experience the entirety of your offering, just like a real customer. Don’t just have someone in your firm take a product off the assembly line and dump it in your lap. Take time to try to purchase it just like a customer would. Try to set it up and use it without having one of your tech people or engineers in the room. Call to complain and hear what the response is. Experience all the image cues.

Strategies are won or lost in the minds of the customer. These minds are influenced by all sorts of visual cues. The better you are at incorporating the management of all of these cues into your strategy, the greater the likelihood of success.

When you are in a strategy meeting debating tactics and actions, continually ask yourself this question, “How does that make me feel?” If it doesn’t feel right or feels inconsistent, then it probably shouldn’t be done, no matter how rational it first appears.

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