Thursday, October 28, 2010
Strategic Planning Analogy #360: Interesting Neighbors
On time, I was shopping with a friend in London. I was bored with what one of the shopkeepers was showing my friend, so I stepped out of the small shop to look around at what was happening on the street.
I looked up and made an astonishing discovery. It is common in England, when someone famous has lived somewhere, for there to be a sign on the side of the building telling who the famous person was who lived there. Well, there, across the street from this shop were two of these signs next door to each other.
At 23 Brook Street was a sign saying that the electric guitar legend Jimi Hendix had lived there back in 1968-69. Next door, at 25 Brook Street, was a sign saying that classical composer George Frideric Handel had lived there back in the mid 1700s.
Although separated by time, I found it fascinating that Hendrix and Handel had been together in location. It made me ponder what it might have been like if two had been there at the same time and had been neighbors.
Just think of the music that the two of them could have written together. Hendrix’s raw energy combined with Handel’s sense of angelic majesty—WOW—that would have really been something. The jam sessions with Hendrix on guitar and Handel on keyboards would have been superb. (At least that’s how it plays in my mind.)
After all, back in the 1970s, the band Curved Air combined the sounds of contemporary rock with a heavy influence from the classical music by Vivaldi. I thought that worked out quite well.
It is interesting to contemplate the combination of a leading musician/composer from the 1960s with a leading musician/composer of the 18th century. The times were very different and the approaches to music were very different. Yet both Hendrix and Handel created great music and I think a combination of the two would have been great as well (even better than Curved Air, who I highly recommend).
After Jimi Hendrix died, people found copies of recordings of Handel’s music in Hendrix’s home on 23 Brook Street, so maybe there was more of a connection than one would originally think.
The point here is that unconventional combinations have the potential to create wonderful things. This not only applies to music, but also to strategy.
Staking out a new position does not mean that ALL of strategic components have to be brand new and original. No, you can take a lot of old and established ideas and still stake out new territory provided you combine them in new ways.
In modern language, this concept is referred to as “mash-ups,” where you invent something new in digital entertainment by mashing together already-made entertainment from a diverse variety of sources. Just as a Hendrix-Handel mash-up could sound wildly original, even though all the influences are borrowed from the past, your strategy could be original even though it is based on older influences.
The principle here is that you don’t always have to look forward into the fuzzy, uncertain future to find innovation. Sometimes great innovation can come by borrowing from solid successes in the past. By recombining solid strategic components from the past in new ways, one can possibly get the best of both worlds—radical new strategies without the risk of going into totally uncharted territory.
Years ago, I recall that the Kool-Aid beverage powder brand asked a university marketing program to come up with a strategy to boost sales. It got me to thinking what I would have done if I had been in that marketing program.
Kool-Aid as Seasoning?
My thought was to come up with a radical new strategic positioning, but anchored in a solid past. Instead of the current Kool-Aid position as a children’s beverage, why not position Kool-Aid as the kitchen seasoning that will make food more appealing to children? For example, would children be more likely drink their healthy milk if it was flavored with Kool-Aid? How about as a flavor enhancer to get children to eat their oatmeal? And how excited would the children be if their birthday cake was seasoned with their favorite Kool-Aid flavor (and how proud would their parents be when the other children at the birthday party think they are the coolest parents in the neighborhood for making Kool-Aid Cake)?
We all know what seasonings are. People have been cooking with powders kept on their kitchen shelves for generations. They can easily relate to the idea. So the concept is rooted in the past.
However, at the same time, general spices and seasonings specifically geared to children’s taste preferences is fairly innovative. So with this approach, one could take advantage of the familiar yet still create an innovative new strategic position.
Combining Kool-Aid with cooking flavors would be like combining Hendrix and Handel. You end up with a new category without having to really reinvent anything. It’s still the same old Kool-Aid recipe—no new inventions here—just a new way of looking at the old.
And hopefully, this would cause parents to buy extra Kool-Aid—the usual amount for normal use, and extra KoolAid for use as a flavor seasoning. Oh, and they would buy even more, just to have on hand for unknown future seasoning needs. After all, you always keep extra flour and sugar around; now add KoolAid to that list.
Kool-Aid as Dye?
One of the key ingredients of Kool-Aid is food dye. What if you repositioned KoolAid as a funky way to get fun colors into your life. There are many rebellious young people who have used Kool-Aid to dye their hair into wild colors. Perhaps this could be expanded into other color enhancing projects?
One could make simple watercolors that parents could give their children to use, knowing that it would be safe. I’m sure that a lot of other innovative dye approaches could be thought of.
The principle would be the same: to create an innovation without having to create a new product. Just combine the old product (KoolAid) with old practices and end up with a new strategy.
Where to Put the Energy
So, when looking for innovative new strategies, it is not always necessary to put a lot of effort behind scientists in an R&D laboratory. New innovation does not necessarily need new products with new patents. Sometimes, all you need to do is put a new twist on an old product by pairing it up with a new way of using the product.
Subway boosted sales when it got people to think about its sandwiches as not just food, but as a diet aid to lose weight. They didn’t really change their product. They didn’t invent anything new. It was the same old sandwiches. However, because Jared Fogle lost so much weight eating Subway sandwiches, it got others to try to do the same. Combining two old concepts (eating sandwiches and losing weight) was a winner.
So instead of putting all the effort and reliance for success in the hands of the R&D lab, consider just taking what you have and recombining it with other things to create something new.
Think of Legos. Those little bricks stay the same, but put them in the hands of creative people and you can build all sorts of different things. You don’t need to reinvent the Lego bricks. You just have to think outside the box and be more creative with what you have.
Just because a strategy is new does not mean all the components need to be new. Sometimes you can create a great new position by taking what you already have and just combining it with other pieces in a new way. Rather than putting all your hope in an R&D lab, get a little creative with what is already in front of you.
The success rate of getting great innovation out of the lab can be quite low. Many pharmaceutical companies are shrinking their R&D budgets because the return on investment is so low. Why not try a different approach by re-applying the stuff that is already right in front of you?