“Imagine if Walt Disney had conceived of his company’s purpose as to make cartoons, rather than to make people happy.”
-- Jim Collins
Companies typically start with a clear purpose in mind, but over time they find themselves drifting away from it. They hire, fire, and acquire without much direction. They struggle to follow trends instead of creating new ones, eventually becoming mediocre clones of their competitors. Like a tree with weak roots, they fall over when the wind blows.
One of the most common themes in popular science fiction is the feeling of technology and/or corporations squeezing the humanity out of the human race. These books and movies resonate deeply with viewers because they’re metaphorical representations of very real emotions and frustrations we feel every day of our lives.
But executives obviously don’t want to hear that. They want numbers. They want reports. They want proof. They want quick results. So, they wind up making the same short-term, tactical decisions that have made consumers feel increasingly disconnected, disenfranchised, and dehumanized.
To overcome this tendency, companies have to get back to their roots (their purpose, values, positioning, audience, style, and vision), and they can do this by answering The Six Hard Questions
“Why are we in this business?” (Purpose)
You’d think most executives and product leaders would have a ready (and passionate) response to that question, but most don’t. When asked, they usually keep their composure, but if you watch closely you’ll sense their discomfort. They get a little squirmy. They often give a half-hearted response about service, quality, integrity, or other filler words, or they jokingly say that the goal is to make a lot of money—which it’s not. A company really exists because of its purpose. Its real purpose. It’s deeper than financial goals, target markets, or strategic plans. It goes beyond your business model and even what category you’re in.
Consider the difference between Yahoo (a dying brand) and Google (a thriving brand). On the surface they have a lot in common, but Google is a purpose-driven company hell bent on “organizing the world’s information,” while Yahoo is a market-driven company scrambling to give the public whatever they want in hopes of gaining new market share. Yahoo had a purpose but neglected it, while Google has doubled-down on theirs.
Purpose-driven organizations are more radically more powerful because everyone understands the goal, so they can move tens (or hundreds…or thousands) of times faster than a bunch of people half-heartedly looking out for their own financial interests.
“What’s important to us?” (Values)
When faced with a decision, you make a choice based on the ideals that are most important to you. As soon as the alarm goes off in the morning, you’re deciding whether concepts like “rest,” “health,” and “comfort” are more important to you than values like “career,” “duty,” and “routine.” Our brains contain a web of thousands of values like these, pulling us one direction or another like giant magnets.
Groups are even more complex, with their collective decisions based on the various combinations of each member’s individual values. The interesting thing about groups, though, is that patterns begin to emerge through company culture, acquired habits, internal training, formal and informal discussions, etc. In groups where the core values are strongly defined, the team simply moves forward consistently and efficiently, almost as if the decisions had been made in advance.
However, to get your employees and customers to rally around core values, you have to avoid the lip-service values that are so tempting to claim: service, quality, respect, honesty, integrity, fairness, teamwork, excellence, responsibility, communication, professionalism, trustworthiness, etc. Those aren’t core values, they’re just table stakes; customers should be able to assume those of you from the beginning, so bringing them up actually makes you come across as defensive or insecure. Talking about “our great customer service” isn’t any more compelling to customers than telling them you brushed your teeth and put on clean underwear this morning. You have to dig deeper than that. For example, instead of customer service, maybe you really value delight, or attentiveness, or cheerfulness. Be specific, and use phrases you don’t hear everyday. This will make them stand out in the minds of your employees, and turn them into anchors associated with specific behaviors and decisions that you want to see in their daily work.
“Where does our company/product fit in the market?” (Positioning)
What’s the difference between Special K and Wheaties? From a nutritional perspective, they’re almost identical. However, both brands have captured the customer’s imagination and fascination through clear positioning and strong visual execution of their brand in totally different directions. The Wheaties brand has long focused on sports fans as its primary target market, with its tradition of putting athletes on the cereal box and its famous “Breakfast of Champions” tagline. They’ve successfully built a cultural institution around the implied notion that eating this particular wheat and bran flake will provide you with increased athletic prowess. On the contrary, Special K marketing is clearly directed at women, with soft curves, soothing typography, lots of pinks and reds, and aspirational images of slender women in dresses, swimsuits, etc. They’ve dominated the market by positioning it as a “diet cereal for women.” There's almost no nutritional difference between the two cereals, but they each picked a target and stuck with it.
It’s tempting to try to appeal to everyone, but most brands rise to prominence by focusing on a specific niche and completely conquering it before trying to move on to other areas. You can buy anything on Amazon.com now, for example, but it was not that long ago that they only sold books.
By focusing on a particular niche, reducing your offerings, and narrowing your target audience, you allow your company to develop specialized strengths that can really boost your reputation with customers. Conquer that niche first, and then decide whether you can reasonably parlay that momentum into other niches. (And be aware that sometimes you can’t.)
“Who are we engaging?” (Audience)
A key step in developing a rich relationship with your customers is to really understand where they’re coming from. There are many great tools to help you take your customer profiles well beyond irrelevant demographics, such as “journey maps”, which create a visual map of your entire customer experience process, including the emotions customers feel at every step of the way.
Once you better understand what’s going on in the minds of your audience, there are several steps you can take within your organization to ensure that this information doesn’t just sit in a dusty binder on some executive’s shelf, but rather that it becomes an everyday part of how your company works. For example, you can create a “customer persona” (a fictional profile of a typical customer) with a name and a face, to help your staff connect with your target audience in a more direct way. In meetings, then, they’d no longer have to try to hold an abstract customer profile in their heads; they can simply ask, “What would Judy think about this?” This simple change can bring about significant differences in the way a company considers its customers during decision-making processes.
The most important part of connecting with your audience, though, is getting real with them. Understanding your target audience isn’t about figuring out how to exploit them; it’s more about convincing you (the company they’re dealing with) to let your guard down and have a real conversation with them. That soccer mom with 2.5 kids? Her name is Sarah. You know what she looks like. You know how she thinks. It’s like you’ve known her for years. She rolls her eyes when you launch into your corporate marketing crap. Stop making proclamations to your abstract demographics, and start getting real with Sarah.
“How does our company/product look, feel, and sound?” (Style)
Business executives learned through experience that their personal style can affect how others perceive them. They dress up for a sales meeting, they go stylishly casual for an after-hours industry mixer, and they keep a spare set of clothes at the office just in case something comes up. They put great thought into what their shoes, their car, their posture, and their tone of voice will look, feel, and sound like. Even those who are bad at this wish they were better because they know it’s important. Style matters.
Amazingly, though, these very same people often assign almost no value to the issue of style when it comes to their business. If you add up just the costs of what they’re wearing today, it’s often more than they’ve spent on their company’s style in the past year. They hire the cheapest designer they can find to create their logo, use a cheap template for their website, and write the same bland marketing copy that all of their competitors use. Can you imagine what would happen if they treated their personal style the way they do their company style? That sales meeting wouldn’t go very well, would it?
Here’s the absolute truth: style isn’t fluff. Style matters. Style makes business happen. People don’t decide whether they’re going to hire your company because of your 20-minute sales pitch; they decide they’re going to work with you because you feel like the right kind of company. They don’t buy your product because of the features and benefits you list on the label, but because the product’s style fits the way they think about their own identity and lifestyle. When there’s no style, there’s no fit.
The important thing, though, is to make sure that your company’s style actually stands for something. It’s easy to spot a poser, right? You can do it in a split-second, and you should assume your customers can as well. You can’t just slap a couple of cliches into place and call it a style. You have to dig deep.
“What will it look like when we accomplish our goals?" (Vision)
One of the primary roles of a company’s leaders is to provide a clear vision and direction to its employees, but they often get bogged down in the nuts and bolts of operational issues, and begin to think of themselves as being responsible primarily for day-to-day tactical issues: Tim is upset because Susie took his stapler, there’s an order due today but one of the parts is missing, someone has to update the payroll system and you’re the only one with the password, etc.
Every day becomes a scramble to meet obligations and expectations, leaving little room for strategic thinking. At times this may be a necessary evil, but this should only be for short durations, and measures should be put in place to prevent it. Why? Because without clear thinking about the future of the company, years or even decades can be spent simply going in circles, reacting to immediate circumstances but never really accomplishing anything. The future you want for your company isn’t going to happen on its own.
Picture your entire company being packed into a minivan, driving across the United States. Where you wind up—and how long it takes you—is the result of thousands of individual decisions you make along the way. If you make it your job to tell everyone what to at every step along that journey (“left at this stop light,” “take the next off ramp,” “stay here for the night,” etc.), and you fail to give them the overall vision (“We’re going to arrive at New York City before noon on Tuesday”), you’ll inevitably get off track because of all the decisions that are being made without you being aware of them (like when you fall asleep in the back seat, and then wake up in Florida).
Life is too short—and business is too hard—to spend it going in circles. Figure out where you’re going, make sure everyone in the company is reminded of that vision, and put measures in place to ensure the decisions that are being made that are constantly bringing you closer to accomplishing that vision. That’s how you get where you want to be as quickly as possible.