You Can Have Any Color You Want, As Long As You Want Black (Part 2)

Today I conclude the article on product driven versus market driven companies. I began by discussing the cultural differences between the two. Product driven companies concentrate on achieving and maintaining technical superiority. Market driven companies devote resources to brand development and customer communications.

Companies and industries sometimes attempt to adapt their marketing strategy in response to changing competition and other market forces. For example, conditions slowly but dramatically changed for the entire American automotive industry over the next 50 years. Detroit’s response to the 1973 oil embargo was a textbook case of a failed attempt to adapt. Faced with the first ever non-wartime limit on the availability of cheap gasoline, the American consumer suddenly became very conscious of gas mileage.

At the time, Japanese and European companies dominated the market for fuel-efficient sub-compacts. American manufacturers’ knee-jerk response was to jump headfirst into a market they had ignored until recently. They stepped up production of the notoriously undependable Ford Pinto (voted the worst car of all time), the Chevrolet Vega and the AMC Gremlin.

Detroit’s failure took a personal toll on an entire generation of consumers. My first car was a red, white and blue Pinto. It was a cornucopia of expensive mechanical problems, unrelenting frustration on a 94-inch wheelbase. I sold it just before a massive recall for an exploding gas tank problem that would eventually cost Ford millions of dollars in legal settlements.

My next car, a Toyota, sparked a love affair with foreign cars that continues today. It was 30 years before I bought another Ford, a pickup truck for my son. It took almost as long for American manufacturers to overcome the image of producing inferior cars. It remains to be seen whether they will ever regain the world market share they once enjoyed.

How have things changed since I bought that damn Pinto?

A national chain of men’s discount stores advertised, “An educated consumer is our best customer.” For a product driven company in 2011, an educated consumer might be more aptly described as their worst nightmare. Service industry executive and strategic planning expert Michael O’Loughlin recently summarized the reason. He said, “Thanks to the Internet, the consumer has come to believe that no concessions are ever necessary. They expect unlimited choices in meeting their needs.”

Potential customers are only a few clicks away from a myriad of rival goods and services. A consumer with a smartphone can compare competitors’ prices on the spot. Any business, even the smallest local operation, ignores those powerful market realities at their own peril. Broadening your product line or services can help fend off competition by better addressing market needs, and improve customer retention in the process.

The men’s store chain recently filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. One analyst said they had failed to keep up with the increasingly competitive off-priced clothing market.

My final point is that few successful companies employ an entirely one-sided strategy. They operate along a moving spectrum on which there are few absolutes, and no strategy guaranteed to bring success or failure.

Consider Ford one last time. Product limitations notwithstanding, they still managed to sell over 15 million units between 1908 and 1927. At one point, half of all the cars in the world were Model T’s. That production record stood until the Volkswagen Beetle finally surpassed it in 1972.

The correct strategy for your business is the one that is executable within the constraints of your cost structure and marketing budget, and that produces the highest net cash flow given all the relevant factors at work in your market and your competition.

I began this article with an old quote. I end with another. A marketing adage says, “You have to sell from your own wagon.” It refers to a bygone era when merchants plied their trade by pushing handcarts up and down urban streets. The adage may be true. However, today you get to decide how big your wagon is, and what products or services it carries.

Go forth and sell!

 © 2011 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

You Can Have Any Color You Want, As Long As You Want Black (Part 1)

This week, I get to incorporate two of my favorite topics, history and old cars, into a two-part article. My title is one of Henry Ford’s most quoted statements. He actually said, “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black”.

He said it in 1909, ironically at a time when black was not available. The Model T originally came in grey, green, blue and red. He did not implement his all black policy until 1914. However, He could have accurately said customers can have any model they want so long as it is a 2-door. But his quote sounds better, so I’m throwing journalistic accuracy to the wind and going with it!

I use it to introduce my real subject, product driven versus market driven companies. Henry obviously believed in a product driven strategy.

My first goal is simply to understand the difference between the two strategies and the corporate cultures that define them at the most basic level.

If you were involved in Ford’s marketing efforts back then, your job was to convince potential buyers they needed a black Model T, period! Your marketing approach was something like, “Here is what I have to sell, and this is why you need it.”

Contrast that to a market driven strategy that asks, “What do you need, and how can I best meet that need?”

The cultural differences between product and market driven companies run deep. Product driven companies will spend relatively more resources on product development. Their primary goal is to achieve and maintain technical superiority. In extreme examples, they believe their products are so good they simply sell themselves. Engineers will always outrank marketing in the corporate pecking order.

Market driven companies will devote more resources to brand their company and products, and on customer communications. Technical superiority is secondary to understanding customer needs and anticipating market changes. Product development is less mission critical than advertising, since the marketing department rules the roost.

My second point is that if you are going to sell a limited product or service line, you need to be very good at it. Ford was fanatical about producing cheap, dependable cars. He managed to reduce the original $850 sticker price to $290 by the 1920s. At that price, he owned the working family automotive market. He was so confident that the cars’ features and low cost could generate sufficient sales that he did no corporate advertising from 1917 to 1923.

Unfortunately, being first to market with a technically superior product offered at an affordable price is no guarantee of long-term success. As Ford Motor Company subsequently learned, competitors (increasingly on a global basis) have a long history of unseating early market leaders who grow complacent about ever-changing customer needs and wants.

Being a product driven company is certainly easier if you exercise some degree of control in your relevant market, and if consumer tastes are stable and predictable. Perhaps Ford was lulled into a false sense of security by assuming past market conditions, under which they flourished for decades, would continue indefinitely.

Car buyers in the 1920s were unsophisticated by today’s standards. They could not have imaged, let alone demanded the range of choices, options and features currently available. Ford was not the first company to replace dangerous hand cranks with electric starters. Cadillac beat them to market by seven years. However, when the world’s largest car manufacturer finally made the change in 1919, consumers and the rest of the industry fell in line. Ford defined the new standard, not Cadillac.

I will conclude this article on Friday, when I write about how companies sometimes attempt to adapt their strategies to changing market conditions.

Until then, best wishes for a joyous Thanksgiving holiday.

 

© 2011 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

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