Friday, September 18, 2009

Brandishing Credentials and Unique Competency

Degrees, certifications, licenses, and credentials are required for several professions because they demonstrate a certain level of knowledge, competency, or experience. Sometimes a credential is required to protect potential customers from incompetence and fraud. Sometimes a credential simply establishes a threshold of expected performance.

When it comes to business, organizations and individuals earn credentials over time, but most of these credentials are never framed and hung on a wall. And what's more, the company or individual with this credential isn't really in control of which credential they earn. Sometimes a company will seek and attain a certain strategic advantage or unique competency because of brilliant strategy and careful planning; however, a more likely scenario is that a unique competency will emerge over time that qualifies the company to provide a service or product that other organizations aren't capable of providing. When that happens you have achieved a market credential. Congratulations!

Brand Credentials Are Granted Not Earned

That works for companies, but what about brands? What credentials does a brand have? The answer isn't typically found in what a company or brand line pursues but rather in what consumers accept and embrace coming from the brand. In the case of a brand, a credential is both a unique qualification and also a limitation. Earning a credential as a great athletic shoe brand, for example, may not qualify you to start manufacturing footballs under that brand.

An example would be consumers embracing Nike as an athletic clothing brand (beyond shoes) but rejecting Converse or another shoe brand in its efforts to expand its brand beyond footwear. Surely both companies can create good product designs and engage labor to manufacture inexpensive products. But that is where the parallel ends. The real question isn't so much what the company can produce but what customers expect them to produce and whether those customers will allow a brand to succeed with any given product or service.

Great Products and Services Establish Credentials

Again, the brand credential isn't so much a competency a company can earn but more a unique mind space that is granted to the brand by the market. Historically it has been the job of marketing and advertising to convince the consumers and clients that a brand had "street cred," but recently that job has shifted increasingly to product managers and designers. With the proliferation of information and increased accessibility to that information, products themselves carry more of the marketing responsibility than ever before.

This is the ultimate example of "actions speak louder than words." You can say all you want about a service or product, but gone are the days where clever marketing can overcome the weaknesses a poor product or user experience.

One of the most important questions to ask yourself when bringing a new product or service to market is: "Do we have the credentials to bring this thing to market?"

Thinking about it just for a moment provides a simple explanation for some of the biggest product failures in history: Levi's moving into men's suits, Polaroid expanding into digital photography, Pond's toothpaste, Frito-Lay Lemonade, among others.

The Dangers of Playing the Field

Many companies--especially those that are young, hungry, and entrepreneurial--try to be amenable and amoeba-like, changing shape (or stripes) with each new opportunity they encounter. While keeping options open can be a laudable objective, it is a hurdle when it comes to establish brand credentials.

Finding Your Brand Credentials

Here are a few questions to ask when trying to uncover your unique brand competencies or credentials:
  • Who are your current customers or clients? (size, industry, geography, etc.)
  • What do your customers hire you to do?
  • What substitute products did your customers consider? (Learning about your cusotmers' consideration set is one of the best ways to discover your brand credentials.)
  • Why have you lost sales to your competition?
  • Do any of your current activities worry your existing clients or customers?
Answering these questions will help you start understanding your current brand credentials and also the areas where you can expand your "street cred" to other areas.

Blue Ocean Strategy

The concept of "blue ocean strategy" or moving to the open sea that is unbloodied from intense competition is one of the most misunderstood concepts I have been confronted with in the last few years. The concept isn't to disavow your current customers and find a new Shangri-La where the waters are peaceful. The concept is to build off of your strength and find adjacent or analogous markets where your product may be preferred in the consideration set. This requires your credentials with one market to extend to to an adjoining market (not too big of a stretch for most brands).

The biggest risk in pursuing any branding or marketing strategy is offending current customers. They think they know you. They also think you are providing products or services for them. Stray too far and they may feel betrayed or at least concerned that your efforts aren't going to provide them with any additional benefit.

Remembering Your "Love Group" -- A Bird in the Hand

Here are a couple of worn out idioms that are marketing truisms. The first is a temptation to be fought, and the second is a saying to be embraced:

"The grass is always greener on the other side."
"A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush."

Another way of saying this is to never turn your back on those who love you. You have a group of people who love you. They like the benefits you provide and are willing ot put up with your quirks and shortcomings to receive those benefits. One of the biggest temptations marketers (typically driven by CEOs or CFOs looking at the numbers) will have is to enter a more lucrative market.

Just by the sound of it, it makes sense. Why settle for peanuts when you could own the plantation? But guess what? Nine times out of ten moving into a new market is a risky gamble that doesn't pay off. Why? Because someone else is already servicing those customers or clients and you don't have the credentials to compete. If you did, those potential customers would have already come knocking on your door.

Typically your best course of action is to get closer to your existing customers and then find more people just like them.

Your Personal Brand

I'll expand on this concept in the future, but you should also consider your personal brand. What do YOU have the credentials to do and provide to an organization, client, or partner? How are you going to compete?

In reality, there aren't too many options. You have to work on your credentials every day. Here are the three unique ways I have found to compete in my personal career:
  • Knowledge (demonstrating decision making and strategic skills and benefiting from the asymmetric nature of information)
  • Talent (delivering higher quality, craftsmanship, or competency)
  • Speed (executing faster)
Beyond these, I can't think of too many actual advantages from a value perspective. Talent would include most "soft skills" or "people skills." If you find yourself mediocre in all three areas, you had better make the effort of earning some credentials.

Brandishing your personal credentials or those of your brand at every opportunity is the best way to let others know who you are and the benefits you deliver.

What works for a company or brand will also work for you as an individual.

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