Posts Tagged ‘brand strategy’

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Market to the Brand Broadcaster: Are you tuned in?

Monday, April 27th, 2015

Marketers talk a lot about people we call influencers. Depending on the industry in which you work, you may hear them referred to as trend leaders, gadget geeks, early adopters/adapters or fashionistas. The implication is that there is a group of people in each market whose knowledge and passion for the category makes them worth more than their weight in gold thanks to the influence they can have on people who are not as “category involved” as they are.

Influencers might lead because of passion and knowledge, or they might lead because of status. Hip-hop artists are huge influencers across all kinds of categories, from cars to liquor to clothes. Movie stars can make or break brands.

These people, and others, influence us because they have access to media. They can easily broadcast their tastes.

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But media is quickly being democratized by vehicles that go by such mash-up names as blog, vlog and podcast. Personal playlists can be marketable commodities. In theory at least, everyone can be a broadcaster of some kind. Anyone and everyone can lead- so long as others choose to follow you.

These days, broadcasters are simply people who pass on their thoughts, opinions and passions to others. The number of those others represents the order of magnification these broadcasters can bring to their ideas. They can help you disproportionately, but they can also hurt you to the same order of magnitude.

At some point, perhaps we’ll be assessing media plans on their “cost per broadcaster” as well as their “cost per point of purchase,” having long ago done away with such archaic terms as “cost per thousand.”

In many categories, these citizen broadcasters have become the most important population of influencers. Know what they look like, have someone dedicated to reading their blogs, and realize that broadcasters can work against you as easily as they can work for you.

Austin McGhie is head of Sterling’s strategy team

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It Takes a Village to Raise a Brand

Monday, March 16th, 2015

Great brands are built as much (if not more) by their audiences as by their managers. The manager can only create the stimulus; the audience filters that stimulus and provides a response. Only the marketplace can make your product or service into a brand. Participation is key.

What this means is that the brand marketer has to give up some control to his or her ‘community.’ In many categories, the marketer can be highly rewarded if a sense of shared ownership with the community is created.jordan

The Jordan brand is the best basketball shoe available, but that’s not why it’s such big business. It’s big because its community loves it. The community sustains the brand. Go online and tune into that community- you’ll be amazed by its attachment to it and involvement in its journey.

Smart marketers like Nike know they have to work with their community to build the brand. But they also know- though they don’t always like it- that they must give up some control of their destiny to that community. And needless to say, they must never, ever betray the trust of that community.

Your community isn’t naive. It knows you are in business to make money. It just needs to believe that you also have its best interests at heart. It wants to know that you truly share its passion.

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eBay is a fascinating example of a closely integrated community building a business and brand. Part of the genius of the eBay model was that it had a massive network of unsalaried brand advocates and business strategists, all deliberately or inadvertently dreaming up ways to develop new revenue sources and deepen brand loyalty.

As eBay grew, its community has given way to a loosely aligned eBay ‘nation’ filled with thousands of communities that have built up around specific passion points. This online retail community mentality can and has translated to the successful launch of subsequent businesses- Etsy comes to mind- where brand engagement and brand success are reciprocal, born of participation and innate openness. This is a model integral to success in a technology-based marketplace.

Treat your brand as a village rather than a city. Assume everyone knows everyone else. You need to learn the language in order to be welcome. You need to get to know your brand’s village elders and meet with them. They are wise and passionate, and they love to tell the story of your brand as well as stories of the village.

Most importantly, don’t try to directly influence the community. Listen and learn from their conversations, and continue to share your passion in authentic, meaningful ways. Then watch as the village raises up your brand.

Austin McGhie is head of Sterling’s Strategy team

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What’s Your Back-Story?

Wednesday, January 14th, 2015

Almost all my thoughts on culture apply most completely to organizations in which the company and brand are one. But what about the consumer packaged goods category, where organizations are often built around multiple brands? After all, this is the birthplace of brand marketing. Such organizations are driven by management teams, R&D and marketing, not necessarily by the mission of a single and committed business entrepreneur.

Even here, I think there’s a cultural opportunity, but one better characterized as the creation of a back-story.

Consider a Hollywood character actor asking the writer: “What’s my back-story?” This question and answer helps the actor understand the role and properly position the character, an entire life might be created for her to draw from to create that perfect three-second shot. The ultimate goal is that we viewers, after a brief glimpse of a face or hearing a few lines, unconsciously assume an entire life and personality.

A classic example: Lexus and Infiniti

When Lexus and Infiniti were created, only one company was built on a back-story. The Lexus back-story was forged on an obsession with quality. The dealer and ownership experience was built upon the idea of an organization totally committed to quality and attention to detail, and the advertising drove that quality back-story home. Suddenly, established, venerable brands such as BMW and Mercedes discovered that many of the rational underpinnings (i.e., excuses for an emotional and ego-driven brand choice) they relied on to sell cars had been swept out from under them by Lexus.

Infiniti, on the other hand, failed to build a coherent and differentiated back-story. Instead, it created a Zen-like ad campaign, complete with rocks and trees. It was a storyline with no depth, a storyline few could understand. From the start, and despite a great product, Infiniti was destined to finish second in this race.

Cases in the CPG world

In the world of packaged goods, Crest created a successful back-story incorporating medical research and dentist approval. Tylenol did something similar, effectively using hospital and doctor recommendations as the back-story. Snapple marketed its (true) back-story as a small, passionate company as seen through the eyes and personality of its receptionist. Häagen-Dazs created the illusion of European ice cream. And every now and again, Gatorade trots out its real back-story, reinforcing its authenticity as the very first sports drink, one that was created for the University of Florida football team (the Gators) in the 1960s.

So what’s your backstory?

Use this question to give your product or service added depth, texture and personality. And while your back-story needn’t be completely factual, it must ring true. Think of it as the equivalent of Hollywood films that are “based on real-life events.” Not only will a back-story strengthen your brand, it will give your marketers the meat of a story to work with when talking about your brand. Your backstory is the anchor of all your communications. It makes talking about your brand that much simpler, and for consumers, it gives them a real reason to believe.

Austin McGhie is head of Sterling’s Strategy team.

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Research is Reality Television for Marketers

Wednesday, November 5th, 2014

tvAs I’ve said before, only idiots and crazed entrepreneurs make decisions without research. A few of those entrepreneurs are legendary, precisely because they defied business or marketing logic and did what research told them not to do. This is how truly differentiated businesses are built and how many truly differentiated brands have been devised. This is why those legendary entrepreneurs were so wildly successful. But this is also why they are so few in number.

Smart marketers play the odds. On the occasions when they bravely ignore the odds, they do so at least knowing what those odds are. Smart marketers do their homework. They’re not bound by it or held hostage by it, but they do it. You’re not an idiot when you defy logic; you’re only an idiot when you don’t know what that logic is.

You must give a high priority to getting as close as possible to the real world. Participate personally. Get hands-on as much as possible. Stay in touch with your customer.

In the US, marketers and their agencies tend to live in cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco. They tend not to shop at Wal-Mart, not to ride the No. 2 bus to work and not to consider Denny’s a big night out. In other words, they tend to be out of touch with their average consumer.

At the 2004 Academy Awards, held in March 2005, host Chris Rock did a remarkable thing. He took the television audience away from the beautiful people in the theater audience and to a nearby Cineplex, where he interviewed real moviegoers. None of these people had seen any of the best movie nominees, and most of them cited Saw, Barbershop and White Chicks as the best films of 2004. You can fight reality if you’re on a mission to raise the entertainment bar, but you’d better embrace reality if you’re a marketer.

So what to do?

Hire a company to conduct ethnographic-style fieldwork for you, and insist on coming along. Spend time with people in their homes, at work, on shopping trips. Our strategists often like to talk to people in “friendship pairs,” so they’re more comfortable with the process and more likely to call BS on each other. (There’s at least as much BS in reality-based marketing research as there is in reality TV.)

And do not- do not- mistake focus groups for real life. Recruiting a bunch of people from a database and setting them in a room with strangers, a moderator and a two-way mirror is about as far from reality as any of us will ever get without pharmaceuticals. People who agree to do this for money cannot be considered representative.

For reality you need to get back out into the real world. The closer you get to reality- to real customers moving through real lives with real feelings, fears and desires- the closer you are to the kind of insights that can really make a difference.

Austin McGhie is head of Sterling Strategy – stay tuned next week for more on the difference between data and insight.

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Customers Not Marketing Advisors

Monday, October 20th, 2014

There is a critically important and logical order implied when it comes to strategy development, a priority that is often ignored by marketers, strategy consultants and (especially) communication agencies. It is a simple syllogism that goes like this:

-Know where your differentiated advantages lie

-Know what you need to do to win the game

-Then go to your customer and find out how to win

Rely on business strategy, competitive advantage and marketplace dynamics to tell you what to do, not the customer. Instead, the customer should tell you how to do it.

To find your strategy, there a number of things you must do, and an order in which customer feedback comes into play:

1.) Look Inside. Based on the vision and core capabilities of your organization, your competitive advantage and what you see as prevailing marketplace trends, determine  the strategic alternative or alternatives that are best for you from a long-term, bottom-line perspective. I’m making this sound easy, but finding the strategy that brings all of this together in one idea is a real art.

2.) Determine which strategy is best. It’s OK to talk to your customer to determine how to refine that strategy. Will they give you permission? Where does that permission start and where does it end? What sort of stimulus do you need to get the response that they’ve indicated they’re capable of?

3.) Find the easiest path to implement your strategy. Customer research is all about finding the easiest path, in that it allows you to find natural marketplace momentum and use it to your advantage.

To put it simply, don’t ask the customer – “Do you like this ad?” Ask them “Does this motivate you to do/buy X?” Customers are not marketing advisors, but they will tell you what they will or wont do.

Norwegian Cruise Lines once embarked on a beautiful, award-winning advertising campaign designed to entice young people to take cruises. The company essentially ignored the competitive realities of its own business. Surveys found that young people loved the ads- and so the campaign went full steam ahead.

But “Do you like the ads?” was the wrong question. “Will you go on a cruise?” was the right question. An even more critical question should have been posed to the older people who really do go on cruises, and that was: “Will this ad campaign scare you away?” Unfortunately, the answer was: yes. Older folks stayed away from Norwegian in droves while only a trickle of young people took the plunge. Bad for Norwegian. Good for its competitors, who had stuck to marketing to those older cruise takers.

Remember to develop yours strategy first, then go to marketing. And, if you are going to talk to your customer, ask the right questions.

Austin McGhie is Sterling’s head of Strategy

Next week we take a deeper look at research and its rightful role in support of brand strategy.

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Build an Experience

Wednesday, September 24th, 2014

A brand is a promise of a customer experience.

This definition should be fairly obvious when you look at immersive or experiential brands such as retailers (and many services). But it is also at play in a more subtle way in even the simplest product categories.

In these more subtle cases, you may have to shift your mindset from that of a consumer buying your product to that of a consumer experiencing your brand. In order to do this, try walking through a real shopping experience, from start to finish, with an assortment of your customers. Map the ‘experience trail’ for each. Where are the highs? The magic moments? How can you take advantage of them? Showcase them? Where are the lows? The dissatisfiers? How can you fix them?

A great example is when I once walked through a bunch of department stores with a group of women shopping for apparel. Stores like these still separate their apparel into departments with anachronistic titles from the 1950s, such as ‘misses,’ ‘petites,’ ‘juniors,’ and ‘women’s.’ The conversations you hear in these walk throughs are a complete downer, as women describe one section as meant for ‘older, bigger women,’ and wistfully recall the days they fit into anything from the colorful, ‘junior’s’ department. The worst thing about this scenario is that just down the mall corridor are specialty stores such as the Gap, where all women are treated exactly the same, regardless of their size.

Walk throughs like these almost always yield surprises, and often, it’s not those seemingly more critical parts of the process that please or piss off your customer, but the trivial stuff that you might have over-looked— and you can fix.

Okay, so you’ve mapped out the shopping experience step by step and you know where the issues and opportunities lie. Some questions you should now ask yourself:

-How does each step in the experience hook into the next?

-How do you maximize the efficiency of the transition from one step to the next and thereby minimize the odds of competitive intervention?

-How can you deliver each step in a way that ensures that the trail consistently delivers the desired brand experience?

The next step is to map out your competitor’s brand experience. Where are their customers most vulnerable? What are their competitive strengths? What are the weaknesses you can exploit?

Look at your brand as an experience rather than a product or service. See it through the eyes of your customer. Pull that experience apart, get it right- both step by step and as a whole- and then put it back together again.

Austin McGhie is head of Sterling Brands’ Strategy team

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Change

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014

Change is good. Change is essential.

The marketplace is a downward-moving escalator. If you stand still you go down. You only go up by running- hard.

Last year, on behalf of your brand, you executed a marketing plan. It worked well and the brand grew. But now that is old news. What will you do this year? Theoretically, if you do more of the same, you might hope at least to hold steady- but that hope assumes the marketplace itself hasn’t changed and begun to work against you. The escalator is moving down.

So what’s new in your plan?

If you’ve written a marketing plan, put it through the change filter. That is, ask yourself what is the one significant change you’ve created that will grab the attention of the target audience? That one difference that will cut through all the other ‘change clutter’ in the marketplace? Change can be good.

However, change has a dangerous flip side, particularly within organizations with short-tenured brand managers (such as packaged goods companies). There’s a need, sometimes perceived, sometimes very real, to do something different- anything different- rather than stick for one extra second with the status quo, even when it is successful.

To do change right, get to know your brand inside and out, and pick one thing to focus upon. Find the one thing that will really make a difference- the one thing that will make you and your brand famous. Build critical marketing mass behind it, execute it flawlessly and then move on to the Next Big Marketing Idea.

Beware the small changes to strategy. Before you know it, they can add up and throw the brand off track. Change with a specific purpose and a planned impact is the type of change you want.

Case in point:

A great example of change-gone-wrong can be drawn from my days as a very young brand assistant working on a ‘luxury’ cat food. We had just replaced one ingredient with another, cheaper ingredient. Like good little brand managers, we’d done due diligence and knew that the taste trade-off was minimal. Yet as soon as we made the switch, we started getting complaints from cat owners. As is always the case, it’s your most loyal customers who notice first, your best customers who write to you first. But how could they possibly have noticed something so small?

Checking back into the brand history files, we discovered our little change, wasn’t the first. In fact, we were just the latest in a long line of similar, ‘insignificant’ trade-offs. We just happened to be the ones who pushed the ‘tipping point’ and fell flat on our face.

As customers, we’ve all experienced this phenomenon. That is, we can’t quite put our finger on what’s happened, but somehow the product or service just isn’t what it used to be- an we quietly move on. No call. No letter. No purchase.

When all is said is done, change is just change. Good change builds. Bad change destroys. The trick is to recognize the difference before it’s too late.

Austin McGhie, Sterling Strategy


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Stop Thinking Outside the Box

Tuesday, August 26th, 2014

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If niche marketing is the most misdirected object of contempt in my profession, then “thinking outside the box” is the most misdirected object of admiration.

In fact, the box is the strategy.

The truth is, any idiot can think outside the box. You can make noise there, but it’s’ irrelevant. To be fair, the most unimaginative manager can easily stay in the middle of the box. It may be relevant, but it’s awfully quiet in there. The real challenge is to punch the hell out of the edges of that box- from the inside, because that’s the only way to change the size or shape of that box.

You spent a lot of time building that box, so why abandon it now? Spend too much time outside the box and everyone gets confused. Moreover, the position gradually loses relevance as too many creatively driven tactics assault the customer. In the end, while going outside the box is almost always presented as brilliant rebellion, it is, in fact, the easier road to take and a recipe for failure.

Of course, staying dead center is obvious, predictable and boring.

Moving from strategy to execution, it’s always interesting to review work from inside an ad agency. Too often you see brilliant, creative ideas that are disconnected from the strategy- outside the box- and when these go to air, we are left scratching our heads. You also see ideas that are dead-on strategy- so much so you could have written them yourself. When these ideas air, no one notices.

Ideas that delivery the strategy in a highly creative, intriguing way are few and far between- and al the more valuable because of their rarity.

Again, your task is to create innovative and fresh ways to punch the edges of that box from the inside out. Hit those edges hard. This is the only way to make that box bigger and to change its shape. After all, who says the box needs to be a box in the first place?

Take Nike and ESPN, two powerful and highly differentiated brands in related markets. As defined by results, their architects were geniuses. Over time, they have moved from strength to strength, and many layers of business and meaning have been added to the original brand and business definitions. They never left their boxes, they have continued to push their own boundaries, dramatically changing the size and shape of those boxes.

In addition, these two are particularly well maintained and remain flexible. Both are also served by an agency that “gets them,” and it’s the same agency for both companies. Coincidence?

This leads me to another point: There are noisy boxes and quiet boxes. In other words, there are noisy strategies and quiet ones. Noisy strategies grow out of positioning that is inherently provocative. Positioning that contains a strong point of view, an attitude, and an edge. In contrast, quiet strategies don’t make you think. They don’t provoke. They don’t inspire.

You measure the effectiveness of your strategy by marketplace response. The noise isn’t in the stimulus, it’s in the audience recognition. When everyone is yelling, you measure your strategic volume by who’s listening.

So take a look at your strategy and ask yourself:

Is the basic idea around which the strategy is built compelling?

Does it have creative energy?

Does it lead to great tactics? If you test them was it easy and fun?

Were lots of options created by the team?

If you answered yes to all of the above, you’re ready to make some noise.

Austin McGhie, Sterling Strategy

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The Joys of Disruption

Monday, August 11th, 2014

Brands and brand strategies can be viewed as conceptual frameworks that demand consistency of execution. It follows then that brands promote continuity. Competition disrupts continuity. So if you are not acting disruptively, odds are that a disruption will be visited upon you by someone you might not have even realized was a competitor.

The point is that you must do everything possible to be disruptive. Strategically disruptive. Disruptive at the product or service level. Disruptive at the marketing communication level. If you want my attention, you need to disrupt whatever else is holding my attention. If you want my business, you need to disrupt whatever is causing me to do business with someone else.

Remember, attention has become the most precious commodity in the marketplace. Also recall how difficult it is to create real change.

There’s a problem with staying in the center of the strategic “box.” This kind of behavior gets an A+ for consistency but a D- for attention-getting. Tactically, your job as a marketer is to bang the hell out of the walls of that box, all while still staying inside. In other words, get creative. Make noise. Promote change. Always keep moving. Always keep building. Always stay “in-strategy.” But first and foremost, always make noise.

Generally, the only way to ensure a discontinuity is to create it yourself. Whatever that discontinuity is, it must work to your advantage, and therefore must play into your brand strategy.

Napster disrupted the music market, but in a way that could never make money. Apple disrupted the music market in a way that did make money- generally a better approach.

Yahoo! disrupted the way we find information, but then acted as if it had no idea what it had done. Google knew.

In fact, when you look at the big four- Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook- they are in the process of disrupting about a hundred different markets. You may not think  you compete with these guys, but the odds are that sooner or later you will. Don’t wast energy figuring out if this is true or not, just figure out the how of the disruption- then beat them to it and make it work to your advantage.

Amazon sold books, but created a disruption through the Kindle. In some ways the company even attacked its own business in order to build that business. If Amazon hadn’t developed Kindle, the book business would’ve been disrupted by- you guessed it- Apple. This disruption would have been terrific- as long as you work in Cupertino and not Seattle.

Today, Google owns the idea of search. Now it’s up to some aggressive new player to create a new discontinuity, one that works to the advantage of its brand strategy. Search is now ubiquitous- it is indeed the Internet’s killer app- but therein lies both Google’s opportunity and its vulnerability. Search has begun to splinter into several specialized segments. Who will own music search? Who will own television search? Who will own local search?

If strong specialists don’t disrupt the flow, Google will own all of the segments because it now has continuity working for it. Bing proved to be insufficiently disruptive, attacking Google head-on instead of doing something different- something truly disruptive.

Unless someone creates a true disruption, Google will continue to control the agenda. But the reality is that the brand most likely to disrupt the search market in some way is Google itself. Why? Because Google is really good at it. Disruption is hardwired into its DNA.

Check back next week when Austin challenges tackles the ‘M’ word–Marketing,  and learn more now by reading Brand Is a Four Letter Word

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Niche is Not a Four-letter Word

Monday, August 4th, 2014

Whereas the word brand often seems like a spiritual invocation, in many marketing circles the word niche is often spoken with derision and used as a put down.

As far as niche goes, perhaps the most egregious errors of judgement were made in the technology marketplace of the late 90s, when niche became a curse you placed on any idea you wanted to kill or competitor you wanted to insult. Niche companies just weren’t going to make it. Niche start-ups just weren’t going to get the needed venture capital. Niches were for small-time players, the fearful, people with limited vision.

Well, I have always loved niche brands, never forgetting that bigger can indeed be better, particularly in the old economy. Needless to say, however, the Web has changed the way we think.

In 2006, Wired Editor Chris Anderson published The Long Tail, which highlighted how universal Web access meant that even the most thinly sliced niches could still add up to significant business when physical restrictions were taken out of the equation. For example, part of the dominance of big media content has always been physically derived: Limited space on a television channel or with a cable operator. Limited space on your local cinema screen, in a video rental store, in a music store or on a bookshelf. By comparison, digital distribution, universal access and search tools have created unlimited usable space, which has begun to make for an absolutely fascinating media marketplace that will become even more compelling in the years to come.

Niche brands understand the “position narrow, catch wide” axiom of brand strategy. They have built a limited, but fervent following first. They own their segment and enjoy the higher margins that general accrue to smart niche marketers. It’s not a bad place to stay.

Yes, it’s true, businesses are, as the cliche goes, like sharks: If they stop moving forward, they’ll die. But moving forward and getting big are two very different things. Who says you need to be big? A VC will if you’re a start-up, which is why many of those VCs are fully responsible for killing businesses that would have survived their first downturn if they had been rigged to run in niche-mode rather than artificially scaled to run big. Once you’re publicly traded, the street will demand top-line growth- until you teach your shareholders to invest in your consistent profitability rather than your explosive growth.

Owning a highly profitable niche is a thing to be celebrated. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that it is a natural and evolutionary step to move out of that niche and compete on a larger and more competitive stage. For now, at least, you may be much better off staying just where you are. Also, keep in mind that several focused and successful niche plays might well offer the better path to higher revenue, higher margins and less risk exposure than one big, broad play.

Large packaged goods companies offer wonderful lessons about niches. Each year entrepreneurial start-ups create niche products that, either slowly or very quickly, build a loyal and passionate following. Once they get “big enough,” they are acquired by a larger packaged goods company in that category. Interestingly, if that same very successful idea had originally been created within the larger, acquiring company, it would have been deemed too small (or niche) to warrant the investment necessary to take it to market. Often, there isn’t the passion and patience in larger companies to build a niche brand, but there does seem to be the money to pay for that brand once it’s an independent success.

Case in Point:

kelloggs

In my early days of marketing at Kellogg’s, I once sat in a meeting and watched chairman Bill LaMothe get a hard sell on the idea of getting Kellogg’s into the manufacturing of private-label cereal.

He replied, categorically, that they would never do that on his watch. He believed that companies and manufacturing facilities could only accommodate one level of quality. If Kellogg’s were to attempt to make both high and low-quality cereal within the same factory, ultimately both would work their way to the middle. What would Kellogg’s stand for then?

LaMothe was happy to pass up a short-term opportunity to preserve the long-term health of his company. He also passed up a number of opportunities to diversify Kellogg’s through acquisition, taking a lot of criticism from analysts until all those other CPG acquisitions flopped. Bill LaMothe was a visionary. He knew Kellogg’s and its niche better than anyone alive, and the company is so much better today because of the revenue-limiting decisions he made along the way.

Remember, there’s nothing wrong, and a lot of things right, with truly excelling at one thing. Thinking small can actually be the best path to a big result.

Stop back in, next week, as Austin delves into the Joys of Disruption