Back in the ’90s, Gatorade ran a commercial with this tagline: I wanna be like Mike.
The Mike in question (for anyone younger than 30) was Michael Jordan. The ad worked incredibly well because at the time, circa 1992, Michael Jordan was THE sports figure. And the setup was perfect. Every kid (and many adults) who played basketball loved the idea of being “like” Michael Jordan. It was an easy leap to say, “If Michael Jordan is drinking Gatorade, I should, too.”
But the me-too strategy that works so well for a marketer trying to sell a product comes with issues for a business trying to be like another business.
I’m a firm believer that there is much to be learned by watching how others do business. Whether you’re an entrepreneur assessing how the industry leader does things or the enterprise solution checking out a startup’s innovative idea, there’s value in watching and learning. Where the trouble starts, at least from a strategic standpoint, is when the desire to emulate becomes a me-too strategy.
For instance, I read a profile of Costco and its current CEO, Craig Jelinek. It would be incredibly easy to say that based on Costco’s success, every other company would be crazy to not follow Costco’s lead.
While competitors lost customers to the Internet and weathered a wave of investor pessimism, Costco’s sales have grown 39 percent and its stock price has doubled since 2009. The hot streak continued through last year’s retirement of widely admired co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Jim Sinegal. The share price is up 30 percent under the leadership of its new, plain-spoken CEO, Craig Jelinek.
Despite the sagging economy and challenges to the industry, Costco pays its hourly workers an average of $20.89 an hour, not including overtime (vs. the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour)…Eighty-eight percent of Costco employees have company-sponsored health insurance…Costco workers with coverage pay premiums that amount to less than 10 percent of the overall cost of their plans. It treats its employees well in the belief that a happier work environment will result in a more profitable company. “I just think people need to make a living wage with health benefits,” says Jelinek. “It also puts more money back into the economy and creates a healthier country. It’s really that simple.”
There is little in there to disagree with, especially add it all together and get Costco’s success. But, and this is the piece that gets overlooked, Costco is Costco. It’s built a set of systems and an environment that lets it excel at what it does really well. So if you assume that you could transplant in whole what Costco is doing internally that tells me that you don’t really understand how your business works.
The actual Costco (Apple, Nordstroms, Whole Foods, etc.) lesson that does matter is that you must learn and define what systems and environment your business does need to excel.
You don’t need to be the next Steve Jobs or Jack Welch to run your business really well. You just need to be the version of you that pays attention to your business and what’s actually working.
Yes, strive to meet the standards set by industry leaders, but please don’t fall into the trap of thinking you need to look like them in every way. If you do, you run the risk of becoming generic, the business world equivalent of a “parrot.” So look for ideas and opportunities to improve. Look for the bigger why in a company’s success instead of seeking to copy the specific moves. Because once you understand the underlying reasons, it becomes much easier to see what’s applicable to you and your business.
As a result you’ll become the kind of business that attracts customers who love you for very specific reasons instead of an off-the-shelf version that’s only tolerated.
Photo credit: jimcchou