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February 25, 2004
Looking Back at Success and Failure
 

It's been a long journey.

Starting at General Electric and winding through hundreds of companies in the United States and all over the globe, I've had the rare opportunity to understand what makes up success or failure in business.

These observations have been carefully catalogued and presented in ten books and endless lectures to thousands of business people in every corner of the world.

What I've learned over and over again is that success isn't about having the right people, the right attitude, the right tools, the right role models or the right organization. They all help but they don't put you over the top.

It's all about having the right strategy.

That's because strategy sets the competitive direction, strategy dictates product planning, strategy tells you how to communicate internally and externally, strategy tells you on what to focus.

That's why it is so important to understand what strategy is all about. The more you understand it, the more you'll be able to select the right one to succeed. And, conversely, the more you'll be able to avoid the big trouble it's easy to encounter in our era of killer competition.

There has been no shortage of advice on this subject. In the last thirty years there have been 21,955 books written about strategic planning and marketing. One author will talk about sustainable competitive advantage. Another will announce that this idea is on its way out. One author talks about the importance of case studies. Another says that case studies shouldn't decide your strategy. And of course there is no end to jargon such as dynamic advantage, conjoint analysis, competitive dynamics, co evolution and my favorite, sustainable competitive disadvantage. All of this generates nothing but confusion.

But what makes things far worse is the fact that there are those who would say that strategy is one thing and marketing is another. But the truth is that they must be combined if you are to be successful. Marketing is what drives a business. And a great business strategy without proper marketing will often fail in a highly competitive world. To better understand this, consider the following example:

A small software company has come up with a better way to conduct project management. It uses a different methodology that deals with the uncertainties that surround most projects. One could say they have a competitive advantage strategy with a superior product. All management has to do would be to hand the product to the marketing department and instruct them to tell the world about this wonderful software and why it is better. This approach would fail.

The problem is that this company has two very large, established competitors as well as a number of smaller ones. They will quickly attack this smaller company and attempt to not let them into the game. Their strategy will be to make their customers nervous about turning their project management over to an unknown. To get into the game, this company must come up with a marketing program that positions this new software as "The next generation of project management software." Everything they do must drive this idea into the minds of their customers. It is establishing this "next generation" perception that will be the key to their success or failure. This will offset the natural concerns of dealing with an unknown. At the same time, no one wants to buy what is perceived to be an obsolete product.

As you can see by this example, the "Next generation" marketing of this improved software exploited a basic positioning principle that states that it is better to be first than to be better. The marketing is driving the business strategy. Thus my definition of strategy: What makes you unique and what is the best way to put that difference into the minds of your customers and prospects.

In this example, the new form of software that dealt with uncertainties was unique. The "Next generation" concept was the best way into the minds in the marketplace.

While I have written endlessly about success and failure, I've never focused on what the essence of good strategy is all about. So I went back and extracted from my many books the key guidelines to doing the right thing. They are to be published in my upcoming book, Trout on Strategy. Unlike my usual fare, there will be a few examples but no detailed case histories in these extracts. There will mostly be the important principles to follow.

It's a short course on what I've learned about strategy in my long journey through the business world.


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Nearly every advertising and marketing professional owns a book written by Jack Trout. One of the world's foremost authorities on branding and positioning, Jack is president of Trout & Partners, whose client list includes IBM, Southwest Airlines, AT&T, Merck, Procter & Gamble, and many more esteemed marketers.
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