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March 7, 2014
What You Don't Do is As Important as What You Do
 
It being Academy Awards season, I thought it made sense to give the Oscar for best Marketing Effort of the year. And that would go, hands down, to CVS, for their decision to stop selling cigarettes in all their stores by October 2014. Saying that “the sale of tobacco products is inconsistent with our purpose,” CVS is removing cigarettes and tobacco products from all its stores — representing an annual loss of $2 billion in revenue from tobacco shoppers. Yep, that’s right — I said $2 BILLION. But this simple act solidified and clarified what the company does — “help people on their path to better health,” as their President and CEO stated. It doesn’t take a genius to see how cigarettes are in conflict with that goal.
 
Now, I’m not aware of any Oscar (or Addy, Clio, or Cannes Lion) being given out for what a brand or agency didn’t do, but I think maybe there should be. Because often in business and marketing, it’s just as important what you DO NOT do as what you do. There are number of reasons this is so.
 
Firstly, there is nothing more important than clarity. Most companies have complex, 100-page strategies that allow for all kinds of activities and lots of interpretation. That might be fine for diversification, but it’s terrible for clarity of direction, purpose, or meaning for consumers. And when consumers aren’t clear on what you are about or stand for, forget about being anything but a commodity. As a drug store that sold all the stuff you find at any drug store, CVS was a commodity. But CVS now firmly differentiates itself as being in the healthcare business.
 
Nothing makes things more clear than contrast. In fact, there’s a concept in Neuroscience called the “Contrast Principle,” which states that we understand something better when we see it in comparison to something else than in isolation. So when a company makes it clear what they will not do, that helps us understand what they do. For example, when Yorkie said it was “not for girls,” people knew they were a manly candy bar — maybe more so than if they had said whom they were meant for.
 
Strategy is about making choices. Strategy should not be arcane, academic, or abstract. Being strategic is all about making choices about actions — those which you do and those which you won’t or don’t. Choosing one action in favor of another requires the courage of conviction and confidence to abandon things, which provides a necessary focus internally at organizations, as well as providing clarity for consumers. Sure, it’s easy to be wishy-washy, to say “well, it’s OK if we do this thing or that thing, even if it’s not exactly on strategy.” But that’s not the right thing to do.
 
Making Trade-offs. Here’s the thing about your strategy: no consumer ever sees it. They only see your brand’s actions and activities. So you need to line up your activities with your strategy — that’s where your competitive differentiation takes place. And showing that there are limits to your activities — customers you won’t serve, and activities you won’t do (as CVS decided) — is a critical part of your efforts. As Michael Porter says, the essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.
 
So let’s have a big hand for CVS this year as they walk down the red carpet. And here’s to hoping all your brands get their chances to win awards next year for what they stopped doing or refuse to do. 

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Michael Baer has over 20 years experience as a marketing and advertising leader and innovator.  Michael is also the developer of "Stratecution," a new way to think about marketing in the digitally-led "new normal." He's passionately blogging about his beliefs at Michael Baer's Stratecution Stories.
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