In addition to my work in the food business, I am also engaged in technology and social media, and their application in the foodservice channel. As such, I keep up with the tech blogs and feeds. This morning I read a blog by Alex Goldfayn writing in Mashable Business, outlining the 7 Marketing Lessons from RIM’s Failures he identified from analyzing the rapid decline of RIM/Blackberry in the smartphone marketplace.
These lessons, however, are not unique to RIM, or to the tech business. I found them to resonate with foodservice channel challenges as well, and decided to reflect on how they might be applied in our industry.
1. Make Great Products
Great products solve so many challenges. Invest in the best food technologists and industry marketing analysts who understand the target segment and its customers. Follow the consumer trends. Understand flavors. Watch leading-edge chefs and their culinary art. Even if you make products for quick service, or the non-commercial markets, there will be ideas that you’ll discover by knowing everything that is happening throughout the channel. Study the supply chain mechanics, looking for opportunities to create competitive advantage thru service or packaging. And peel back the layers of your product category and discover what drives it, then develop innovative products that fulfill those needs…with a difference. Never stop.
2. Build on Strengths Instead of Improving on Weaknesses
Everyone in business in the late 80‘s learned the Japanese word “Kaizen”: The concept of “changing for the better”, or “continuous improvement” as a product or process philosophy. A slightly different angle on that concept is embodied in the idea that a brand can overcome weaknesses by focusing on its strengths: products, services, techniques, process, approaches, relationships, etc. As an organization, if you concentrate on weaknesses, your strengths can wither and die. By relentlessly concentrating on your strengths, weaknesses will be pushed to the background and die, due to lack of nourishment.
In the food industry, continuously examining your products for opportunities to improve them should be routine. Exploring ways to take your best products and identify how to increase sustainable practices, reduce excess packaging, or improve BOH prep process will keep you ahead of your competition. Sit back and “harvest” your sales and you’ll quickly find them gone.
3. Gravity Pushes Backwards
You can count on your competition to aggressively innovate. And they’ll pass you quickly if you stop doing what gave you your original success. A personal episode will illustrate. As a sales executive at Fred’s Frozen Foods in the 80‘s, we had invested, developed and were the leading supplier of mozzarella sticks to the mid-scale segment. We were happily harvesting our profits, without exploring product, service, or packaging improvements. A small company by the name of Anchor Foods had followed us into the market, but we ignored them as upstarts incapable of competing. We were wrong. And by the time we realized it, they had taken not only the lead in volume, but had pushed us out of our primary distribution agreements as well.
Gravity always pushes backwards in business. Consistent and aggressive innovation is required not only to attain success, but to sustain it.
4. Know Precisely Who Your Customer Is
In the food business, no matter what you have convinced yourself, your customer is the consumer. The consumer is the patron at the restaurant, school, hospital, or food-away-from-home location. Distributors and “end-users” are important steps in the supply chain, but they are only the MEANS to reach that consumer. Whatever your segment, know who they ultimately serve, and that will guide you to not only the right product, but will help you uncover how to market your product throughout the stops along the supply chain. Branding, product positioning, messaging, packaging, and final product specifications and flavor will be completely different depending on the consumers you target.
So identify your customers as precisely as possible, and synchronize your marketing efforts throughout the supply chain to reach out to them.
5. Executives Set the Marketing Tone
Ben Franklin (and others) said, “A fish stinks from its head”. The reverse is also true. Leadership begins at the top. The CEO can set the tone, and if the team is properly engaged, they will follow. Watch Steve Jobs introduce the original iPad and listen how everyone who followed him on stage used exactly the same words. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos follows that rule. And I’ve seen examples in new product introductions in the food industry as well.
In our industry, this factor becomes especially important in “prepping” your field sales partners (brokers and distributors) to embrace the concept and language of your product when they sell it in the field. Since they have likely NOT been part of the kick-off, it falls to the field and formal training to make this connection. And of course, a video (or even written) message from the corporate head or CEO can help “fix” the key words and action phrases, and elevate the process. The goal, of course, is to have everyone adopt the “language of the product” as a part of its branding. It protects and defines the brand, and can transcend the product itself over time. The coup will be when you first hear a customer use that language in describing your product.
6. Avoid Unforced Errors
Most marketing problems are self-made and entirely avoidable. I’ll be the first to admit that I have a few of examples of “unforced errors” stuffed away in my career closet. For proof, think of the recent Netflix gaff, the HP announcement that they were getting out of the PC business, and of most of what RIM has done since the introduction of the iPhone. In the food arena, P& G’s struggles to close the deal on the sale of the Pringles brand to Diamond Foods won’t do that brand any long term service.
Never outsmart yourself, and always be acutely aware of the possibility of unforced errors. In fact, keep your eyes open for them so as to identify them quickly. When they happen, address them immediately and there’s a good chance you can make them appear as if they never happened. But ignore or ruminate over them too long, and they will spread like a nasty virus. And you don’t want that.
7. Keep Talking to Your Customers
Number four in this list was “know precisely who your customer is”. If you don’t know, find out. And once you discover who they are, establish platforms and opportunities to have a “conversation” with them. Note I didn’t say “communicate to them”, but “have a conversation with them”. We are in an age of hyper-connection with consumers. Use the terrific tools available in social media to have on-going conversations with your customers. Listen, respond, track, and analyze who they are and what makes them tick. Uncover what they like and don’t like about your brand/product. Focus groups and research can be used to validate what you learn from social media, but don’t use the formalized research methods as your only tool. Sometimes it can send you down the wrong path. Just ask me about “UFOs”…
So if you’re not talking directly to your customers, you’re just guessing from a conference room. And that’s not the way to succeed in the long run.
In summary, I suppose I make these steps appear much easier to initiate and execute than they actually are. Following them takes diligence, focus, and tenacity. Observe and learn from those who have gone before you, and set your course.
Hey, if it was easy, they wouldn’t need you, would they?