Bigger or Better?

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Does size matter? If you ask me, I’ll tell you that “better” beats “bigger.” The brand is the thing.

In the pages of the Cincinnati Business Courier some weeks back, Lee Robinson of Robinson Realtors had this to say when asked what it was like being “the small guy” in the local real estate market:

“The smart consumers get it. They realize that the largest restaurant in the world, McDonald’s, isn’t the best. A similar analogy can be drawn to our high-quality real estate firm that is small by design.”

Small By Design?

Did he say “small by design”? As marketers, we’re often caught up in the “bigger” game, as if bigger is the ideal state of being. The message heard too often is “grow or die.” We have it drummed into our heads that sales have to increase vs. last month, last quarter, last year. Share has to grow. Profits have to go up, marching ever upward, or heads will roll.

The fact is, we can get so caught up in the numbers that we forget why it is we’re in business in the first place: Namely, to serve customers in such a way that they’ll want to come back.

History is filled with examples that illustrate why bigger is most definitely not better. Look at what happened to Goliath. Then there’s the Titanic and the Spruce Goose. And when was the last time you ever heard anyone other than a commercial announcer sound excited about a General Motors product?

What’s Better Than Size

What if we changed the game? What if, instead of focusing our energies on “bigger,” we focused on “better”? What if we looked at sales and profit not as the be-all and end-all, but as the byproduct of doing the right things in the right ways?

Early in my career, when I was a brand manager, I had the good fortune to work for a company that took a clear stance on this matter. In the mission and vision statement, there was a line that read very much like this: “Profit is not our objective. It is the inevitable result of conducting our affairs well.” It was an environment where the guiding light was focused on doing the right thing, which led to a motivated work force, which led to quality work, which led to profit.

Yet I also have experience working with clients who are deathly afraid of making a move that might not appeal to this or that segment of the buying public. Many companies mistakenly think they can be all things to all people and end up being worth not a lot to anyone, all because they play to the lowest common denominator.

Is Southwest Airlines the biggest airline? Is Ben & Jerry’s the biggest brand of ice cream? Is Ritz-Carlton the biggest chain of hotels? In every case, the answer is no, but most of us would trade our vacation days for the kind of loyalty they enjoy – a direct result of doing something better than the rest.

Doing What It Takes

Again, the brand is the thing. That means, at least in part, staying focused on being the best. In order for that to be your mindset, it means that you’re starting out with the idea of offering a real benefit. And making your product or service better than the competition or best in its category means that it’s better or best for some folks – but not everyone.

So take the responsibility to defend your own consumers against those dark forces in your organization that would like to hurt them, whether deliberately or not. When the finance guy, acting under his directive to grow profits by minimizing costs, suggests trimming the product size by 20%, step up and defend the consumer. Explain why that looks like a good idea on paper, but could actually cost in the long run. When you propose to the consumer that she pay the same amount for a smaller product, she becomes unhappy with you, and more receptive to the song of your competitors.

Growth is great when it comes from customers who are drawn to you because you’re the best at what you do. They tell their friends, who tell their friends. But being big for big’s sake, just to post numbers, doesn’t serve the consumer. And serving the consumer is how you win.

A version of this post appeared in the Cincinnati Business Courier on November 2, 2007, in the column “That Branding Thing.” Originally co-written with David Wecker.

About Matthew Fenton: Matthew helps challenger brands to focus, grow and win.  Since founding his consultancy, Three Deuce Branding, in 1997, he’s helped hundreds of brands to achieve “brand clarity.”  His consulting services and speaking engagements help brands to focus on what matters through positioning, strategy and ideation.  Contact Matthew here.  He calls Chicago home.

Copyright 2007 – Matthew Fenton.  All Rights Reserved.  You may reprint this article with the original, unedited text intact, including the About Matthew Fenton section.