Tom Peters

Renowned corporate strategy consultant Mike Kami stormed back and forth on the stage in front of an audience of 2,000 people from Hardee’s, the restaurant chain. In a one-hour presentation, he used the word “uniqueness” at least 30 times. He asked, “What’s so special about your firm?”; “How are you different from your competitors?” and “What is your uniqueness?”

I think he’s right on the mark. At our executive seminars, we manage to one-up Kami himself. We make a remarkably tough request. We ask participants to call a person hired by their firm no more than a week before the seminar. If that person (executive or receptionist alike) cannot give a 15- to 25-word description of the company’s strategy—its uniqueness—that agrees with their own, then they don’t have a strategy. Loud muttering inevitably follows our request.

A recent Forbes article criticized the strategy of Federated Stores, suggesting that the approach lacks clarity. By contrast, Forbes applauded rival Dayton-Hudson, which is deemphasizing its investment in its traditional department stores and targeting most of its investment in the Mervyn’s and Target niche, two brand-name softgoods retailers. Said Forbes, “The point about Dayton-Hudson’s strategy is not which segment of retailing they chose, but that they chose one.”

Years ago, my colleague Allan Kennedy, co-author of Corporate Culture, and I debated heatedly about how precise a corporate strategy has to be. Our conclusion: It must be “non-wrong” and widely “bought into” by all hands in the organization. That is, the “perfect” strategy, designed by corporate planners and shifted quarterly in accord with market conditions, is worth little or nothing if it is not widely accepted. The fact that the team at the top supports the strategy is far less important than the fact that the people on the loading dock, in the reservations center or on the property maintenance crew understand it.

Stew Leonard, the Norwalk, Connecticut, grocer who does a staggering $90 million a year in business from one store, codifies his company’s uniqueness—an abiding concern for customers—in a simple statement: “Rule #1: The customer is always right. Rule #2: If the customer is wrong, see Rule #1.” For some time, Stew has posted this code on a sign in the store. To reinforce it, he recently had a three-ton stone placed at the entryway to the store. The two rules are engraved on it.

But organizational strategy goes even deeper at Leonard’s. An example: A newly-hired young clerk was confronted with a highly distraught customer who had lost an engraved Parker Pen given to her as a gift. She thought she might have lost it while shopping at Leonard’s and stopped at the store’s lost-and-found department. The clerk could not locate the pen in the lost-and-found drawer but, observing the woman’s distress, reached into the drawer and produced three $20 gift certificates for groceries. Not surprisingly, the customer went away happy.

Was Stew Leonard or the department manager upset? Hardly, although the clerk had not been trained to do this. Stew featured the clerk’s act in the next company newsletter, thereby applauding her and sanctioning such behavior by others. Stew explains, “Happy customers do $5,000 of business a year with us. That’s exactly how we want them treated.” I’m sure Stew would have no trouble agreeing to the request made of our seminar participants.

Sometimes I observe a firm lose its uniqueness. Sears, for decades, lived by the slogan, “Quality at a decent price.” In the 1970s its retailing strategy became confused. Customers wondered, was it the old Sears? Or, as some of the company’s activities suggested, was it becoming an upscale outfit? The customers themselves provided the answer. One retail executive summarizes: “Those who thought Sears was K-mart shopped at K-mart. Those who thought it was Bloomingdale’s shopped at Bloomingdale’s.” Spotty retailing results, at best, continue to mark the giant firm.

Mebane Packaging Corporation of Mebane, North Carolina, has been pursuing a goal of switching from commodity-grade products for the fast-food and baking industries to higher value-added products for the pharmaceutical and consumer electronics industries. The firm circulated a written corporate philosophy: “Mebane Packaging Corporation is an independent producer of custom packaging and marketing materials for consumer and professional product companies that require excellence in quality and service.” Despite its dramatic turnaround from a string of losses to a 7 percent after-tax profit, the firm still misses my goal: Its strategy statement, though widely shared and clearly effective, runs 26 words, one over my 15- to 25-word limit.

What is your organization’s “uniqueness”? Can you state it in 15 to 25 (or 26) words or less? Does everyone in the organization buy in, and do you randomly test the buy-in? Is the strategy statement printed on wallet-sized cards that are given to everyone? Is it immortalized in granite?


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