Published on: April 30, 2008Content Guy's Note: When I first read Death To All Sacred Cows: How Successful Business People Put The Old Rules Out To Pasture, my first reaction was simple: "Damn. I wish I'd written this."
And now, having read it over several times, I haven't changed my mind. Death To All Sacred Cows is a terrific business book in that it treats a serious subject with all the irreverence and cheekiness that it deserves. Which is to say, a lot. Because sacred cows by their very nature tend to be put on a pedestal and worshipped, even if nobody can quite figure out why, they deserve to be punctured so that all the hot air escapes and companies can start to figure out what's really important.
That's always been a kind of operating premise here at MNB, or would have been if we were big enough or serious enough to have operating premises. And it is great to read a book that treats sacred cows with all the disdain they deserve.
To talk about the book and the guiding intelligences that created it – though I suspect he would not be happy about the phrase "guiding intelligences" – I engaged co-author Beau Fraser in the following e-interview. Fraser, who is managing director at The Gate Worldwide, a global advertising agency, co-wrote the book with David Bernstein and Bill Schwab, who are executive creative director and creative director, respectively, at The Gate.
MNB: First of all, start with your basic premise – how do you define a “sacred cow” and why is it so critical that they all be killed?
Beau Fraser: Sacred cows are the rules, approaches, formulas, standards and cues businesses follow for no better reason than that’s the way things have always been done.
Sacred Cows are blindless bureaucracy run amuck…the status quo aggressively defended. The protective province of those without the imagination, initiative or energy to innovate. Businesses and people who’d rather hold onto the past as opposed to imagine what could be.
At one time, sacred cows had their place and maybe even had value. But somehow they stayed in place even though the business, culture, environment or consumers have long since moved on.
I’m not calling “business” cowards. So please don’t ask me to step outside. But too often businesses make decisions based on sacred cows.
Companies need the courage to kill sacred cows because, by killing them, they can save time, money and lives. Okay, maybe not lives. But businesses that only look to the past to guide their futures are doomed to failure. In a rapidly changing world, anything dated tends to be dangerous.
If the world were a stagnant, predictable place, then steadfast rules would be okay. But the world in which we live changes constantly. One day infants are supposed to sleep on their sides. The next day they tell you babies have to sleep on their backs. And the next day they tell you Britney Spear’s career is over. It’s hard to keep up. Anything more rigid than a guideline should be immediately second-guessed.
If businesses do not question why they do the things they do, they’ll never be able to do them better. If they resist new approaches, they’ll be stuck with more of the same all the time. And if all decisions are based on sacred cows, which are rooted in the past, then your business will never have a chance to grow. You’ll end up like Britney Spears – probably without the embarrassing Internet photos or the millions in the bank – but you’ll be just as obsolete.
If you want to accomplish something unexpected, have the courage to do the unexpected. And start by stop making decisions based on sacred cows.
MNB: It probably is common to many industries, but it seems to me that one of the reasons that companies in the retailing business are so observant of sacred cows is that they tend to be process oriented and operationally driven...and therefore see killing a sacred cow as running the risk of losing focus. Would you agree? And are there things that companies need to do culturally that can allow them to kill sacred cows?
Beau Fraser: I agree that there are more sacred cows at companies that are process driven. In fact, often that process becomes a sacred cow. But I digress.
Absolutely, company culture is the key protector or slayer of sacred cows.
Some cow wrangler smarter than me once defined culture as “what happens in a company when management isn’t looking.” In companies that have wild game sized corrals full of sacred cows, their culture is about protecting sacred cows.
I think companies like this fundamentally don’t trust their employees. So they erect tight boundaries, prescribing, restricting and often scripting employee actions. Too often, employees at these companies are trained to ask "how does management want me to do this?” when instead I advocate them asking “what’s the best way to get this done.”
If nothing ever changed, a restrictive process and culture is fine. But stuff changes.
Sara Lee has a great way to deal with this issue. All employees wear buttons with the word “But” crossed out. To that I nominate buttons that read; “how about we…” or “what if we….”
MNB: At one point in the book, you write: “What if you redefined competition... (and) instead of the store across the street, you thought of your competition as the things that prevent you from succeeding?” That strikes me as a very tough thing to do if you actually operate a store, have a store that you are competing with, and if you’re trying to succeed in a tightening economic environment like the current one...and yet, that may be the most important time to do it. So, how does one go from understanding this intellectually and actually operating this way?
Beau Fraser: Great question, Kev.
My point was that companies often use the competition as their primary benchmark. This leads to a myopic focus on the competition; defining themselves in the likeness of the competition (and thus, by definition not differentiating themselves) or worse, trying to duplicate the competitions successful strategies as a way to keep pace.
The problem with that is its very hard to migrate successful strategies from one company / industry to another.
Why? Because if a competitor’s strategy worked, it worked for many reasons. Reasons beyond the strategy itself. Reasons such as the competitor's scope, operations, brand, ability to execute, timing, personnel, geography, and more. If you can’t duplicate all those elements, and who can, then the strategy probably won’t work for you.
Don’t strive to duplicate your competitor’s ideas. Spend less time on what the competition is doing and more on what makes YOU successful and do more of it and do it better.
MNB: More and more, the retailers I talk to are numbers-driven, so your notion from the book that "'trust your research' is a sacred cow worth killing" would be completely foreign to them. Explain.
Beau Fraser: My issue in not with numbers. I love numbers. As you know, I married the number 23. But I digress. Numbers are an invaluable measurement tool and benchmark.
My issue is with bad research and the habit of business to blindly make decisions based solely on the “number” that research reveals.
There is so much bad research out there. If you ask the wrong question to the wrong person at the wrong time and in the wrong way, you are going to get research results and a number. But a very bad number.
To me, research should demystify decisions. But it should never be the sole reason a decision is made.
In chapter 4 of my book, “Death to All Sacred Cows”, I tell the economically devastating story of a Chinese tea company that made a potentially transforming decision based solely on research. Research that turned out to be bad research. I won’t spoil the ending for those who have not yet read the book, but it is powerful example of making decisions based solely on research and the impact that bad research and bad numbers can have.
Another reason why making a decision based solely on research can lead to bad decisions is that consumers are notoriously lacking in foresight. Consumers answer questions based on what they know – their experience – which is often limited and by definition looks backwards. They don’t know what could be.
I find Starbucks new “mystarbucksidea.com” a prime example of this. While the idea of inviting customers for feedback and ideas is right, did you see what customers’ suggested? They were mostly small, tactical crap, more corrective or borrowed than revolutionary. More add-ons, line extensions or new flavors than truly business building ideas.
I have no doubt that if Howard Schultz conducted research 28 years ago before launching Starbucks and asked customers if they are interested in buying Caramel Frappuccino, every day for $4.95, they would have said: “Ah. No thanks.”
Research did not reveal and Starbucks did not address a stated consumer love for coffee. Starbucks created it.
Research can tell you how customers feel, what they like and what they want. And that is very worthwhile. But I challenge anyone to name a truly great, groundbreaking idea that came out of research.
Use research to fine-tune your business. Then use your refined understanding of your business to imagine something that customers will love, if they only had the imagination to understand what was possible.
MNB: Why is ”attracting customers” a more important marketing goal than “selling stuff”?
Beau Fraser: It’s a way of thinking.
Call it heresy, but I think the marketing world is suffering from, well, too much marketing. Today's salesmen (and saleswomen) are chasing customers so aggressively; they've ended up alienating them.
Of course, it wasn't always this way. In fact, it used to be marketing was pretty simple. Marketers spoke. And customers listened.
Recently, they stopped. But we determinedly continued selling. We sold some products by extolling their features. We sold other products by claiming the emotional end benefit.
To improve our sales ability, we even introduced new techniques.
Take Direct Marketing, for instance. Here's a vehicle where you know what works and what doesn't. It's been the darling of the marketing world for the past 15 years. So beloved, that the medium has been grossly overused. So overused, that a .5 percent response rate is starting to look pretty good.
Think about your own life. Isn't your mailbox overflowing with catalogs, credit card applications and home equity offers? How much of this do you throw away unopened? And you're hoping that the rest of the world is waiting by the mailbox for your self-mailer to arrive? Who has the time to read all those cute little folded pieces? All the segmentation studies in the world can't overcome the simple fact that it's become junk mail.
Of course, no one sets out to create junk mail. It was customers who decided it was junk.
Not to be deterred, we invented guerilla tactics. We now interrupt customers on the streets and try to sell them when they least expect it. Unfortunately, all we've taught our customers is how to take a different route home.
Promotions? In this day and age, who's really motivated by sweepstakes or contests? How many of these things have we seen, ad nauseam, on everything from the back of peach cans to in-flight magazines?
Technology hasn't helped marketers, either. The most interesting technology to come along in the past 10 years is TiVo. A clever device that gives customers the control to watch what they want, when they want-- minus our ads.
The Internet was to be marketing's savior. Instead, it has made customers smarter, savvier buyers. And, ultimately, more independent.
E-mail? E-mail blasts were seen as an inexpensive way to deliver a targeted message. Consumers call it "spam."
The bottom line is today's customers are too knowledgeable and too cynical to be sold. So it's no wonder that ad recall scores are off, direct response rates are declining and web banner click-through rates are dropping like stones.
The problem, however, isn't with the media themselves. It's with us as marketers. We have forgotten that we’re trying to attract someone to us. Instead, we chase, harangue and interrupt.
We've become a lot like that overweight, obnoxious salesman seated next to us on the long flight to Los Angeles. Something to be avoided, not engaged.
So, what do we do?
Every store, every product, every service has an embedded truth that is appealing to a significant number of precisely defined perfect customers.
You don't have to chase, harangue or interrupt perfect customers because they're naturally interested in you. They have a need for what your product or store has to offer. Or they're dissatisfied with their current options and sense there should be something better. Or, just maybe, they're the kind of person who's willing to try something new.
You don't have to be the industry leader to attract these customers, either. There are many successful companies that are numbers 2, 3, 4 or 5 in their category. And there's something inherently beautiful about all of them.
Even better, there are a significant number of perfect customers who also think so. That's why we call them perfect. You're a perfect match. Your inherent magnetism, or pheromone, attracts a group of people who will rave about you and stay loyal to you. These people are your heaviest users and, not surprisingly, the foundation for your business.
Today, you can’t sell people. They are too smart. But if you identify your pheromone, and use it to attract customers, they’ll buy as much as you have to offer them. And ultimately, isn’t that what you want?
MNB: In your business, advertising, give me an example how killing a sacred cow has resulted in a major business success with long-term implications. And, if possible, can you give an example of a client (not necessarily a retailer, but a relevant example) for whom killing a sacred cow was a transformational strategic move?
Beau Fraser: The interesting thing about impending death is that we no longer care. We do things with reckless abandon. Like go skydiving.
When things are really bad, you focus on what could be rather than what could go wrong and the result is that you experience life.
Now, while I’d never go skydiving – that’s just crazy! - I think there is a lesson here.
What is happening here is that people in these situations go back to basics. In this case: life is about having fun.
We should all live like that. Even companies.
Burger King is a great example of having to run its business this way. Discarded or years by prestigious parent companies, today, Burger King is a wonderful turn-around story. With irrelevance staring them in the face, BK stopped trying to be all things to all people and made some tough decisions starting with focused on perfect customers.
Perfect customers is a term we use at The Gate Worldwide to define a target audience. I don’t know when it was but at some point the word “target” got re-defined to mean total, potential source of business. In other words, let’s go after any one who might possibly buy our product as opposed to “probable’s,” people who are most likely to buy, now.
Faced with obsolescence, Burger King made the courageous to decision to focus on a smaller target audience. Specifically, young males who view food as fuel and who like to fuel up, often.
That simple but tough decision led to more focus and relevant advertising, menu items, product concepts and more which helped clearly re-define who Burger King was for and myopically went after them.
I think the lesson here is that when looking to expand, think vertical expansion before horizontal expansion. That is, think first about selling more of what you sell to the people who already know and love you as opposed to selling to a target who does not know you.
It’s easier. Cheaper. And leads to faster results.
- KC's View:
- I don't know else to say it…
Read this book! It is fun, it is thought provoking, and it'll get you thinking about business in new ways.
Among other place, "Death To All Sacred Cows" is available on Amazon.com: