Here’s what I have to look at every morning.
Two of my little books (Culture and Consumption I & II) are struggling to climb the ladder. Today, they are doing relatively well, their ranking marked in 5 digits. (I won’t tell you the number of times I find them ranked in the deep 6 digits. 400,000 is not uncommon.)
But every morning, Blue Ocean Strategy, the book by Kim and Mauborgne, is right up there. IN TWO DIGITS. I don’t begrudge them this success. Yes, I do.
Kim and Mauborgne say that companies should forsake the roller derby in which companies fight for tiny, and brief, moments of advantage. No, they say, strike out on your own. Look for blue oceans that are presently unoccupied, markets you can have all to your own.
The good thing about this book is the fact that it tells us how much marketing has become a game of ideas, imagination and innovation. Indeed, it is increasingly a game in which advantage goes to those who can step out of received wisdom and current assumptions, and see the world new. This is great news for the likes of me and you (dear reader). After all, we are the people who live for (and through) our wits. An intellectually vital market place is good (and billable) news.
The bad thing about the book is that the book is naive. Only academics could have written such a thing. Blue Ocean Strategy acts as if "wishing makes it so," all we have to do is to find an uncontested market space and all the hard work of marketing just goes away. Hurray!
If only it were so. If only we could just wish away the competition and the close quarter combat that characterizes every mature market. Yes, General Motors created a blue ocean when it was prepared to customize in a way that Ford would not. Yes, Dell created a blue ocean by disintermediating the marketplace. Yes, the megaplex changed the movie house. Yes, Cirque reinvented the circus. And, er, that’s pretty much it.
This kind of good fortune happens to a handful of companies. (This is, not incidentally, the reason the book is so thin on examples, and why several of them seemed forced.) To mix my metaphors, people find blue oceans about as often as they are struck by lightening. (Yes, there is an evolutionary joke lurking in there somewhere.)
To make this the strategy for everyone to follow…well, it’s just nuts. It’s like telling every baseball team that, if they want to win, they should just go out and hire a Roger Clemens. Great, thanks. Why didn’t we think of that?
But there is a deeper problem with Blue Ocean Strategy. Two of them actually.
The first is that Kim and Mauborgne don’t ever see the underlying cultural trend that creates up the ocean. The GM opportunity is driven by an American individualism that demanded that people have distinctive cars. The megaplex trend represents a fragmentation of consumer taste and preference (perhaps a first hint of Anderson’s "long tail"). If the corporation really wants access to blue oceans, one of the things that it needs to do is to monitor trends with new acuity. Kim and Mauborne do not see this.
Second, there is a DIY opportunity here. Some of the corporations have opened up blue oceans because they helped to create blue planets. Nike discovered the fitness trend early, and made it an American pasttime. Starbucks created a new category of public space, (aka, the "third place"). Coca-Cola helped to invent Christmas. Pepsi helped to create youth culture. Snapple helped to invent the 1990s.
The "blue planet strategy" are not so much about discovering empty spaces. It’s about something more pro active, creative and hand’s on. It’s not a matter of shifting assumptions and changing frames. It’s about making something new (or newish).
Naturally, comporate acts of invention have to correspond to something in the culture. Consumers have to be able to grasp the "third space" concept, and they have, at some level, to need to want it. So there is an element of discovery. But finally, this is an act of cultural creation that takes the considerable intelligence, deep pockets and vast retail resources of a Howard Schultz.
Talk about ownership. Corporations that merely discover new oceans may "own" these oceans till the rest of the world comes piling in. But corporation that create new planets, this is a deeper ownership. After all, the corporation owns the blue prints, not just the phenomenon. They get the blue planet "down to the ground." They invented it.
Naturally, this is not the sort of thing to which the corporation takes easily. Blue planet creation would take a room full of cultural engineers, a certain amount of patience, and a willingness to get out of the discovery game into the creation one.
The corporate world can engage in acts of cultural invention. And by this means they can create blue planets. (The good news is that the blue oceans come attached.) But there is an "entry cost" here. They are going to have to stop listening to French intellectuals.
Kim, W. Chan and Renee Mauborgne. 2005. Blue Ocean Strategy: How to create uncontested market space and make the competition irrelevant. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
The ranking in the image above comes from Titlez here.