August 15th, 2008
It is said so often but usually ignored or trivialized: what drives a business is the customer. Not technology. Not economic conditions. The customer. It’s the customer, stupid.
In one of my favorite Seinfeld episodes (“The Pitch”: first aired on 09.16.92), Jerry Seinfeld and George Costanza are pitching their pilot — a show about nothing — to NBC president Russell Dalrymple, played by Bob Balaban.
Here’s a bit of their pitch:
JERRY: ..Well, as I was saying, I would play myself, and, as a comedian, living in New York, I have a friend, a neighbor, and an ex-girlfriend, which is all true.
GEORGE: Yeah, but nothing happens on the show. You see, it’s just like life. You know, you eat, you go shopping, you read.. You eat, you read, You go shopping.
RUSSELL: You read? You read on the show?
JERRY: Well, I don’t know about the reading.. We didn’t discuss the reading.
RUSSELL: All right, tell me, tell me about the stories. What kind of stories?
GEORGE: Oh, no. No stories.
RUSSELL: No stories? So, what is it?
GEORGE: (Showing an example) What’d you do today?
RUSSELL: I got up and came to work.
GEORGE: There’s a show. That’s a show.
RUSSELL: (Confused) How is that a show?
JERRY: Well, uh, maybe something happens on the way to work.
GEORGE: No, no, no. Nothing happens.
JERRY: Well, something happens.
RUSSELL: Well, why am I watching it?
GEORGE: Because it’s on TV.
RUSSELL: (Threatening) Not yet.
The key lines of dialog are the last three, illustrating George’s presumption that customers will arrive and consume merely because a product exists — in this case “because it’s on TV.” This is a common marketing blunder, evidenced by the way so many companies poorly position and message their products (see “What If Your Salesforce Quits Tomorrow?”). Just view the typically oblique Website: the vendor assumes you’ll buy its products because “it’s on the Internet.”
A few months ago, I attended an investment conference, where the CEO of an online-gaming concern presented his business plan. He droned on and on about his company’s gee-whiz graphics, growing base of subscribers, and advantages over Yahoo Games and other competitors. Totally baffled, I asked: “What drives your business?” He explained, impotently, that people have been playing games since the dawn of man, and doing so online is just a natural extension of that desire. That’s it?
Incredulous, I caught up with him at the break: “What’s driving your business is the sedentary, antisocial fat-ass. If, next year, young men — your target base — start working out at Gold’s Gym and having sex with girls, you’re through, finished!” He looked at me with embarrassment, relief, and concurrence because he had never known how to articulate his raison d’être.
One of the best tutorials on consumer behavior I’ve ever seen is contained in an ingenious episode of South Park called “Something Wall-Mart This Way Comes.” It brilliantly shows how people function and, consequently, how commerce really works.
When a CEO presents her company to potential investors, partners, or customers, this “Wall-Mart” dynamic must be at the core of its value proposition. Any attempt to justify a company’s existence on the applications and trends of technology, rather than the sustainable needs and desires of people, is bogus.
Destroy the Spreadsheet
I have one piece of advice to the CEO who cannot describe — in simple, succinct, memorable terms — his company’s target customer, the customer problem it’s solving or wish it’s granting, and its uniqueness: destroy the spreadsheet, for it is meaningless.
If someone asks you what drives your business, and the first words out of your mouth are about technology, you don’t know the answer.
About the Author
Marc Rudov is a branding advisor to CEOs,
producer of MarcRudovTV, and author of the book,
Be Unique or Be Ignored: The CEO’s Guide to Branding.
© 2008 Marc H. Rudov. All Rights Reserved.