Trends are like gravity; they pull harder as they get bigger. Each new company that follows one beckons for others to do the same. Rationally thinking business leaders deviate from well-developed plans and assume that others know something they don’t. Or they fear customers will view their companies as rigid and unresponsive. Eventually, the herd of companies offers facsimiles of each other’s products while oxymoronically seeking ways to distinguish themselves from those they mirror. They pitch the same items with little or no distinction: diets that are keto, but not low carb, not high protein, and not slow carb. They sell bottled water from the same municipal sources and with the same purification processes as their competitors. Companies with more resources, smarter marketing, or better hype eventually rise to the top while all participants joust each other with income-sucking discounts, advertising, and promotions. Eventually, the trend fizzles, a new one takes root, and the process begins again.
Today I spoke with another founder who is seeking a competitive edge and I asked the required question, “What makes you different?” He responded with a 500-word soliloquy on his company’s development of an organic and locally-sourced product. Then he added how organic foods were a trend. There is nothing wrong with offering organic foods and every dish tastes better with fresh ingredients. However, if offering organic foods is a popular trend, how is it distinctive?
If you can’t sell a different product then deliver it differently
There are a lot of drink mixes available but Steep’t Cocktails found a new approach. It sells alcohol-free dehydrated drink mixes in teabags. All of the mixes are pre-measured and portable. They can be shipped to any state without infringing on local laws and because they are small and lightweight, the shipping costs less than liquid alternatives. The packaging also reduces storage and the process eliminates the need for refrigeration. This also means they last longer. The company promises restaurant-quality drinks at a lower cost but that is only a fraction of its benefits.
If you can’t sell a different product find a different customer
Every business traveler cringes at the idea of flying a budget airline: small seats, no trays, less legroom, extra charges for unplanned bags, and fees for overhead luggage. But budget carriers aren’t intended for business travelers. One of Spirit Airlines’ ideal customer groups is the experience-seeking Millennial. This group wants to see more of the world than previous generations and it is willing to forgo a large elaborate trip for many small ones. Oftentimes, the price of a Spirit flight is less than the ride-share to the airport and smart travelers can avoid paying extra by returning quickly or packing extra light. Millennial party-goers visit new cities for little more than a weekend at home. Fly to Miami, Atlanta, or New York, spend the evening out with friends and catch the first thing airborne in the morning: no rental car, no sleep, and no hotel. Otherwise, nod on a friend’s couch or share an AirBnB – all for the added expense of a $60 round-trip and a $30 bed. Many people eat out and drink regularly, so a weekend away is only marginally more expensive than staying home.
There is always a balancing act between long-term strategy and customer responsiveness but companies that follow trends can’t lead them. Customers request what they see competitors offer. When companies follow blindly they all get led to the same place and offer the same things. Instead ask, will you lose customers by not following the trend du jour? Do you gain long-term ones? Does the investment of energy and time distract your company from its long-term focus?
Be responsive to customer requests. Be flexible when obstacles arise. But don’t follow trends blindly! Following the herd may work temporarily but all herds inevitably lead to the same place, the slaughterhouse.