Business amateurism

Book extract from Kartikeya Kompella's The Definitive Book of Branding

Published 10 years ago on Sep 19, 2014 3 minutes Read

Marketers love to revel in their cleverness and professionalism. They love recalling successful efforts at targeting consumers, extending brands, responding to customer need, benchmarking against competitors, and adopting scientific methods of analysis. They make no secret of their motivations either — they are there to make money and crush the competition. In contrast, authentic brands seem to be run by amateurs that reject customer research and marketing, in favor of gut feel, intuition, and craft techniques. Yet amateurs have some redeeming features. First, they are unpaid. Because of this, they usually do things because they want to. Second, they often think differently because of their lack of training. Third, they are unencumbered with concerns of fame, paying bills, and meeting next quarter’s targets.

A great example is Altoids — the popular brand of mints. In a remarkable example of corporate maturity, Claudia Kotchka (VP of Design at Procter and Gamble [P&G]) identified why P&G couldn’t produce brands with the authenticity of Altoids. Recalling Snapple, Kotchka (2006) noted how Altoids brand authenticity would be destroyed by the “P&G effect.” First to go would be the Altoids tin. Tin is more expensive than plastic, is heavier, is old fashioned, and the unique molded design is difficult and expensive to change in response to changing trends. Second to go would be the high-quality paper inside the tin that protects the mints from breaking. Third to go would be the flavors — after all, no market test would highlight mass interest in liquorice mints, ginger mints, and cinnamon mints. Fourth to go would be the strength of the mints themselves as this puts many people off. Finally, the shape and size of the mints would be standardized with new production processes because focus groups disliked their rough, seemingly hand-cut shape. Kotchka concluded that the result of this attempt to “smooth out the edges” of Altoids would be to destroy the product’s value in the eyes of its customers (in fact, she labeled the new brand “Proctoids”).

In-N-Out Burger provides another example of amateurism. This cult hamburger chain from Southern California charges low prices offers few items, produces everything fresh-to-order (and still hand cut fries), pays the highest wages in the fast food sector, and enjoys cult-like devotion among consumers. Despite having relatively few stores, high cost, and strong competition, In-N-Out Burger has some of the highest returns in the industry. Also, as a fast food provider, its burgers do not suffer the same poor-quality associations endured by other brands. And, in an industry where staff turnover is rampant, In-N-Out enjoys extremely high levels of loyalty (Moon, 2003). How has this seemingly, old time burger chain outperformed its lager, smarter, more customer-focused rivals? Simple — because it emphasises on old-fashioned things like quality, care for product and staff, friendly service, and community. In-N-Out is not successful in spite of its lack of professionalism; rather its very amateurism gives the brand its charm as well as a focus on what really matters — taste and service.

Although these brands seem amateurish, don’t take this as evidence the people running them have no commercial understanding. Many of the managers of these brands are MBAs and are interested in commercial success.