Easter weekend may represent one last kick at the can for skiers as resorts will slowly be winding their seasons down. Trail Maps are a staple of ski hills. You come across them at the base of a resort as well as at the top of most lifts. Trail Maps are vividly displayed on large 8’ x 8’ aluminum sheets. They serve two purposes. They orient us to where we are and represent a marketing pull sucking us into what the mountain offers. Most resorts make available a print version for patrons to pick up where lift tickets are sold. Some resorts will sell versions of their trail maps on merchandise like towels, blankets, post cards, or posters. These latter uses extend the marketing reach of the Trail Map. They serve as souvenirs commemorating visits as well as represent dreams of future visits. Lovers of skiing may have scrap books or walls covered with trail maps from places they have visited or yearn to see.
It turns out that most trail maps for North American ski resorts have been created by a single individual. James Niehues is the artist that is responsible for such a big part of our skiing experiences. For our last wedding anniversary, my wife gave me a book, The Man Behind the Maps, which tells the story of how Niehues carved his way into becoming the maestro of mountain art. Niehues worked odd jobs in the print and graphic design business for years while dabbling in art. He was a fan of skiing and art. He recognized that there were a couple of existing artists that seemed to serve the ski industry. Out of an interest to venture into his own business he contacted one of the two known trail map painters. His objective was to seek some guidance and offer his services to him in some way. Niehues got much more than he thought, “I walked into his studio looking for work, and I walked out with a career.” The former artist was interested in transitioning away from ski hills and slowly introduced Niehues to the field. Soon, Niehues was on his own crafting his own unique, detailed characterization of ski slopes.
Niehues has created maps for well over 100 ski resorts. Most of these are in Canada and the US. Though his work has extended to cover Australia, New Zealand, Chile, and even Serbia. It’s a remarkable range of topography covered. If we’ve visited a ski hill in North America in the past forty years, we’ve more than likely come across his work. His progress in the profession has not been linear. It didn’t start and progress smoothly into dominance over the craft. There were lean years. He struggled financially. His wife and he were a small team with limited resources trying to cover a customer base over a huge geographic area. Technology became a competitor and some resorts sought cheaper digitally produced maps over those that had been hand crafted. Through it all Niehues persisted and earned his traction. More resorts realized the marketing benefits of the trail maps and recognized that fans of the sport appreciated the handmade art representing resorts over computer generated maps. His career and business developed to where he has reached the peak of his profession. He quietly resides at the top of his own mountain making trail maps. A master of his own monopoly.
Niehues is one example amongst many thousands that have carved their won niche. Those that do this may do it consciously or stumble upon their field. In either case, the result is that a target group being underserved is found. Once a group is found, all future efforts are around engaging this group. Do you have a clear definition of your ideal customer?
Al Ries brought this idea to the business world in the mid 90s through his book, Focus. Ries implored companies to try to own a category in their customer’s mind. He offered FedEx as a company that owned the idea of “overnight” and Volvo as one that was driven by “safety”. The focus fueled not just their marketing efforts but all departments of the business. We’re bombarded with information about countless numbers of things. From sun up to sun down it’s a relentless assault on our senses. We simply don’t have the bandwidth to process everything. Our brain takes shortcuts. It’s not critically evaluating all the detailed technical information companies are offering us about their features and benefits. Instead, we race, for better or worse, to simpler ways to stratify. We evaluate based on emotional reasons. What company makes the best ketchup? How about tissues? Did you answer Heinz and Kleenex? If so, why, what is it about Heinz’s ketchup that makes it the best? In what way are Kleenex tissues better than other kinds? It’s less about objective measures of quality and more about recognition. Companies that own a category and build their marketing campaign around it are more recognizable to customers.
What are we doing with our marketing efforts? Are we blasting our shotgun with a spray and pray effort? Are we trying to appeal to anyone and everyone? Unfortunately, we can’t all be Walmart, Netflix, or Amazon. It is impossible for us to appeal to or service the masses. Do we have a particular, well defined group in mind with our business development efforts? Are we selecting our shots like a sniper? When there were three TV channels, a couple of newspapers, a handful of radio stations, and no internet, advertising opportunities were limited. One had little option other than to try to appeal to the masses as that was the only option for distributing one’s message. If we sold food or even insurance, our efforts may have been built around trying to sell to anyone in a geographic region. We serve anyone in our town. Geographic distance defined with whom we could introduce our services. Our dream isn’t to run our ads at the Superbowl in order to attract the attention of millions. Instead we should work towards making ourselves, our products, and services desirable to a select few that we’ve defined.
We often equate size with power. Bigger is thought to be better in business. We sacrifice the bottom line while worshipping at the altar of building the top line. Revenues rule our resource decisions. Instead, we should consider sharpening our knife so that less pressure is needed to push deep down into our focused, targeted market. The deeper we embed ourselves in a given dimension, the stronger our position. Would you rather visit a hair salon that caters to dogs, cats, kids, men, and women, or to one that specializes in the one group for which you need a trim? How about if you’re sick? Would you prefer a general practitioner or a specialist in whatever ails you? Entire regions are built around the idea of specializing. What Detroit used to be for the automobile industry, Silicon Valley in the Bay Area has become for technology. What is Las Vegas other than a concerted commitment to adult entertainment of various kinds? It’s a city that has been designed around a singular focus.
How can we apply this to insurance? Are our sales efforts the equivalent of shouting “pick me, pick me” in to the vast void? Or are your sales efforts directed to developing business with a clearly defined customer segment? Do you know who your audience is? Are you working to add specific value to make their lives easier? What actions are you taking to control as much of the customer relationship as you can? If your business has had a merger in recent years or is contemplating one, is the merger being pursued in order to further refine your business focus or to add volume? How many classes of insurance does your brokerage offer? Are you a specialist or a generalist? Focus as a strategic driver narrowing down one’s market segment leads to increased market share which is powerful. Owning a segment is a stronger position to have over being diversified. Some consider being diversified, “worsified”. Diversifying dilutes. It dilutes efforts and resources. Diversifying is distracting. Overall size is secondary to market depth. Better to develop your business efforts, like fishing, by casting your net narrowly and deeply over a small pond than as wide as possible but barely broaching the surface of an ocean.
It’s similar to the idea of balance applied to our personal efforts noted in an earlier article. It’s a myth that we can be both successful and balanced. Whether it be our personal efforts or business focus, focus breeds commitment, commitment breeds traction, and traction pulls us forward. The only hocus pocus customers notice is a clearly defined focus.
A classic example of ruthless execution of focus was one of the initial acts undertaken by Steve Jobs in his return to Apple in 1997. Jobs culled 70% of product SKUs from Apple’s production almost immediately. He did so by creating clarity through a 2 x 2 matrix which would govern the markets in which Apple would participate. Two questions drove design. Is it for a consumer or a professional? Does it need to be portable: yes or no? These two questions led to four product categories. Clarity made decisions simpler for both those within the business and customers. Simplicity was and remains appealing.
In business school speak we’re talking about market segmentation. How we offer our service and build our systems and processes is better accomplished with a clear picture of which businesses and individuals we’re pursuing. Even if we’re pursuing personal lines P & C insurance in a geographic area, can we work to further refine our desired customer base by demographics or psychographics? Are there preferred ages, family sizes, or family incomes that we’re working to target? Are there particular professions or lifestyles to which we’re seeking to sell? The more specific our target definition, the more specific our marketing efforts will become. By making this decision, we’ll be more like James Niehues. Overtime we’ll become known as the go to resource for x kind of people. Once both the business and its customers recognize the marketing focus, you’ve achieved the objective.
It’s tough to have the resources to try to be everything to anybody. Not only are we not appealing when we try to spread ourselves a mile wide and an inch deep, we can’t afford to sustain the broad burst of our business efforts. Kevin Kelly, editor of Wired magazine, drilled down on Ries’, Focus concept in 2008 with an essay titled, 1,000 True Fans. Kelly embraces the idea that technology is offering opportunity for creators of all shapes and sizes. Even the little guy isn’t dependent on trying to connect with a mass market to make a living. Kelly encourages creators to offer their products and services with the goal of making a few customers “fans” as a viable path forward. Who are your fans? Who would you like to be your fans? Can we consider applying these ideas to ourselves as individuals? Our value to our existing employer, prospective employers, and customers may be tied to our ability to focus and solve a specific set of problems? For what problem are you a solution? Can you define exactly what it is you offer? How can you consider specializing in your current role? Is there a particular platform or process for which you could become the go to resource at your office? Could you become an expert at endorsements? Is your approach to renewals refined? In what way can you go deep so that your skills your office will beg to keep? It’s up to us to ensure we’re not fungible. We don’t want average, replaceable skills. We want expertise that ensures we’re essential. To ensure this it’s up to us to develop our potential.
We’re talking about choosing to be noticed as a big fish in a small pond instead of being a small fish swimming invisibly waiting to be swallowed up in a big pond.
Wishing you and yours a wonderful Easter Weekend. Happy Hunting.