About fifty years ago, Theodore Levitt published his seminal piece on Marketing Myopia in the Harvard Business Review. In it, he argued that firms too often take a narrow view of their business and as a result, miss opportunities that emerge and are eventually trounced by competitors that seize those opportunities. The railway companies, he argued, saw themselves in the rail business. As a result, they lost out on opportunities in air transport and truck transport that they could have exploited had they seen themselves as playing the transportation business.
Over the past fifteen years, I have asked thousands of managers around the world Levitt’s question: “What business are you in”? And I have followed it up with another: “Why do your customers buy from you rather than from your competitors?” In answer to the first question, the responses from managers in a wide variety of industries, from extraction, to pipelines, window frames, software, and banking, almost invariably still describe the product the company sells or the production facilities. I am always bewildered at how rarely the customer or the benefits the customers buys, enter the description. To many managers, the product is the business, just as in Levitt’s era. Firms continue to spend inordinate amounts of time, effort, and resources on their products. In fact, businesses are structured around their products: they have product divisions and product managers, profitability is measured by product (not by customer), planning meetings and budgets are product-based, and the managers’ hopes and aspirations are pinned on product innovation and the new product pipeline. Building better products, conventional wisdom holds, is their pathway to a better, less price-competitive future.
My follow-up question aims to uncover what managers see as their particular competitive advantage, not just how they see their business – and it does one other thing: it reveals a puzzling gap between their product obsession and their customers’ behavior. So why do they think their customers buy from them rather than from their competitors? The responses consist of reasons such as “They trust us,” “Our reliability of supply and delivery,” “Our service,” “We are knowledgeable about their business,” “Our experience with other such customers,” “We make it seamless,” “They see us as unique,” “We’re in their consideration set,” and so on.
Rarely is a better product mentioned, and seldom is a lower price seen as the reason customers buy from us. In other words, the “reasons customers buy from us” reside almost entirely in the interactions that take place in the marketplace: trust, reliability of supply, service, knowledge, and experience cannot be made in a factory, nor packaged and sold off the shelf. These are downstream sources of value. They have their origins in specific activities, processes, and systems the firm employs to reduce the customers’ risks and transaction costs.
This wide gap between why customers buy from us (downstream reasons), and where we are spending most of our effort and resources (upstream) deserves top management attention – it can both increase efficiency by re-allocating effort to where it matters, and can build advantage by spending resources on activities that customers value and are willing to pay for.