Know When to Think “Inside-the-Box”

How many times have you heard it at meetings, brainstorm sessions, and conferences even in day-to-day conversations? It is one of the most time-worn business clichis of the last 30 years and has been the topic of books, seminars, and self-improvement courses around the globe. And if I hear, “You’ve got to think outside the box (TOTB),” one more time in any of the aforementioned settings, I will scream!

Certainly, I’m a proponent of fresh, creative approaches to solving challenges. Rule breaking is good, and mavericks can be rewarded handsomely for taking risks. But more often, the admonition to TOTB is a replacement for focusing on the business basics the fundamental blocking and tackling that build a solid foundation for a company’s long-term success. And more so than most functional areas, the TOTB mantra gets thrown in the direction of the marketing department.

So today I’m going to preach the unthinkable for the nascent company: It’s time to “think inside the box (TITB).” To continue the sports metaphor, get your basic ground game going before you try the triple reverse statue of liberty. Here are some selected marketing basics that should be part of your game plan:

Study the Competition Champions frequently credit their ability to recognize and understand their opponents’ strengths and weaknesses, and which tendencies are major contributors to their opponents’ success. While one shouldn’t obsess in this area, a thorough knowledge of the competition is critical to competing against them.

During my tool days, the world’s largest tool company knocked off our number-one-selling product and aggressively moved against us in the marketplace. (It had revenues 50 times greater than our revenues.) We weren’t going down without a fight and countered fast, finding out everything we could (through industry sources, trade shows, and customers) about its new offering, in addition to understanding how it did business in general.

For example, we knew it would not be able to effectively answer consumer questions regarding the product, a major issue for this particular item. We knew its pricing strategy (we could match or beat it if we wanted), and we knew that it wouldn’t go to the expense of in-store demo units, one of our top-selling techniques. We knew the product was designed poorly. (It had a key flaw that would cause breakage in a tool box.) We were able to address pricing, design, function, service, in-store merchandising, product knowledge, delivery, and other key issues with our product and with our customers before the competitor’s product hit the market.

One year after its product launch, it had achieved only a 2 percent market penetration, and not a single customer of ours dropped us. (As a matter of fact, the campaign helped us add new SKUs to existing customers and expanded our business dramatically we ended up with a robust 15 percent growth in that product category alone.) All of this was made possible by aggressive competitive research and all of it TITB.

Simple Is Good Taking a direct, simple approach to situations is sometimes the best answer, even when the course of direction seems to lack imagination and creativity. During my PR agency days, we racked our brains to TOTB and came up with a creative way to sell a new customer loyalty product for a client. Was it a special event? Did we do customer intercepts at airports and hotels? How about an interactive kiosk? Etc., etc.

Finally, someone in the room pointed out that the concept itself was fresh enough that we should just treat it as news and pitch the story to the press that way. No gimmicks, nothing fancy just tell the media the news and why it was important. It was the least expensive yet most successful thing we did that year in gaining coverage for our client, and very TITB.

Price Is Everything Pricing is a critical, yet often disregarded, component of a company’s marketing mix. Rich or poor, a customer’s predisposition to buy any particular product is a combination of what kind of pain it solves at what price the value proposition of that item.

When we see a regular McDonald’s hamburger at 39 cents, most of us think that’s a pretty good deal. Make that same hamburger $1, and we think, “Who would pay a buck for this garbage?” (unless you are at the airport at 11 p.m. waiting for a delayed flight and every other food service outlet is closed).

You can apply this rationale to anything, whether it’s software, cars, music, or industrial machinery. Understanding the pricing dynamics of your product and finding the “sweet spot” is essential, even more so than fancy ads and good PR.

Train Your Team Whether it’s customer service or a sales call, the difference between success and failure is how well trained your team is in doing its job. I’m not talking about lazy employees doing poor work; I’m talking about highly motivated, talented individuals who just don’t have the tools to get it done.

As the head of sales of a small company, I had a young but energetic and smart sales team. The team scheduled customer meetings left and right but had trouble getting the sale, resulting in missed quotas. Why? No one had ever trained the team in how to close a sale. It didn’t take us long to bring everyone together for an intensive two-day session on closing the deal.

Marketing supported the effort by improving the sales materials, and the team focused on closing our customers. The result: The next quarter, everyone on the team exceeded his or her quota by at least 10 percent. An additional benefit was that whenever anyone on the team tried a successful technique and it worked, he or she would share that technique with the entire team via email and phone conferences.

These are just a handful of tips for TITB all of them effective in providing a boost to the corporate bottom line. You don’t need big budgets and fancy schemes to drive business. A focus on the tried-and-true basics with flawless execution is the necessary base for building a business. And here lies the paradox: The basics are often ignored and uncommon in this age of speed over substance. When you really consider it, thinking inside the box is actually thinking outside of it.

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