B2B Tag

Think Big: Understanding the Value of Strategic Ambiguity

Whether we’re working on corporate identity, positioning strategy or naming, there’s a term we often use in our work with most clients: Strategic Ambiguity.

Whether we’re working on corporate identity, positioning strategy or naming, there’s a term we often use in our work with most clients: Strategic Ambiguity. It helps clients understand the need to find balance between being highly specific or overly vague in what it is they stand for and how they want to be perceived.

Strategic ambiguity, as organizational communication expert Eric Eisenberg defines it, enables a company to express itself—its mission and goals—in a way that allows “the freedom to alter operations which have become maladaptive over time.”

By being strategically ambiguous, companies who encounter turbulent times in the future can maintain a firm grasp on their identity and goals while embracing change. For our clients, this is key to staying relevant.

How Does Strategic Ambiguity Work?
Eisenberg notes that when air travel replaced sea travel from the United States to Europe, cruise lines survived only because they rebranded themselves as entertainment and hospitality facilities. This broader self-identifier allowed companies to provide new services, such as pleasure cruises and activities on boats that never even leave the dock. Because the cruise industry didn’t pigeonhole itself as a method of transportation, it survived and has since flourished.

In another industry affected by technological change, at least one company failed to identify the opportunity that strategic ambiguity allowed it. At its heart, Eastman Kodak was a chemical company in the business of making and selling film. As technologies changed and digital transformed how we create and consume images, Kodak didn’t evolve to think of itself more broadly. Had Kodak zoomed out and seen itself as a leader in the imaging industry, its future (and current unfortunate reality) may have looked very different.

Taking advantage of strategic ambiguity isn’t a matter of creating a formula, and it takes work. Finding the right balance is a step we help many clients take, and it’s part of what I love about our work. We help our clients make sometimes difficult choices and develop consensus on where their organizations are headed.

Achieving the Best Results
Three tips for applying strategic ambiguity:

  • Know the difference between being ambiguous and being strategic about your ambiguity. When naming and/or positioning your company, you can’t say, “Well, we don’t want to limit ourselves, so we’re going to try to be all things to all people.” You are not all things to all people—and you won’t succeed if you try to be.
  • Make choices. Strategic ambiguity is about drawing lines, and it requires a strong identity strategy. It’s more about who you are and why you matter than about what you’re doing right now. If you can commit to what you stand for, that commitment will actually allow for more flexibility when you’re confronted with change.
  • Think about the possibilities. Find ways to explore what you do now in different contexts and from new perspectives. This will help prepare you to make decisions about where and how you’ll allow yourself to grow and evolve over time.

If you hang your hat on what you do best right now, understand that people will continue to perceive you that way—a year, five years or 10 years from now.

So think big. Just not too big.

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Secret Sauce As a Brand

Special SauceLast week, I wrote about B2B branding: Your audience may not be comprised of “consumers” per se, but it’s still made up of people. People have preferences, loyalty and affinity for certain brands.

So how do you make sure your brand communicates what’s unique and special about you? In essence, what’s the secret sauce that sets you apart?

Making Your Own Secret Sauce

Many clients hire us because they’re having trouble articulating exactly what it is that makes them who and what they are. A lot of our identity work gets to the heart of this—helping clients tell their stories. Even if you aren’t embarking on an identity project, you can still follow some simple principles:

  1. Realize that you never have nothing: If you aren’t widely known for your secret sauce, that doesn’t mean you don’t have it. It can be difficult to pinpoint, and even harder to communicate (and often it’s easier to engage someone to help you find it—which is why it makes up a lot of the work that we do). But there is something worthwhile that sets you apart, and finding it is worth the effort.
  2. Don’t try to be something you’re not: If what you’re attempting feels inauthentic, it’ll be hard to make a shift that will turn employees (likely your most important audience) into brand ambassadors. Take Marshall, for example. We may not the hippest kids on the block, but we’re thoughtful, strategic and big-picture thinkers. Because we know this, we’re able to focus on what we do best.
  3. Don’t be afraid of aspiration: You may need to consider how well your identity tells a clear and cohesive story about your company. When you set out in a direction that is aspirational and authentic, you’ve turned identity into a strategic priority, not just a communications tool.

You’ve got a secret sauce baked in there somewhere, and it’s an essential component of your identity that you should use to your advantage.

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B2B Buyers are People, Too

You might think that in the business-to-business space, brand awareness and loyalty is less important than it is for consumer brands.

VMware tattoo

One of VMware’s customers tattooed the company’s logo on the back of his head, a move that demonstrates a pretty personal commitment.

But some branding experts believe that brands matter even more in B2B than in B2C. Why? Many B2B companies compete in a confusing or fragmented marketplace. Often they’re trying to differentiate highly technical offerings by focusing on functional aspects. It’s a cliché of B2B marketing that it’s all “speeds and feeds,” and that connecting on a more personal level is for the consumer realm.

But initiatives that focus on creating value for B2B brands can have tremendous payoff. A Harvard Business Review study on B2B brands concluded that the corporate brand is responsible for an average 7 percent of stock performance. Depending on your market cap, brand equity can mean hundreds of millions of dollars.

People Make Emotional Decisions

Preference and loyalty decisions are not unemotional, logic-driven events—even in the B2B space. Forrester analyst Laura Ramos, who blogs about areas of concern to CMOs, wrote that many B2B marketers still don’t understand that “B2B is really about the people.”

When I was studying integrated marketing in graduate school, one exercise came up time and again: Answer the question: “Do you have a favorite brand, and why?” Responses were mostly consumer brands, and explanations were always fascinating. Ask yourself about anything “Why do I want this or not want it?” Is it the color? Is it the ingredients? Is it what you feel in your hands? Is it the price? Is it the name? You can apply what you learn even to complex B2B products. A client of ours sells sophisticated scientific instruments and faces a competitor whose arguably inferior product has benefited from significant brand investment, best demonstrated by its sleek-sounding name. Even a marketplace filled with highly logical and analytical thinkers can be swayed by the sense that a cool brand makes the product inherently more desirable.

Some of our B2B clients inspire fanatical loyalty that most consumer brands can’t match. One of VMware’s customers tattooed the company’s logo on the back of his head. A tattoo is a pretty personal commitment, but the product enabled this person to feel like a rockstar in his professional life. Professional decisions are emotional choices. What matters in the end is that you’re offering your customers something that matters to them.

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