Jodi’s Journal: Tackle industry change with outside-in approach

June 17, 2018

Next time you walk the produce aisle, remember this metaphor for business.

It starts in the 1920s when a farmer named Bruce Church grew and sold a plot of lettuce. He later formed an ice company and began shipping the heads of lettuce on ice-packed railcars. The name “iceberg lettuce” stuck.

It all went well until the 1980s when sales started dropping.

The company could have kept trying to sell heads of lettuce, maybe cutting prices and shrinking margins.

But it likely wouldn’t have helped much. And that’s because the problem wasn’t really with the product. The heads of lettuce weren’t of lesser quality. They weren’t too expensive. There wasn’t a competing head of lettuce eating into market share.

The problem was the consumer had changed. And the product was struggling to fit that new lifestyle.

As more women entered the workplace, the prospect of not just buying the head of lettuce but making the salad – and all the accompaniments that required – wasn’t worth the time and effort.

These working women were busy, and while they wanted lettuce, what they really wanted was someone to make a salad for them.

In 1989, Fresh Express – the company behind iceberg lettuce – introduced the industry’s first bagged salad. A few years later, it followed with salad kits filled with everything down to the dressing.

The company’s move to evolve its business created an entirely new industry category.

I think about that a lot – maybe because I eat bagged salad multiple times every week – and it reminds me what I need to be doing continually in my own industry.

I shared that story and others last week with a group of marketers from telecommunications companies who came to Sioux Falls for the annual conference of the South Dakota Telecommunications Association.

Their industry and mine aren’t that different. It used to be that when you bought a home and moved to town, right after connecting the electricity you’d do a few things: Set up your new landline phone, subscribe to the newspaper and sign up for cable television.

Not too many people follow that path anymore.

But I’m convinced the organizations that create those products and other industries in a similar stage of life will not thrive, or maybe even survive, without outside-in thinking.

It’s too easy to focus on our own organizations and our own products and services. Those are what we know and live every day.

But what we need to do is focus on our end users and how our products and services meet their needs and fit their lifestyles.

This takes time and talent, but when you hit the mark, the results are powerful. I liken it to a retailer or a restaurant attempting to evolve their products. If I were a member of a focus group for a store or restaurant, for instance, and were asked what I’d like to be wearing next fall or what dish I’d like to order from a revised menu, I don’t think I’d be much help.

I’d maybe suggest a color I’d like to buy. Maybe a style of sweater or something. I might tell a restauranteur I’d like a certain ingredient. None of this likely would lead anywhere especially useful for them or for me.

Instead, we count on the best brands to know us better than we know ourselves and to create products and services we want to buy when we didn’t realize we needed them. From Apple to athleisure wear and the entire Starbucks-driven coffee industry, this has happened time after time in the past couple of decades with tremendous results for business.

And, at the same time, we can point to many other brands that have struggled to recognize when times have changed or to deliver differentiated products that attract new customers.

Just because some people don’t hook up a landline, subscribe to a newspaper or choose cable television, I suspect they still want to communicate, be informed and be entertained. The trick is figuring out how to deliver that in a way that meets them where they’re at with a product they’re willing to use.

My business proves that’s possible, and many others do too. I am a firm believer that when you begin with the end user, your product is going to be infinitely stronger and your business will be resilient in the face of continued change.

Things have a funny way of coming full circle, too. That head of lettuce I used as a prop in my speech is now sitting in my fridge waiting to be turned into lettuce wraps. What’s old becomes new again all the time. But only the companies resilient enough to be around for the return will be able to capitalize on it.

Jodi’s Journal: Tackle industry change with outside-in approach

Navigating change in industry requires looking at your business from the outside in.

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