To Outmarket the Competition, Run with the Rhinos
by Christian D. Warren
Tough times call for tough role models. And in the jungle, they don't come any tougher than the rhino.
The rhino may seem like an unlikely source of information about marketing in a recessionary environment. But if that's how you feel, take a second look. The rhino is actually one of nature's master communicators. He uses an elaborate combination of grunts, growls, pants, squeals, whines, puffs, snorts, snarls and gasps to get his message across. And when rhinos speak, everyone in the jungle listens.
Rhinos are also tough-skinned enough that if their message falls on deaf ears from time to time, they don't take it personally. A difficult economic period like this is the best time to emulate the rhino because he never stops communicating his message, and his message is always targeted directly to his audience, whether that audience is predator, prey or a romantic interest.
The first time I saw a rhino in action was at a wild animal park. To the pleasure of the onlookers safe inside the monorail, an enormous black rhino was intently and fearlessly charging another rhino. Is your business charging intently and fearlessly with its marketing? Or is it pacing inside a cage, waiting for the economy to get better?
In a recessionary environment, it's easy for companies to say, "Times are tough. Nobody's making a living. Of course we expect a downturn in sales." But companies with a rhino-like mind-set never take that attitude. Their mind-set is that they can make money in any economy. In fact, strategically minded companies with aggressive marketing thrive during recessionary periods. That's because their competitors, who had been free riders on good times when the economy was strong, tend to fold their tents when the economy sours. That leaves the field wide open and ready for you to charge.
For good examples of rhino companies, one need only turn to Amazon and Google as they charge across the e-business landscape.
Google, which went public less than three years ago, was launched in a very inauspicious manner in September 1998. Already-established companies in the search-engine field included highly touted first movers such as Yahoo and AltaVista. But Google charged like a rhino, with the unshakable belief that its search tool could do what others could not. And slowly but surely, through creating a more useful and accessible search engine technology, Google not only charged past its competitors but became the ubiquitous leader in search.
Google capitalized on its powerful reach on the Web by expanding its services to users and buying up complementary technologies to further propel the company into its place as the leader in the online marketplace.
Google's beta version answered 10,000 search queries each day, and by February 1999, the service was answering more than 500,000 queries a day and the company had eight employees. Google outpaced the "free riders" like AltaVista and Yahoo and now stands as one of the most successful e-based companies in the world. Google just celebrated its tenth anniversary, and by all accounts the company continues to grow, collaborating with its peers and users to ensure its place in the marketplace and empowering and driving innovation around the world.
Amazon is another company that demonstrates rhino-like actions and thinking. Amazon has most recently seen great success with its text reader, Kindle, despite the criticism of many who thought it would be impossible to introduce a new book-reader device into the market. Amazon could have stayed in the mode of business as usual and still enjoyed first-mover status in online book sales, but instead, it chose to be a rhino and charge ahead into a new arena, where it has been able to leverage its previous success into previously untouched vertical markets. Who knows what will come in the next 12 months in terms of Amazon's own publishing endeavors, but I for one enjoy watching this rhino outrun its competitors market.
That's the rhino approach in action: take no prisoners, ignore the doomsayers and create products unique enough and attractive enough to turn them from "what's that?" into "must have."
Another characteristic of the rhino is its speed. If you haven't seen a rhino charging by your workplace lately, consider this: a fully grown rhino is six feet tall and weighs 4,000 pounds. It can move at a speed of 35 miles an hour. At first reading, 35 mph may not seem fast, but imagine riding a rhino down the freeway during rush hour when everyone else is inching along at just below 5 mph.
If you've got a need for speed like the rhino, then you probably do a lot of business and personal travel. You want to know that you'll get where you're going and get there quickly.
In the past, the shortest distance between two points was Southwest Airlines. According to Forbes, Southwest last year posted its 35th consecutive year of profitability, was the most punctual, lost the fewest bags and garnered the least complaints from its passengers. But if you look at what JetBlue is doing and how its impact in the marketplace continues to expand, you can see that there's always room for a new rhino leader.
In a particularly stunning charge this September, JetBlue announced its plan to auction 300 round-trip tickets on eBay with five- to ten-cent opening bids. During this time of struggling airlines, soaring fuel costs and increasing fares, this is a unique and value-added rhino approach to enabling travelers to fly less expensively.
Few services are more generic than air travel. You start in one airport, you hop in a plane and, ideally, you get to another airport that is the one you had intended to fly to in the first place. However, JetBlue was one of the first airlines to stand out from the crowd by providing televisions for every passenger and onboard Wi-Fi, and it did not tack on fees for additional luggage when other airlines began doing so.
In an era of zero consumer loyalty and enormous amounts of information available to all, thanks to the Internet, can you possibly afford to give your customers less than outstanding service?
Put it all together and you've got three top companies--Amazon, Google and JetBlue--emulating various aspects of the rhino. They're communicating their message loudly and boldly, they're offering speed and more services instead of cutting back and they're taking a tough-skinned approach to criticism and going after prospects where they can be found. Who knew that the ultimate marketing symbol of the age was a great big animal with one horn in the middle of his forehead?
These companies succeed not only because they have a rhino-like mind-set in the marketplace but also because they have a rhino-like mind-set in terms of managing their people. After all, how can one be a better role model than leading like a rhino no matter what the obstacles?
Amazon and Google have extraordinary employee wellness programs as well as opportunities for career growth. It's very difficult to get a job at these companies because their employees are committed to them and turnover is very low.
When Google went public, its management declared in its philosophy, "You can make money without doing evil." A rhino-like manager understands that to lead and mentor a dedicated team, he or she must declare a clear vision for the employees to understand and follow.
It's time to put the power of the rhino to work in your company. And if you can catch a ride on a rhino on the freeway at rush hour, that's not a bad thing either!
Many more articles in Creative Leadership in The CEO Refresher Archives