Style points count in this economy

    I attended an economic briefing from the chief economist of a major European bank yesterday. It was fascinating to hear the financial crisis and recession described from the perspective of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), where the recession has been much worse than in North America.

    For example, Germany’s GDP fell 6.5 percent from its peak, with its manufacturing down 25 percent and exports down 26 percent. And despite massive European fiscal and monetary stimulus, his expectation for 2010 and 2011 is slow OECD growth, as is mine for the U.S. economy.

    His most insightful comment was a quote from a UK central banker: "It’s about the level, stupid," an analogy to Bill Clinton’s 1990’s campaign comment that helped him knock George Bush out of the U.S. presidency.

    The gap between actual economic performance and full-capacity economic performance is so great across the industrial world that the excess capacity will drag down income, earnings, job creation and investment spending for at least the next two years.

    I am in Oslo, Norway, as I write, here for a week to see my fiancé who runs an Oslo-HQ global biotech business. Walking home from the briefing, I could not help but think about the role beauty plays in Oslo. Exquisite architecture, curved streets, central circles, sculpture everywhere and small shops create an invitation to sit at a coffee shop or outdoor bar (a major pastime here until the sun all but disappears) or visit the shops. One child’s clothing store window is so becoming it almost makes me want to be a grandmother (not quite).

    Think about the appeal of your favorite magazine’s photo-spreads (be you a hunter, globe-trotter, teenage girl or homeowner getting ready to remodel) – the ones that make you want to "be there" or "have that right now." Now imagine that magnetic-like appeal created on city streets. That’s Oslo.

    Given the slow recovery, every business needs an equivalent level of attraction (in the minds, eyes and emotions of its target customers) to hold share, gain share or move into new markets. Why? Because there are more reasons today to not buy, to buy less or to buy at a lower price than to buy at pre-2008 levels. The cause? Extraordinary economic uncertainty, more than we’ve had since the mid-1970s out-of-the-blue OPEC oil-price shock.

    Overcoming this hesitation to buy becomes job No. 1 for sales, marketing and the operational troops that create the offerings you want to sell. What does this requirement demand of leaders?

    First, make sure your organization has a compelling value promise behind all its offerings, one you can reliably deliver upon. If you do not have one, decide on one you could aim towards. A relevant and differentiated value promise is the bull’s eye of business model innovation.

    Second, build hard-to-copy advantages that allow you to deliver on your value promise. The scope of your products and services, another part of the business model, can sometimes be part of your advantage. But culture and organizational skills are much harder to copy.

    If you lack advantages, start creating them. Creating advantage is a far more important aim than cost containment today. Furthermore, once you know your value promise and advantages, cost containment will be a lot easier as you’ll finally be able to identify costs that are of no benefit to customers. It’s why I always say, "Pursue business model innovation before you spend another dime trying to compete on the same terms and with the same business model as that of your competition."

    Finally (I can’t believe I am going to say this as I have always thought that substance is more important than style) in today’s markets, do not under-spend on the appearance of your product, the way it is presented and who is presenting it. Get the look and the voice right. In today’s more challenging markets you need to help your customers overcome resistance to buy.

    Apple’s I-phone wins on ease, but it’s truly exquisite appearance made it a lot easier for people to fork over a $100+ premium. Apple’s bottom line shows that appeal has a high ROI.
    What’s your company’s appeal?

    Kay Plantes, Ph.D., is an MIT-trained economist, business strategy consultant, columnist and author with expertise in business model innovation, strategic leadership and smart economic policies. She resides in Madison, Wis., and Oslo, Norway. For additional information, visit

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