The artist who aims at perfection in everything achieves it in nothing.
- Eugene Delacroix
In the late 1970s, Kevin Allen was sitting in a boardroom about to deliver some bad news. His client, Mastercard, would surely not respond well. But Allen is masterful at understanding markets. He understands one core concept that separates good brands from great ones. If he could get Mastercard executives to embrace this counterintuitive secret, he would set the company on a decades-long streak of wins against far larger competitors.
His lesson, if you can get over the kneejerk rejection most people have of it, can help you unlock decades of growth as well.
Greatness is a choice. Not a choice between “greatness” and “mediocrity” but a choice between “greatness” and “perfection.” We have been acculturated through schools that judge all students against a standardized test, sports that require athletes to compete following the same rules, and our various rankings (the best schools!) and lists (the biggest companies!) to see greatness as climbing higher up a communal ladder.
Branding strategists, even the most creative ones, unhelpfully propagate this idea. They fall infatuated with the ratings race, tracking customer awareness and preference, trying every month to get ahead of the competition. When they start falling with one attribute or with one customer segment, they begin to fret and feel they need to close the gap. For example, one client shared a report that showed their brand was winning on “quality” but losing on “modern.” They immediately concluded they need to invest more in “modern” attributes to close the gap. They were winning with older customers but not with younger, so they felt they needed to adjust their product design to appeal more to millennials.
If you try to be great across the board, you end up being average across the board. You are seeking “perfection” but will end up with “mediocrity.” You end up with a brand of average quality that is sort of modern but also classical that both old and young customers like. The everything for the everyman.
Allen was about to show Mastercard they had fallen behind. His advertising firm, McCann, had asked customers to sort through a collection of photos and choose ten that represented what they thought of American Express, ten for Visa, and ten for Mastercard. This is a great technique to get at the unspoken, underlying psychology your customers have about your brand.
The results were surprising. American Express was associated with aspirational purchases like a private jet. Visa was associated with aspirational objects of slightly more modest scale, like a luxury car. Mastercard, however, was associated with mundane purchases like things for your home.
A few weeks ago I got to speak to Allen about the experience. Upon seeing the results, Mastercard executives grew immediately uncomfortable. They fretted that they were losing the race and were so far behind it seemed impossible to catch up. How can you move a customer who associates Mastercard with buying groceries toward linking it with a private jet?
The answer, of course, was to choose greatness over perfection, choosing to run a different race, one that led to an uncrowded field where Mastercard could be truly unique. He told the executives to embrace their distinctive positioning: let American Express be the choice for aspirational purchases, and let Mastercard “be the card for the things that matter.”
A shift of thinking.
A choice. Let’s be the greatest choice for buying “what matters” instead of being a mediocre choice for making aspirational purchases.
This shift in thinking led to the Mastercard “Priceless” campaign. In 1977 the company aired a breakthrough, emotive commercial which you can see here. A father takes his son to a baseball game. Popcorn, $X, hot dogs, $Y … real conversation with your son? Priceless.
Mastercard suddenly, unexpectedly, became great. Perhaps not for AmEx-wielding, Rolex-wearing, private jetsetters, but for everyone else, Mastercard was the right choice.
In the US, as I’m writing this, we are waking up to the unexpected win of Donald Trump in the presidential election, and I cannot help feel that something similar just happened. The pundits and experts were judging the race against the usual attributes: ground game, polls, and message that appealed to all voter segments across all attributes and issues. The Trump campaign, however, appealed to something else. His definition of what it takes to make America “great” again does not appeal to every American, but the numbers show undeniably it appealed to more than it turned off.
If you want to win, you must choose. You must choose to abandon perfection. You must choose to outperform across some attributes and with some customer segments. And the only way to do that is by intentionally choosing to underperform elsewhere. This is why I’m pushing my client to overinvest in the attributes that matter to their core customer (quality) by underperforming in what matters less (modern). I wish I had a masterful pitchman like Allen in my corner. But I’ve bought his latest book, The Hidden Agenda, and highly recommend you do so as well.
To your greatness!