Direct Marketing Article
We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us
By George F. Brown, Jr.
In 1970, Walt Kelly had his famous comic strip character Pogo use the phrase
"We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us" in an Earth Day poster. Since then,
we've seen it applied in diverse settings - from discussions of information
overload to the road system to our nation's challenges in Afghanistan. It is
one of the universally applicable truths, and it applies to the most
difficult leadership challenges faced in many companies.
Every year, the Conference Board surveys CEOs to rank their most important
challenges. In 2010 - and in many earlier years - the challenge on the top
of the list was "sustained and steady top-line growth". We believe Pogo's
message provides an insight relative to this challenge. "We" aren't going to
provide the answer, at least not the whole answer. The firms that try to
address their growth challenges on their own aren't going to be successful.
The firms and leaders that look outside of their walls for solutions are the
ones that we will read about in a few years in articles about companies that
"get it" and are rewarding their shareholders.
We recently published a book on growth strategy with a simple and explicit
message: overcome your growth strategy by helping your customers overcome
theirs. The title of the book, CoDestiny, reflects that message. And we've
seen it in practice over and over. Over the years, we've interviewed
thousands of executives about their suppliers and in the process, asked them
to tell us a "success story" involving a supplier. Almost every one of them
had a success story ready to share - and most of them had many. None of
these success stories involved suppliers that cut their prices by a nickel
or figured out how to quit showing up late with deliveries. What they
involved were suppliers that helped them to grow their own business - how to
reach new customers, how to deliver a superior product, how to move up the
"Good-Better-Best" spectrum, how to get to a critical competitive price
point by taking costs out of manufacturing or logistics or warranty or some
other costly process.
In other words, the success stories involved suppliers that helped their
customers grow. They created value - and in the process captured some of it
for themselves. The solution is with "them", not just with "us".
At a recent off-site meeting with one of our clients, we provided their
executive team a short quiz. We gave them the following descriptions of
"supplier success stories" by three customers of a supplier in a different
industry and asked them to characterize the supplier about which these
customers were speaking:
As you know, we're in an industry defined by short product life cycles. And
if the customer looks at our catalog and doesn't see anything new, it
motivates them to look to see if our competitors have leapfrogged us. This
supplier came to us with an idea that would allow us to update the product
as often as we wanted, reducing to next to nothing the typical time required
by our suppliers to adjust to a new release. We are always cited in the
surveys for new product innovation and our engineers now can implement a
modest upgrade without the organization having to go through hoops to
implement it. At this point, [Supplier] gets all of our business.
We all had a lot at stake with this new product and were surprised when a
performance issue surfaced. We had two suppliers at this point, and expected
[Competing Supplier] to say "What can we do to help?" Instead they said "We
recommend you go back to the drawing boards." This was communicated at upper
management levels first, which really caused havoc with our technical team.
Money was on the table and careers were at stake - they just didn't
understand the seriousness of what we needed to have done. One of our
engineers talked to [Supplier]. It turned out that they had faced a very
similar problem with one of their customers in Europe, and they flew in two
engineers who spent a month with us and got the problem resolved.
They provided us with one of the great surprises of the year. One day, they
brought a team into a meeting, demonstrated a new approach, and showed us
how we could eliminate a significant amount of materials - which we were
buying from them, by the way - and eliminate two steps in the manufacturing
process. It has saved us a lot of money and put them in a great competitive
position in terms of costs.
The executive team members at this meeting concluded that the supplier being
described was a high technology firm, probably supplying the cell phone or
computer market. Their descriptions of this supplier brought forward images
of laboratories, teams of scientists and engineers, and a very busy team of
In fact, the company being described was a packaging supplier, one whose
products were, by the company's own description, "pretty darn basic" and
their unit costs were measured in cents and fractions of cents. While this
packaging firm did own a few patents, by and large, their business would be
characterized by most observers as a commodity business. Nonetheless, this
company's customers considered this firm to be one that could bring
substantial value into their relationships.
There are three approaches to value creation that can form the basis for
success in business markets - and it is a firm's customers that can provide
the details on these routes to success. First are innovations that make a
contribution to merchandising and marketing for the supplier's customer,
ones that enable them to gain market share or command premium prices or
both. Often, the end customers in such markets are always looking for
innovation, "something new," a step-out offering from the manufacturers and
The first success story in the case study fell within this category. The
packaging innovation brought by this supplier to its direct customer was a
significant contributor to the merchandising strategy for the products
involved, helping the firm to establish its position as an innovator,
constantly bringing enhancements to their product line. The packaging firm's
contributions eliminated one of the firm's barriers to fast product
introduction, enabling a near-instant ability to evolve the packaging in
concert with the products' evolution.
The second example in case study involved an initiative that helped the
supplier's customer resolve "technical" challenges. In every industry, there
are important technical challenges facing each supplier's customers. Often,
end customer purchase decisions depend upon the manufacturer's success in
meeting these technical challenges, which will be among the ways in which
the manufacturer differentiates itself from its competition. Technical
challenges can involve virtually any dimension - product safety,
performance, reliability, shelf life, etc. - that matters to the end
The problem faced by the supplier's customer in the case study was one of
leakage, with a host of "bad implications" - significant returns and
wastage, end customer dissatisfaction, etc. While the cause of this problem
involved a change in the chemistry of the product from its previous
generation to the new one, the solution involved a modest change in the
packaging materials and filling process that were used. The solution enabled
the firm to launch its new product on time and, after a few minor process
changes, at the price point that had been targeted.
The third example in the case study involved the concept of "taking costs
out of the system" or otherwise improving the processes and competitiveness
of the supplier's customers. Often, these types of value contributions are
invisible further along the customer chain, only involving process changes,
material substitution, or shifts in the roles and boundaries between the
supplier and its direct customer. The supplier in this case study,
understanding how their customer used its packaging to protect their own
product, reengineered their offering to achieve the same level of protection
with a simpler packaging solution.
While it's not critical to see your own company and employees as the enemy,
it is critical to see your customers as your friends. They are the ones that
will define the route to success, by telling your firm what challenges need
to be overcome in order to become the subject of success stories. Get your
firm to focus on CoDestiny relationships, solving your customers' growth
challenges. In the process, you'll find the solutions to your own growth
About the Author:
George F. Brown, Jr., is CEO and co-founder of Blue Canyon Partners, where
his practice allows him to contribute to solving clients'
business-to-business growth challenges. Prior to Blue Canyon, Brown held
senior leadership roles in a number of organizations, including DRI/McGraw-Hill
and ICF Kaiser International, Inc., and served as the Theodore Roosevelt
Professor of Economics at the U.S. Naval War College. He has published
extensively in academic and business journals and testified frequently
before Congress. Brown received his M.S. in Industrial Administration and
his Ph.D. in Economics from Carnegie-Mellon University.
CoAuthor of CoDestiny: Overcome Your Growth Challenges by Helping Your
Customers Overcome Theirs, Austin, TX: Greenleaf Book Group Press. Brown's
book, CoDestiny, is available for purchase at
Amazon.com, Barnes and
Noble and Borders as well other online booksellers.