Alpha learning applied: Good enough is good enough… Until an Alpha makes it better
Why is everyone obsessed with the idea that better quality sells? There has been more than enough evidence that this isn’t true. Better quality or performance for the same price as what something else costs sells, but not better quality…UNLESS it helps prove that emotional fulfillment needs are being satisfied better through your product or service.
I sat for half an hour listening to the tirade of a marketing guy from a major manufacturer who had gone down the quality path only to find over and over again that lower quality, lower cost product from Asia was being chosen in lieu of his product. What he had missed (and I tried to tell him, but he was far too focused upon the unfairness of it all to hear it) was that unless there is a clear emotional fulfillment provided by your product or service, quality means little.
What the Alpha Factor Project discovered was that functional performance (quality, product performance, features, etc.) only have to meet the minimum acceptable functional requirements to be considered and purchased. Once that hurdle is crossed, the battle becomes one of which brand offers the most emotional fulfillment? That means “self-satisfaction” (how I feel about myself when I buy or use your product or service) and “personal significance” (how I believe others feel about me using or buying your product or service). If none of the other products provide any emotional fulfillment, then the choice becomes one of price. Among those that do provide some level of emotional fulfillment, the comparison is one of which provides enough to warrant the greater price?
I may buy Kraft cheese to make cheeseburgers, but I will probably buy a much more expensive and more unique cheese to serve to friends with wine. If the Kraft cheese is acceptable to me (meets minimum functional performance) and I don’t think anyone will see what’s going on the meat, then why would I spend the extra money? Where the cheese will be seen and it will be a major focus of the entertainment, then I may spend ten times as much to make sure it’s really something that will please and gain points with my guests.
This kind of behavior can be quite predictable with a range of brands or products getting my attention based upon the situation and likelihood of anyone noticing. When an Alpha company enters the game, however, things start to change very rapidly.
The Alpha, by definition, is in the process of continually defining what it means to be in that category or product or service. It defines the expectations and the aspirations of customers in that category. There may be a minimum acceptable functional requirement, but that starts to move upward as the Alpha defines new, higher expectations. Almost every competitor begins to focus its attention upon competing with the Alpha.
Even though Starbucks is having troubles right now, it has been the Alpha in the coffee shop category for a long time. It neither invented the coffee shop concept nor did it better than everyone else. It did, however, bring a new minimum acceptable functional requirement to the category that pushed many local shops to do a much better job than they had in the past. Every other shop out there (whether they were better or worse than Starbucks) competes with Starbucks and compares itself to them. Sadly, it is because Starbucks has fallen below the minimum acceptable functional requirement that they set that they are now experiencing the problems they are. It isn’t just the fact that they over-expanded; it’s that they over-expanded for the lower functional performance they were providing.
Harley-Davidson, another slipping Alpha, has fallen into the same trap. When Harleys started becoming better motorcycles after the company was purchased by some employees in the early 1980s, a new and higher acceptable functional minimum was established. Despite their poor quality, up until that point in time they had been the minimum acceptable functionality. Most Japanese bikes were already far above that, so it did not affect them, but it did establish a new higher minimum that had to be met.
Unfortunately, H-D (like Starbucks) fell below that minimum they set. They also allowed other manufacturers to begin to define the leading edge of the “cruiser” and “chopper” categories that they had owned. Now a new, even higher functional minimum has been set, and Harleys don’t measure up either in functional performance or in emotional fulfillment.
Apple, on the other hand, is setting a much higher functional minimum in both its iPod and iPhone products. What was acceptable just two years ago is no longer acceptable. If someone chooses one of the competitive products, they do it knowing that they are sacrificing something they aspire to own and experience. Even among those of us that thought that there couldn’t be that much difference between lesser brand versions and the “real thing,” the truth becomes quite apparent after enjoying the “i” experience for even a few minutes. This new higher experience has become the benchmark for everyone else to reach.
The secret to Apple’s success, however, is not the technology that looks far beyond competitive products, but actually is probably less cutting edge than it seems. It is the emotional fulfillment that comes from owning, feeling (they really have a terrific tactile character to them), and sharing them with others. Competitive products tremble in comparison.
Apple’s Mac computers have long had a much higher experiential factor that should have made them the Alpha of the personal computer category. Because they focused so heavily upon the “artistic” market with software and marketing, they missed being able to drive minimum functionality higher in the overall category. Unfortunately, Microsoft (through a lot of shenanigans) made themselves the minimum functionality required for most businesses and computer technicians, which drove the choices most individuals had, as well.
Now that Apples has been able to make their product more available to all the poor souls who had to put up with Microsoft products for all those years, they are emerging as the clear Alpha of the category. Who would not aspire to own a MacBook Air? It feels great, looks great, performs better than any PC laptop I’ve owned, lets me do beautiful presentations, displays none of the software “crankiness” that my old XP-Pro machine did, AND runs Microsoft Office programs. I also have people walk across the room to ask me about it.
Quality is not and has not ever been the real “Holy Grail” that is has been purported to be. Emotional fulfillment is the core of Alpha learning, leadership, and innovation. Good enough is truly good enough until emotional fulfillment comes into the picture.