Should You Be Worried? Fo Shiz!

Mike Lawshe, President and CEO, Paragon Solutions

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It seems like every year we hear about the new challenge to our way of doing business. Fast feeders expanding their coffee offering, dollar stores selling cigarettes and beer, home improvement stores selling gas, drug stores selling foodservice and grocery stores getting into convenience are only the tip of the iceberg. All of these competitors and would-be competitors want to get into the convenience business. Have they ever seen a convenience-store P&L? Who in their right mind would want to compete in this crazy arena? Well, apparently, everyone. Why? Should we be worried?

Well, the short answer is yes. You should be worried, but perhaps not for the reason you thought. It is not because the gasoline, beer and cigarette markets are so lucrative. It is not because this is an easy business. It is because we have something more valuable than gold: our customers. Over the years we have cultivated our customers’ loyalty and their trust.

A Blurry Hybrid?

Have you ever sat down and really analyzed who our customers are and what we have done to deserve them? We have an incredibly diverse customer base that is tied by one primary common trait: They all drive cars. While they are driving, they have needs and wants. They have needs such as fuel and food and wants such as treats and snacks. However, those wants and needs are very different from the wants and needs of yesterday. Do you remember how this industry was described 20 years ago? I remember hearing that we sold “Cokes, smokes and Twinkies.” To a large extent, that described our SKUs.

Well, things have changed. Carbonated beverages and cigarettes are on the decline and Twinkies have been teetering on the verge of extinction. How would you describe your store of today? Give me three words that describe your store of today and tomorrow. I really want to know.

I have heard the new generation sites called hybrid stores and I have heard the phenomenon called channel blurring. These terms have been coined to describe how the stores of today are not the same as the stores of yesterday. To me, what they really describe is an industry that is unsure of what it is. Blurring means fuzzy and unfocused and hybrid means a combination, not one or the other. Unfortunately, for many, that is an accurate description of our marketing approach. It is often a collection of ideas driven by vendor programs and simplistic solutions.

I also see many examples of companies in our industry that are reinventing their brand and their offering to be dramatically new and fresh. They are reinventing each of their profit centers to stay current with their ever-changing demographic. These are the outliers who will be up to the challenge of the onslaught of new competition. They get it.

Speak Their Language

I recently attended an ideation session with a large consumer brand, where we brainstormed ideas for 2014 brand initiatives. How many of you are doing that? The entire day focused on customer-centric initiatives that would shape the public image of the brand and promote not only sales but also goodwill. One of the things I found out was that millennials have a different vocabulary. Words such as ideation were used instead of brainstorming. So, I thought, to attract the next generation, we should speak their language.

So I checked in my millennial marketing dictionary and came up with an idea…ish.

The key strategy is to develop brand consistency that will enhance your engagement metrics … fo shiz.

No, seriously! Let me translate. The key strategy is for your brand to focus on the customer experience … definitely.

The problem with that (or the opportunity) is that the customer base is ever-changing. We have to continue to reinvent ourselves to match our customer experience with our customers. I know it sounds simple, but it takes an intentional strategy to first understand our customers and then to develop the corresponding brand strategy. This process should involve people inside your organization and outside your organization that are willing to ask the hard questions and speak the truth. If your baby is ugly, they will tell you.

If you follow this path, you will “own” (defeat) these new would-be competitors. WORD! (Amen.)  

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