Saturday, September 19, 2009

An Animal Story

from Chuck McKay:

Does a Successful Zebra Need Its Stripes?

Imagine you’re a lion. It’s dawn on the Serengeti, and you’re hungry.

Off in the distance is a herd of zebra. You’re down wind. You can smell the herd but they can’t smell you. You crouch closely to the earth, stealthily move closer, your padded feet not making a sound.

The zebra slowly mingle in the herd. Your only hope of catching one is to single it out from the rest, but which? The stripes of one blend seamlessly into the stripes of the next, creating a vermiculite tapestry of white and black. How do you focus on any individual when you can’t determine where one begins and the other ends?

Wait. What’s that? One zebra is grazing apart from the others. You can see every detail. It’s nostrils contract with each inhale and expand as each breath leaves its body. You watch its tail idly swatting at flies as it slowly steps forward to reach the next succulent blade of grass.

You are now focused on the one, rather than being confused by the many.

And the many? They have taken advantage of the safety of the herd. Herd animals like zebra, or sheep, or even people protect themselves by looking and acting like every other herd animal.

Taking risks is… risky.

Taking a risk gets you noticed. It exposes your vulnerabilities. And what’s the upside? Is there an upside?

No banker has ever been fired for refusing to make a loan. No investment broker was ever fired for buying IBM. Not taking risks is instinctive.

So we do the things we’ve seen other businesses do. We recite the same messages, replicate the same images, and deliver them through the same media. We stick with what works. We choose the tried and true and smugly congratulate ourselves on not taking any risks.

What passes for most business strategy is simply a “me too” game of “We do what they do, but you should buy from us instead.”

Unfortunately, “we do what they do” makes your business blend back into the herd. You’ve made the very things that make you the best solution to your customers problems impossible for the lions (uh… the customers) to single out.

Brace yourself.

“Me too” as a strategy fails because you’ve hidden your strengths.

Successful marketing of your business requires behavior that’s not only risky, it runs counter to instinct.

Successful marketing requires you to step apart from the herd, and draw attention to yourself.

Successful marketing requires you to shed your stripes.


Chuck McKay is a marketing consultant who helps customers discover, and choose your business. Questions about business differentiation may be directed to

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