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To Outmarket the Competition, Run with the Rhinos

  Tough times call for tough role models. And in the jungle, they don’t come any tougher than the rhino. …


Tough times call for tough role models. And in the jungle, they don’t come any tougher than the rhino.

The rhino may seem like an unlikely source of information about marketing in a recessionary environment. But if that’s how you feel, take a second look. The rhino is actually one of nature’s master communicators. He uses an elaborate combination of grunts, growls, pants, squeals, whines, puffs, snorts, snarls and gasps to get his message across. And when rhinos speak, everyone in the jungle listens.

Rhinos are also tough-skinned enough that if their message falls on deaf ears from time to time, they don’t take it personally. A difficult economy like this is the best time to emulate the rhino because he never stops communicating his message, and his message is always targeted directly to his audience, whether that audience is predator, prey or a romantic interest.

The first time I saw a rhino in action was at a wild animal park. To the pleasure of the onlookers safe inside the monorail, an enormous black rhino was intently and fearlessly charging another rhino. Is your business charging intently and fearlessly with its marketing? Or is it pacing inside a cage, waiting for the economy to get better?

In a recessionary environment, it’s easy for companies to say, “Times are tough. Nobody’s making a living. Of course we expect a downturn in sales.” Companies with a rhino-like mind-set never take that attitude. Their mind-set is that they can make money in any economy. In fact, strategically minded companies with aggressive marketing thrive during recessionary periods. That’s because their competitors, who had been free riders on good times when the economy was strong, tend to fold their tents when the economy sours. That leaves the field wide open and ready for you to charge.

Let’s look at three companies with a rhino-like attitude. Apple launched its revised and updated iPhone 3G at a time when gas prices were nudging toward $5 a gallon, the housing market was in its biggest slump in decades and the general mood in the country was getting grim. Apple could have said, “Let’s hold off. The economy’s bad, and it will never support a new, expensive phone.”

But Apple didn’t; it charged like a rhino. When Apple launched the original iPhone in 2007, people were lined up around the block at Apple Stores, those extraordinarily distinctive and attractive sales environments, waiting impatiently to get their hands on Apple’s newest toy. A year later, people are still waiting in line. In 2007, Apple sold 1 million phones in 74 days. In a press release given just three days after the 2008 launch of the 3G, Apple announced that it had already sold 1 million new models. Researchers at financial firm Piper Jaffrey estimate that Apple will sell 4.47 million phones in the fourth quarter this year. Compare that with the 1.2 million it sold last year in the same quarter.

Apple eschews traditional marketing approaches like focus groups and consumer studies. Instead, it takes a more paternalistic attitude toward consumers, believing-usually quite accurately-that Apple knows best. Apple has had an uncanny ability to take the pulse of the marketplace, consistently bringing out not just new products but entirely new ways of shopping. First it invents a category, like the iPhone, the iPod or iTunes, and then it turns just about everybody into people who either are possessors of these things or wish they were.

Apple’s marketing is all about conveying the feeling that its products give you. When you’ve got an iPhone or an iPod, it’s not just plugged in. You feel as though you’re plugged in. And you are.

That’s the rhino approach in action: take no prisoners, ignore the doomsayers and create products unique enough and attractive enough to turn them from “what’s that?” to “must have.” Like a rhino, Apple tramples everything in its path. And like the rhino, Apple gets what it wants pretty much every time.

Another characteristic of the rhino is its speed. If you haven’t seen a rhino charging by your workplace lately, consider this: a fully grown rhino is six feet tall and weighs 4,000 pounds. It can move at a speed of 35 miles an hour. At first reading, 35 mph may not seem fast, but imagine riding a rhino down the freeway during rush hour when everyone else is inching along at just below 5 mph.

If you’ve got a need for speed like the rhino, then you probably do a lot of business and personal travel. You want to know that you’ll get where you’re going and get there quickly.

These days the shortest distance between two points is Southwest Airlines. According to Forbes, Southwest last year posted its 35th consecutive year of profitability, was the most punctual, lost the fewest bags and garnered the least complaints from its passengers. What made the difference? Southwest communicated the fact that while other airlines were cutting back on amenities and charging for services like checking bags, which airlines had always done for free, Southwest was actually offering more services, like Wi-Fi on its flights.

Few services are more generic than air travel. You start in one airport, you hop in a plane and, ideally, you get to another airport that is the one you had intended to fly to in the first place. While the news media were essentially creating negative marketing for all of Southwest’s competitors-doing stories on all the ways those competitors were reducing services, cutting back flights and charging for services that used to be free-Southwest trumpeted to the world its marketing strategy of actually giving customers more.

In an era of zero consumer loyalty and enormous amounts of information available to all, thanks to the Internet, can you possibly afford to give your customers less?

When it comes to the rhino, practically no animal in the jungle has a tougher skin. Rhinos are sometimes called living tanks because their skin appears to be divided into plates. The bumps on their skin look like rivets, thus creating the illusion that they are armor-plated. If you’re going to survive and thrive in tough times, you’d better be just as thick-skinned as the rhino.

BMW launched its 1 Series, a lower-end version of the classic Bavarian nameplate, to a less-affluent audience who might be persuaded to spend almost $30,000 for the automaker’s coupes and convertibles. The company began to hear criticism that the 1 Series was not a “pure” BMW like its more expensive cousins, the 3 Series, the 5 Series and the 7 Series. Rather than bristling at criticism, BMW created a marketing campaign, based mostly on the Internet, letting the world know that the 1 Series is every bit as much a BMW as the rest of its vehicles. Go to Facebook, the social networking Web site, and you can design virtual 1 Series cars and send your artwork to your friends on Facebook. Go to YouTube and you’ll find video clips of the new cars. For weeks, MSN.com and Yahoo.com advertised the 1 Series in dominant positions on their home pages. Most auto manufacturers have not rushed to embrace new media, which leaves them in position to be trampled by the fast-as-lightning, thick-skinned, rhino-like BMW.

Sales of the 1 Series took off because BMW targeted younger, less-affluent buyers online, which is where they can be found. In fact, Mobile Marketer‘s Giselle Abramovich reported that due to the mobile video marketing campaign, BMW’s wireless-access site experienced a 67 percent increase in traffic.

Put it all together and you’ve got three top companies Apple, Southwest and BMW all emulating various aspects of the rhino. They’re communicating their message loudly and boldly, they’re offering speed and more services instead of cutting back and they’re taking a tough-skinned approach to criticism and going after prospects where they can be found. Who knew that the ultimate marketing symbol of the age was a great big animal with one horn in the middle of his forehead?

Leadership consultant Christian D. Warren is author of Running with the Rhinos (Cirrus Publishing, 2008) and president and CEO of CDW Companies (www.cdwcompanies.com). His work specializes in leadership, influence, sales, marketing, technology and business acceleration.



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