Why Short Term Advantage Leads you Down Blind Alleys


[Position = perspective.]

On November 7, 2001, Sabena Belgian World Airlines became SN Brussels Airlines. It later merged with Virgin Express to form Brussels Airlines. I flew round trip on Sabena from Italy once. Belgium was my one and only destination, so it was an easy choice.

The company was founded in 1923 and based in Brussels. There are many reasons for the airline's demise. Lack of funding was a primary cause. A very similar problem that led to the demise of Swissair.

Before it ran into money issues, however, Belgium's international airline suffered from a limiting marketing strategy. Like every other airline, the company's ads and messages touted food and service. It didn't seek to set itself apart with a strong position.

Companies often choose the broadest and most common messaging because it often worked in the beginning. They capitalize the short term advantage of other companies like them opening the market.

It's counter intuitive, but by standing for something specific and focusing on it early on, you build a stronger position later. When it matters. Positioning is useful to create a broader range of outcomes in the long run. Al Ries and Jack Trout explained why to position a product is still the most important strategy in business.

As a long term play, positioning happens in the prospective customer's mind. The reason why companies often go for short term plays it that they're more expedient. They try to go for visibility, fast. That's a mistake. Because seeing is not the same thing as establishing.


Flying on the winds of change

If you looked at a ranking of top destinations from North America in the '90s, you could see Belgium holding the rear with Norway and Sweden. As a national airline, Sabena flew through Brussels to and from overseas destinations.

Thus, the reasoning went that before you could sell the airline, you needed to sell the destination. Unless Belgium was on your radar as a place to visit, you could get to Europe in any other number of ways from New York City. Many did.

Visualize a layover in Italy—Rome, Milan, Tuscany, so many possibilities. France might involve the Bordeaux region, once you tore yourself away from Paris. But Belgium? In their marketing classic, Ries and Trout explain the thought process to identify the challenge and come up with a solution.

They didn't know it at the time they spoke about exploring second tier destinations in Europe. Overtourism, a term coined by Rafat Ali, CEO of Skift#, became a big obstacle to enjoying international travel. Years before the lockdown, people were already getting creative about layovers and itineraries.

Which takes us to Belgium, a compact country with beautiful cities and incredible museums. I visited two of the best World War I museums in and around Brussels and had the best street food in Antwerp. Bar none.

Hence, the idea was to look at the country and its cities with the eyes of a potential visitor and see what could strike their imagination. Take the Grand Place in Brussels. It's a magnificent square surrounded on all sides by grandiose palaces, a church and an ancient building with historical significance. It used to be a parking lot. It's now a destination.

So the first thing you need to do if you want to fly on the winds of changeas in a shift in someone's mindis to look at things differently yourself. It's not as easy as it seems. But when in doubt, see things from your prospective customer's perspective. Meet them where they are.


Making bold decisions, sticking with them

One attraction in a country is not typically enough to get someone to stick around. Especially in compact Europe, where you can cover a lot of ground quickly, to try a new place you'd want more.

Not many know that Michelin Guides rated cities as well. Five cities got a three-star rating in Belgium: Brussels, Antwerp, Bruges, Ghent, and Tournai. You might know Bruges for the 2008 British-American black comedy crime film.#

Though the movie didn't cast Bruges in a hugely desirable light, it came out years after the campaign idea. Maybe it inspired it. Nederland had only one three-star city, Amsterdam, and yet it had become a destination.

The campaign highlighted a known data point—you go to Nederlands because of Amsterdam—adding a strong support point—Michelin Guides says it's a three start city. Well, Belgium has five of them. Positioning by association leveraged two credible data points already established in people's minds: Amsterdam as destination, Michelin Guide as confirmation.

“Three-star cities of beautiful Belgium” became a TV commercial. The campaign had a strong response out of the gate. But before it could even became old or stale, it was pulled. New management at Sabena liked the “gateway to Europe” idea better.

The Belgian Tourist Office also wanted to include other cities in the campaign. They didn't see how other cities not rating three stars could be an issue. But it was. Keep a new message simple and tight to penetrate the wall of noise. One simple idea communicated in fun and engaging ways over time. That's how it's done.

I've worked in many companies that got bored with a concept before they even began to realize its full value. By the time you're bored with your positioning and messages, it's starting to work with perspective customers. In fact, clever competitors have been known to bid on a company's positioning in Google ads when they see a company invest in it, then walk away. I saw it happen more than once.

Technology has accelerated our idea of what needs to happen when. We've become quite impatient. Website not loading fast enough? I'm out of here! Online culture has compressed communication and made it seemingly disposable.

But this is why there's tremendous value in depth. Establishing a position is a strategic move because it signals a clear choice. You pick one direction, a niche, a way of doing things that is distinct from everyone else.

Once you know something really well, you can keep it super simple in your message. You go deep with your creative, learning to tell a story of a simple concept in dozens of different ways. You take people on a journey with you. An industry may be saturated with options, but not every other company has what you havea method, an approach, a way of seeing the world. This must come across in how you tell your story.

Make a decision about your positioning thoughtfully, record the reasons why and how it felt to go through that process, then stick with it. It's easy to kill an idea before it's had a chance to take flight. But until you put your work out there consistently, nobody has seen it yet.

Doing the work to make the idea stick is not as sexy as coming up with it, but the commitment and consistency are those that drive results. Positioning accrues value in the same way an investment wouldthrough compounding effects.

Companies often take so much time reviewing and approving a position that everyone's bored with it before it even goes out.


Why short term advantage is deceptive

Lack of momentum for the nascent idea that has not been in market at all or enough and a push for immediate results are two reasons to revert to what worked before.

But short term advantage hides the cumulative effects of your decisions in the long-term. I can see how the executives at Sabena felt comfortable reverting to something that felt familiar. But the positioning wasn't as strong and specific to set them apart.

The new positioning tapped into culture and sought to harness changing attitudes. People were starting to think differently about their decision process. That was the opening for providing an alternative. Crowded usual places provided the incentive.

When new behaviors start taking root in one industry, you can find an opening to suggest an alternative in another. Sometimes it takes longer for that alternative to penetrate the wall of noise and indifference on the majority.

But that doesn't mean your positioning won't work. It just means you need to find the people who are ready early and build a narrative to start appealing to the rest over time.

Ries and Trout say, “change is a wave on the ocean of time. Short-term, the wave causes agitation and confusion. Long-term, underlying currents are much more significant.” Short term advantage covers up the opportunity you have to take a long-range point of view.

Seeing potential futures while juggling present-day efficiencies is a challenge. When things in the short term keep working, it's hard to see the point of positioning for a broader set of future outcomes.

Seeing the difference between what works and what doesn't when things go well is hardest. Because they likely go well for everyone. But when the market suddenly drops and nothing seems to be working it's often too late to change direction.

A strong positioning in the right direction will help you take advantage of new opportunities when they mature. But you need to be there and ready to do that. To take a step in when others pull back, to be honest about how prospective customers see your product or service, to find an idea and position that is also effective, to be patient in testing and building momentum, and to keep focusing on the point of view of your prospective customer.


I've been sharing ideas and perspectives about business and culture in my weekly email to more than 1,000 new subscribers and growing. I organize issues by theme to minimize overwhelm. Subscribe here, if you're curious about reframing and rethinking business and ideas.

, ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *