I’ve been value propositioned!

Value proposition. How I hate that term. The reaction unfortunately is visceral. It brings back memories of a time when I was heading a global practice area and made frequent trips to our New Jersey office.

I don’t know what they put in the kool-aid in that office, but everyone was the same. I always got the feeling that they were on the edge of their chair, pushing forward, always pressing their idea as if the intensity of their effort would mow down any objections that dared rear their head.

I’d come out of a different culture, one which valued dissent. We taught, even encouraged diversity of opinion believing, as my friend Craig Hubley articulated so well, “every unanimous opinion is wrong”.

But that world ended and I found myself part of a new company with a different culture. Objections were not highly prized in this culture. You weren’t “on the team”. I learned that the hard way.

I was already an outsider. My nickname “the professor” was a badge of honour in the prior company, which was a meritocracy – you got ahead on a combination of what you knew and how well you could apply it. This new corporate culture, like so many I’ve seen since, was distinctly “anti-intellectual”. And with the fervour rivalled only by the old Red Guard in Mao’s China, they sought to weed out any ideas that they saw as “academic” or “theoretical” — words they used as epithets.

The new culture liked simple ideas. They liked them so much we got a new ones regularly. Today’s “strategy du jour” was the “value proposition”. We needed to narrow our focus to a few key areas — simplify our message and drive that value proposition into our marketing efforts. That — and only that — would turn around our sagging sales and revive our growth so that our IPO would succeed and bring wealth to those who had driven the value out of this company.

I was trying to fit in. So when the “value proposition” tsunami came through, I decided to surf it rather than swim against it.

But had I not been on this rare and ultimately short lived quest to “fit in” I would have argued that we were going about this this “back-asswards”. My sneaking suspicion was that there reason why we were in a slump had nlittle to do with our “value proposition” and had much to do with our lack of “value delivery”.

And its probably best that I didn’t raise this issue as it would have been seen (perhaps justifiably) as a attack on the management of our new owners. You see, the company I’d worked for before the new regime had survived and been profitable for many, many years, through many economic cycles. I had a unique view on this. I had been a client. I had used this company’s services many, many times — not because they’d told me what their value was in a sales pitch, but because they’d proven their value to me many times by delivering creative and effective solutions to the problems that I had encountered. As a result, I’d given them my business many, many times and stuck with them over a period of years, even when competitors came with low ball offers and made my life hell as I explained why I’d stick with them despite a higher price tag.

I was so impressed with how this company had brought all its employees to understand and deliver real value that when I finally got the chance to work for them, I jumped at it.

What we had was not so much a “value proposition” as a “brand”. I see them as two different things. A value proposition is declared. You say it. A brand is a promise delivered. The brand exists not because you say it, but because you do it — consistently, over time. Moreover, a brand can exist in the minds of your customers, independent of any promotional actitivity that you might undertake.

The two can be consistent. You can state a promise and deliver it. The difference is in origin. The brand exists because you seek and understand the needs of potential and existing customers and match these with what you can deliver. Jim Collin’s typifies this in his landmark book “Good To Great” where he describes two elements of his Hedgehog Strategy with these questions. “What are you passionate about? What can you beat the world at.” Passion and delivery give Collins’ approach the type of authenticity that builds trust. I would be proud to explain those to a client.

As a result, I love the term “brand” because to me it’s a promise delivered. Value proposition, by contrast, rubs me the wrong way. Perhaps this is the number of times that I’ve been “value propositioned” by telemarketers, sales people — it may only be my experience, but I have found that the more insistent the “value proposition” the less I am likely to believe it.

No belief? No brand.

Semantics? Or a clear idea of where we should focus. I’ll let you decide on that one. After all, you are the “customer” for this blog. Whether it delivers on its promise is something only you can answer.

Love to hear your comments.

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Filed under Organization, Social Networking, Strategy

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