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B2B marketing parable: imitation doesn’t work

Marketing Companies

Apologies to Jim Collins and Isaiah Berlin whom gave me the idea.

In Good To Great, Jim Collins talks about one particular characteristic of truly successful companies that resonated with me as a specialist in B2B marketing: the hedgehog principle. The philosopher, Isaiah Berlin divided the world into hedgehogs and foxes, based upon an ancient Greek parable: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Collins extended the thought process to explain why great companies have a single-minded vision and Unique Selling Proposition USP.

The fox and the hedgehog parable

The fox is the epitome of cunning: able to devise a myriad of complex strategies for sneak attacks upon the hedgehog. Day in and day out, the fox hunts the hedgehog, waiting for the perfect moment to pounce. Fast, sleek, beautiful, fleet of foot, and crafty—the fox looks like the sure winner. The hedgehog is the antithesis of the fox. A cumbersome and simple creature, it waddles along, going about its day, searching for lunch and taking care of its home.

Each day the fox leaps out, bounding across the ground, lightning fast to attack its prey in another cunning way. The hedgehog, sensing danger rolls up into a perfect little ball: a sphere of sharp spikes. The fox sees the hedgehog defense and calls off the attack. Retreating back to the forest, the fox begins to calculate a new line of attack. Each day, some version of this battle between the hedgehog and the fox takes place, and despite the greater cunning of the fox, the hedgehog always wins.

Collins extrapolates this parable to highlight that what makes a great company is not what we expect. Foxes pursue many ends at the same time and see the world in all its complexity. They appear to be masterful and successful and the companies that we assume are great. Hedgehogs, on the other hand, simplify a complex world into a single organising idea. In B2B marketing terms, this is the Unique Selling Proposition or vision of what it does and, as a result, does it exceptionally well.

I’ve witnessed this in many organisations: those Melbourne marketing companies that know what they do and can break it down to a simple idea that the whole organisation can understand have greater success. However, I’ve also noticed another type of company that is prevalent: the squirrel.

The Squirrel

Each day, while the fox is planning a different and more elaborate attack on the hedgehog, a squirrel in a tree above them looks down on the events that unfold. To its surprise, each time the fox is repelled by the simple hedgehog. The squirrel starts to think that all it needs to do is copy the hedgehog and it too can beat the fox. So, one day the squirrel gets down from the tree and decides it’s going to do the same thing as the hedgehog. The fox, spying a new prey sneaks up to the squirrel, and in a flash attacks it. The squirrel copies the hedgehog and curls up into a ball to repel the fox…

Except of course, the squirrel doesn’t actually have a body full of spikes. Unlike the hedgehog, it’s not prepared and doesn’t understand what makes it different and unique. In trying to copy the hedgehog, the squirrel fails to repel the fox.

It’s the same in B2B marketing. While Apple and Samsung fought over the idea of what’s unique and what’s been copied, the real loser is the mimic. The hedgehog know its place and its capabilities. It knows that all it has to do is curl up and it is impenetrable. The hedgehog doesn’t try to climb a tree or out-run the fox.

Unfortunately, so many businesses are squirrels: they see the success of other companies and try to copy it rather than work out what makes them unique and successful. That’s the failing of modern business: it’s easy to envy and mimic the successful actions of others without working out what is best for their own unique circumstances.

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