Great Ideas Often Start Out Merely Good

When I was growing up in Columbus, Ohio, in the 70s and 80s a new product line was introduced at the Big Bear grocery store: white label products. This was one of the first experiments with this new kind of consumer product.

The original white label products actually had white labels on them! A can of beans would have a white label and large text saying ‘Beans.’ The idea was that the products were offered at a lower price point because they didn’t have large marketing expenses built in to get people to buy them. (A huge part of the cost of many consumer food items is from marketing rather than raw materials and processing.)

Now white label products carry the brand of the supermarket selling them rather than just ‘Beans.’ Turns out consumers like the comfort of a brand when making a buying decision and adding the supermarket’s brand to a product spreads out their marketing costs across more products, allowing either lower price points or higher profits (or a bit of both).

The overall lesson here is that providing true white label products was a good idea. It lowered prices significantly. But it wasn’t a great idea until stores married it to their own brand.

Give your good ideas a shot and look to see how you can improve upon them. Most great ideas don’t start out that way.

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Launch Lessons from Five Guys Burgers

A new Five Guys burger restaurant just opened in our town, which I had been eagerly anticipating. I used to eat at the original restaurant in Arlington, VA, back in the early 90s. When I stopped in to the Salisbury shop for the first time they had been open for about four days.

I got my order and sat down at a table next to a guy who was wearing a Five Guys t-shirt but without the demeanor of someone who flips burgers. As I unwrapped my burger I noticed it had all the wrong toppings on it. It must have shown on my face because suddenly I hear from the next table, “Not what you wanted?”

I said it wasn’t, he confirmed my original order and then headed back to the kitchen. A few minutes later he was back with a new burger, another round of fries, and offered his apology.

Great customer service, no? I asked if he were the owner of the store and he said he was. He was doing something very smart for a business leader: he was sitting in his store during peak operations in the first week, watching how it went. Taking care of my individual burger was nice but the real important thing for him as the owner was that he had evidence of a broken process, poor training, or a simple one-off error. It was data he could act on, discovered during the shakedown cruise of his restaurant.

The first cruise of a new ship is often called a shakedown because components that will fail early usually do so during that first cruise. They identify those problems, fix them, and then have confidence that the rest of the ship ought to hold up for the normal lifetime of those components.

Same principle applies to launching a new restaurant, a new product or a new service. Pay a lot of attention during the shakedown run. Stay close to the action and see what isn’t working as planned. Being close lets you catch these items quickly and do something about it.