You know the best way to build a competitive position?
By knowing your customer face-to-face, voice-to-voice. Not some abstract idea of who your customer is, but being able to interchange ideas with them.
In a career that seems a lifetime ago, I created and ran a channel program for Apple. It remains today as the Apple Specialist program. The ideas was to talk with key channel partners in a regular basis and use their insights and perspectives to shape what we as a server division would create next. Not only did we get the channel to talk directly to product management, but we had other execs at the company come and exchange ideas. As a program, the advisory element was critical in building trust and affinity between Apple and it’s partners. That program was a lynchpin in growing Apple’s server business from $2M a year to $180M a year. All while holding onto a 40% margin structure when hardware solutions in the industry were closer to 10%.
The downside of this advisory program was that it was ‘old school’. You had to set a summit date, plan a robust agenda, book a cool place, fly people in from around the country, etc. While it taught me how to choose wines and other trivia (thanks to my still-favorite boss, John Osborne), it was expensive to host and pull off.
Today, programs that accomplish the same thing are much easier to execute. With blogging, online forums, etc, it’s much easier to build a 2-way dialogue.
See this example from consumer company, Lego. They’ve formed an advisory council, labeled “Ambassadors”, who get to shape 3 major areas:
Product Design: Ambassadors will participate in ongoing product design projects, as well as Ambassador specific task. This participation will focus not on model construction, but more into the design and concepting of new sets and product lines.
Community Development: Based on the cycle-specific “Ambassadors Agenda” that is set at the beginning of each cycle, Ambassadors will work together with the LEGO Community Team to help grow the adult fan community. The Ambassador Agenda projects are based on the overall community needs and desires, with a goal of expansion and solidification.
Communication: LEGO Ambassadors are a key resource for collecting feedback, questions, and input from the community at large and getting that information into the right area of the LEGO Group. LEGO Ambassadors are also a crucial outlet for the LEGO Group to be able to share information with the community – working the Ambassadors to share information quickly and globally.
This is a great example of how marketing can build a strategic fortress around the company and it’s customers and prevent competitors to steal them away. This one is branded and visible. Even more powerful can be the ones built more in stealth mode with key influencers. We’re doing a series of them right now with clients to help them enter new markets.