Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Fidelity vs. Convenience: The Trade-Off

It is time to revisit my post of October 29. Tonight, I learned of a new model that explains exactly what I outlined in my earlier entry.
I attended a lecture by Kevin Maney, best selling author and journalist, who writes for Fortune, The Atlantic, and Fast Company. He was recruited by Condé Nast Portfolio magazine and remained contributing editor there until the magazine’s demise. Prior to that he had been a senior technology reporter at USA Today. Maney is the author of The Maverick and His Machine: Thomas Watson Sr. and the Making of IBM (John Wiley & Sons, 2003) but his lecture tonight at Alliance Bernstein was on his most recent book, Trade-off: Why Some Things Catch On and Others Don’t.
            In his book, Maney elaborates a theory according to which successful products accomplish one of two things: either fidelity or convenience. Fidelity is a term that refers to the customer’s willingness to pay a premium for an experience even if that experience involves unpleasant events along the way. For example, a Bono fan will pay a high price for a ticket to a Bono concert, even if it is very hard to find parking, the space is really crowded, and getting back home after the concert takes for ever. The other end of the spectrum would be listening to Bono singing on one’s MP3 player. That would be highly convenient. Unfortunately, the sound does not compare to that of a concert and Bono does not come run errands with the listener. Both products, the extremely expensive and highly inconvenient as well as the inexpensive and highly convenient have a steady and specific following and generate substantial revenues in their category. In addition, both can grow. To illustrate how, one may place fidelity on the y (vertical) axis and convenience on the x (horizontal) axis and picture the two growing either up (higher fidelity can bring larger margins) or to the right (higher convenience can bring greater market share and greater returns).
Problems arise when companies want to achieve both at the same time. They want to have a large following of loyal customers who recognize the coolness of the brand and are willing to pay the price for it, while they also target a large market share for whom the product is appealing because it is accessible. The perfect example would be Starbucks during its period of aggressive growth. In fact, what Starbucks proves is that the combination of both high fidelity and high convenience is disastrous for the brand. The contradictory powers fight each other and usually demote the brand to a zone close to the bottom left of the previous illustration. That zone is called the fidelity belly. Brands that fall into the fidelity belly usually have a very hard time coming out of it. This is because companies within that space cannot make up their minds as to whether they would like to pursue the fidelity axis or the convenience axis. The author presented several examples of companies who have succeeded in that endeavor by clearly choosing a path for growth and only in one direction.
This is exactly why Maney’s presentation reminded me of the discussion of Gilt’s acquisition of Bergine. In my mind, Gilt is moving along the convenience axis, expanding geographically and making discounts available to a broader geographic region. This does not mean that Gilt itself is a luxury retailer. It has now become a discount retailer and it so happens that the discounts it sells are of products within the high-end sector of the lifestyle industry. The products themselves originally belong to the fidelity zone but when they are marketed through Gilt or Groupon they temporarily shift to the convenience zone. But e-commerce does not necessarily have to be a shift toward convenience. Within the luxury sector, I distinguish, a company that sells premium, pre-owned, prized luxury goods while maintaining a very clear definition of its own brand within the domain of exclusivity (fidelity, experience, coolness) that both it and the brands it markets occupy.
While I had thought about these issues before, I gained a new perspective on things tonight. I think Maney’s model is a very handy tool both for established firms that are re-examining their own strategy for growth or start-ups that are in the process of defining which segment of the market they serve.

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