Friday, November 7, 2008

When Good Enough Will Do

We’ve always told our kids to do their best, no matter what. When they were younger, they actually listened and tried. Now that they’re teenagers, they laugh at the suggestion. They know that they can do well by doing far less than their best much of the time.

Like parents everywhere, marketers are into superlatives. We typically use lots of them in positioning products and companies – “brand (name) is the best at (benefit) because it is the only brand with (3-5 proof points) to deliver on that promise.” Whether it’s the fastest, the best, the biggest, the safest, the easiest, or the most comprehensive – marketers are always trying to convince customers that the superlatives apply to their product uniquely.

But these times are not typical. And most of those superlatives do not fit customers' current reality. In a Nov. 6 article in Business Week, Ben Steverman reports that “as the U.S. faces a serious economic downturn, many Americans are seeking out the cheapest possible option when buying necessities.” The article features four stores that are thriving in this economy: ultra-discounters like Dollar Tree (DLTR), 99 Cents Only (NDN), and Family Dollar Stores (FDO), and Wal-Mart.

I wrote earlier this year about value becoming tablestakes as the economy softens. That got me to rethinking the conventional wisdom that customers actually would always prefer the best if they could afford it. I’m pretty sure that’s not uniformly true across all categories – now, or ever.

Private label goods are the classic example where good enough will do. Private labels succeed by sitting on the shelf beside the more expensive brand name products they copy. In countless categories including office supplies, breakfast cereal, over-the-counter cold and pain medicines, diapers and other paper products, private label has captured significant market share. Those share gains were made in better economic times than we’re currently experiencing. No wonder Ad Age recently proclaimed in an October 29 story that “it’s going to be a private label Christmas.”

In microeconomics, we learn that the marginal cost of going from 80% accuracy to 100% accuracy is often greater than the cost of getting to the 80% solution in the first place. Is the additional 20% accuracy worth the required expense? Often, customers are not willing to pay the price. Even when the economy is not in the dumps. Why?

Software and systems design have a concept called the Principle Of Good Enough (POGE). We lay people call it “quick and dirty” design. The basic idea is to put a partially complete solution or product in the market rapidly, gauge the response, and tweak it based on actual feedback from users. I guess it’s the “dirty” part that implies something less than perfect. POGE is the logical foundation on which most software and web development is based. The principle seems to apply to a temporary stage in product development whose end goal is the continuous improvement of the product.

Similarly, there are circumstances where good enough is all that’s required and no further quality improvement is expected or necessary. Non life-threatening conditions – the types that retail walk-in clinics are designed to treat – are a perfect example. These clinics typically provide a limited range of "get well" medical services, such as allergy or flu relief, and also treat uncomplicated minor conditions, such as bronchitis and ear, urinary tract, or sinus infections. The success of urgicenters and retail walk-in health clinics are proof positive that in some situations, some customers do not feel they need the Mayo Clinic – they simply require prompt treatment by a competent practitioner.

These examples show that in some contexts, customers appreciate good enough as an intermediate stage to progress through. In others, they value it as an end-state. The lesson here: efficient design is smart design – smart retailers start by getting to good enough, taking their customers’ temperature, and deciding whether and where to go from there.

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