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When Competing With Your Own Customers Is OK—Vibram FiveFingers and Eigen Values

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Do you know what an eigen value is?

"This sentence has five words."

That's an eigen value. It's a self-defining entity. Its outputs are identical to itself.

If I were to say instead, "This sentence has a lot of words and syllables," that would not be an eigen value because it's subjective. We can debate what "a lot" is or isn't. And that difference is important.

Want to see how an eigen value plays out in real life? Look at Vibram and its FiveFingers shoe.


Vibram USA's CEO, Tony Post, had a seemingly insurmountable problem: How do you breathe innovation into a commodity business that frankly doesn't have too many moving parts (no moving parts to be precise)? Vibram makes soles for other manufacturers' shoes.

The company pushed hard into its well-developed OEM [original equipment manufacturer] space, branding its soles with its trademark yellow tab, and considered how to dip a proverbial toe into the athletic-shoe market.

At the same time, Post was dealing with a seemingly insurmountable problem of his own: As a competitive runner coming off potentially career-ending knee surgery, he was looking for a solution to the chronic knee pain that plagues runners after a lifetime of training.

The answer literally walked in the door in the form of a young Italian designer with a prototype that had everyone in the Milan shoe industry scratching their heads.

Vibram's chairman, Marco Bramani, suggested that Post take a closer look. The result was the Vibram FiveFingers, an impossibly minimalist athletic shoe with a sole little more than 2 millimeters thick and five "fingers" for the wearer's toes.

It not only cured Post's knee pain but also gave the company an entree  into the highly competitive athletic-shoe market.

"Almost everybody in the beginning was repulsed by them, I'd have to say," Post told me. "Even when we showed them to customers, they'd say, 'Those are interesting, but they're very ugly.' And, frankly, we got better at it. Lots of people still find it highly controversial."

Vibram offered the radical new sole to the big athletic-shoe manufacturers and was turned down by everyone. With no one left to offend, the company realized that the FiveFingers shoe was just what it'd been looking for: the company's entry into the athletic-shoe market, a branded flagship product, and a lightning rod of innovation.

Since its launch in 2005, the FiveFingers has become something of a cult hit, helping to spawn the barefoot-running movement and winning converts the world over.

Vibram found a way to compete against major shoe brands—as an OEM supplier and as a brand itself—because it did something that was so innovative and unique that the established athletic-shoe industry couldn't embrace it.

And when the major manufacturers declined to give the new product a try, they gave Vibram the permission to do what few OEM players successfully do—become branded players themselves.

So, on one level, Vibram is a model of how to successfully compete as an OEM against your own customer base, providing something of a blueprint of innovation, pushing beyond its partners' comfort zones while staying within its industry niche.

But, on a deeper level, Vibram shows us something more valuable about the nature of branding itself.

The Vibram FiveFingers shoe is an eigen value. It is a product that could credibly come only from a company synonymous with shoe-sole innovation.

The shoe is so alien to the athletic-shoe establishment that major players reacted to it the way a body deals with an infection: The white blood cells came out and surrounded it with objections in typical big-company style.

After all, if you've spent millions of dollars on marketing and R&D creating shoes that teach us all to heel strike when we run, you can't turn around and extol the virtues of barefoot running and keep your credibility.

Let's focus on the idea of eigen values for a moment, because once you go down that path... it will change how you view marketing :

  1. Start with your brand definition. You have to start the process with your homework already done and approved. If you don't have your information in hand, or if it's so old no one remembers where the three-ring binder is or what it says, don't start yet.
  2. Focus your energies on the evocative images and words that define your brand. If we were talking in screenwriting terms, I'd say begin with your "controlling idea" and the core distillation of your brand. Look at your positioning statement. Look at your gap analyses vs. competitors', and at  the metaphors that define who you are and aren't.
  3. Ask yourself, Are each of my customer touch points—any point where people touch your brand—defining my brand the way I've defined my brand? Are my touch points self-defining? Be honest. If you have trouble doing that, ask customers to be honest. Hell, ask them anyway.
  4. Bring your colleagues into the discussion. Ask them, "Is each customer touch point that you are responsible for—is it defining our brand the way we've defined our brand? Could this only come from us?"
  5. Does it feel limiting? Do you feel constrained by this exercise? If you answered yes, one of two things is probably wrong. Your brand definition isn't fertile enough or you've created a sacred cow—and it needs to be killed. Your judgment needs to break the tie.

Once we view everything that our brand does through the prism of eigen-value standards, it changes how we launch our websites, train our customer-service people, and hire our employees.

Everything that touches the outside world is now self-defining. There are no more "Your Call Is Important To Us" check-the-box exercises or departments running themselves on antiquated metrics left in the brand ecosystem. Every bullet now counts, with each customer touch point building on the previous one.

If you were to look at the far-flung bits and pieces of your organization and quietly say to yourself, This sentence has five words, would each customer touch point be a self-defining moment?

Eigen values are what marketers use when we're doing our best work. Do you create eigen values in your marketing? Are you building an eigen culture?


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Stephen Denny has been a marketer for more than two decades and blogs about strategy, marketing, and big ideas at www.stephendenny.com. Download his e-book, This Sentence Has 5ive Words: Eigen Values, Creating Truisms and the Future of Marketing and follow him on Twitter: @Note_to_CMO.

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  • by Reese Adams Thu Jul 22, 2010 via web

    By the way - Tony Post is mentioned numerous times in this popular book about running, barefoot running and living life on a whole different plane - much like eigen value

    Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen [Book] by Christopher McDougall in Books

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