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Are you a vanilla, chocolate and strawberry business?

Image by Andrey Cojocaru from Pixabay

Q: Which flavours of ice-cream do you offer?
A: Vanilla, chocolate and strawberry

How often does that happen to you when seated at a restaurant, thinking about your dessert options? In my lifetime, too many times to count.

Vanilla, chocolate and strawberry, it is true, are consistently amongst the most popular ice-cream flavours in the world. So you can’t really go wrong offering just those three; most people will be fine having them. So why undergo the costs of stocking extra flavours, when those three alone would probably make up the bulk of your ice-cream sales?

There are some very strong reasons you should not be just a vanilla, chocolate and strawberry business – whatever your line of business.

First, consider this from the paint industry. Which colour do you think is the most popular for interior walls? White, by far. In fact even the number two colour is usually a softer version of white, followed by creams and beiges. The reason is obvious: those colours will match with most other things you might place in your rooms. It’s just less hassle to buy white. Most people do.

So, knowing this to be a fact, should you be clever and open the first factory or paint retailer that only sells shades of white paint? You would save a fortune in stocking costs, you would go deep on one thing…

Nope. You should do no such thing, certainly not in the consumer market. You see, people might settle for white paint as the most convenient option, but they do not want to be told white is all you offer. They want to consider all the possible options first. They want to look at your colour card and dream of lavender and lilac, dusty pink and gun-metal grey, lemon yellow and jungle green. They want to gaze at all of them. Before settling on white.

It’s the same with ice-cream. If you stock praline pecan and mango cheesecake flavours, very few people will actually have them. But it matters that you offer them. People like having options, like seeing an array of things before them, even though their eventual choices are usually safe and predictable. It is for you to balance the (perceived) benefits of variety against the costs of holding extra stock-keeping units.

So the first reason to make wider offerings is to sell more vanilla! But there is another, bigger one.

If you remain a ‘vanilla’ business, you will never be the innovator. You will attract only the current market; and you will employ only those who deal in yesterday and today. Newness will be alien to you. You will never know if consumers are tiring of your same-old offerings, because you will never offer anything else. The disruption will come from outside, from upstarts who view your tired old thinking and say: I bet people are ready for something new.

So if you aren’t ready to try out some new offerings for your customers, you’d better pray they’ll never want anything new…

In this era of remarkable disruption in Africa, of tech-driven innovations making huge inroads with the world’s youngest population, being part of the same-old is not going to be a viable proposition for most. If you are the branch-centred bank, the paper-bound insurer, the three-product manufacturer or the voice-and-data telco, I suspect your time will soon be up.

It gets even worse when you are the one focused on vanilla and yet your vanilla doesn’t even taste that good! I see that often, with banks who tell me their customers want face-to-face relationships, and yet the in-person service experience is woeful. Or with retailers who say people like choosing things in person, not online, and yet deploy the most surly assistants and invest nothing in attractive displays.

So, are you running a vanilla business? In other words, do you just play safe, stick to the good-old, believe only in the tried-and-tested? Do you never take chances, never run experiments, never make any fresh bets? Do you always follow, never lead? Good luck with that…

Meanwhile if I show up at your eatery and get offered just vanilla, chocolate or strawberry, I’ll be judging you. Even if I just wanted vanilla…

(Sunday Nation, 7 April 2019)

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