Courtesy of Flywheel Sports

Are You Spectacular for a Few or Average for Many?

It’s been a really terrible month for the airline industry. We live in a business environment now, where any interaction with our leaders or our employees can be captured on video and broadcast instantly. There is a vast social media public who thrives on a fresh story of someone screwing up. And this utterly transparent culture we all live in — it ain’t changing anytime soon. So how do you combat this viral social media negativity that leads to epic bad press and the downward spiral of consumer belief and trust?

I believe — it all starts with being LOVED. You need a deeply passionate fan base that will defend you in good times and in bad. And that only happens when you have the courage to focus on a really sharp segment of people. A small number of fans who absolutely love you can bring the rest of the world along.

I’ve worked for some of the most powerful and lasting global brands — Virgin Atlantic, Nike, Gatorade. And over the last three years of researching and writing my book EXTREME YOU: Step Up. Stand Out. Kick Ass. Repeat, I’ve interviewed many category-defining game-changers who’ve started the enduring brands of a new era like The Dry Bar and Strava. And what I now know to be true is that whether you’re a startup or an industry giant, you need a sharply defined consumer focus and positioning that your biggest fans can rally around.

I spent the first eight years of my career in the airline industry, so I know that there’s a big difference between airlines like American and United for whose target consumer appears to be “human beings” and the scale players like Virgin America who aren’t trying to be all things to all people. They work exceptionally hard not to make decisions in their product or service that go against the values of their focused fan base. And you can hear the difference over simple cocktail conversation. Go ahead — during the SALT conference — ask someone over a beer what they think of United and American (“frequent flyer Stockholm Syndrome” might be one of the best quotes I have heard!) compared to Virgin (“I just LOVE that airline — the experience is amazing”, “the crew really care about me, “they understand my needs”).

Now — in times of crisis, when your team has a really bad day, when systems and communications break down and it’s all caught on a smartphone camera and quickly posted to YouTube — who would you rather be?

The lesson for all of us who are building consumer businesses is that it’s better to be spectacular for a few than to be average for many.

The lesson for all of us who are building consumer businesses is that it’s better to be spectacular for a few than to be average for many. Even though it may FEEL like you are limiting your growth by limiting your consumer target, in actual fact the opposite happens. When I led the turnaround of the $5Bn sports drink business Gatorade, the engine of our success was one simple decision. We shifted our target from “men 18–49 who have a throat” to “13–17 year old male and female competitive athletes.” It felt counterintuitive to so many industry watchers that we would “walk away” from the masses, but we didn’t ultimately lose them. We just innovated for the core and let them champion our efforts to those in the mass market that they influenced.

Fast forward to today. I am CEO of the boutique fitness company, Flywheel Sports. Many would say that being in a boutique cycling business is, in itself, a focused business with a focused consumer. But even within this narrow sliver of the fitness world, there is a hyper-specialist position I believe that my team needs to lead with in order to be successful.

Our target audience is not just indoor cyclists, because not all indoor cyclists are the same. Some work out with their core motivation being the social mind-body experience that fitness can provide. Some come simply because the location is convenient to where they live. And then there are those riders that my team obsess over — the competitive fitness athletes who have likely played sports most of their lives, are type A personalities driven to perform at their best, and are drawn with great passion to our brand and our offering because we pioneered the act of making an indoor cycling experience both competitive (yes you can compare your power output with other riders in the room!) and accountable (you can push yourself to improve your scores each time you ride.) We could have chosen to target all three groups of riders, but that would make our experience average for all of them. Instead — we know who we serve. We obsess over innovating to meet their hunger for greater performance on the bike. We hire for people that empathize with and champion their mindset, and we aim to grow our business by striving to have those people just LOVE us.

As a CEO, I know that my team and I will have days when things don’t go our way. We will have days when we don’t put our best foot forward. But it is my ambition that we will have built a history of trust with those who love us, so that they will be there for us when we need it most.

This article was originally published on LinkedIn as part of the SALT 2017 Conference series where speakers were asked to examine the economic landscape in each of their industries. Join the conversation by writing your own article here and including #SALT2017.

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