The Sex Pistol school of strategy
Michael Porter, meet your strategy brother Sid Vicious.
Old-school, b-school uncool. Uncovering and exploiting a unique, high-impact, profitable space in the market is a large part of what business strategy is about. It’s how the FedExes, Amazons, and Facebooks all became household names, not to mention multibillion dollar companies. And from what I hear, b-schools thrive on exploring these kinds of case studies.
But when I use the big company examples to help explain what strategy is (a recurring question, even for myself) to ad agency newbies, their eyes glaze over. When looked at in the rearview mirror of history, even groundbreaking strategic decisions can seem no duh. Many of my youthful coworkers just can’t imagine overnight delivery as groundbreaking. Besides, for them, it’s just corporate talk about corporations.
I haven’t had much success with startup stories either. They might be more timely and seem more relevant, but their stories can seem like so much cotton-candy innovation. And seriously, do I really want to talk Snapchat? I’d rather have the glazed eyes.
Of course there are nearly endless examples of strategy outside straight business, from Hannibal at Cannae to Billy Beane at Oakland A’s, from Goodby’s milk deprivation/Got Milk? to AKQA’s Nike+. However, none have been consistently attention-grabbing or understandable. I needed something with teeth, something where differentiation is clear and its impact obvious.
Then I thought, what about the Sex Pistols? It’s not textbook, but perhaps should be.
Sex Pistols: a blue ocean strategy in a red sea of arena rock and disco. First off, the band (and more to the point, their manager Malcolm McLaren) found white space, blue ocean, whatever you want to call it. Everywhere around them were arena rock bands, with tight guitar riffs to go with their tight pants, and slick disco, with packaged sexy and formulaic grooves. A bunch of amateurish, ugly musicians singing about anarchy with a snarl stood out bigtime.
What they did wasn’t just different; it was relevant. But standing out isn’t enough. There were were plenty of oddball bands in the 70s far outside the norm, with blue ocean potential galore. It was, after all, an inventive time in music (and not just because of the drugs). But one thing all the King Crimsons, Cans, and even New York Dolls lacked was deep, human relevance. The Sex Pistols had that in spades. Anger, dissatisfaction, antiestablishmentarianism, being the outcast—they uncovered an incredibly rich vein for connection. And they exploited it brilliantly.
It was a conscious strategy, with a well-planned execution to support it. As mastermind Malcom McLaren said, “The idea of sounding sensible or serious was abhorrent to me. I was the ultimate mismanager because I was looking for ways to create chaos.” And he found plenty of chaos. Every event teetered near, or tumbled over into, disaster.
Their strategy didn’t just win fans, it changed the world. For a number of reasons, the band’s success was short-lived. But we still feel their impact. Even though McLaren’s ego is big, his claim that people will see punk as “fundamental as the invention of the motor car, as impactful as any painting by Picasso” rings true. It continues to influence music, fashion, and, of course, business. Signing the band certainly was huge for Richard Branson. for example. His record label Virgin took off when, as Biography Channel puts it, “He signed the outrageous Sex Pistols when other record companies refused to touch them. The move turned out to be a marketing coup.”
All this said, seems likely I’ll have to clarify to my office mates that this isn’t a recommendation to go punk in order to stand out. After all, punk has become as mainstream and predictable as anything. As McLaren said, these days, “Banks use the Never Mind the Bollocks cut-up ransom-letter typography in their advertisements.” So I’ll have to emphasize that standing out is a moving target. And that’s what strategy is—finding the space where standing out, in a meaningful way, is possible at this very moment in time, then exploiting the hell out of it.