Slay the Giant

“Giants are not what we think they are. The same qualities that appear to give them strength are often the sources of great weakness. And the fact of being an underdog can change people in ways that we often fail to appreciate: it can open doors and create opportunities and educate and enlighten and make possible what might otherwise have seemed unthinkable.”

-Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath

Growing up, I was always fascinated by the David and Goliath story. It’s the classic underdog narrative where a smaller, weaker opponent faces an adversary who (on paper) is bigger, better, stronger, and faster in every facet. But through unwavering self-belief and sheer determination, David prevails against all odds and slays Goliath in extraordinary fashion.

In adhering to the David and Goliath narrative, one exercise I’ve found helpful is to identify the Goliath within your industry that you want to take on.

The exercise is valuable for three reasons:

  1. Focus: By identifying your Goliath, you can focus on a target customer. The more you understand your target customer, the easier everything else falls into place (brand positioning, product offering, price point, marketing strategy, etc.).
  2. Intention: By identifying your Goliath, you articulate your intentions and goals. I believe visualization is a powerful tool, and intention helps us to clearly outline what we want to achieve. You’ll be surprised how often you accomplish that which you set out to do.
  3. Conviction: By identifying your Goliath, you understand your competitor inside and out. You understand their strengths and weaknesses, which help shape your strategy to defeat them.

Here’s how we approached this exercise:

There are numerous Goliaths within the skincare industry, so we wanted to ensure we zero in on the one incumbent that we want to take on directly. In order to crystallize our Goliath, we identified the following components:

  1. Target customer: We first identified the traditional demographics of our target customer: age, location, income level, and interests. We went a level deeper to develop a customer muse and extract her internal drivers. For example, she is driven by an innate sense of intellectual curiosity — always asking why. She is also willing to pay a premium for convenience because her time is valuable. By understanding the nuances of your target customer, your brand becomes laser focused on a core audience (also this article), which gives you a greater chance of success in achieving product/market fit with a small but highly engaged community.
  2. Product philosophy: By articulating who our target customer is, we then honed in on our product philosophy. What products are important to our target customer? What are her pain points in the product and/or purchasing experience? This line of questioning led us to extract our product philosophy, which can be summed up nicely in one word: essentials. Nothing more, nothing less. We provide the daily essentials for an effective skincare regimen. We arrived at this ethos because there is an oversaturation and redundancy of product offerings in the current marketplace. For example, Kiehl’s currently sells 12 cleansers, 13 serums, and 20+ moisturizers. Even Aesop, which is known for their minimalist brand, offers 11+ cleansers. In talking to our target customer, we uncovered that the abundance of choice leads to purchase paralysis. Therein lies the opportunity for us to focus on an intentional product offering, where every product launch has reason and purpose beyond just generating sales.
  3. Everything else: After articulating our target customer and product philosophy, it’s amazing how everything else naturally falls into place: product assortment, price point, distribution channel(s), marketing channels, launch strategy, etc.

Throughout this months-long exercise, we kept referencing other skincare brands as a means to understand what aspects we are inspired by and other aspects we want to challenge and improve. While numerous brands came to mind, we kept coming back to a single brand: Kiehl’s.

According to their Wikipedia page, Kiehl’s is “an American cosmetics brand retailer that specializes in premium skin, hair, and body care products. It started as a single pharmacy in 1851. Kiehl’s currently has more than 250 retail stores worldwide, and over 1,000 points of sale. In contrast to its market competitors, Kiehl’s is distinguished for its unorthodox marketing approach, exceptionally large male clientele base, and its products’ simple and straightforward packaging.”

In short, Kiehl’s is an iconic heritage brand and is synonymous with premium skincare. We’ve identified them as our Goliath because in ways we’re inspired by them (i.e. their products are amazing) and in other ways we’re excited to challenge and improve (i.e. their outdated marketing and distribution strategy).

Two last things:

  1. In identifying a Goliath, there is no right or wrong. It’s all about conviction. A quote I constantly reference is, “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.”
  2. This is not intended as a blueprint exercise to copy your competitor. Rather, it’s the exact opposite. The goal is to understand your competitor through and through so that you can then exploit their weaknesses and position your brand to slay them.

In closing, I reflect on the David and Goliath story a lot as we embark on this journey to build Panacea. We are “David,” who by every stretch of the imagination has no right to go up against the “Goliath” (Kiehl’s) within the skincare industry. We’re the ones who are crazy and bold enough to think we’ve got more than a fighting chance :)