Moving into new territories or across new terrain?
I was privileged to spend some time in Canada where I took a Competition and Strategy business module as a part of my final undergraduate year of study. This module was, by far, the one that intimidated me the most but also stretched me to think beyond the realms of my South African upbringing. I was able to look at competition in a light that was not only helpful for production, but engaging in a meaningful “greater society” kind of way.
In this module, we were expected to do a case-study a week, and apply the learnings from that week’s chapter appropriately. The case studies had been meaningfully selected to match with the chapter and give the best insight into the applicability of the theories, models, and generic tables you can normally expect to see in academic books. It was a way of transforming words into practice. The classes were in the evenings, three hours long, and required active participation. Coming from a South African background, I was hesitant at first to speak up about my ideas and opinions. Not only was I a foreigner, but I was also the youngest one in the class by a few years. It did not take me long to realise that, at the end of the day, competition is competition no matter where you come from – and the more you are able to apply foreign strategies, the more likely you will catch others off guard.
One of our case studies, back then, was to look at Starbucks and the reason for its success. It’s funny though – I’m now sitting in a Starbucks in South Africa, and the successful factors that it implemented overseas are pretty much not at all what they have implemented here. Starbucks is almost like a boutique coffee spot – yes there is still the perk of the funny name written on the cup and all that, but it’s being sold more as an “experience” coffee rather than your average “get up and go” coffee. Here, there is space – no cramped quarters designed to fit any kind of block corner. And also, you have to drive quite a bit from one place to another in order to come across our green-mermaid coffee spot.
Is it working? Compared to other boutique coffee spots and small corner cafes, yes it is… but it has entered a different competition zone – now competing with the likes of Cuppaccinos and Mugg ‘n Bean. Will they ever be direct competitors? Maybe not so much if Starbucks keeps the “order and go” recipe active, but it still goes to reason that approaches can be, and should be, different according to context. There’s also another player becoming active in the coffee realm, and they have a direct hand over the “mommy” market – Woolworths has had incredible success with its coffee stand directly at the entrance or exit to every Woolworths store. Nothing beats doing your weekly rounds of grocery shopping with a good steaming cup of your favourite beverage in one hand and a trolley in the other. Circumstances and variables should always play a vital role in adjusting approaches to gaining the outcomes required.
This sounds simple, no? If you are on a farm and have to get to the farmhouse, you would traverse differently if it was a strawberry farm versus a sugarcane farm. In both, the strategic outcome is to get to the end goal as quickly with as little energy as possible. But this would require different tactics from one terrain to another. The likelihood of strawberries being at risk of theft versus sugarcane also has substantial differences – meaning that the safety and requirements of the road that travels through the farm may need to diversify in order to obtain multiple purposes.
Now this may seem like a straightforward and (albeit) basic comparison, but it surprises me how often we fail to see this very simple indicator. In a South African landscape that requires us to branch into neighbouring African countries, we often bare the risk of applying the same strategy simply because it is the same continent. Africa is big…
I spoke to an interesting man who has found himself in a comfort zone. From Zimbabwe, he worked as a gardener at his own school to afford his education. Having gone overseas and gained a degree in the UK, he has returned to Africa with the single aim of sharing his newfound insights – that, along with helping whatever company he finds himself in to move into African markets. His approach, however, is very different to the usual. He is attending conferences and congresses, speaking to those who are currently active in the market, and seeing how he can better partner with those who already know the landscape. In the words of our beautiful metaphor, those who already know what is going to influence the road to the Farmhouse.
The reason why he is in a comfort zone, however, is because he is comfortable with Africa. He is comfortable with the knowledge of being with “his people” (his words). Even I am considered one of “his people”, he says, because I know the land and the toil that goes into it – because I know the hearts of those who need help – because I know the dream that we all strive for (I think he gives me much too much credit). To put him out of his comfort zone, he is now searching for ways to get to know other continents and their people. He says by understanding the people, one understands the needs, and only then can one adequately sell a product that will help that country grow.
Now whether or not Starbucks is helping South Africa grow, is its own conversation. What it is definitely doing, however, is putting a sharp strain on certain other competitors, and even changing the strategic edge’s focus to something else entirely. In a way, they aren’t just adjusting their own strategy to suit the need – but adjusting what we consider to be “strategy” altogether.
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Wonderwhiterabbit hopping off
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