Strategy by Subtraction
In recent years there’s been a cultural trend towards minimalism or doing more with less.
We’ve seen this in a variety of different forums, from Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, to Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism, to Leidy Klotz’s Subtract: The Untapped Science Of Doing Less. For my fellow pop culture junkies out there, who can forget the frenzied discourse around this trend after Kanye West posted a series of eerily austere interior shots from his LA home with Kim Kardashian in 2018.
Whatever side of the spectrum you fall on around this age-old concept of “addition by subtraction”, you can thank Marie, Cal, Leidy, and Kanye to name a few, for bringing a new wave of interest and application beyond its philosophical and theological roots.
To Improve Through Subtraction, Not Through Addition.
“Via Negativa” is a famous idea in theology that pre-dates even the earliest records of theology and philosophy. To do something “Via Negativa” means to improve through subtraction, not through addition. A great example of this in practice is Michelangelo’s David. Legend has it, when the Pope asked how Michelangelo carved his masterpiece, he nonchalantly replied, “It’s simple. I just remove everything that’s not David.”
Marketers Should Practice Strategy By Subtraction Too.
Over the last few decades, as markets, channels, products, and data have grown in complexity, marketing strategies have too. But are more complex strategies helping marketers achieve better outcomes? We at the B2B Institute would argue “no.”
Rather than adding complexity to our marketing strategies, we should practice “strategy by subtraction” and make our marketing strategies simpler. And the best way to do this? Start with category entry points – or the situational cues that arise when buyers move from out-market to in-market. Read more about category entry points (CEPs) in our Situational Awareness trend.
Once you identify all the relevant CEPs in your category, use the 3-C’s to subtract the ones not relevant to your brand, thus leaving you with the ones that are most relevant to your brand.
Use The 3C’s To Prioritize Your Category Entry Points.
The 3C’s stand for: (1) Commonness, (2) Credibility, and (3) Competitiveness, and they can be used as a filter to subtract out the CEPs that are not worthwhile for your brand to pursue.
This happens in three steps:
1. Commonness: How common is this CEP, or buying situation, for buyers in the category? If this CEP is relatively uncommon, eliminate it from the strategy.
2. Credibility: Does my brand credibly solve for the need state buyers are in when they enter this CEP? If not, eliminate it from the strategy.
3. Competitiveness: How concentrated is the competition for this CEP? If the competition is insurmountably high, it may be worth eliminating this CEP from the strategy.
Once you’ve eliminated all the CEPs your brand can’t act on, you can start to focus on the ones where you can. Invest in either building or maintaining your brand’s mental availability across the category entry points where you have at least two of the following: high commonness, high credibility, and/or low competition.
What does this all look like in practice?
Using Microsoft Teams as an example, potential CEPs may include everything from calling a colleague to communicating with a friend, integrating with work applications, experiencing virtual stadium seating, or simply facilitating online learning.
Of the five entry points outlined above for Microsoft Teams, experiencing virtual stadium seating has low commonness and can be removed off the bat. From there, we can examine each of the areas Teams has credibility to speak on and ignore the ones where it does not. Given Microsoft’s position in the market, communicating with a friend ranks comparatively low in credibility for Teams and can be ignored. Competitiveness is a useful consideration as well. For most brands with less established market positions than Microsoft, understanding the entry points that have high vs. low competitive pressures allows you to make informed decisions within given resource constraints. In this specific example, given Microsoft’s size, high competitiveness is not a dealbreaker. That leaves integrating with work applications as the most differentiated and valuable entry point for Microsoft to invest in with Teams, but calling colleagues and facilitating online education are promising avenues to explore with the right amount of marketing investment and commitment behind them.
Microsoft Uses Situational Storytelling And Heavy Branding To Build Availability Around The Online Education CEP.
Let’s see how this comes to life with an ad from Microsoft that puts this theory into practice. Online education may not have been the most intuitive entry point for Teams – an application primarily used in workplace settings – but it’s just as relevant and valuable in the classroom and provides Microsoft an under-penetrated buying situation it can build mental availability against.
According to famous management thinker Roger Martin, there are two key considerations to any successful strategy: “where will we play, and how will we win where we have chosen to play?”
In advertising, deciding where to play is all about using CEPs to develop a strategy by subtraction. How do you win? By investing in ads that link your brand to the remaining high-value CEPs, and running those ads consistently over time.