Split Decision

The sub-title of Trade-Off is “Why Some Things Catch On, and Others Don’t.”   It is a title that describes the book itself, which both worked and didn’t work for this reader.   In it Kevin Maney describes “the ever-present tension between quality and convenience” in the business world.   A better way of understanding this is his statement that companies can either be needed or loved…  Something he explains by looking at numerous companies that made the mistake of trying to be both needed and loved.

One clear example is Starbucks.   The company went from being a dependable brewer of bold coffee in select locations to – seemingly overnight – a company whose “shops” were everywhere; a company that tried to sell its customers everything from books to records to dishware.   Its standard mission of selling bold coffee seemed to be lost in its great expansion plans.   By getting bigger, Starbucks became smaller in the eyes of its customer base.   And its exclusivity – its value – was lost.

Think of Nordstrom.   If Nordstrom suddenly expanded to the point where you could find one of its stores next to every 7-11 or Wal-Mart, what would you think about it?   At the least, one would think that it had become ordinary and that something must be “wrong” with the merchant.   This illustrates another accurate point made by Maney, “Great companies figure out what they can do better than anyone else in the world, and then relentlessly focus on that.”

Yes, but the all-too-great temptation is to try to do other things, new things, and this is where companies from Motorola (RAZR, anyone?), to Starbucks, to Coach and Tiffany have stumbled.   Right this minute I see the same thing happening with Target, which has gone from being a solid purveyor of quality mid-level customer goods to one which is a sad knock-off of Wal-Mart.   Someone at Target’s corporate headquarters has decided to not let Target be Target, which is unfortunate.

So Maney does a fine job when it comes to making the point, repeatedly, that a business can offer either quality or convenience – it cannot do both.   Many will try to cross the line from quality to convenience – Starbucks again being the best example – and pay a high price for it.   And does anyone remember Krispy Kreme?

About four-fifths of the way through Trade-Off, however, Maney begins drinking his own Kool-Aid.   He began the book by being needed and he succumbs to trying to be loved, giving the reader his prognostications – his guesses – as to how certain businesses can be “fixed.”   His writings become rather silly at this point.   He jumps into the health care debate and decides that “doc in the boxes” are the future, notwithstanding that this trend came and went in the 80s and 90s, and the facts – as he admits – are that they tended to be cash-only enterprises (which does not help those without health insurance) staffed by nurse practitioners and R.N.s rather than licensed physicians.

Maney also goes on to describe the current circulation problems with newspapers.   As a former reporter, his solution is for newspapers to target boomers in their print version, and young people with jazzy internet versions.   This is just plain ridiculous.   Young people avoid certain papers because they’re seen as irrelevant to their own lives.   In my own community of  Sacramento, for example, the alternative Sacramento News & Review sells more advertisements every week, while our mainstream paper claims it cannot find sufficient advertisers due to the recession.   Right… 

There’s simply no way a mainstream newspaper is going to design a website that attracts young readers who are avoiding that paper – that outdated (and un-cool) brand – in droves.   A better solution would be to de-construct what it is that makes the alternative paper attractive [hint: it has an attitude] and attempt to imitate it, although it is probably too late in the day for many of today’s – or rather yesterday’s – newspapers.   It may simply be that their time has come and gone.  

Near the end of Trade-Off  Maney writes, “I hope the trade-off was worth it.”   In the case of this $23.00 list book, the answer is no.   This likely would have made a great airline magazine article, good for passing a half-hour or 45 minutes in the air.   As a business-consumer psychology survey, it winds up being simply ok.   Maney lost more than he gained by going past the book’s logical ending point and filling it with stuffing.

This book was purchased by the reviewer.

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