Blue Ocean Strategy provides an interesting reactive analysis of companies and markets. Personas are used to understand your customer’s needs. Combining the two provides powerful proactive insights when positioning your product for market success.
Blue Ocean Strategy
The book, Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make Competition Irrelevant, by Kim and Mauborgne, was written in 2005. The book presents a very compelling way to visualize competition in your market by contrasting the emphasis (or effectiveness) of each company at solving particular problems. The authors argue that red oceans are competitive markets where companies compete to solve the same problems for the same customers. Their main idea is that by identifying (and solving) unaddressed problems, you can define a new market – a blue ocean with no relevant competitors. The “red” in their metaphor implies blood in the water, caused by cut-throat competition. Their position – by defining a new market boundaries with no competition, you eliminate the blood in the water and give yourself a calm, blue ocean in which to navigate your company.
This is a compelling idea, and has a lot of merit. The Smarter Product Managers book club (started by Cindy Alvarez) reviewed this book last month, and one conclusion we reached during the discussion is that the examples in the book felt “reverse-engineered.” I feel that the lack of prescriptive advice from the authors created a sense of “that’s fine, but how do I apply these ideas proactively?” Some of the examples in the book, like Cirque de Solei and Southwest Airlines, felt very compelling (and are often cited), while others felt a bit more contrived. Almost as if the authors were searching for data to support their arguments – a big no-no for product managers.
Creating a Blue Ocean Strategy Map
The book presents examples of “mapping” markets based upon the strength of the offerings from companies, along different dimensions. The following example was created by me (and is used throughout this article), but follows the pattern of analysis described in the book. This is an unresearched, hypothetical example analysis of the market for vaccuum cleaners – or more generically, floor cleaning products.
The diagram above identifies seven dimensions by which you could characterize the offerings from each company.
- Breathe Easier / Anti-Allergen – sometimes, people vaccuum their rugs in order to reduce allergens (by sucking up dust), making it easier for them to breathe in their homes. Vaccuum cleaners work by sucking up air through the carpet, collecting the dirt (that is sucked up along with the air), and filtering the exhaust air (that is expelled into the room). Different vaccuum cleaners pay different levels of attention to removing allergens during this cleaning process, by (1) getting the allergens out of the carpet and (2) filtering the allergens out of the exhaust air.
- Remove Stains – one motivation to clean your floor is to remove stains. This is not generally a focus of vaccuum cleaners, but products like the Green Machine do focus on removing stains, while also “picking up dirt.”
- Physically Easy to Use – after back surgery, one of the key pieces of advice my mother received from her doctor was “no vaccuuming.” When you are young and healthy, you don’t expect vaccuuming to be something that is forbidden by your doctor. Shoveling snow, climbing a mountain, running a marathon, yes – but vaccuuming?
- Reducing Hassle – Why don’t we vaccuum every day? Because it can be a hassle to get out the vaccuum, set up the equipment, and actually use it. When you reduce the hassle involved in vaccuuming, you are likely to vaccuum more often, thereby realizing more benefits from vaccuuming.
- Saving Time – Hassle is not the only barrier to vaccuuming. If you could vaccuum your house in 5 minutes instead of 105 minutes, you would do it more often. As a teenager, I used to jog behind the lawn mower, just to get the yard done so I could move on to other things.
- Reliability – While reliability is not a major factor when vaccuuming your house (once), it is a key component of making purchasing decisions – because you don’t vaccuum just once. The more you vaccuum, the more you care about reliability. This is also an indirect cost factor – a vaccuum cleaner that has to be frequently repaired or replaced will cost more per year than one that has the same purchase price and is more reliable. This is also an indirect hassle factor – you may delay vaccuuming your home until you can make time to get a broken vaccuum cleaner repaired.
- Avoiding Cost – A direct focus on cost is primarily driven by purchase price. Other factors (like reliability, and the cost of replacement bags or filters), but people place greater emphasis on purchase price when thinking about cost. Consumer Reports and other “product review” companies will often “do the math” for you, taking into account all of the post-purchase costs to calculate total-cost-of-ownership.
The above diagram, with fictitous values for “Strength of Competitive Offering”, shows the competitive landscape for the vaccuum cleaner market. One of the very powerful features of this visualization is that the Roomba faces “no competition” from the other companies in three of the seven categories – Ease of Use, Hassle, and Time. A Blue Ocean Strategy analysis would say that the Roomba has created their own market, with an absense of competition.
This gets back to our insight that the examples felt “reverse engineered.” The Roomba does have a dramatically different value-proposition, and focused on dimensions that are not addressed by their competition. So why isn’t the Roomba in the book? Because they still compete in the red ocean. Unlike Southwest Airlines, they did not differentiate their offering in a relevant way. And that’s the problem we found in trying to apply the principles from the book.
It is not enough to be innovative and differentiated, which the Roomba certainly is, you have to be valuably differentiated.
So how do you differentiate valuably and proactively? Identify the problems that your customers value, but don’t yet have solutions for. How do you do that? With personas.
Personas represent customers in your target markets. Markets are not homogenous – different people in your markets value different things for different reasons. You develop personas as archetypes to represent subsets of the customers in a given market who share common problems. More concretely, personas share common valuations of shared problems.
To combine persona development with the market-mapping concept from Blue Ocean Strategy, create the same map, but for personas. Instead of identifying the strength of each company/product along each dimension, identify how much each persona cares about each particular dimension.
In the chart above, I’ve created 6 hypothetical personas who populate our market:
- Single Parent – the classic superman / superwoman who does everything, including keeping the house clean.
- Housekeeper – someone employed to keep someone else’s house clean.
- Office Cleaner – the person who vaccuums your office at 2am every night and picks up all the empty Diet Coke cans and Twinkee wrappers.
- Kid (Doing Chores) – most kids won’t ask for a vaccuum cleaner for their birthday, but when you child is responsible for vaccuuming, do you want a battle every week because they hate it?
- Homeowner – like the single parent, but maybe without kids, and definitely with fewer responsibilities (and more time).
- Retiree – like the homeowner, but with a lot more time, and a less robust physical condition.
[Note - the above examples are really stereotypes and not personas (there is no research to back them up - they are entirely fictional) - don't fall into the trap of thinking persona development is this easy.]
OK, now we have an understanding of how much importance each persona places on each dimension. It looks like a mess, for this example, when you try and absorb the big picture. If you focus on a single persona, you get great clarity about what that type of customer cares about. Look at each curve individually, then look at them all together. If you’re thinking ahead, you’ll suspect that the Roomba is perfect for the kid doing chores. But wait, we’ll come back to that.
One insight we can gain from this messy view of the market is that you can’t create a product that is “perfect” for all of these personas. You have to target a specific persona, and tailor your product for that persona.
Mapping Personas to Products
Now we have two views of the market, along 7 dimensions. We have assessments of the relative strength of each competitor’s offering, and we have estimates of the relative importance to each persona – for each dimension. What we need to do is combine the two.
All of this analysis runs the risk of introducing a notion of false precision - we have a lot of data, therefore it must be accurate. So our inclination may be to try and do some mathematically refined, scientific analysis. I suspect that would be wasted effort, providing no additional insights, and risking leaps to the wrong conclusions. I propose a simpler approach.
The analysis we really care about – which product offering is best aligned with the needs of each persona? A simple mathematical equivalent of “which curves match the best” is an easy analysis. By comparing the values from each competitor curve with those of each persona curve, we can create a series of “how good a fit is it?” values.
Imagine a persona saying “how well does each company’s product align with my goals?” This “simple math mashup” takes into account both “they succeed at what I care about” and “they haven’t invested in something I don’t care about (at the expense of something I do care about).”
You can see that the Roomba clearly wins with kids doing chores. The rest of offerings stand out less, but do provide insight. Now you can easily drive strategic decisions – “we want to be the vaccuum of choice for housekeepers” now drives some obvious emphasis on ease of use and a reduced emphasis on reducing costs.
Improving The Model
My two main problems with the blue ocean strategy were lack of relevance (who cares about dimension X) and magnitude (which dimension is most important?). The model above addresses only relevance – a focus on target personas. We can overlay some “relative importance of each persona” data, or just manually focus our efforts on each persona in series.
The other magnitude challenge is in understanding not just which problems are important in absolute terms (kids care a lot about saving time, but not cost), but in relative terms (kids would trade an hour of time for a modicum of ease-of-use). Essentially, defining the utility-curves for each persona. For any but the largest, most saturated markets, I would hesitate to do the utility curve analysis in detail – it feels too heavyweight and un-agile.
The Blue Ocean Strategy book provides us with a visceral tool for visualizing relative offerings from competitors in a given market. Combine it with the same visualization approach for personas that participate in that market, and you gain insights into which problems to solve next to achieve product success.