Fast Company

Unconscious Conditioning Can Make or Break Your Business

As I finish my review of Vistaprint, I wanted to provide a link to the Vistaprint executive briefing webinar I held a couple of weeks ago. By uncovering some of the key strategies that this printing giant has employed, I aim to encourage other business leaders to come up with new approaches to outthink their competition. To view the webinar, please click here.

Wrapping up the examination of Vistaprint, I am reminded of an old Chinese fable that warns against climbing a mountain to fight a lion because a lion’s conditioning, its complex network of habits and responses, are finely tuned to fighting among rocky mountain tops. Instead you want to lure the tiger out of the mountain. This turns his instincts into liabilities. Keep reading below to see how Vistaprint beautifully applies this strategy.

Challenge them to leave their stronghold

We grossly underestimate the extent to which unconscious conditioning – the beliefs, habits, and perceptions we collect through experience – plays on our behavior. Cognitive scientists and linguists estimate as much as 98% of our thought is not conscious. Buddhists have developed several methods and frameworks that help us appreciate how little of our thought is conducted in view of our conscious. We are literally operating on autopilot most of the time, unaware of how our subconscious guides our actions. 

Since advantage depends on a company behaving differently than the competitors, it becomes critical that leaders who wish to build an advantage understand and leverage the 98% of thought that is guiding their people’s behavior.

Vistaprint seems to use conditioning intentionally to build differentiation and advantage. We can see this clearly in how Vistaprint views itself. When I asked Wendy Cebula, Vistaprint’s president of North America, to characterize her company, she immediately replied, “At the heart we are really a technology company. We start with what is important to our customers and look at how we can use technology to help them do that.”

This claim is supported by data. I analyzed the last five years of press releases and annual reports of Vistaprint and its closest competitor Consolidated Graphics. By reviewing 2,400 pages of text, I looked to see how often each company used words like customers, consumer, user, buyer, or purchaser. By comparing the two companies’ language, we can look into the internal culture of those businesses and see how they really see the world.

My research found that Vistaprint is clearly and measurably more customer-focused and less printing-focused that Consolidated Graphics. While the two companies talk equally about technology and efficiency, Vistaprint talks about the consumers or clients twice as much. Vistaprint talks about printing less than one third as often.

By examining Vistaprint’s messaging, we see that it thinks about the customer twice as often. Consolidated Graphics talks about printing three times as often. Vistaprint is a consumer-focused company. Consolidated Graphics is a printer.

So how does that resonate and provide a tangible competitive advantage? Because Vistaprint sees the world differently (technology and consumer focused), it naturally acts differently. Its people make thousands of little decisions every day that make sense for a consumer-services company. Those same choices may be counterintuitive for a printing-focused business.

Thus Vistaprint seeks to differentiate itself a thousand times a day from its traditional rivals.

Vistaprint has wisely stayed out of Consolidated Graphics’ stronghold, choosing instead to occupy terrain on which a printing company’s condition offers no advantage. This forces Consolidated Graphics to choose between two losing options: come out of its stronghold and risk losing or stay in its stronghold and watch Vistaprint grow.

Vistaprint sticks to its stronghold because it does not seek out to hire printing experts. With the exception of workers who actually operate VIstaprint’s machines, almost none are industry experts. As Wendy Cebula says, We hire smart people who know technology and are willing to be audacious.”

Ask yourself the questions below to see how you can lure your competitors from their strongholds or force them to let you expand uninhibited.

1.    What is my stronghold? What do we do differently?

2.    What is our competitor’s stronghold?

3.    How can we expand our stronghold while avoiding stepping into theirs?

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