Unconscious Conditioning Can Make or Break Your Business

We underestimate the extent of unconscious conditioning – the beliefs, habits, and perceptions we collect through experience – plays on our behavior.

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
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 it
self. 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 advan
tage. 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?


About the author

Author of Outthink the Competition business strategy keynote speaker and CEO of Outthinker, a strategic innovation firm, Kaihan Krippendorff teaches executives, managers and business owners how to seize opportunities others ignore, unlock innovation, and build strategic thinking skills. Companies such as Microsoft, Citigroup, and Johnson & Johnson have successfully implemented Kaihan’s approach because their executive leadership sees the value of his innovative technique. Kaihan has delivered business strategy keynote speeches for organizations such as Motorola, Schering‐Plough, Colgate‐Palmolive, Fortune Magazine, Harvard Business Review, the Society of Human Resource Managers, the Entrepreneurs Organization, and The Asia Society


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