31 October 2010

The Quagmire of Low Price

A tech giant has just made a huge U-turn.

About a week ago, Dell announced plans to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a new global advertising campaign.  What makes this new push radical -- for Dell -- is its stated intention to move away from price-focused, transactional advertising to a strategy that is more focused on the brand.

I wonder if it's too late.

Dell became the #1 PC company in the world on the back of its 'direct' model: a revolutionary, 'just-in-time' manufacturing process that dramatically lowered inventory costs, cut out the middle man, and served up huge profits in an industry infamous for its razor-thin margins. The pace of obsolescence in the PC industry is unforgiving -- so inventory management is critical. While other players typically struggled with weeks of supply (WoS), Dell counted its inventory in terms of hours. (At its brutal best, it even boasted 'negative' inventory -- it collected your money before it started to configure your purchase; and stretched out rebate payments.) For the longest time, no one could touch its supply chain efficiency.

Then the competition wised up. HP and other contenders got their act together and reduced their WoS -- but they also offered consumers the choice of buying from the retail channel, the sensory experience of physically interacting with the product (and bonding with the brand) before buying it.

Dell's competitive advantage was no longer so.  The only other residual impression it had registered, was low price.

Source: www.tonystone.com
But price is not a strategy.  It is the quicksand of a brand -- drop your price, and you will almost never be able to claw your way back to a firmer footing.  It is indefensible (sooner or later, someone is going to drop prices lower than you can afford to), and the only connotation that keeps it company is the wrong one -- poor quality.

Dell has finally wised up, too.  But it has a mountain to climb.

Paul-Henri Ferrand, its Chief Marketing Officer, has acknowledged that they "need to invigorate the brand".  It's about time.  But when he says that "there's a real space for us to become the most-loved PC company in the industry", my skeptic antenna starts twitching.

The campaign theme says, "You can tell it's a Dell."  With due respect to its creators, I believe it's the worst possible thing Dell can tell.  If all you've got is a much-eroded competitive advantage, and the double-whammy impression of low price / poor quality, don't wave a red flag in front of a bull. Remember the concept of 'credibility snap'. You need to work your butt off to prove you're a different company, then let your audience ascribe to you that compliment. In other words, don't say it. Just earn it.

I hope Mr Ferrand has deep pockets.  He's going to need them.

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