More than two decades ago, Michael Porter warned about the dangers of relying on benchmarking and “best practices” to produce business success. In a landmark article in the Harvard Business Review, Porter drew a sharp distinction between operational effectiveness – which often involves identifying and implementing best practices – and real business strategy.
Porter argued that competing primarily on the basis of operational effectiveness is usually a recipe for disaster. He wrote: “The more benchmarking companies do, the more they look alike . . . As rivals imitate one another’s improvements in quality, cycle times, or supplier partnerships, strategies converge and competition becomes a series of races down identical paths that no one can win.”
Four years after Porter’s article, Philipp Nattermann made a similar argument in an article for the McKinsey Quarterly. In this article, Nattermann contended that benchmarking and the use of best practices are important ways to improve operational efficiency, but they are not tools for strategic decision making. He wrote that business leaders rely too much on benchmarking and best practices because:
“. . . they don’t understand that benchmarking is simply an operational tool. Instead, they all want to occupy the point on the strategic landscape they their most successful competitor has staked out. Soon other competitors can be seen herding, lemminglike, around that best practice company’s product, pricing, and channel strategies. Products and services become increasingly commoditized and margins tumble as more and more incumbents compete for smaller and smaller segments of customers and industry resources.”
Despite the risks associated with best practices, business leaders continue to regard the identification and implementation of best practices as one of the most powerful management tools at their disposal. And it’s not difficult to understand why the use of best practices remains so popular. It seems immanently reasonable to identify the practices of successful, high-performing companies and then emulate those practices.
The Allure of Marketing Best Practices
Marketers can become particularly enamored with best practices. After all, marketing success is difficult to achieve and even harder to sustain because the marketing landscape is always changing, and because it’s incredibly hard to predict what marketing methods, channels, and message formats will appeal to potential customers. In these circumstances, it shouldn’t be surprising that marketers are attracted to “proven” best practices.
Marketing best practices are often portrayed as effective and reliable tools for achieving marketing success, but the reality is more nuanced. Marketing best practices can be helpful when they are understood correctly and used appropriately, but it’s easy for marketers to become enthralled with the promised benefits of best practices, and forget their limitations.
Widespread Use Decreases Effectiveness
One of the most paradoxical characteristics of marketing best practices is that the more widely they are used, the less effective they tend to become. A marketing best practice can derive its effectiveness from several sources. It can be effective because it’s based on sound business principles, or because it resonates with how potential customers make decisions, or because it effectively leverages the capabilities of a particular medium of communication.
But marketing best practices are also highly effective – at least for a while – because they are distinctive. When a best practice is new, it tends to be used by a relatively small number of companies. Therefore, the practice stands out in the marketplace and captures the attention of potential customers. But as more and more companies implement the practice, it loses some of the distinctiveness that made it highly effective. Content marketing is a good example of a marketing best practice that is now more challenging because it is so widely used.
The bottom line is, identifying and implementing marketing best practices may lead to a temporary improvement in marketing results, but it won’t deliver superior marketing performance over the long term. Superior long-term marketing performance requires an effective marketing strategy and the use of marketing methods and tactics that will make your company distinctive in the marketplace.
Image courtesy of Paul Mison via Flickr CC.