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Getting A Grip On Growth

Apr 17, 2015 1:54:52 PM

Jordan Spieth’s historic Masters victory this past weekend seemed like a walk in the park. We saw an effortless swing, flawless putting, and an impenetrably calm demeanor. The brutal test of golf that is the Augusta National seemed to lay down quietly as Spieth walked the course.

But don’t be fooled by appearances. There was plenty churning in Spieth’s mind (and probably stomach) on Sunday, following a nearly sleepless Saturday night.

What is it that allowed this young man to make the incredibly complex look so simple, particularly on golf’s biggest stage? There are many answers, but probably most important is this: he has a mastery of the fundamentals and the confidence that results.

Consider something as simple as how the 21-year old Jordan grips the golf club:

Instead of resting the little finger of his right hand on top of his left index finger or linking his pinkie and index fingers, Spieth lets that left index finger ride on top of the right hand and slightly interlock with his right pinkie. With that finger position--and an overall weak grip in general--Spieth doesn't have any trouble hitting draws or fades on command.�? (Rudy, 2015)

This is not an insignificant observation. According to the iconic Ben Hogan in his classic Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf, the grip is the root cause of an effective golf swing.

Hogan is one of the greatest champions in the history of the game, with 64 PGA Tour wins, including nine majors. In the book, he breaks down the swing into four core elements: the grip, stance and posture, first part of the swing (backswing), and the second part of the swing (down-swing).

While perhaps surprising to non-golf fanatics, the grip is the subject of an entire chapter in Hogan’s book. Hogan’s devotion comes across in his rich descriptions: “For myself and other serious golfers, there is an undeniable beauty in the way a fine player sets his hands on the club.�?

Ben Hogan practicing (image source)

We’ll leave the details of Mr. Hogan’s technical descriptions to those who wish to review the classic work. What’s relevant to our discussion is the critical role the grip plays in regulating the quality of the swing:

Keeping pressure on the shaft with the palm pad does three things: it strengthens the left arm throughout the swing; at the top of the backswing, the pressure from this pad prevents the club from slipping from the player’s grasp; and it acts as a firm reinforcement at impact.�? (Hogan, 1957)

This places the grip and the swing it produces as central determinants of the golfer’s ability to achieve the end goal: become more competitive.

Frequently, you know, what looks like a fairly good golf swing falls apart in competition . . . The harsh light of competition reveals that a swing is only superficially correct . . . It can’t stand up day after day. A correct swing will. In fact, the greater the pressure you put on it, the better your swing should function, if it is honestly sound.�? (Hogan, 1957)

Getting a grip on business growth

There’s a nice parallel story to tell here when it comes to developing business growth strategy.

The goal of a business is to create honestly sound strategy that will hold up under competition. One powerful way to do that is to solve customer problems - to deliver both expected and new value to customers in ways that your competitors do not.

Understanding the value that customers seek is complex. Like the golf swing, it helps to break it down into smaller parts.

Consider the following dimensions of customer value:

  • Functional – Does the product/service produce an outcome provide some basic purpose that customers value? (e.g., does my morning cup of coffee wake me up?)
  • Time – Is there value in the speed of service or time-savings in general?
  • Place – Is the offering conveniently located or accessible?
  • Information – Do customers get all the information they need from this brand? Do they feel “informed?�?
  • Financial – Are there financial benefits such as a sense of a “good deal�? or earning rewards?
  • Relationship – Do customers feel connected to this brand somehow, have previous experiences with it, or know the employees?
  • Experiential – Do customers enjoy the consumption experience? (e.g., the setting, music, or surroundings?)
  • Symbolic – Do customers identify with the brand? Does this brand “represent�? them well?
  • Aesthetic – Do customers value product / place design – i.e. the attractiveness, beauty, or style?
  • Total Price – Is the total set of benefits received from all of the above worth the associated costs to customers?

Similar to Hogan’s teachings about the components of an effective golf swing, great brands may hit on many of these dimensions of value (think Starbucks, Apple).

In addition, each of these components work together. For example, Starbucks’ unique product offering creates more value when supported by fast, courteous service provided by knowledgeable baristas who will likely get to know you and your drink preferences over time. Similarly, superior consumer products are more valuable when they are widely distributed and accessible.

But unlike the four pieces of the golf swing, your organization doesn’t have to be “perfect�? on every single dimension of customer value to grow your business. You need, however, to get a grip on a few to be competitive.

On some dimensions, it will be sufficient to match competitors. Certain dimensions of value represent table stakes or points of parity.

On other dimensions, competitors’ superiority may be difficult to overcome. For example, it would be impossible for a small regional coffee shop to match Starbucks’ ubiquity of retail locations.

On still others, you might even reduce your attention or performance. Why would this make sense? It could help you to focus on what is really important to customers.

Which brings us to the key part of the analogy. To have a competitively sound growth strategy, you don’t have to be the best at everything. You do need to be solid at delivering the important points-of-parity, which customers expect. But what will drive your financial performance is your ability to do something uniquely well and important in the customer’s eyes.

In other words – to have a fundamentally sound strategy - you need a good grip on your own selected important competitive differences. That “grip�? has many well-known names: value proposition, unique selling proposition, or competitive points-of-difference.

These terms all refer to the value that you provide that’s different from competitors and that matters deeply to customers. Getting a grip for business growth means getting a focus.

An example of a clear, compelling grip

In their work on Value Innovation published in Harvard Business Review, Kim and Mauborgne discuss the case of Formule 1, a company with a specific “grip�? on the budget hotel market. When introduced, Formule 1 built a business focused on tired travelers’ (e.g., for sleepy truckers’) need for a quiet, clean, safe, and comfortable stop to sleep with no frills and a price well below competitive hotels.

Once Accor got a hold on their value proposition -- “better than 2-star quality at a 1-star price�? -- the rest of their “swing�? became clear. Management reduced costs by completely removing a number of dimensions of value that were non-essential to their target customer (e.g., receptionist, restaurant, amenities). This strategy allowed for investment in exceptionally quiet, clean, and comfortable accommodations at a much lower cost than comparable hotels.

The results were remarkable. Formule 1’s market share grew to be larger than that of their five largest competitors combined.


The Formule 1 tagline is as simple and effortless as Jordan Spieth’s swing: “Sleep well at the best price.�? But that simplicity belies the complex fundamentals that preceded it: choosing a grip (value proposition) that could guide revamping the budget hotel business model around an unmet need in the market.

Get your own grip

So, think of your value proposition as your grip on the market. If it’s focused both on important customer needs and compelling competitive differentiation, it provides a strong foundation for guiding and regulating the rest of your growth plan.

And with a competitively sound swing like that, anything is possible. Just ask Jordan.


Featured Image:
Hogan, B. (1957). Five Lessons: The modern fundamentals of golf. New York, NY: Barnes.
Kim, W. C., & Mauborgne, R. (1997). Value innovation: The strategic logic of high growth. Harvard Business Review, 75, 102–112.
Matthew Rudy, How He Hit That: Jordan Spieth's Unconventional Grip Takes Hold of the Masters, April 11, 2015, Golf Digest.
Adapted from Joel E. Urbany and James H. Davis, Grow by Focusing on What Matters, New York, NY: Business Expert Press, 2010, chapter 6.

Topics: General

Joe Urbany
Written by Joe Urbany

Cofounder of Vennli and Professor at the University of Notre Dame

Joe is a core marketing faculty member in Notre Dame’s MBA program and past Associate Dean of the Mendoza College of Business with numerous publication credits related to customer decision making and growth strategy.

In 2010, Joe Urbany co-wrote a book entitled Grow by Focusing on What Matters: Competitive Strategy in 3-circles. The premise of the book is that growth and competitive advantage are about effective positioning. The model facilitates speed of understanding and action by focusing strategic attention on what impacts customer decisions. It has been applied in over 800+ MBA projects at Notre Dame. Co-founded in 2013 by Joe, Vennli is based on this proven model. Vennli brings the model to life through the use of collaborative technology and providing a platform that makes an already faster and more intuitive process even more accelerated and streamlined.

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