Good vs. Bad Counter-Intuitive Business Strategy

Craig Apaptov / Strategic Marketing Practice Leader

Strategic growth ideas are all around us. We see them in our daily lives though sometimes we don’t take the time to notice or consider them. Many arise from a deliberate attempt by business founders and executives to take chances.

Taking  chances is part of business. The mandate to differentiate your brand or company is essential in today’s complex, intensely competitive markets. For only through meaningful differentiation can a company create consideration…which drives trial….which creates preference.



“Strategy is about making choices…about deliberately choosing to be different” –   Michael Porter, Professor/Author – The Harvard Business School




Counter-intuitive Thinking and Modern Strategy

Some of today’s biggest business success stories are companies that chose to be different from their competition in very meaningful and apparent ways. These are the courageous few who dared to challenge the status quo…with uncertain return on their investments. We will consider a few of these later in this post.

Effective counter-intuitive thinking starts with a fundamental understanding of the attitudes and perceptions of your target market/audience. We strongly advocate to our clients that they use proven market research techniques to take the temperature of their prospects and customers on a regular, recurring basis.

It is through this “insight mining” activity that unmet needs emerge. These become the foundations for counter-intuitive ideas and strategies capable of capturing the imagination of your target audience and forming the foundations for effective growth strategy.

Questionable Counter-Intuitive Strategies Today

While the desire to differentiate is important it must be done in a prudent manner. It must be supported with a deep and complete understanding the mindset of your market…their interests, likes, dislikes, and sensitivities. It must also recognize the business realities at play in the marketplace.

Consider the following three questionable counter-intuitive strategies evident in the market today:

Brooks Brothers Extra Slim Shirts – Despite the much publicized obesity problem in American some fashion manufacturers and retailers seem to be attempting a counter-intuitive merchandising strategy. American waistlines are increasing at an alarming rate.

Despite this fact you can visit any mid to higher end men’s fashion retailer today and you no doubt will see tables of “Slim” and “Extra Slim” dress and casual shirts. One retailer embracing this strategy is Brooks Brothers  who shirts are sold under their millennial targeted Golden Fleece brand.

Though I have not investigated the rationale behind this strategy it is no doubt aimed at the millennial market who tend not to be the waistline challenged in our society. Whether or not this market will consider the staid Brooks Brother brand for their clothing line is still in question thus making this counter-intuitive attempt at differentiation very much in question.


US Postal Service Forever Stamps – It seems almost every year we hear the same sobering statistics regarding the US Postal Service. Consumer and business use of conventional postage is rapidly declining. This has exacerbated the dire financial situation for the USPS with significant budget deficits and requests to increase the price of first class stamps almost every year.

Despite the challenging financial crisis faced by the postal service not long ago they introduced the “Forever” stamps. These stamps allow us to lock in the price of postage without regard to continuing base postage rate increases. Again, counter-intuitive thinking that seems at odds with the financial needs of the parent USPS organization?


Dollar Shave Club – A fundamental aspect of consumer product strategic development is the idea of “use-up rate”. That is the speed at which consumers use up a product and require replenishment.

Most men use a razor blade for several weeks dare I say a month or more. I for one find the conventional Gillette and Schick blades more than suitable in pack out assortments which range from 3 blades to 12 blades. With a 2-4 week use up rate conventional national brand blades will more than suffice for most men.

Additionally there is a strong and growing trend among men of all ages to shave less often. The five o’clock shadow or stubble look is very much in today.

However companies like Dollar Shave Club are attempting to challenge the status quo and practice differentiation with a low price point and a home-delivered new razor + blade monthly. This counter-intuitive strategy appears to be taking a page out of the Birchbox playbook, a company that home-delivers a personalized set of sample products to your home monthly. The jury for Dollar Shave Club is still out in my mind….no matter how positive initial market response appears to be.


Great Examples of Counter-Intuitive Differentiation

While the above executions of counter-intuitive strategy appear questionable we’ve seen some in the marketplace that have proven very successful. Most of the successful companies have been driven by insightful founders that refused to be constrained by conventional wisdom:


Jeff Bezos – Founder/CEO of — the world’s largest online retailer that was started with a focus on aggregating a loyal online customer base with value pricing, great customer service, and Big Data mining to continually enhance the online customer experience.


Sir Richard Branson – Founder/CEO of Virgin Group — a conglomeration of several companies challenging the status quo with a focus on value. Noteworthy companies include Virgin Records, Virgin Music, and Virgin Airways.

Howard Schultz – Founder/CEO Starbucks — a company that has transformed coffee consumption into an experience. A man who recognized the need people had for an escape from the day to day challenges of life. Enjoying a cup of coffee at a Starbucks is as much about the environment as it is the beverage.

Choose Your Strategy Thoughtfully

As shown in this post there are good and questionable executions of counter-intuitive strategy in the marketplace today. Avoid the urge to be different just to be novel. Do your homework. Study your customers carefully and learn their every nuance so as to enable you to craft a meaningful differentiation strategy for your business.

If all else fails and you still struggle internally to master differentiation engage a capable and objective management consultant to help. They can provide the analysis, research, and ideation necessary to develop and vet new ideas while augmenting your own internal management resources to fast track innovation for your firm.