So good that nobody notices
“Incremental excellence isn’t nearly as sexy as the thrill of the new.”
That statement by an automotive critic in a 2009 review of Audi’s R8 Supercar has stuck with me for a decade.
It’s true of many things; perhaps the auto industry especially. My own car is stylish, responsive and reliable. But I made the mistake of purchasing it in its first model year, so the kinks had yet to be worked out. For example, it takes 15 to 20 seconds after I start the ignition for the radio and rearview camera to even boot up, and the regular upgrades so readily promised by the dealer have never arrived. Incremental excellence isn’t nearly as sexy as the thrill of the new.
Then there’s the tech industry. I think it would be great if Apple spent a fraction of its billions of dollars in excess cash to make our existing iPhones work better rather than pushing us towards repeated hardware upgrades. But incremental excellence isn’t nearly as sexy (or profitable, at least in the short term) as the thrill of the new.
And it can even be seen in the fitness industry. I’ve been a loyal member at my gym for years, partly because the visionary entrepreneur who started what became a very successful chain was a client of mine. I once asked him the secret to his success in such a highly competitive category dogged by transient membership. His answer: “I follow the Disneyland strategy.”
Ah, yes. Always be adding a new ride. Many people want to join a gym, but relatively few have the discipline to make regular attendance a habit. Adding a new ride—be it a new weight machine, the latest stair-stepper, a swimming pool or basketball courts—not only gets the attention of prospective new members, it helps keep loyal members interested.
Alas, noteworthy additions fall under the heading of “the thrill of the new,” and there are times when a little more incremental excellence is what’s called for. That’s what struck me the other day as I stood under a shower head at my now-aging gym that was trickling like a half-empty watering can.
If all the other loyal members with whom I chat have one complaint, it’s that -- the shower pressure. It’s low when you’re the only one there, and when the locker room is bustling with busy professionals trying to get to work it’s almost non-existent. Unfortunately, years ago the founder sold out to a national conglomerate, so I no longer have an “in” at the top.
It appears my client’s corporate successors don’t understand what he always knew and I’ve come to learn: There’s more to the Disneyland strategy that meets the eye. Yes, Disney always seems to be adding a new ride, but the company also spends a fortune to keep its parks clean, safe and comfortable. Disney, like a perceptive waiter or a skilled referee, recognizes that excellence sometimes means doing all you can to remain unnoticed.
Improving water pressure is similar to fixing your roof or replacing your washer and dryer at home; they’re expensive outlays that don’t provide the joy and excitement that, say, a new TV or car might. I can see my gym’s corporate team dismissing the idea because it would do nothing to attract new members, who don’t even know the water pressure is a problem. And new members are where it’s at; It’s a truism in the fitness industry that the way to make money is by attracting people who will pay the dues but not work out too much, coming just often enough to justify retaining their membership. Most gyms actually lose money on regulars like me who use their facilities the most.
But you can see where this line of thinking ends up: alienating your most loyal customers and reinforcing churn until you run out of prospects. It may be fine for hitting this month’s sales goals but won’t work if you’re trying to establish long-term value (and has spelled doom for many health clubs).
Disney, by contrast, generates a 70% customer return rate in part by extending its commitment to comfort even to the ambient sound within its parks. The Disney sound system is so sophisticated that it can subtly change musical styles and melodies as people make their way through the park at different paces and along wildly varying paths, with no one ever noticing. Its creation was an unprecedented achievement.
According to "Be Our Guest," a Disney Institute book, “Today, as you walk through Disney World, the volume of the ambient music does not change. Ever. More than 15,000 speakers have been positioned using complex algorithms to ensure that the sound plays within a range of just a couple decibels throughout the entire park. It is quite a technical feat acoustically, electrically, and mathematically.”
It seems somewhat odd that a company would have invested millions of dollars in the development of an innovation whose success was judged by the fact that nobody pays any attention to it. That’s an underappreciated aspect of the Disneyland strategy: being so good nobody notices. If Disney is willing employ sophisticated physics and math to improve its parks’ “sound pressure,” it seems like a pretty easy lift for a gym to employ a plumber to improve its water pressure. Assuming it’s a lift it wants to make.
And that’s the question. Excellence often comes down to desire. If all you’re interested in is big, bold, newsworthy initiatives, you may get a lot of attention but probably won’t ever achieve true greatness. Incremental excellence will never be as sexy as the thrill of the new, because the better you get the less noticeable the difference may be. But it can be every bit as valuable. The most efficient way to enhance momentum is to propel it.
Each month, When Growth Stalls examines why businesses and brands struggle and how they can overcome their obstacles and resume growth. Steve McKee is a co-founder of McKee Wallwork + Co., a marketing advisory firm that specializes in turning around stalled, stuck and stale companies. The company was recognized by Advertising Age as 2015 and 2018 as Southwest Small Agency of the Year. McKee is also the author of “When Growth Stalls” and “Power Branding.”