How to identify what makes your business special and use it to improve your brand Featured

8:00pm EDT June 25, 2010

Every company uses the same basic building blocks as the foundation of its business, but each company also brings unique factors to the mix to set it apart from competitors and draw clients to it.

As a business leader, you need to identify these special components and focus on them in your daily practices so your business can succeed.

“It’s a lot like serving a stew,” says Joe Cullinane, adjunct faculty member at Northern Illinois University. “All stews have carrots, meat and potatoes, but the real trick is adding that special ingredient or sauce that keeps people coming back. It’s the same in business — you need to determine what makes you different and special.”

Smart Business spoke with Cullinane about how to determine these special ingredients and incorporate them into strategic planning and artistry.

What do you mean by ‘serving the stew,’ and why is this important for businesses?

It’s a metaphor for the dish that only you and your organization can serve to the marketplace. Just like every individual, every company has an identity. The stew represents all the ingredients that go into identifying the company and defines it in terms of what it brings to the world in a way that no other entity can.

It challenges you to think creatively about what makes your organization compelling and special. You then focus on those items, or the special sauce, and apply it to everything you do. It’s a marketing strategy to identify authentic differentiations and work from your strengths.

Cultivating a deep sense of the organization’s identity is the most effective way to navigate endlessly rapid change and fiercely competitive markets.

How can companies use their different ingredients in everyday business matters and strategic planning?

You can focus on doing more of it when you’ve identified what makes your business special. For example, Google’s specialty is innovation, and we see that in the vast array of products it launches every year.

Apple combines advanced technology and elegant designs to create items such as the iPad. Four Seasons Hotel has unparalleled customer service in everything it does, and Disney sprinkles its magic on the total customer experience.

Some of the most successful companies are leading the field just by really finding out what makes them special and focusing on it. This really helps you stay focused on what matters.

What is strategic artistry, and how does it relate to the serving the stew philosophy?

This is a right-brain approach to strategy that enhances the left brain. Most business strategies are about numbers, forecasts, projections and spreadsheets, while strategic artistry is about creativity — feelings, relationships, finding the muse and having fun. It’s finding what’s right and doing more of it. The stew is part of this process.

For example, if you look at the movie ‘Avatar,’ it couldn’t be created until the specific technology was evolved. In one sense, you’re looking at highly left-brained items such as 3D technology, but on the other hand, you have this artistic vision that went into creating the most successful movie of all time.

The same can be said for Apple products, such as the iPad and iPhone. You combine this technical left brain with this artistic right brain to see what kind of results you can have.

What are some of the benefits and risks of strategic artistry?

The benefits are that you can become innovative and generate more ideas because you’re focused on the positives and strengths. Businesses often spend so much time focused on problems, compliance, taxes and other issues, so being able to focus on the creative opens up a lot of opportunities.

It also creates organizational focus. You can really focus on the stew and special sauce once you determine those items, and everyone in your company will have something in common. Customers also know it, so they know what to expect of you. It gives you an opportunity for real, authentic differentiation.

The risks are that you may take your eye off the ball on some of the mundane business tasks you have to do. You still need to execute as a company, and you can’t stop doing it.

The greatest risk is that you don’t find something special with your company, and that’s scary. Then it becomes about how you can actually do something that’s special.

What steps can businesses take to begin practicing these philosophies and incorporating them into their business practices?

The first step is to determine what the stew and special sauce are and use this creative artistry process to do it. Discover what your customers really love about you that your competitors don’t do.

Then you need to get agreement and alignment as an organization around that special sauce and stew. The leadership starts it, but there has to be some sort of agreement and alignment because it has to be authentic.

Then you find more ways to do it, sprinkle the special sauce on everything you do, look for the ‘bright spots’ and communicate it across the world so everyone can understand what it is that makes your company special.

Joe Cullinane is an adjunct faculty member at Northern Illinois University. Reach him at (650) 391-9725 or