The idea of “Blue Ocean” and the strategy behind it is incredibly appropriate for the printing industry. Most printers live in the “Red Ocean” today, and are greatly suffering (and many continue to disappear) because of their inability to get out of it.
Blue Ocean is a term coined by the prolific authors, professors and business theorists W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne in their book "Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make Competition Irrelevant" (2005).
If you are in the printing industry, and are not familiar with Blue Ocean, I would highly recommended putting in some late summer reading— it’s a quick read, unlike many business books. A lot of people throw the term around loosely, but if you study it closely, it really is among the best of many popular business ideas that have emerged in the last 20 years or so.
The theory goes that in an established industry, companies compete with each other for every piece of available market share. The competition is so great that some firms cannot sustain themselves and stop operating. This is the state of companies living in the Red Ocean (as in blood red.) At the risk of sounding obvious, firms in the printing industry are in this Red Ocean. There are many thousands of companies that are almost indistinguishable from one another.
The book contains several fantastic case studies of firms who clearly differentiate in core ways. These are firms who, by innovating and creating great differentiation, find their way into the Blue Ocean, where no firms operate, allowing the company to expand without competition. Examples in the book include Cirque du Soleil and Southwest Airlines. In the case of Southwest, at this point they’ve been copied by dozens of other companies… but they took many years to emerge, during which the company profited immensely. In the case of Cirque, they arguably have remained alone in their unique market.
|From the Cirque du Soleil film, World's Away, photo credit: Mark Fellman, Paramount Pictures|
Some might think it is a stretch to compare printing to a circus, but there actually are parallels. The circus business, pre-Cirque, was in long-term decline. Alternative forms of entertainment—sporting events, TV, and video games—were casting a growing shadow. This is similar to what is happening to print in the face of digital media. Children preferred video games to circus acts. Marketers prefer digital media now, due to faster cycle times, lower costs and measurability.
An industry beset by decreasing audiences and increasing costs. In printing’s case, even without increasing costs, we are faced with price competition from weak and desperate direct competitors as well as from the easier and less costly digital media alternatives.
Interestingly, a new entrant to the printing industry would have a tough time in face of the existing competition, just like Cirque faced a challenge competing against the incumbent Ringling Brothers, who for most of the last century had set the industry standard. Cirque created uncontested market space that made the competition irrelevant. It pulled in a whole new group of customers who were traditionally non-customers of the industry—adults and corporate clients who had turned to theater, opera, or ballet and were, therefore, prepared to pay several times more than the price of a conventional circus ticket for an unprecedented entertainment experience.
Southwest Airlines strategy, as articulated in the book, was not to compete head on for traffic from existing airline customers, but to go after people who normally could not afford to fly—to compete for business normally owned by bus and car travel instead.
Both companies created new demand for their products. I can think of only a handful of companies in the printing industry who have taken this kind of approach. There are a couple of ubiquitous examples who are "online printing companies”, or companies who solely do business on the internet, but whose products are tangible, print or print-related. There are also “brick and mortar” printing industry companies who have made the swim into the beautiful Blue Ocean of profits and growth.
Can you name any of them?