62% Raisin Bran

I ate a healthful breakfast in a hotel lounge. Fresh fruit, plain Greek yogurt, and a single-serving box of raisin bran cereal.

The box practically promised me immortality. “100%* daily value of 11 vitamins & minerals,” it pledged. With each bite I could feel myself bursting with fitness and glowing with health. My shirtsleeves were tightening around my biceps.

Then I noticed the asterisk. “*Based on a 53g serving. This box contains 33g.” The box had 62% of the daily value of those 11 nutrients, and 38% baloney.

Yes, the box disclosed the truth. Then again, it could have said “Lifetime* supply of 11 vitamins & minerals.” The asterisk would whisper “*Based on a 1,547,600g serving. This box contains 33g.” That would have been true too.

The only reason for the 100%-plus-asterisk is that the company making the cereal decided they’d compete better with slight sneakiness than with a straight-out 62%.

The box served an implicit theory of competing as well as 62% crunchy goodness. For the com­pany to choose the asterisk they must have believed something like this:

  • The customer cares about health.
  • Vitamins and minerals promote health.
  • We can make a health claim that’s literally true.
  • To see the practical truth the customer has read fine print and do some work.
  • The customer probably won’t do that.
  • Therefore we get the benefit of the strong claim and no one can say we misled them.

We know that something like that reasoning must be true because we see the evidence: the box has 100% and an asterisk.

They could have chosen the full-disclosure theory of competing instead of the asterisk theory. That would have gone something like this:

  • The customer cares about health.
  • Vitamins and minerals promote health.
  • We can make a slightly sneaky health claim or a full-disclosure health claim.
  • A full-disclosure health claim fits with the image of health and goodness we want the cus­tomer to associate with our brand.
  • Full disclosure plants us on the high ground. It doesn’t put us at a competitive disad­van­tage unless competitors get slightly sneaky.
  • Therefore, disclose fully. We can always get slightly sneaky if competitors force us to.

Or they could have chosen the provide-100% theory of competing. That’d be similar to the full-disclosure theory, except it adds a little cost for the vitamins and minerals and it allows for a muscular counterattack against slightly sneaky competitors.

But we don’t have full disclosure or 100%-in-the-box. We have an asterisk.

The asterisk isn’t a theory of deceiving. The company didn’t set out to deceive; it set out to compete. And yet it’s clear that no customer would prefer the slightly sneaky 100% claim over full disclosure or 100%-in-the-box. It’s a theory of competing in which slight sneakiness is some­how justified.

By the way, the company is well-known. You have heard of it. You might like to know that its website lists its corporate values, of which the most-prominent is “We do the right thing, all the time.” No asterisk.

To be fair, this company isn’t the only one to use asterisks. As asterisks go, theirs is pretty tame. It’s even possible that the company is getting slightly sneaky to retaliate against someone else’s asterisk. (The asterisk theory of competing creates “value” only if your competitors are less sneaky than you. A strategy to be proud of.) Finally, notice how different this essay would have sounded if this paragraph came earlier, rather than, like an asterisk, here at the end.

About the author  ⁄ Mark Chussil

MARK CHUSSIL is founder & CEO of Advanced Competitive Strategies, Inc., and, with Benjamin Gilad, a cofounder and partner of Sync Strategy. He has conducted business war games, built custom strategy simulators, and taught workshops on strategic thinking for dozens of Fortune 500 companies on six continents, resulting in billions of dollars made or saved.

A pioneer in quantitative business war games and a highly rated speaker, he has 35 years of experience in competitive strategy. One of his simulation technologies has won a patent; a patent is pending on another. He has written three books, chapters for five others, and numerous articles.

He has been quoted in Fast Company, Harvard Management Update, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere. He received the Fellows Award from the Strategic and Competitive Intelligence Professionals society in 2013. He earned his MBA at Harvard University and his BA at Yale University.

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