Enlarge Pleasure-Pain Gap to Sustain Your Blue Ocean


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It’s difficult to create a Blue Ocean. Even if you created one, it soon turns red. Why? The common explanation: innovations are copied. The hidden answer: companies improve pain.

Build Up Your Competitive Advantage by Identifying Good Pain and Branded Pleasure

Destructive Improvement (Improve Pain) vs. Creative Aggravation (Aggravate Pain)

In the above diagram, in the middle, you create your Blue Ocean by generating a significant pleasure peak for customers.

In this stage, particularly for the start-ups, you focus your energies and limited resources on what makes you succeed and stand out – your competitive advantage, and you disregard imperfections and defects you might generate. In other words, you build up your competitive advantage by identifying your Good Pain and Branded Pleasure.

The “Pain has to be Improved” Phenomenon

After creating their Blue Oceans, most companies move to the left, towards “Destructive Improvement.” When they go in this direction, their Blue Oceans are destroyed by the “pain has to be improved” phenomenon. This phenomenon is driven by the sacred belief of Continuous Improvement and Customer Centricity.

Continuous Improvement is the philosophy behind Kaizen, which preaches relentless continuous improvement, and the key systems dedicated to pursuing excellence, such as Six Sigma and Total Quality Management (TQM). Imperfections, pain and defects are the ‘devil’ and must be eliminated.

Customer Centricity dominates in our modern commercial world. Customers’ voices ought to be heard, customers’ complaints must be addressed, and making customers suffer is an unforgivable sin.

Destroy Your Blue Ocean by Improving Pain – Destructive Improvement

On one hand, you are being brainwashed by the “pain has to be improved” phenomenon, while on the other hand, no surprise here; your big innovation is attracting imitators.

Very few Blue Oceans are immune to copying; it is usually just a matter of time and effort. Internet and new technologies have sped up this process and made it easier. When your rivals imitate your offering, it lowers the pleasure peak perceived by customers.

The opportunity cost of improving pain is missing the golden time-window to further enhancing your Branded Pleasures by diluting your limited resource.

Even if you improve those things that are either important or painful to your customers, if they are not linked to your Branded Pleasures, it is destructive because it would further lower the pleasure peaks for customers, make it look more like its competitors and be easier to copy. You waste your first-mover advantage. Continuous Improvement turns into Destructive Improvement.

Destructive Improvement destroys your Blue Ocean and weakens your competitive advantage by improving pain.

Suffer the Most to Enjoy the Best

Sukiyabashi Jiro, a sushi restaurant located in Ginza, Tokyo has earned three Michelin stars for years. His restaurant is remote and difficult to find; it is in a basement, in a far-off district.

The seating area is tiny; it can hold a maximum of ten customers at a time. Jiro doesn’t accept walk-in customers and reservations have to be made more than a month in advance. The prices are steep; each customer pays more than 30,000 yen. His menu is fixed and with only a limited number of choices.

This sushi restaurant pushes pains to the extreme: tiny space, long wait for reservations, expensive, and almost no choice. But Jiro does make great sushi. He never diverges from this mission. Jiro focuses all his resources, attention and energies to make sushi. He does not expend resources improving anything we see as a pain. By aggravating those pains, the sushi restaurant is creating the highest possible pleasure peak for their customers.

Yet Jiro has the highest Michelin ranking and his restaurant is always full. The place is so famous that U.S. President Barack Obama asked to dine there during his visit to Japan in 2014.

Sustain Your Blue Ocean by Aggravating Pain – Creative Aggravation

In sports, and really in any competition, we recall the champions, the ones who win the gold medals. It is the same in customers’ minds in business competition. To be the winner, you have to generate highest pleasure to customers.

IKEA aggravates pain with DIY services to generate unmatched pleasure on good value for the money. Starbucks aggravates pain with premium pricing to create extraordinary pleasure with their “new coffee experience” and the Third Place. Louis Vuitton aggravates pain with the different service levels to deliver unprecedented pleasure with exclusivity. Southwest Airlines aggravated pain with no meals, entertainment, upgrades or reserved seats to offer knockout pleasure with cheap airfares. Jiro’s sushi restaurant aggravates pain on most aspects of the dining experience to render the utmost pleasure with the best sushi in the world.

Great brands have a large Pleasure-Pain Gap (PPG).

To generate the highest possible pleasure peaks, you have to move towards Creative Aggravation. Not only not improve pain, you aggravate pain; imagine the tremendous resource that you could save. You generate the most severe pain peaks – as far as they are not falling into the unacceptable levels of your customers – so you can heighten your pleasure peaks to unprecedented levels.

Creative Aggravation sustains your Blue Ocean, reinforces your competitive advantage and transforms it into a sustainable strength by aggravating pain.

Make a Paradigm Shift from “Improve Pain” to “Aggravate Pain”

Visually, when you narrow your Pleasure-Pain Gap (PPG), you destroy your Blue Ocean. When you increase your PPG, you sustain your Blue Ocean. The height of a building is in proportion to the depth of its foundation. It is common sense, isn’t it?

Blue Ocean is about using value innovation to reach new and untapped market. Not many companies are successful in creating Blue Ocean, as it takes a unique combination of innovative thinking, wisdom and courage to invest resources differently.

However, making a paradigm shift from “Improve Pain” to “Aggravate Pain,” may require even more innovative thinking, wisdom and courage than creating your Blue Ocean in the first place. Only the most outstanding people understand this and are able to put it into practice.


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