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Speed Review: If You're in a Dogfight, Become a Cat!

Speed Review: If You're in a Dogfight, Become a Cat!

Speed Review: If You're in a Dogfight, Become a Cat!

Strategies for Long-Term Growth

by Leonard Sherman

Leonard Sherman draws on four decades of experience in management consulting, venture capital, and teaching business strategy at Columbia Business School to share practical advice on two of the most vexing issues facing business executives: why is it so hard to achieve long-term profitable growth, and what can companies do to break away from the pack? Sherman challenges conventional wisdom on a number of questions that will redefine management best practices.


For many businesses, writes Columbia University professor Leonard Sherman, competition is a dogfight between rival firms viciously battling each other for market share. In his evocatively titled book, If You’re in a Dogfight, Become a Cat!, Sherman argues that the most successful strategy is not to engage in the dogfight but to do something completely different — to become the metaphorical “cat” of his title.

Sherman, who has been a partner, managing partner and senior partner at blue-chip consultancies such as Booz Allen Hamilton, J.D. Power and Associates and Accenture, offers a specific prescription for becoming a cat. This prescription is based on three strategic imperatives that, he writes, drive sustained profitable growth.

The first strategic imperative is continuous innovation, which is not an imperative for its own sake but is required in order to deliver the second strategic imperative: meaningful differentiation that is recognized and valued by customers. Meaningful differentiation, in turn, is enabled by the third strategic imperative: business alignment. Business alignment, writes Sherman, is “where all corporate capabilities, resources, incentives, and business culture and processes are aligned to support a company’s strategic intent.”

The Australians Are Coming!

Welcome to the U.S. wine market in the year 2000. Not only is the market crowded, but breaking into the U.S. is even tougher because most Americans prefer beer to wine. Yet, somehow, a new wine from a small vineyard in southeastern Australia would become the top-selling imported wine in the U.S. within five years after introduction. The secret? Casella Family Brands, which made and sold the upstart wine, decided to act like a cat.

In the Australian wine case study — the first of many fascinating case studies he presents to support his insights — Sherman describes how winemaker John Casella of Casella Family Brands first attempted to break into the market in the traditional manner: targeting the lower-priced premium wine category. Also, keeping with tradition, Casella gave his wine a name with a bit of gravitas: Carramar Estates. The launch of Carramar Estates was a failure, but Casella would not give up. Only this time, the Australian winemaker broke with market tradition in just about every way. No serious-sounding Chateau name on the front of the bottle — or intimidating language about bouquet and terroir on the back. Instead, the bottle’s image featured a brightly colored wallabee. And its name, in lower case and between brackets, was Yellow Tail.

In addition, Casella further broke with industry conventions by avoiding the 10 percent of the U.S. population that bought nearly 90 percent of the wine. Instead, Sherman writes, the winemaker “targeted 48 percent of the population who either drank only beer and spirits (33 percent) or who were marginal wine drinkers (15 percent).”

Yellow Tail wine is a compelling case study in the application of Sherman’s three strategic imperatives. As Sherman explains, the key innovation “was recognizing a unique, untapped opportunity to serve the large number of U.S. consumers that were mostly ignored by thousands of undifferentiated, expensive and overly complex products on the U.S. wine market.” Its colorful, playful label, single bottle shape, unpretentious marketing and premium taste at a low price were all elements in its meaningful differentiation that was loved by customers. And all of its business practices — from its brand positioning, winemaking process, pricing and so forth — were aligned to enable this differentiation.

Sherman has written a detailed and comprehensive review of business strategy — with chapters on why strategies fail, how to create strong brands, how to develop great new ideas and much more. His cat-in-the-dogfight metaphor summarizes a rigorously researched and tested thesis on how to win, even if you’re just an Australian winemaker hoping to get noticed in a market packed with very big and important dogs.

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