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Posted on Oct 29, 2012

The Challenges with Marketing the Value of Excellence

Olympic athletes strive for it. University students push to attain it. Business leaders endeavor to build it into their organizations.

“It” is the value of excellence.

As a differentiating value, Excellence means possessing good qualities in high degree; an outstanding feature.

So what are these good qualities? Or how does one identify the right outstanding feature that will create competitive advantage?

In Search of Excellence

In 1982, the book In Search of Excellence was first published, authored by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman. It became a bestseller and gained national exposure with a series of TV specials.

In the book, the authors highlight 8 themes they argue were responsible for the success of the 62 corporations they interviewed. It appeared that excellence could be achieved by following their prescribed formula.

However, as the years passed, these profiled companies failed to produce excellent results, and the book’s premise came into question. In 2001, a major controversy erupted over a quote from Peters confessing that their data was “faked.” Peters denied making this statement.

So is excellence a value worthy of pursuit? Can it really create competitive advantage?

For marketers, the value of excellence is not for the faint of heart.

When Excellence is Expected

Many organizations involved in the healthcare industry promote the value of excellence. One of those is Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, located in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. In addition to referencing excellence in both their vision and mission statements, it’s also the first of 7 core values. They define excellence as “demonstrate the highest standards of patient-centered care, education, research and operational effectiveness.”

This sounds admirable.

But here’s the challenge: what’s different from other organizations involved in healthcare education? How does the value of excellence help differentiate this academic medical center?

Looking at the two key regional competitors to Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, they also reference the value of excellence. UNC Health Care in Chapel Hill is clear about their focus on service excellence. And excellence is the #1 value at the Duke University Health System, located in Durham.

Therefore, in the field of healthcare education, excellence is table stakes. It’s simply expected. Competitive differentiation must be defined through other values.

Comparing Core Values

Many organizations include excellence in their list of core values. It looks good when posted on the cafeteria wall. But does it really make a difference? Does it help define what’s unique or different about an organization?

Consider these three examples:

1)    APAC Customer Services. This company is involved in business-process outsourcing (BPO). Excellence is one of their 5 stated values, and they have even defined an “expected outcome” of their 13,000 employees as dedicated excellence. However, one of their competitors, PFSweb, also highlights excellence as a core value, defining it as consistent commitment. That feels awfully close to make a meaningful difference.

2)    Con-Way Freight. As a provider of logistics and trucking services, one of their 4 core values is “Excellence – be your best”. That’s a lot to expect from 21,000 employees. While one might think this is a common value in the trucking industry, it’s interesting that their 3 key competitors – FedEx Freight, YRC, and Old Dominion – do NOT reference excellence as a differentiating value. That’s a positive sign for Con-Way.  However, the key challenge is then to turn excellence into a competitive advantage, which is currently not self-evident based on their website.

3)    Whole Foods. This successful grocery store chain makes a useful distinction between the values of quality and excellence. Quality is a measurement of their products. Excellence is a measurement of their people. This provides a defined focus for excellence that opens the door for differentiation. Whole Foods even goes further here, outlining 6 different ways they support “team member excellence and happiness.” Thus, this organization has clearly thought deeper about how to turn the value of excellence into a competitive advantage. The real test is “walking the talk.”

Regarding Whole Foods, it’s easy to see how the value of excellence is making a difference for them. They started out with a very niche focus – now rapidly expanding – and they do it very well, which allows them to charge more.  They are known as a premium brand, which suggests an important link between the value of excellence and pricing. It’s difficult to think of many direct competitors, which says something about their ability to create competitive differentiation.

Thus, excellence is one of the differentiating values that can’t be treated lightly. In some industries it’s considered table stakes. If competitors reference it, the value risks being watered down. And if an organization can claim it, then it requires a detailed explanation to ensure everyone inside and out understands what it means and how it can create competitive advantage. Lastly, there is likely a strong link between excellence and pricing. It costs more to deliver.


What other organizations claim the value of excellence? Is it making a significant difference for them?


Today’s value was selected from the “Knowledge-Skillfulness” category, based on the e-book Developing Your Differentiating Values.




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