The Case Against Focus: 3 Pitfalls of Being Too Single-Minded


"This stuff," the entrepreneur said as he waved a bottle of cold-pressed juice like a magic wand, "does everything." Its list of benefits, he insisted, bordered on the miraculous. Powered by a soon-to-be-ubiquitous ingredient, the juice reduced inflammation, obliterated stress, "surrounded neurons in a protective coating" -- which, whatever it meant, sounded like something I should want.

He wasn't alone. The next day, a pair of entrepreneurs had a similar story: "Let me tell you everything our product does"...and their list was six or seven benefits deep. Later, an investor celebrated how many different problems were solved by a product in her portfolio.

In every case, the same question emerges: Would more focus unlock more potential?

For decades, Big CPG companies have had the same answer: Focus is king. Be single-minded in your benefit communication. Prioritize a single consumer target; two consumer targets is a stretch; three rings the death knell. Many advertising agencies and design shops have entire teams dedicated to, among other things, refining briefs until they are single-minded.

But is that still the right answer? Was it ever?

There is certainly a risk associated with being too many things to too many people. Messaging can become diluted and confusing. Product development can drag and cost of goods sold can explode as you chase too many features and benefits.

However, it is also true that Big CPG tends to underestimate the cost of focus. Single-mindedness can become a kind of hubris, a measuring stick for distinguishing the "strategic" brands from the "obnoxious" ones, even while the "obnoxious" brands kill it in the marketplace. I can still remember when Oxiclean, the now-famous laundry booster, first entered the market. It started with infomercials, the devil incarnate of scatterbrained marketing, and had a meme-friendly pitchman named Billy Mays who spent two minutes rattling off the list of Oxiclean's benefits. Brand snobs everywhere wrote them off. Six years later, it was the #2 laundry additive behind Clorox, and Church & Dwight spent $325 million big ones for the privilege of owning it.

Too much focus can hurt, and spreading lots of seeds broadly can create significant value. Here are three pitfalls that entrepreneurs and innovators should avoid with too much focus.

1) Consumers want to solve lots of problems, not just one. Where we see complexity, consumers often see value. Where we see lack of focus, consumers see lack of trade-offs. Take snacking for example. Do consumers want healthy, on-the-go snacks? Yes. But they also want nutrition that comes from whole foods, and they want to limit gluten in their diet, and they want to minimize sugar. Kind Bar unlocked a $4 billion valuation by solving all those problems.

2) Focus can stifle creativity, experimentation, and learning. There can be enormous pressure to make big choices early. And yet focusing too quickly can miss insights and creative breakthroughs. RXBar's founders tell a great story about trying lots of pitch lines at trade shows and CrossFit studios before settling on ingredient transparency as the core idea.

3) 24-hour media cycles demand more than one story line. Brands have the ability -- and, increasingly, the obligation -- to deliver content 24/7. Marketers call this "always on" communication. Too much focus can lead to saturation of the core message and miss the opportunity to tell multiple stories that matter.

In short, it's possible, and perhaps even preferable, to lack focus. If there are multiple problems to solve, and you can do them all well, entrepreneurs and innovators could actually create more value for consumers and themselves by planting more than one seed.