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Are you Plugged into the Cognitive Economy?

– By Grant Leboff

Do you understand where your business provides value for its customers? Do you have real and tangible competitive advantage in your market place?

Although many companies with which I work initially assume that they have the answers to these questions, after some more queries and investigation, it often becomes apparent that this is not the case.

This can be down to a number of factors. However, it is often because a business is looking in the wrong place when trying to understand and create value for its customers.

july-002Many organisations primarily focus on ‘what’ they do and provide for their customers. The best companies will often strive to continually improve the products and services they deliver. Yet, the simple truth is that, in today’s digital web enabled world, there is very little that a company can introduce that won’t be copied immediately by competitors, if it is deemed to be an intelligent development in attracting or retaining customers.

Of course, I am not suggesting that companies don’t continually strive to innovate and improve their product or service offering. However, delivering excellence is the entry point to being able to ‘play’ in any particular market. Ultimately, it is not often where competitive advantage can be found.

The answer to understanding how to create competitive advantage comes from the world of psychology. ‘Cognitive Economy’ is the propensity for cognitive processes to use the minimum effort and resources in order to achieve a required result. Human beings will have their own individual view of the world and will make assumptions and reach conclusions based on this knowledge.

What this means for business is simple. Customers purchasing habits are a balance between the product or service that will suit them best, against the goods that are easiest to purchase. ‘Cognitive Economy’ means that customers will only be able, and willing, to give a certain amount of thought to a purchasing decision before they undertake the action that they perceive to not only be the best, but also the most convenient. This could be, not making any purchase, (i.e., doing nothing) buying from you, or purchasing from a competitor.

In other words, the lesson is a simple one. ‘How’ buyers make a purchase, is often more important than ‘what’ they acquire. When one considers the ubiquity of mobile devices and people increasingly acting in the moment, together with the move from a ‘service economy’ to an ‘experience economy’ it is easy to understand that the ‘how’ of a purchase is becoming extremely significant.

Amazon, have become one of the most successful retailers in the world not because of ‘what’ they sell but because of ‘how’ they sell. Similarly, Apple’s iTunes didn’t sell different music from any other outlet, it just did it better.

Competitive advantage created in ‘how’ a business delivers products or services, rather in ‘what’ they sell, is often harder to copy. This is because it is more three dimensional in its offering. The ‘how’ is often a coming together of many different processes, mechanisms, partnerships and other aspects of a company’s approach to business. This is instead of a one dimensional product feature or service offer.

Moreover, while a customer can easily ‘swap’ from one ‘what’ to another, the ‘how’ often leads to deeper customer engagement and more of an investment of time and emotion. This results in it being much less likely that a customer will switch provider. For example, Amazon have my credit card details and know my preferences. Therefore, I will miss out on more than just the goods that it supplies should I use an alternative.

So, when exploring competitive advantage, consider the ‘how’ – not just the what’. ‘Cognitive Economy’ means I am about done as I simply don’t have any more processing power left to continue.


Grant LeboffGrant Leboff is the author of the business books Sales Therapy and Sticky Marketing. He is CEO of and a Founding Partner of




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