Don't Be a Swiss Army Knife

In 1884, a cutlery workshop owner named Karl Elsener delivered a knife to the Swiss army. But it wasn’t just any knife. Elsener’s revolutionary idea was to develop a compact and sturdy knife offering multiple functions in a single, pocket-able tool for soldiers. His invention has not only become legend, his Swiss Army Knife has become the generic equivalent for any multi-function pocketknife.

There’s no question that the Swiss Army Knife is an iconic success story and they’re still made and sold by the millions by Victorinox Knife. I own several, and their utility is unquestioned. But allow me to pose some questions:

  • If you need to filet a fish, would you prefer to use a Rapala filet knife or a Swiss Army Knife?

  • If you had to remove a rusted screw, would you do it with a full-size Stanley screwdriver or the mini-version in the Swiss Army Knife?

  • If you need to cut some fabric, would you rather use a sharp pair of Fiskar’s shears or the tiny scissors of a Swiss Army Knife?

You get my drift. In most situations, the general, multi-functional, jack-of-all option is never as good as the specialty option. Witness Sears. Once the get-anything-here superstore (back in the day, you could even buy a house) Sears continues to struggle to find its identity. Soft goods, appliances, name brands. Nothing seems to resonate with consumers who can find similar goods—often with greater quality and selection—in any number of specialty stores. No surprise that I just read that Sears will post another major loss for this fiscal quarter. Convenience is a compelling rallying cry, however. On a camping trip, I will likely not bring a variety of specialty knives and other tools. I’ll throw my Swiss Army Knife into my backpack because it’s more convenient—the expedient option. So it IS possible to differentiate and compete on convenience. The supermarket is still the “Swiss Army Knife” of grocery shopping experiences because it’s often the expedient option. Besides grocery staples, I can buy wine there. (But I prefer to buy it at my favorite specialty store, Steve’s Wine.) I can find flowers there. (But there’s a deeper selection at Felly’s Florist in my hometown or there’s always 1-800-Flowers.) And for hard-to-find items? My wife buys a surprising number of gourmet foods and specialty products from Amazon (low prices and free shipping with Prime). Can a generalist make it in this hyper-competitive marketplace? Well, I just mentioned Amazon.com, a successful, highly valued business positioned as a purveyor of practically anything imaginable. But I would argue that Amazon’s promise to the marketplace isn’t “everything”, rather their dominant selling idea is easy ordering and fast delivery. There’s an adage that states, “The specialist always beats the generalist.” And if your market is filled with specialists, positioning yourself as a Swiss Army Knife isn’t going to cut it.

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