For another example of the way these three elements can be deliberately combined, consider the case of Marriott International Inc. Throughout most of its history, the company followed a centrally driven strategy with tight controls over the look and feel of its properties. But the company was also willing to experiment. For example, in 1984, it was the first hotel chain to offer timeshare vacation ownership.
Like McDonald’s, Marriott learned the problems of rigorous centralization firsthand. In 2001, when it opened a timeshare in Phuket Beach, Thailand, the venture failed. Gradually, Marriott realized that the reason had to do with cultural differences: Asian tourists, especially the Japanese, want to visit multiple places during a single vacation. They typically stay two or three days in one location and then move on. This made them very different from Marriott’s U.S. and European holiday travelers, who prefer to stay in one place for a week or more. In 2006, the hotel chain launched a timeshare network called the Marriott Vacation Club, Asia Pacific. Customers could hop among locations, spending their annual club dues anywhere in the network. This customization initiative turned a failed project into one of the company’s fastest-growing businesses.
In initiatives like this, Marriott draws on its central strengths, including a devotion to knowledge that starts with the CEO (and son of the founder) J.W. (“Bill”) Marriott Jr. In his 1997 book, The Spirit to Serve: Marriott’s Way (with Kathi Ann Brown; HarperBusiness), Marriott wrote, “Our principal product is probably not what you think it is. Yes, we’re in the food-and-lodging business (among other things). Yes, we ‘sell’ room nights, food and beverage, and time-shares. But what we’re really selling is our expertise in managing the processes that make those sales possible.” This approach is reflected in Marriott’s strong “spirit to serve” philosophy and its highly centralized recruiting approach for seeking out dependable, ethical, and trustworthy associates. The company is known in the U.S., for example, for its robust efforts to train welfare recipients to make a permanent transition into the workforce, and worldwide for its extensive profit-sharing practices and human resources support.
The company’s collegial culture allows it to pare back the expenses of oversight and supervision; everyone naturally pays attention to cost and efficiency. Marriott also demonstrated its facility for arbitrage through its early adoption of the Internet as a vehicle for making and confirming reservations.
Many CEOs and top managers are still asking themselves when the bad times will end. No one has the answer, and even in a robust recovery, competition will not slacken. A better question is, What can we do now to establish ourselves in the new global economy? Consumer-oriented companies will need to deliver world-class quality in their products and services, customized for purchasers in multiple locales and circumstances, with significant price reductions (affordable to people at the lowest income levels). They must also provide their customers varying forms of access (owning, renting, or leasing equipment). This cannot be done when a company is striving to balance decentralization and centralization. It can be accomplished only by companies that transcend the old trade-offs and seek operating models that allow them to serve the largest numbers of people while meeting the highest possible standards.
Reprint No. 11308
- C.K. Prahalad passed away on April 16, 2010. He was the Paul and Ruth McCracken Distinguished University Professor of Corporate Strategy at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and the author of The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid (Wharton School Publishing, 2005). This article, which was in progress at the time of his death, is published with the permission of his family.
- Hrishikesh (Hrishi) Bhattacharyya is a management consultant and was formerly a senior vice president at Unilever with global responsibility for the health and wellness category. He has also taught at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and at the London Business School.