The essence of profound insight is simplicity.
Jim Collins, Good to Great

If you’re reading this blog, you already know branding isn’t all logos and lattes. Rather, it’s hedgehogs and foxes—one of which gives you a competitive advantage.

Yes, of course, hedgehogs—wait, what?

In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins explains that there are two types of companies: good companies and great companies. Some are cunning and clever, devise myriad strategies, and pursue many ends at the same time. These are the foxes. Others are focused on one thing, simplifying a complex world into a single, organizing idea. These are—you guessed it—the hedgehogs.

So which ones are great? Hedgehogs or foxes?

Seeing the world in foxes and hedgehogs began with philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s analysis of an ancient Greek parable by poet Archilochus: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one important thing.” While his essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox” originated as a tongue-in-cheek commentary on society, it evolved into the core concept Collins and his team used to understand what separates good companies from great companies.

Take Walgreens, for example. According to Collins, from 1975 to 2000, Walgreens grew at more than 15 times the market rate. The then-unknown drugstore was growing faster than recognizable brands like Intel, Coca-Cola, GE, and Merck. How? By staying focused on a single concept that drove all of their business decisions.

Charles “Cork” Walgreen III, former CEO, said, “Once we understood the concept, we just moved straight ahead.” Walgreens closed good stores when great corner locations opened half a block away. And they rethought convenience, finding imaginative ways to address common problems (think one-hour photos and drive-thru pharmacies).

In short, Walgreens was a hedgehog aiming to be one thing: “the best, most convenient drugstores with high profit per customer visit.” They had found their Hedgehog Concept.

What’s a Hedgehog Concept, exactly? And how do you get one?

A Hedgehog Concept is more than just strategy—every company has strategy. Collins explains it as simplicity in three circles: (1) what you can be the best at, (2) what you’re passionate about, (3) and what drives your economic engine. Once you establish a deep understanding of these three dimensions of your business, you can more easily distill your Hedgehog Concept: the clear, unifying idea that should guide your efforts moving forward.

Collins suggests a personal analogy: “Suppose you were able to construct a work life that meets the following three tests:

  1. You are doing work for which you have a genetic or God-given talent, and perhaps you could become one of the best in the world in applying that talent. (Read: ‘I feel I was just born to be doing this.’)
  2. You are well paid for what you do. (Read: ‘I get paid to do this? Am I dreaming?’)
  3. You are doing work you are passionate about and absolutely love to do, enjoying the actual process for its own sake. (Read: ‘I look forward to getting up and throwing myself into my daily work, and I believe in what I’m doing.’)”

He continues, “If you could drive toward the intersection of these three circles and translate that intersection into a simple, crystalline concept that guided your life choices, then you’d have a Hedgehog Concept for yourself.”

How does this apply to you, the non-Walgreens of the world?

Every company—no matter the size, industry, product, or audience—has the ability to become a hedgehog among foxes. The key is focus. Start to discover your company’s Hedgehog Concept with this simple exercise.

Still feeling like a fox?

Let’s grab coffee and talk about finding your company’s focus