Blue Ocean Strategy Basics - Buyer Utility Map

Find and solve painpoints to navigate towards a new blue ocean offering.

Painpoints are parts of the purchase or use experience identifying parts of the experience which are pains in the derriére. For example, haggling with a salesperson when buying a new car — wasting time while worrying about being taken advantage of — is a classic painpoint. Working through insurance coverage or submitting a claim is another well-known and understood painpoint.

Painpoints stink. They range from annoying to uncomfortable.

Traditional competitors often work on solving the same painpoints under theories of competitive strategy. For example, auto dealers focus on the car sales painpoint because that’s what everybody else is focused on. Besides, dealers know they have an advantage due to experience and information disparity with their customers. Some buyers go to elaborate lengths to play the game back the dealers, some with more success than others.

None of this adds much value to the overall experience. For the customer, they often leave with a feeling they’ve been taken advantage of. For the dealers, they spend an inordinate amount of time haggling which doesn’t always lead to a sale.

Businesses that manage to circumvent painpoints can do well. Take Carmax, the used-car behemoth that purchases and sells warranted used cars with no haggling. Prices are clearly stated and buying a car takes no more haggling than walking into the grocery store and buying some bananas.

Buyers love Carmax despite that their prices aren’t always the lowest.

“I also hate buying cars. CarMax makes buying a car as easy as buying an appliance from Best Buy or something which is great. … They don't however have the best prices. Which I personally am ok with since I hate spending a week playing the stupid car buying game to save money,” writes one Carmax customer.

Carmax buyers are willing to pay a premium to avoid the painpoint of haggling. That means lower costs for Carmax, who doesn’t have to pay people to haggle, along with higher value for buyers, who don’t have to endure the dreaded experience.

Lower cost, higher value, a classic blue ocean strategic move.

The purpose of the blue ocean strategy Buyer Utility Map is to find and explore painpoints to figure out which might be solved.

You’ll quickly find most if not all competitors in a field are trying to solve the same paintpoints while ignoring painpoints that customers might find more annoying. Anybody who remembers purchasing computers is familiar with the technical jargon that used to prevail, with long lists of features detailing the chips and whatnot. Even today, this still exists to a lesser extent. The vast majority of buyers don’t know one videocard from another. Few realize the benefits of more cores; they simply want a computer. Apple vastly simplified computer buying by offering a small number of choices for RAM, different size disk drives, and not much else. Others soon copied.

Smartphones and tablets built on this simplicity though, even in those categories, some manufacturers still insist on confusing customers. Lots of Android phones list the amount of RAM, a totally meaningless statistic for the vast majority of buyers yet one that silently intimidates them.

I’m writing this in 2020 and Apple’s latest top-of-the-line iPhone includes a LIDAR sensor without explaining why somebody might want that. “It’s a cool piece of technology,” explains one reviewer, who admits the only thing it seems to do is drain the battery faster. Lines like this are a class indicator an offering is tech innovation that doesn’t solve a painpoint.

The Buyer Utility Map

The blue ocean strategy buyer utility map is a grid. Across the top, on the horizontal axis, is the Buyer Experience Cycle, the steps that make up the lifecycle of the product. Creating a buyer experience cycle is a sub-project on its own detailed in a different post.

In the first column on the left are the Value Utility Levers. These are six attributes that are cross-referenced to the buyer experience cycle. The utility levers are customer productivity, simplicity, convenience, risk, fun & image, and environmental friendliness.

By the book, utility levers never change though sometimes slight modifications are necessary. For example, in a project involving a legal process I helped reconstruct, we modified “environmental friendliness” to “sustainability” - trying to capture the same idea in a context that applies. Utility levers should only be modified if they make no sense at all and, even then, only to the closest possible analog.

To use the map, plot a red circle where the industry competes and a blue circle where there is a painpoint that most aren’t focusing on. Moving through the map helps identify opportunities that are ripe for developing a new blue ocean strategic move.

Quoting the late, great Harry Chapin, “It’s got to be the going, not the getting there, that’s good.” Which is to say that like all the blue ocean tools, the end result might not result in a new strategy but the steps required to use the tool often help unlock latent creativity or insights. Along with all the blue ocean tools, don’t worry so much if a strategy doesn’t immediately pop out. Take a step back, a deep breath, and continue working through the process.