Unophobia - America's #1 Psychosis

I once worked with a pharmaceutical company that had launched a new product that was very important to the company’s future. It was the latest entry among a very promising new class of heart drugs, and the three drugs that had launched before it were selling very well. But after almost 2 years on the market, my client’s drug was struggling, garnering only about 4% of the market, despite almost $100 million in marketing spend, and more than 1,000 sales reps pounding the pavement.

Shortly after I began my assignment, the company held its annual sales meeting, bringing thousands of sales reps to a huge convention center in Texas for a week of training and motivation. There was a special session set aside for training and strategizing on the struggling drug, and I went to it expecting to hear a lot of wailing gnashing of teeth. To my great surprise, however, the head of sales kicked off the meeting by loudly proclaiming, “Congratulations!!, you have made [drug name] the Number 1 prescribed low dose smooth muscle acting [drug type] in the world!!!”.

A thousand sales reps immediately began hooting and hollering as if they had just won the lottery. I turned to a wildly fist pumping rep next to me and shouted, “Isn’t it the ONLY low dose smooth muscle acting drug in the class?”

He shrugged and kept clapping. Someone began passing out foam “We’re Number 1” fingers and the celebration continued. From there on, a series of breathless presenters spent the rest of the session touting all manner of successes large and small.

This was my first exposure to a uniquely American phenomenon that I have dubbed “Unophobia”. It is the insatiable need to always claim to be “#1” at some thing in some way, as if nothing else could possibly matter more. And it is everywhere around us.

As far as I can tell, every company selling cars or trucks in America claims to be “#1” in some way. One of them claims to be the #1 car company based on what turns out to be an online survey of its own customers. Every new movie seems to claim the mantra of “Number One in America” in some way. And, obviously, Unophobia dominates American sports – those foam fingers are everywhere.

But this psychosis is not limited to marketing and sales, or sports. It is part of the fabric of our society as well. Politicians routinely claim that they will “Make America #1 Again” whatever that means. Anyone who has recently had a son or daughter applying to college will note that almost every institute of higher learning proudly claims to be #1 in at least some category of something.

Unophobia is a uniquely American thing. No European football (soccer) team claims to be “#1” at anything. Teams proudly tout their championships and celebrate their histories, but I have never heard any of them claim to be, say, #1 in wins the last 10 years, or #1 in fan attendance, or whatever. Real Madrid is the most valuable sports entity in the world, but they do not raise foam fingers and shout about it.

To be sure, there is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to be the best. Being #1 in sales or #1 in customer satisfaction or best in the league can indeed be noble and worthy goals. But these are manifestations of what should be higher and more enduring goals – to grow and prosper, to add more and more value, or to set a standard of excellence for instance. It is often easy to come up with a way to claim to be #1 at something, but is that what is really important? And is being number 2 a disaster?

What really mattered to my drug company client was boosting the sales of the new drug in order to earn back a reasonable return on the massive investment they made to discover it, develop it, and bring it to market. There are dozens, if not hundreds of examples of drugs returning good value and profits despite being #2, 3, or 4 in sales. It comes back to choosing the right goals and measures and focusing on them.

So, even though this is the #1 blog among 60 year old retired right handed consultants who live in Pennsylvania, you will never hear me tout that.

© QuakerSmith Capital, LLC January 2017 All rights reserved


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