The Hedgehog and the Fox – A Curious Study on Brand Building

November 11, 2015

And, so it began…

I just finished reading “Good to Great,” by Jim Collins(1).  I had been hearing a lot about this book from many of my trusted advisors and thought I’d better get to it if it was going to give me such great insight.  Little did I know that a little principal called The Hedgehog Concept would be my golden nugget.  The author claims that those who built good-to-great companies were, to one degree or another, hedgehogs.  And, so began my research.  What in the world could the hedgehog teach me about building a great business, or more importantly, a great brand?

In his famous essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” Isaiah Berlin(2) divided the world into hedgehogs and foxes.  He did so based upon an ancient Greek parable:  ”The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”  What does this mean?  Well, the fox is extremely cunning, spending his day coming up with complex strategies for sneak attacks on the hedgehog.  The hedgehog, on the other hand, is a bit more dowdy.  He waddles along, going about his simple day searching for lunch and taking care of his home.  So, when the hedgehog wanders down the trail and is confronted by the fox, he rolls up into a ball becoming a sphere of sharp spikes.  The fox is forced to move beyond and find another form of attack.  Each day, this game repeats itself with the fox coming up with new ways to pounce, but the hedgehog always wins…doing the same thing (rolling into a ball) every time.

Which are you?

The parable suggests that we can divide all people into two groups:  foxes and hedgehogs.  Foxes pursue many ends at the same time and see the world as very complex.  They sometimes seem scattered and unfocused while in constant motion creating new opportunities.  These are the guys that keep a lot of balls in the air.  The argument continues that all of the ideas are great, but because there is such disjointed attention, nothing gets done well.  The hedgehog simplifies this thinking into a single idea or concept.  It doesn’t matter how complex the world is or the situation becomes, the hedgehog reduces it all to a single, unified action or direction.  Everything else, to the hedgehog, is just noise and a huge distraction.  His eye is on the prize and it’s with laser focus, that he goes after it without succumbing to any shiny objects or the next big idea that jumps out of the bushes along the way.

Great brands are built by the Hedgehog

So, how does this impact brand building?  We’ve worked with many brands who are trying to accomplish many things…all at the same time.  Often, start-up brands want to conquer the world right out of the gate, but they just continue to drink from a fire hose and never really gain any traction.  Other brands, such as Walgreens, used the Hedgehog Concept and focused on one consistent and focused plan…become the most convenient drugstore in America.  How did they do it?  Closed stores that were not easily accessible by any intersection and opened new stores where there was the easiest access (sometimes multiple locations within a few blocks of each other).  The objective was convenience and while everyone mocked what they were up to, they kept their eye on the goal, methodically pushing forward and within 12 years became the number one recognized drugstore in the US.

How to become a Hedgehog

For those of us who instinctively are the fox and want to try to be more hedgehog-like, Jim Collins suggests there are three things to consider:

1.  What can you be the best at in the world?

This doesn’t speak to your core competencies.  Just because you may be really good at something, doesn’t automatically translate to you being the best in the world at it.  Do some sole searching, spend time with your team, and really discern what it is that your company can “own”.  Determine your strongest differentiator which can monetize and you can claim you do better than anyone else in the marketplace.

2.  What drives your economic engine?

In other words, what can you do consistently that will make you money?  And, not just money…profitability.  There’s a difference between making money and having any left over after all overhead is paid out.

3.  What are you deeply passionate about?

This may require a zen environment.  You need to find out what ignites your passion.  What gets you up every day supercharged thinking about doing.  What you’d do for free just so it could continue to feed your soul.


Can you be a hedgehog in your business and while building your brand?  Can you boil it all down into one succinct mission/goal? If you can “focus” like the hedgehog, you might just find that your growth will realize itself without much pain, angst, or effort.  Get out of the way, cunning fox…hedgehog coming through.

Good luck, little hedgehog.  Good luck!

1.  ”Good to Great,” by Jim Collins, Copyright 2001
2.  ”The Hedgehog and the Fox,” by Isaiah Berlin, Copyright 1993