The One Phrase Strategy

“Strategy is not a lengthy action plan.  

It is the evolution of a central idea through 

continually changing circumstances.”

– Jack Welch 


Does everyone on your team know the one critical strategic focus that drives your bottom line? If you can’t state it simply in one sentence – neither can they.

What is a One-Phrase Strategy?

The “one-phrase strategy” is a succinct way to articulate the key lever in your business model that drives profitability. It helps you to identify which customer desires to focus on, and which to ignore.

This is not to be confused with a marketing strategy or tagline. In fact, in most cases I suggest keeping your strategy a secret, since it’s the key to your competitive advantage and profitability.

This simple strategic statement takes into account your profit drivers, as well as your brand promises (that is, what your customers expect from you) AND your anti-brand promises, or trade-offs. That is, what are the things you don’t do – even if it means frustrating a few customers, or losing a buyer that doesn’t quite fit your ideal target profile.

While your competition is busy trying to deliver on all their customer’s wishes, the best companies focus on nailing the top few and ignore the rest. This allows them to focus strategically and make improvements to the areas that truly drive profitability.

One-Phrase Strategy Examples

Here are a few examples of how honing in on your company’s strategy can lead to a smaller group of loyal customers and a bigger bottom line.

IKEA’s one phrase strategy is “flat packed furniture.”

IKEA’s Brand Promises are clear – reasonably fashionable furniture, low prices, and good Swedish meatballs. However, IKEA also has a lot of “trade-offs” that enable them to deliver on those promises while scaling up profitably. If you’ve ever endured their shopping maze, hauled your boxes home and mumbled a few choice words while putting your new furniture together, then you understand these trade-offs. However, what you might not have realized is that their “flat packed furniture” strategy has made them the world’s largest and most profitable furniture chain, due to the efficiencies it allows them to achieve in time, physical space, streamlining logistics, etc.

Southwest Airlines one phrase strategy is “wheels up.”

If the wheels are up on the SWA 737 fleet, Southwest is making money – so their strategy is to do everything possible to keep the planes full of happy passengers in the air. How do they do this? Same planes, simple routes, decentralized hubs, no food, no seating assignments, crew cleans as the passengers exit, etc. That strategic focus drives their decisions, and every person – from customer service to the flight crew to the baggage handlers – knows how they can get those planes full and into the air.

Apple’s one phrase strategy is “closed architecture.”

In their case, this is a blocking strategy. And while the fact that Apple’s products don’t always “play well with others” might be a turn off for many consumers, there’s a few of crazy ones (yes, me – I won’t mention how many Apple products I own!) that clearly prove their strategy pays off – as demonstrated by their record-breaking $99.8 billion net profit in 2022.

Create Your Own One-Phrase Strategy

To make an effective strategic plan, you must be willing to focus your efforts and attention, and accept that wallet share is more valuable than market share.

First, consider your core customer – this is a real person that buys repeatedly, at optimal profit, pays on time, is loyal, and refers others. As the Pareto principle would suggest, 80% of your profits come from 20% of your buyers. Conversely, 80% of your headaches come from a different 20%!

Who are the customers that you can win with? The ones that align with your purpose, your values, your core competencies, and what you want to be known for?

Next, craft your top 3 brand promises, based on what that your core customer finds unique and valuable about doing business with you. Naturally, coming up with ways to wow your ideal client is the easy part. The hard part is identifying the most important promises to make, and which ones not to make.

Narrowing down what you will and won’t do gives you leverage, making it easier and more profitable to scale. Once you’re clear on this, your one-phrase strategy is the key to helping the leadership and employees at all levels to focus actions, decide where to improve and what to let go of.

Final Words

Making brand promises and differentiating yourself in the marketplace is expensive. Customers will continue to want more and more, while paying less and less, so it’s critical that you focus on what really matters to your ideal customer AND your bottom line – and be willing to let go of the rest.

This is not about market share. In fact, it likely means you will ignore huge percentage of the market in order to focus on a smaller segment that truly value your brand promises, and are willing to put up with some trade-offs.

That clarity and commitment is the key to scaling up profitably.