What is Permission Space?

My business partner Syd Kessler, who has a knack for seeing patterns and tendencies (something he calls “pattern recognition”), coined a term that’s incredibly useful for us as marketers: Permission Space.  He got rich by exploding this theory, so why not try it in the boardroom and be a rockstar? If your boss starts saying it, you’re likely to be noticed!

None of us can be all things to all people. There are certain things we can believably offer and represent, and other things we cannot.  For instance, I don’t have “permission” to work in IT because of my total lack of aptitude in that area. Tom Hanks just doesn’t have permission in our collective psyche to believably play a villain, and he knows it; he fundamentally represents Goodness and has made a career from playing different iterations of that quality. In their failed attempt to act like Pepsi, Coca Cola did not have permission to take away Coke and replace it with New Coke – consumers hated the new formula. You can’t mess with people’s childhood memories!
But Permission Space is one level deeper still.  Permission Space is the concept that there is a specific range of ideas, or a mental territory, that any brand/company/person has the right to represent — very similar to saying that there is a “memetic system” of ideas that comprises a brand’s ownable territory, and anything outside of that is stretching the public’s ability to believe.

Here are few examples that demonstrate this concept:

  • Witness the current struggle of RIM as it tries to compete in some of the same Permission Space as Apple. Apple reins supreme in the zone of “Cool Creative Products for Play and Leisure”, whereas RIM established from the get go that they were about “Working Hard, Getting There Fast and Competing” – hence, the Blackberry.
  • Whereas President’s Choice, with the help of CIBC, discovered that underneath their initial food-focused product lines, they had a deeper level of permission that was more figurative:  Being trusted to find and provide quality everyday products and services from around the world – right to your local supermarket. That allowed them to move into banking, credit cards, clothing (via Joe Fresh) and other business lines that have made them quite the business school case study.
  • Honda is first to market with an affordable hybrid car, and sensibly decide to put a hybrid engine into the popular Civic, and slap the word “hybrid” on the back of the car. The launch is a complete failure. Toyota, on the other hand, realizes that the permission space for a hybrid is not mere fuel efficiency but the ability to show off to your friends and neighbors that you’re morally/intellectually superior – i.e., a statement car. They create the Prius, with its awkward shape and weird name. It’s a worldwide hit and changes the auto industry forever.

Indeed, knowing one’s Permission Space — is not a Nice to Have, it’s a total Must Have.