It’s become an almost daily occurrence. Yet another headline highlighting the challenge of what was once a phenomenally successful brand or organization struggling to stay ahead of accelerating changes in the marketplace. Its waning relevance to consumers, a significant contributing factor to its travails. There’s Barnes & Noble, the one-time bookseller giant, acquired by hedge fund, Elliott Management. JC Penney shuttering another two dozen stores. Shares of Kraft Heinz, once commanding a premium, suffering yet another downdraft. Subway, Victoria’s Secret, and even the venerable Sears moving ever closer to the edge. These stories appear with such regularity, they’re often met with a shrug of the shoulders and an involuntary grimace.
A shrug and grimace notwithstanding, as career branding professionals, the headlines, and the stories behind them, prompted me and my colleague, New York University Stern Business School professor, Joel Steckel, to seriously question this growing trend. More than question, to dig deep into the reasons, and to write a book about it. Not an academic book, but a prescriptive one. We wanted to understand how the best organizations successfully shift ahead to stay relevant and maintain leadership in their categories, specifically in a world that’s changing faster and more furiously than ever. We wanted to determine why it is that some organizations can continually evolve to meet the times, consumer demands, and the marketplace, and others cannot. Why some continue to thrive as their world turns, and others don’t.
To get to the answer, we conducted extensive research including interviewing over one hundred people in organizations big and small, legacy brands and those a few years from start-up, both for-profit and non-profit, across a spectrum of brand categories. The copious research yielded a number of conclusions and considerably easier-said-than-done solutions. While we identified many reasons one organization can effectively change course, while another can’t, herewith are the three most significant obstacles that stand in the way of success.
Reason One: Too Late to the Game
The most common – and obvious – reason for a drop in relevance and value is that an organization is just too late to the game. While they may see the warning signals in the road ahead, by the time they start to react in any meaningful way, meaningful opportunities have passed. Quite simply, the organization is running out of money. Sales are down, profits are down, and there is not enough in the till to invest in reinvention, the initiatives required to shift ahead. Metaphorically speaking, the organization suffers from “empty pockets.”
Inherent in the problem of reacting too late to changes in market conditions is that, often, the best talent has begun to leave for greener pastures and more gratifying career opportunities. Good people see their chances for success diminish when working for a company with diminishing returns. They do not want to be collateral damage and don’t want to tie their fortunes to a losing proposition. They see no opportunity for growth or even their own reinvention.
Another difficulty posed by being late to the game is that another company has seen where you should have been going and has gotten a head start. In this competitive marketplace, if you’re not the first or possibly second to identify a consumer need and solve it, there’s little chance of catching up.
Blackberry is a textbook example of this dilemma. In the late 2000s, the Blackberry smartphone was the ubiquitous choice of device on both Wall Street and Capitol Hill. In 2009, the company had a 21 percent worldwide phone market share. By 2013, this had fallen to 1 percent. While arrogance played a large part in this fall from grace, more critically Blackberry saw its devices as email-enabled mobile phones rather than the powerful mobile computers envisioned by Google and Apple. The company insisted on continuing to create phones with keyboards versus touchscreens and, more so, didn’t take advantage of the massive adoption of applications and the benefits of third-party developers. This failure to keep up with what consumers increasingly saw as relevant was a consequence of errors in Blackberry’s strategy and vision. By the time they saw the light, it was too late to regain category dominance.
Reason Two: Golden Handcuffs
Relevance is about managing the tension between staying attuned to what your customers want, but also in tune with where the world is going. This being said, the second major barrier to successfully shifting ahead is what we call “golden handcuffs.” The current business is so profitable that shifting to a new model might very well result in making less money for the short term. It’s a genuine challenge to keep Wall Street happy while still looking ahead and investing for the future. In most cases, the new venture will initially be less profitable given that you’ve learned how to optimize your current offering. What will happen if you take money from your most profitable business and invest in something new? Savvy, forward-thinking organizations are willing to take the risk to bet on the future. They are willing and able to deal with the short term returns knowing the longer-term prospects will pay off.
Kodak, and its fall from iconic status, is a prime example of this. Given that Kodak’s core business was selling film, it is not hard to see why the disruptions of digital technology posed a challenge to them. Although the company was actually among the first to explore the possibilities of photography in the digital age, where they failed was in realizing what business they were actually in. They continued to frame themselves as a chemical film company versus an imaging company versus a moment-sharing company. Kodak had the money and the talent to make the transition required to stay relevant, but not the risk tolerance.
Reason Three: Wrong DNA
The third major reason that organizations can’t successfully shift ahead to stay relevant is that they ignore the significance of the organization’s DNA. They look to move into areas for which they do not possess the innate skills and the talent to execute and deliver brilliantly, not to mention credibility in the sector. They may shift, but it’s out of their areas of expertise. Consider Xerox, for example. Its claim to fame and initial fortune was built on highly profitable large copiers and other office equipment. As digital technology disrupted the category, it failed to recognize the potential of its own technology and shifted into strategic consulting solutions. While a smart and pioneering company, consulting was not part of its DNA and not conducive to success in this arena. On the flip side, Marriott getting into the vacation home rental market to keep an edge on Airbnb makes sense. Its DNA is rooted in the hospitality business.
With the pace of change accelerating at such a dizzying speed, small errors in navigation can come with huge consequences. Businesses that have the ability to course-correct – quickly and effectively – will be those that succeed. This ability to shift ahead to stay relevant is the most challenging, yet most essential skill required in today’s marketplace. It can help keep a brand in the headlines for all the right reasons.
Cover image: Radovan Paška