It’s the spring of 2002, and you’ve just been invited to attend one of Blockbuster Video’s quarterly board meetings. Great news: the company’s stock has just hit a new high of $30, and spirits are rowdy. As the board is on the verge of wrapping up the proceedings, and congratulating the CEO for yet another successful year, you discreetly slip a Powerpoint slide onto the screen with the tagline, Blockbuster. Watch your favorites. Anytime. For free.
Now let's imagine another scenario, this one from the early 1970s. You’re in a top-floor boardroom with Polaroid’s senior management. The company is doing great, and there’s no reason to think those iconic, Instamatic cameras won’t be around forever. When no one’s looking, you rustle with your laptop again, this time around coming up with an impertinent little slide that trumpets: Polaroid: Fast, beautiful photo sharing.
Years later, no one present in these two rooms could imagine these slogans would represent two category-busting new ideas, Hulu and Instagram. No one got it. No one even said, "Hmmm, that's worth thinking about." Far more likely the executives in the room stared at you piteously, then asked to see your visitor’s pass.
Science has shown that human beings prefer routine roughly 12 times more than they do change. The more pressure we’re under, the more we seek to surround ourselves with familiar rituals and protocols to maintain an ongoing (if slightly spurious) peace of mind. This holds true for business leaders and managers, as well as consumers. Which helps explain why in the wake of the recession, such stalwart, time-tested toys such as LEGO, the Rubik's Cube and even Barbie continued boasting brisk sales. In shaky or uncertain environments, we slide by default into the proven, the tried and true.
Yet paradoxically, there’s no better time than in the midst of routine to disrupt business as usual by coming up with an apparently wild idea that thumbs its nose at every entrenched wisdom your company holds dear. Along the way, you might stumble across a random slogan that transforms your industry’s future.
Let me give you an example.
Less than a year after the Internet exploded into the mainstream, LEGO hired me to help them answer the question: Where should our brand go from here? Two weeks later, I showed up in LEGO’s company boardroom armed with a very simple strategy: Quit with the plastic pieces. Go digital.
To say the least, it didn’t go over very well. Minutes after I left the meeting room, my consulting services were politely terminated. Yet approximately three years later, having witnessed a steady increase of Web-based LEGO applications that had co-opted the attention of core LEGO aficionados more than anyone in the room could have imagined, LEGO re-hired me. In short, the very moment when management feared that an infinite number of freebie online LEGO bricks would undo their business, turned out to be the ideal time to strike.
Over the years, I’ve worked with many companies who stubbornly believe their product couldn’t be beat. Some were right. Most were wrong. Very often, some of the world’s most iconic brands wake up to an extraordinary industry shift that takes them by surprise—but which, looking back, could have been predicted. The question is: wouldn’t it be better to intuit what the future may resemble before market forces and innovations "suddenly" wreak havoc with your company a few years down the line?
My advice? Throw a live-wire idea—or two, or three, or four—onto your boardroom table now. Get speculative. Get futuristic. Put on your Spock ears. Grab your TED microphone. There’s no other way to uncover how poised you are for a radical change in your industry’s future. If you’re a technology company, spend some time surfing the web in search of intriguing and even jarring slogans that could smash your entire category—such as Skype’s "The Whole World Can Talk for Free," or Compaq’s "Has it Changed Your Life Yet?" Now try one or another of these slogans on for size. Do they transform the near and far edges of your business? Next question: Who got there first—you or someone else?
While you’re at it, why not contemplate a handful of smaller disruptions as well? For example, if someone told you that by 2012 you would have to forgo all TV, radio, and direct mail, how would you react? What if someone threatened to slice your budget in half by this time next year, while insisting you perform better than you did this year? What if you joined forces with a key competitor with a single menacing mission: to eradicate your own company? What if one of your main rivals brokered a truly inspiring alliance with another brand or organization, disrupting your sleep for weeks on end for the simple reason that this game-changing partnership hadn’t occurred to you first?
Put these imaginary scenarios into practice. Now’s the time to act on them before anyone else does.
In corporate America, the courage to be different and quirky is an ever-shrinking attribute. My branding experience has shown me that companies generally show vision or take risks only when they’re forced to scramble. Which is why I recommend that you pre-order your own wake-up call today. For 24 hours, place your organization under the highest pressure possible. Let the marketing people revisit their time-tested strategies. Let the R&D people chuck their 3-year plans. Let senior management playfully bomb its longstanding business model. "A competitive world offers two possibilities," Lester Thurow once said. "You can lose. Or, if you want to win, you can change." Why not voluntarily put yourself in the line of future possibility and let transformation in before it’s too late?
Martin Lindstrom is a 2009 recipient of TIME Magazine’s "World's 100 Most Influential People" and author of Buyology—Truth and Lies About Why We Buy (Doubleday, New York), a New York Times and Wall Street Journal best–seller. A frequent advisor to heads of numerous Fortune 100 companies, Lindstrom has also authored 5 best sellers translated into 30 languages. More at martinlindstrom.com.
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