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When New Companies Tap Timeless Values, Consumers Respond

Timeless values applied via new technology can democratize markets and extend access to experiences, goods, and services. Here are some companies getting that right.

When New Companies Tap Timeless Values, Consumers Respond

The trailer for the forthcoming movie The Internship works for three reasons. First, the proven bromantic comedy duo of Vince Vaughan and Owen Wilson is reunited, older and no wiser. Second, audiences have what is likely firsthand experience with the basic premise–veteran employees who suddenly find not only their jobs, but also their industry, facing extinction. Third, and most interestingly, the trailer works because everybody can empathize with the heroes’ answer to their predicament: bag a job at Google.

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It’s a reminder of how–for all the drastic economic, technological and behavioral change it’s experienced in recent times–American aspirational culture still needs hero companies, just like it always did. U.S. news channels obsess over Google’s share price as a measure of national success, just as it once would have focused on General Motors. Like the newspaper entrepreneur William Randolph Hearst, Mark Zuckerberg and his media influence (for better or worse) have been mythologized on screen. Today, of course, technology means these titans move at warp speed: Whereas Hearst was in his 70s by the time Citizen Kane was released; Zuckerberg was in his mid-20s when The Social Network premiered.

Ours is a time that celebrates the new, right now. But in our enthusiasm for the latest innovations and startups, we often forget that many very modern businesses successes stem from timeless values. That’s partially a matter of how a company is perceived by people, but it’s also very much about how it treats them. It’s about remembering the little things as you race towards your grander goals.

Google is a case in point. When people visit one of the company’s offices for the first time, they don’t just speak about the futuristic wonders they’ve witnessed; they talk about the awesome cafeteria, and how lucky those who work there are to have license to raid it.

In a world where automated communication is effortless and cheap, we appreciate the personal touches. Modern movements like slow food, the craft renaissance and the celebration of all things “artisan” and “vintage” also bear witness to a craving for classic virtues to complement modern, on-demand, virtual lives.

At a glance, digital might superficially seem the antithesis of that craft ethos. But done properly, it’s the best modern means we have of embodying it for the masses. If late 20th-century branding was based on consumer goods mass-produced to be outward signifiers of success and status, then its future is about digital services that not only extend and enhance the resilience of products, but also change the rules of consumerism.

Today it’s more about what you share online, not own offline. It’s much less about the device you carry, but how you connect with others. An obvious example is in the way the book or newspaper you were reading was an unavoidably public status symbol in the past. But now, when you’re reading your iPad, Kindle, or Instapaper, nobody knows whether it’s the Financial Times, Finnegan’s Wake, or 50 Shades.

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This shift in how we attribute value to goods and services will continue and intensify. The appeal of innovative future products will be as much about their smart digital connections as their physical forms.

That’s not to stay we’ll suddenly stop appreciating craft or artisanship; more that we will see their values applied thoughtfully and holistically. As good entrepreneurs have known for centuries, it isn’t about making the sale, but keeping the customer satisfied.

Old values and customs are important precisely because they’ve been road-tested in real human societies over decades, centuries or even longer. Today, the most interesting innovations are often the ones that use technology to reconnect with old goals in new ways.

Science Exchange, for instance, is a service that enables people working in a laboratory to pool their resources instead of duplicating research and renting equipment others already own. You put the parts of the work you can’t do in-house out to tender by other members, to the point where you could conduct experiments in anti-gravity on the International Space Station. So it’s not only “modern” in the sense that it’s bringing great efficiencies and expanding access. It’s also old-fashioned in that it embodies the founding principle of the discipline of science itself, namely a sworn devotion to expand knowledge and human enlightenment.

Yourmechanic.com does something similar for consumer-level science by allowing car owners to find mechanics who can fix their cars on their properties, on their terms. The site takes care of the payments, the references and the terms, then the mechanic and the driver just do the job. In offering verified work histories, impartial expert advice and a binding quote system for jobs, the site does all the things that people have always wished automotive repair chains would. In doing so, it makes the idea of service–too often an empty name for a cynical revenue stream–a meaningful value once again.

You don’t have to own a car to benefit from this kind of new-old improvement. Silvercar, the airport car rental service newly established at Fort Worth Airport, uses digital to reassert the eternal values of simplicity and thoughtful curation in enhancing user experiences. As well as eschewing excessive charges for refueling and other staple car rental complaints, the company’s entire fleet is composed of a single (silver) model, an Audi A4 with all the trimmings, including Wi-Fi. The accompanying smartphone app is designed to prevent the queues, hidden charges, and compromises that we’d previously had to endure, but never accepted as reasonable or pleasurable.

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Nest is a young company that places value on something that has been a priceless human preoccupation since the dawn of time: keeping warm. The new-age thermostat maker also puts a value on something that’s a real concern in more and more people’s lives: the price of fuel, both to the consumer and the environment. Its thermostat uses your Wi-Fi network to learn about and respond to your behavior around the house and so prevent wasted energy. It’s the ancient value of caring, in action.

Everlane is a clothing company that cuts costs to improve value, just as so many great modern fashion businesses have (think of Mickey Drexler and his save-on-the-marketing budget, feel-the-quality ethos at J.Crew). Its promise to its customers is that, in cutting out the management and marketing tiers needed to operate at physical retail, it gives them clothes that ultimately work and look better for them at a better price. It feels like the future–and not un-coincidentally, like the best of the past too. In the U.K., until the 1950s, the average working man in Britain got all his shirts and clothes made-to-measure at his high-street tailor. That wasn’t because he was rich; it was because that was the best, most convenient way to make his budget and his outfit work for him.

Opening up areas by offering better value in them is one of the eternal values of the entrepreneur. Old values intelligently applied through new technologies can democratize markets and extend access to experiences, goods, and services. New businesses, with their lack of vested interest or reasons to fear risk, are often best positioned to get back in touch with those values. You let more people have the things lots of people have always wanted. And that’s not an ethos I will ever regard as out-of-date.

–Ajaz Ahmed is the founder of AKQA, the co-author of Velocity and regularly contributes to The Guardian.

[Image: Flickr user Viktor Rosenfeld]

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