I know a guy who thinks he is a gift from the heavens. There’s a strut in his step, and a cock of the head anytime his opinion (“fact”) is questioned. I’ve heard that when challenged in primary school, he would interrupt ‘I’m right, my dad’s a doctor!’ While this anecdote got me giggling, it also got me thinking.
Do people really think their parents’ accomplishments guarantee their own expertise or success? We often hear about social ‘anomalies’ like whizz kids from underprivileged areas pioneering life-changing technology, or brands that started as struggling nothings and now set global trends. We look at these cases as outliers that escaped their otherwise doomed fates. But how did they manage to transcend the expected?
It all comes down to mindset.
I’ve encountered many brands with the ‘I’m right, my dad’s a doctor’ syndrome: riding on the legacy of the past without doing much to prove their worth today. They stick stubbornly to what they know, and choose pride over the change necessary to stay relevant in a rapidly changing world. Jim Collins discusses these kinds of brands in Good to Great, but let’s take a look at a few more recent brands that have relied too much on their past for future success.
What set them apart: The original Blackberries were the professional’s phone of choice: they were slick, enhanced accessibility and were, for a while, the only means of mobile email access.
Where it went wrong: Admittedly, remaining relevant in one of the world’s most competitive and quickly-evolving industries is tough. But Blackberry failed to acknowledge crucial changes in mobile consumer behaviour, assuming that their keyboard-based devices would always appeal to professionals and business-oriented individuals.
What set them apart: Yahoo! was a forerunner in web-based services such as email and file sharing, back when Web search and aggregation were still unfamiliar territory. The brand grew through a number of services into a powerful Web portal.
Where it went wrong: Yahoo’s first mistake was trying to charge Web-wary customers for their services, while Google offered everything free. Yahoo also tried to be all things to all people – a sports, finance and news reporter; a recruitment agency; and a generator of original entertainment. Relying on their past assumptions meant Yahoo became mediocre at all things instead of excellent at one or two.
What set them apart: Xerox originally manufactured photographic paper and equipment, rising to prominence with the Xerox 914 – the first plain paper photocopier – as the best means through which to simplify business life.
Where it went right: Xerox has leveraged their leadership position as a global services brand by cultivating a culture of innovation that is inspired by delivering effective customer solutions. The brand built on their industry-altering foundations to become the world’s leading enterprise for business process and document management.
Some brands quietly fade into obscurity; others fight tenaciously to keep their heads above water before sinking quickly with a splash. What is clear is that counting on previous success to retain credibility is a mindset that leads to failure. It prevents change, stifles innovation and encourages a culture of complacency in which groupthink overrides rational thought.
Strong brand heritage can be a powerful foundation on which to build future success. Established, solid brand equity gives you a little breathing room to innovate and make mistakes while retaining consumer loyalty and trust. It means you have a capital base that allows for risk-taking without bankrupting the business. It also ensures that internal stakeholders are already aligned to a winning culture. But heritage can never be more than a foundation. Don’t become sentimental about it – consumers certainly aren’t.
We love to remember the glory days. And why not? Recounting victory is fun: from the guilty indulgence of a humble-brag, to the retelling of war stories and ‘the good old days.’ Brands should be able to acknowledge past achievements – but they should never expect those past achievements to uphold their reputation today.
Past success can be a brand asset or it can be a dangerous distraction. Whether it’s used to stifle innovation or inspire the business to do even better is up to you.
It all comes down to mindset.