Over the past 5 years or so, it’s it happen more times than we care to remember …maybe even at a company that we once worked at. (For me it was Countrywide Home Loans.) I’m talking about a company or brand that was once a familiar part of the business landscape which is now no longer around. Disappeared. Gone and forgotten. From Oldsmobile to Borders bookstores to more big city and community newspapers than one can count.
The fact that “going out of business” has become such a growth business, it got me thinking about a question I’ve posed time and again to the marketing leadership of companies during this “New Normal.”
The question is simple and insightful — and it’s worth taking seriously as you evaluate your approach to strategy, competition, and innovation. Here it is: If your company went out of business tomorrow, would anybody really miss you and why? Let that swim around in your brain for a bit.
If that question didn’t concern you…maybe it should. What’s being done in order to make your brand important enough and invaluable to your customer so that they feel they could not live without, or at worst not want to live without you? Here are 5 ways to help make your company or brand so meaningful that your various customers would notice if you went out of business.
First, you must provide a product or service so different that it can’t be provided nearly as well by any of your main competitors. Mercedes would certainly be one, maybe even Ritz-Carlton and Southwest Airlines as well. But really, how many products or services fall into this group? Do your customers see you as a “must” or a “they’ll do”? How many viable options are there to what you offer? Do they trust you to follow through on what you’re telling them? What makes you so special…really?
Second, meaningful brands are created by people with a vision and a passion, and destroyed by “caretakers.” Perhaps the founder of a company identified a niche or angle that was unique and pursued it with passion. But once the brand is relinquished into the hands of “caretakers” more focused on the financials and preserving the status quo, it can tend to be slowly destroyed. Marketing, and I mean the kind of marketing that moves people to act, is something seen getting smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror. Former President Reagan once said “Status quo is Latin for the ‘mess we’re in’.” Amen.
Third, make sure that the company continues to innovate and not stand still when the brand realizes some success. When something works, either because it was thought through or, more times than not, by other factors, the “don’t fix it if it is not broken” philosophy kicks in. The growth of the brand or company stalls, instead of constantly trying to evolve, improve and adapt to the changing world. One cannot win a race by standing still. Vanilla/mediocre advertising is a big contributor to — or perhaps the result of — standing still.
Fourth, your company must forge a uniquely emotional connection with your customers that other companies can’t copy. Apple is an obvious passion brand in the performance-obsessed technology world. HBO is a brand in the fussy media market that doesn’t just have viewers but devoted followers. But in a world of endless choices, how many companies and brands do you know that have achieved the status that inspires “loyalty beyond reason?” Is there a reason why your brand shouldn’t one? Can your company be an Apple, Starbucks or HBO to your customers? If your answer is “we can be a brand like that”… good for you!
Lastly, look at the marketplace and understand who you’re competing against. Many companies and brands define their business too narrowly just like stagecoach owners did. They focused on offering the best stagecoach service, the cheapest stagecoach service or the fastest stagecoach service. Eventually other forms of getting people from “A” to “B” came along, like when the jet plane destroyed the lucrative transatlantic ocean liner business. You need to define what business you’re in and who the competition really is. Food for thought: If Google’s the one ranking your business against your peers, then it makes sense to understand who they think you’re similar to, right? Type in your own URL in the search bar and see what comes up. You may be surprised.
The fact is, a very few companies meet any of these criteria — which may be why so many companies feel like they are on the verge of going out of business. So the next time someone at work urges you to think small and settle, ask them why they believe that playing it safe is playing it smart. That’s what they thought at Saturn, E.F. Hutton and House and Garden magazine — and look how it worked out for them! For, as they found, their customers could live without them.
At the end of the day, if your customers can live without you, eventually they will. If you do business the way everybody else does business, you’ll never do much better. If your answer to the question of whether anyone would notice if your company or brand went out of business is “no” or “not sure” – you need to focus on how to ensure it doesn’t happen. What is your marketing doing to make sure that doesn’t happen?