Navigate disruption by focusing on brand and developing new products, businesses
Strong values can endure
severe market change
by Stephen Wallace
European Brand Planning Lead
As the old adage goes, change is the only constant, but change happens at different speeds, and technology is making that speed faster and faster. So we have another word for high speed change: disruption. Perhaps the modern adage should be “disruption is the only constant.”
Disruption can strike fear into businesses—think Kodak and Olivetti—the fear that your business model is rapidly undermined by discontinuous innovation. This is especially painful when you consider that Olivetti is credited with launching the first commercial programmable desktop personal computer in 1964, and Kodak technologists created the foundations of digital imaging.
So perhaps the way for businesses to navigate disruption is to spend as much time focused on managing their brands as on developing new products and new business models.
A Harvard Business Review article titled “Surviving Disruption” declares that disruptors and legacy businesses should focus on defining new business models by asking: “What jobs do people need done and how could they be done more easily, conveniently, or affordably?” This seems to me a pretty good business model, equivalent to what brand managers should be asking themselves: “What purpose do consumers really value my brand for, and how can I express that in a contemporary context?”
My client, Ford Motor Company, is facing disruption in the form of autonomous vehicles, on-demand rides, and car-sharing from some of the most fearsome competitors on the planet: Google, Apple, Uber, Tesla and Zipcar.
But Ford has been asked itself this question and remembered that Henry Ford’s success was not just built on the invention of cost-efficient manufacturing through the production line and the division of labor. What Ford did for masses of people was to give them personal mobility at a time when motor cars were expensive playthings for the wealthy. And mobility for the masses meant getting produce to markets, people making connections with distant people, and expanding their horizons. It made people more productive; it allowed people to have holidays.
The roots of the Ford brand are in mobility, and in helping people move freely. This is why, just over a year ago, Ford created Ford Smart Mobility LLC, a new subsidiary to the company, formed to design, build, grow, and invest in emerging mobility services.
The first consumer-facing launch from Ford Smart Mobility was the introduction of FordPass, an app-based service built around point-to-point journey planning and marketplace services, such as parking and ride-sharing. Ford has also opened a Ford Hub in New York City to display their vision of a transportation future beyond cars. It doesn’t sell cars. Instead, large screens highlight different ways to reach New York City landmarks by bike, subway etc. A giant “marble run” model illustrates the idea of traffic congestion, plus other future-of-transportation concepts, like self-repairing roads.
Ford understands that what consumers have always valued the brand for is being able to move freely, and Ford is building new technology and new business models to help consumers do that.
In fact, acknowledging my own bias as a brand manager, I would go so far as to say that companies should focus more effort on understanding and living true to their brand purpose in order to safeguard themselves from being disrupted out of business.
Great brands focus single-mindedly on purpose. Ask anyone in Nike what their purpose is and they’ll tell you they’re out to make athletes perform better. They happen to make profit from being in businesses like sports shoes. So my advice to businesses across product categories facing the tension of change is to focus on their brands and the purposes consumers value those brands for.
Some categories face health concerns and regulatory pressure on sugar. But taking time to understand the value and the symbolism of your brands will help compensate for offering a product with less sugar. Fossil fuel businesses are not just energy providers, but owners of brands which are about pioneering and exploration, surety, convenience—symbols of national pride and inventiveness.
Strong values can endure change. You just need to unearth them.