In 1960, Theodore Levitt wrote a landmark article for the Harvard Business Review titled, "Marketing Myopia." When it was republished in 2004, HBR editors said the article, "introduced the most influential marketing idea of the past half century."
In a quintessential passage in the article, Levitt explained the decline of railroads in terms that have become part of the fabric of business:
"The railroads did not stop growing because the need for passenger and freight transportation declined. That grew. The railroads are in trouble today not because that need was filled by others (cars, trucks, airplanes, and even telephones), but because it was not filled by the railroads themselves. They let others take customers away from them because they assumed themselves to be in the railroad business rather than in the transportation business."
In essence, Levitt argued that railroads fell into decline because they remained tied to their past, while technological and other developments gave customers more effective ways to meet their transportation needs.
The tendency to stick with what's worked in the past even as the competitive environment changes is one of the biggest dangers facing business and marketing leaders. All types of companies design and implement business processes and develop a set of values in order to accomplish certain objectives and guide operations. Over time, these processes and values become part of a company's DNA.
When market, competitive, or technological conditions change, most business and marketing leaders usually respond by making incremental changes to their existing processes and values - even if the real solution is to do something new. As Don Peppers wrote a few years ago, ". . . we go to greater and greater lengths to preserve our traditional routines, until pretty soon we're crossing an entire ocean just to be able to do things the way we've always done them . . ."
The Need for Clean Slate Thinking
The most effective way to combat this dangerous tendency is to periodically analyze the market environment and fundamental business issues from the perspective of a new business. In other words, you need to step away from your existing strategies and practices and ask: What would we do if we were starting our company from scratch in today's market environment? What would we do to maximize our chances for success given current market conditions?
Thinking this way is difficult because it doesn't come naturally to most of us. Plus, some people will question the value of this approach because it's inherently unrealistic. No existing business ever works with a truly clean slate; it always has resources, processes, and values that define what the business is and limit the actions it can take.
Nevertheless, this "unrealistic" way of thinking if vitally important because:
- It brings vulnerabilities to the surface and makes them visible. If there are significant differences between your current strategies and practices and those you would use if you were starting from scratch, those differences likely constitute competitive weaknesses.
- It will frequently reveal the importance of adopting new business and marketing strategies, and thus provide the impetus for making difficult changes.
Don't Waste the Crisis
When Winston Churchill was working on the creation of the United Nations after World War II, he reportedly said, "Never let a good crisis go to waste."
The economic disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic has been significant and painful for most companies and for most marketers. Many companies froze marketing spending a few weeks ago, and it's not yet clear how much spending will recover over the balance of this year. Regardless of spending levels, however, it is clear that the marketing environment will be fundamentally different for at least the next several months.
So as painful as the pandemic has been, marketing leaders should use it as a catalyst for rethinking their entire approach to marketing. Not everything will need to be changed - at least not permanently - but it's likely that some changes will need to be permanent.
Under these circumstances, the best way to chart an effective path forward is to reevaluate everything without being tied to your past.
Image courtesy of Affen Ajlfe (www.modup.net) via Flickr CC.