One of the truly jarring dimensions of the Great Recession is the death sentence it has imposed on of hundreds of brands, even whole companies, that were once familiar parts of the business landscape — not just bankruptcies, but liquidations and flat-out disappearances. Once-proud automobile nameplates, including GM's Oldsmobile and Pontiac, and Ford's Mercury, have become history. The ghosts of once-prominent (and now liquidated) retailers, from Circuit City to Virgin Megastores to Linens N Things, haunt shopping malls from coast to coast. And then there are the obituaries for so many newspapers, including the Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and many more too depressing to list.
The fact that "going out of business" has become such a growth business got me thinking about a question I heard years ago from advertising legend Roy Spence, cofounder of GSD&M, who told me he heard it from strategy guru Jim Collins. Whomever the original source, it's a question I've posed time and again to organizations and their leaders who are searching for the courage to make big positive change in tough economic times.
The question is as profound as it is simple — 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? Think about it for a moment. Why might a company be missed? First, because it's providing a product or service so unique that it can't be provided nearly as well by the five or six other companies that are its main rivals. BMW falls into this camp, maybe Ritz-Carlton and Emirates Airlines. But really, how many products or service do you know for which this is true? Your car? Your dishwasher? Your mutual funds? Your credit cards? In all of these categories, aren't there plenty of pretty-good alternatives to whatever choice you're making today?
Second, a company might be missed because it has created a workplace so dynamic and energetic that most employees would be hard-pressed to find a similar environment somewhere else. To be sure, in this brutal economy, having any job beats being jobless. But how many places have you worked in, or how many workplaces do you know of, where folks are so fired up to report for duty on Monday morning that if they had to go find a new job on Tuesday morning they'd miss their old surroundings? These days, the only thing lower than customer satisfaction is employee satisfaction.
Finally, a company might be missed because it has forged a uniquely emotional connection with customers that other companies can't replicate. That is, a relationship based not just on the economic value it has to offer, but the values with which it conducts itself. Apple is an obvious passion brand in the performance-obsessed technology world — maybe the greatest passion brand in the whole world. HBO comes to mind as a passion brand in the notoriously fickle media market, a network that has doesn't just have viewers but devoted followers. But ultimately, in a world of non-stop competition and endless choices, how many companies and brands do you know that have achieved the status that Kevin Roberts, of Saatchi & Saatchi, calls a lovemark — in his words, a product, service or entity that inspires "loyalty beyond reason."
The fact is, precious few companies meet any of these three criteria — which may be why so many companies feel like they are on the verge of going out of business. So the next time colleagues urge you to think small and downsize your dreams, ask why they believe that playing it safe is playing it smart. That's what they thought at Oldsmobile and Mercury and Circuit City and the Rocky Mountain News — and look how it worked out for them!
Here's the real message: If your customers can live without you, eventually they will.
Here's the big challenge: If you do business the way everybody else does business, you'll never do any better.
Here's the urgent question: If your company went out of business, would anybody notice?
Good luck as you work on your answers.