The Shelf Life of Relevancy

by Holland-Mark | May 4, 2010

Woolworth's entrance
Image by toml1959 via Flickr

Twenty years ago the shelf life of relevancy was at least a good ten years. If you had a product or service offering that carried even a mildly distinct and relevant value proposition it was virtually guaranteed to produce healthy profits, loyal customers, and decent top-line growth for a decade or more. Polaroid’s shelf life was seventy years. Pan Am’s even more. Hell, Woolworth’s lasted 118 years. Now much has been written about how and why brands die so let’s not tread that well-trodden ground. My point is that the times literally have changed; the shelf life of relevancy is down to years and maybe even months. Any marketer that thinks that some combination of intellectual property, brand value, happy customers, price advantage, etc., serves as long-term competitive insulation is most probably naive and on the verge of getting their clock cleaned.

So the first order of business is to accept that ugly reality. 

The second is to look the cold, hard truth in the eyes. To candidly examine where the chinks are in your brand armor and/or where the world seems to be heading in terms of buying or not buying what you’re selling. In Clay Christiansen’s oldie but goodie book from 1996, “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” he repeatedly suggests that one cause of leading brands ultimately losing to new “disruptive” technologies is that they aren’t willing to embrace the truth and believe that their leadership position is vulnerable to anything. Some call that hubris.

The third order of business is to un-bridle corporate imagination while giving direct consideration to the equity zone. What does that mean? Visioning, envisioning, and re-visioning are the tasks of hope, of possibility, of what if. But they are tasks that must be mindful of the real equities of the brand vis à vis the trend line of social equity. Most brands forget that point, which is why most line extensions or segment expansion efforts fail. Take Oldsmobile. They tried to go younger when their equities were clearly older. And they were going up against a declining social equity trend line, e.g., their demo was dying off and the new generation wanted nothing to do with them. I hear VW wants to go mainstream, pull away from the kids. Uh oh. 

Which brings me to the fourth order:

Growth may not always be the right goal. In fact fixation on growth may be the recipe for a rapid demise. For Polaroid to have transitioned from silver halide film to digital imaging probably would have required it getting smaller in order to get bigger. Now the shareholders wouldn’t have liked that message much, but look what they ended up with… The other side of it is that perhaps all brands have a fixed shelf life (religions and nation states aside). Can Corporate America accept the concept of “Inevitable Obsolescence”?

The fifth “to do” is to invest in intellectual and analytical rigor. Because even if you’ve accepted the reality, are in eye contact with the truth, and have concocted a lovely vision of your brand’s next incarnation, the devil (or salvation) can be in the details. And again most brands, big and small, are simply not very good at examining the data and the details to validate or invalidate what they’re planning. And once they execute they tend not to be very good at measuring the results of their efforts. Make data your best friend.

These five orders of business represent somewhere between the requisite cultural mindset and a strategic planning sensibility to extend the shelf life of relevancy. Increasing shelf life, or the “time value of your brand,” demands embracing and responding to the truth of it all, in real time and real ways. It’s not hard, but it can be a wee bit uncomfortable. But so can the alternative.

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