Ideas, meaning, purpose and fluff: when brand strategy goes wrong

(This is an archive find and one of my few longer pieces. I wrote it just before leaving Landor back in 2011 and later edited it with the help of Frances Gordon. It's seeing the light of day for the first time and I believe it is still relevant. Hell, every project is a Déjà vu... If you're interested in the shorter, blog-friendly version, you may find this post about 'the meaning trap' useful.) Mission, worldview, vision, values, personality, role, insight, opportunity, story... Has your brand strategy proliferated so much that it’s hard to see the wood from the trees? If so, you’re not alone. Read this article to understand how it’s happened, why it’s happened, and what you can do about it.

Smart and succinct brand language is proven successful

Most celebrated brands find their articulation through simple phrases: Apple has “Think different”; GE has “Imagination at work”; Sony has “Make.Believe.   Google’s mission statement is simply “to organise the world‘s information and make it universally accessible and useful’’. While corporations may have more detailed versions internally, it is these surprisingly short phrases that are most often cited as best practice by marketers and most often admired by everyone else. Because once the fundamental creed of a brand is identified, very little strategic language is necessary. So instead of focusing on endless wording and rewording, corporations can focus on taking action to make their strategies live. ‘’Brand language” plays a greater role than that of a slogan. These words become central to the ethos of the brand. These short statements serve to rally together internal and external communities of a corporation. At its best, this “strategic language” gives communities focused, lucid creeds that have clear strategic imperatives and imply real-world action. But if smart and succinct wording is recognised as best practice for brand strategies, why – more often than not - do we see reams of overcomplicated text used to articulate what should be a clear concept?

But the language of brand strategy is often verbose and clumsy

In many organisations, brand platforms grow and proliferate almost every quarter. Decision-makers say they want to be as clear as Google or Apple, but in the same breath introduce their staff to long hierarchies of proliferated brand bumf: mission, worldview, vision, values, personality, role, insight, opportunity, story... the list goes on. As one tries to work one’s head around this black hole of words, the corporations’ decision-makers will often explain the urgent need for an additional, focused and simple, positioning statement.
What we as consultants often hear: you know the brand temple... remember, the brand strategy that replaced the brand house. The one that morphed from the pyramid that was paired with the original vision-mission-values platform from the 90s. We now need a positioning statement that brings all those elements together. (We once came across a client that had a “Brand Key” which was, naturally, lock shaped).The job of the strategist should be to create shorter, more succinct statements that lead organisations to take meaningful action.
Strategic proliferation is bad strategy; it is what author and business consultant, Richard Rumelt would place in the category of “fluff”: fancy language disguising a lack of content. In Rumelt’s words:
‘[fluff is] a form of gibberish masquerading as strategic concepts or arguments. It uses ‘Sunday’ words (words that are inflated and unnecessarily abstruse) and apparently esoteric concepts to create the illusion of high-level thinking’. 
Creative strategists will find easy to agree with Rumelt. Clearly, the usefulness of articulating the organisation’s creed will only go as far as the core ideas of that creed. But burying a truthful core under heaps of words poses a greater risk than an innocuous slice of “extra fluffy’’ strategy.

Why you should avoid a proliferated brand strategy:

Strategic proliferation can and will kill your brand strategy and, over the long-term, your brand. It will rob your brand of its fundamental equity, ingredients deeply rooted in marketing’s truths – credibility, relevance and differentiation. Here is a more specific list of its dangers:
  1. You lose the potential for action: At best, your brand idea just becomes harder to understand. At worst, it starts sounding phoney and the potential of action drowns in verbosity.
  1. You lose control over your briefs: When your brand platform has a double-digit number of themes, metaphors, narratives and value-laden terms, you have created a brief open to interpretation. Readers connect the dots whichever way they please - and their work is without strategic direction.
  1. You lose focus on good strategy: While fluff is bad strategy’s favourite disguise, even good strategy can get lost in it. A proliferated strategy obscures your solution and makes it impossible to identify the critical issues.
  1. You lose direction: With proliferation creating obscurity, freedom of interpretation and detachment from the real situation, it is easy for a brand to lose its way. And with people losing faith in its credibility and not bothered about its imperatives, anything can happen – even a complete loss of direction.

Causes of a proliferated strategy

Here are the six most common causes of a proliferated strategy:
  1. Confusion between sophistication and complexity: there is a myth that sophisticated ideas need long explanations, and that longer documents are more trustworthy. This tendency opens the door to both fluff and a tendency to include unnecessary, distracting detail.
  1. Box ticking: To become successful, many brands need to stand out from an array of similar competitors, judged on similar criteria. Ironically, the evolution of many corporations is that they become more and more like their competitors. Many industries (for example, professional services) have generic leader-sets. In these situations, companies are obsessed with ticking all requirements even when their reputation means that those requirements go without saying. This will generate a long list of redundant elements and subjects that serve no strategic purpose.
  1. Ego: New stakeholders often feel they need to leave their mark on the brand strategy, whether it needs changing or not. If the strategy is already wordy and unwieldy, their additions tend to compound the problem, especially if, rather than taking the bold step of changing what they want to change, they merely add new elements so that they do not ruffle corporate feathers.
  1. A melting pot of methodologies: The discipline of Marketing is guilty of breeding inconsistency and confusion. Academics and practitioners compete with each other by developing new methods or changing ones that were accepted in the past. Corporations are the victims of this: often they feel compelled to chop and change methodologies until they have built brand Frankensteins.
  1. Entropy, a gradual descent into disorder: As an organisation marches on in its search for meaning, desire to add explanation and detail distracts us from the original intention. It’s a strange phenomenon: when we feel an idea brings us closer to truth, we fall in love with it. But after a while, it no longer satisfies us – even if the situation has remained unchanged.
  1. Fear of action: Searching for the perfect meaning instead of acting on what you believe in is politically safer. It passes the time and makes you look busy without any obvious risks. Unfortunately, this behaviour is indeed risky: while you are rewriting your mission statement for the fifth time in six years your competitors may be actually doing
Take, for example Company X. Company X’s brand platform has been mutating for five years. It now has more than 10 core elements and double that number of implicit values. It’s further inflated with descriptions of the strategic background, audience, category, competition, etc... Closer inspection shows that you can find almost any of the eight themes common with their competitors and hygienic to their industry within this one platform. There’s truly something for everyone.The impact on the brand is profoundly negative: few employees feel the brand makes sense or is remarkable. Marketing managers in markets veer away from the global strategy. Creative agencies do whatever they want and just pay token tribute to any global guidelines. Almost nobody sees the platform (which hangs on the wall in many offices) as useful or directive; they simply “get on with business” and focus on tactics. Meantime, the brand is increasingly under-performing to the point of posing a risk to Company X’s future. So who is Company X? Truth is that this situation is so common that it could be about half of the companies who are seeking brand strategy at the moment.
How to avoid strategic proliferation So what should you do in the face of proliferation? Here are some ideas for an alternative approach:
  1. Trust the idea. Stick with the big idea and resist the temptation to explain it in all possible ways. Explanations and articulations should be in separate documents, not in the main strategy.
  1. Connect creed with clear directives to action. The moment you can’t identify the strategic imperative of an idea is probably the moment when it has stopped being an idea and has become a rambling thought.
  1. Be brief. The more concise your creed, the stronger it is.
  1. Believe in your brand articulation. Take your time finding the right articulation for your brand platform. Once you’ve found it, keep it: don’t rush back to unravel it the moment you encounter a challenge. Be sure you act on your creed.
  1. Let go. It’s almost investable that brand strategies will become proliferated at some stage in their lifetimes. Recognising the problem means you’re ready to take the bold step of rediscovering your creed. Be merciless. Cut the prolix, and – as Einstein said - make things as simple as possible, but not simpler.
  Rediscovering the roots of your creed will revitalise your brand. . To quote a famously simple brand idea: Just Do It!

Superbrands 2014: no brand is safe, but it’s never too late…

(Originally written following the publication of Superbrands 2014, then handed between editors until it was too late to publish. Points still valid though..)

The annual Superbrands list is a fun one. Unlike some brand lists/‘indexes' that are based on complex, notably opaque, brand equity models; models which often employ statistical calculation bordering on voodoo, it simply turns to the public with a list selected by experts and asks them about their perceptions.

Once a long list is selected by industry experts, participants are asked to consider which brands are ‘Superbrands’. A Superbrand being a brand which has established ‘the finest reputation... [and] offers customers significant emotional and/or tangible advantages over other brands, which (consciously or subconsciously) customers want and recognise.’ In addition, they are asked to judge the brands against the factors of quality, reliability and distinction. To answer those questions, participants have to fall back on their own perception of brands, and, arguably, also their perception of the perceptions of brands. With that in mind, it’s interesting to try and figure out the reasons behind the movements in the ratings. Since we’re in a perception-led territory, it makes one look back at the passing year and try to deduce how events, communications and the general zeitgeist banded together to create such an impact. If I had to summarise the lesson for brands from this year’s results it would be ‘no brand is safe, but it’s never too late.’ The three tech Superbrands of Apple, Google and Microsoft, have all registered a fall of between 1 and 12 places. Facebook fell out of the top 20 altogether. This may come as a surprise considering the ubiquity of these brands in our life. So what could it be? Keeping up the high, possibly unrealistic, expectation of the public for ongoing innovation could be a reason.  But maybe there’s also a law of diminishing returns. This is a common brand lifecycle pattern that brings indifference with ubiquity. Those techbrands find it harder to make people pay as much attention to their actions or get as excited about their innovations as they used to. Both smartphones and social media, the biggest drivers of the presence of these brands in our life, have had their moment and have not produced comparable remarkable moments in recent years. In addition, people are starting to notice some of the prices we pay when engaging with those brands, even if it’s ‘only' our attention and the time we spend with them. To that are added privacy and other corporate behaviour concerns such as tax avoidance. Very soon, from brands that exude novelty and excitement about the future they start their decline towards an emotional domain that is commonly associated with ubiquitous brands that the public is less excited by, even though they deliver consistently most of the time. Consistency can be appreciated, but it isn’t remarkable. Sound hard to believe? Think of mobile operator brands, none of which are in the top 20. They used to frequent the top of the charts until not long ago, but are now perceived as not that different from utility companies. Smartphone wars took over media and public attention from mobile operator wars but now their novelty too is lost. On the other hand, we have British Airways making a surprising comeback. I liked finding British Airways at the top. British Airways has been struggling with its brand for years, trying different directions, and yet the brand seemed to continue a slow decline. While my fellow British business travellers like complaining about the quality of the experience, the value for money and the crew's attitude, I’ve always liked BA. Maybe it was the dominant role they played in my own move to England and, for many years now, they have been a reliable symbol of coming home every time I land back in London. When BA finally made a move that was clearly about the essence of their brand, namely, the ‘To Fly. To Serve.’ campaign, many of my colleagues dismissed it as too little too late. They said this type of retro sentimentalism wasn’t going to work for the sceptic public or the disgruntled workforce. Well, it seems the British public disagrees. ‘To Fly. To Serve.’ demonstrated BA returning to its roots. A brand declaring what it’s really about at its core clearly and powerfully isn’t merely sentimentalism. It works. A prominent example is how much Coke has used it since it emerged from the Cola wars of the early 80’s, frequently referring to itself as being ‘real’. It’s a shame it took so long for British Airways to realise what the public actually wants it to stand for. Then again, better late than never. A Brand’s position always boils down to its fundamental truth, followed by relevancy to its stakeholders/audience and differentiation from the competition. Marketing often attacks those issues in the wrong order. Starting with differentiation, you often get a quirky but quickly forgotten campaign. Some of the UK’s mobile operators are currently investing heavily in those. However, it’s BA with its ‘boring’ yet heartfelt message that made this year’s unexpected comeback. One hopes BA’s success heralds a period where more brands get back to their roots, explore their creed, and possibly emerge playing a more meaningful part in society. If those tech brands want to win back the public’s heart, maybe they should look into what their role could be beyond never-ending innovation. Paying UK taxes properly would make a nice start to meaningful engagement with the public.

Made in Provenance: global brands and the second coming of origin stories

4291-Paul-Smith-sale(Originally published on The Crossed Cow) Where do great brands come from? Iconic brands often seem like they’ve always been great. That myth is propagated by both companies and agencies. It’s the branding equivalent of the dying myth that success stories come from nowhere and are largely led by individuals rather than by communities.  An often overlooked part of the answer is hidden in plain sight within the question: Where? One of the earliest roles of a brand was to signify origin. To this day, provenance plays a vital role in many brand narratives. In categories, such as food, fashion and pretty much anything with a design angle, provenance is always a fundamental ingredient these brands use to engage with consumers and position themselves among their peers. When it comes to Italian Gelato, French Champagne (from Champagne, naturally), Savile Row suits etc., provenance is used as shorthand for the authenticity and heritage that product heralds. It’s tempting (but naïve) to think that in a globally networked market the question of origin is no longer as important as it once was. However, with people having more access than ever imagined to information about brands, it has arguably become even more important. It can still signify quality, authenticity and character but additionally, it now relates to new selection drivers such as environmental sustainability, social responsibility and ideological compatibility. The global, cosmopolitan consumer may still seek out the international superstar brands, but these brands are successful because their provenance equity is built in. Globalisation is actually one of the main drivers of the importance of provenance. Some brands may appear to rely on provenance less, especially if they have already made it. However, those successful brands have hardly jumped, Athena-style, out of someone’s forehead fully formed and armed to the teeth with equity. We all come from somewhere and brands are no exception. You may think strong brands don’t rely on their nationality for their sense of identity, but you’d be wrong. For Example: Paul Smith became a quintessential British Brand by accentuating a certain set of British traits. While it has become bigger than its own provenance, it still maintains that connection with collection names like “The British Collection” and “Paul Smith London” or by using British iconography on various items and accessories (Union Jacks included). You could say that while Paul Smith flies its own striped flag high, its family crest certainly includes a prominent Union Jack. The Japanese, who have a soft spot for Britain, are just one major market for Paul Smith who can’t get enough of it. Something interesting happens when a brand with strong provenance becomes that big. Now, it seems Paul Smith is feeding back into “Brand Britain” by advancing our nation’s reputation for design excellence and a style combining the classic with the quirky. When that happens, many British-aligned brands in effect tap into Paul Smith’s global success. It’s no secret that the Mini is owned by BMW nowadays (although still made in Cowley, Oxford). There’s even a certain poetry in the fact that the Mini is now giving back to German engineering, which inspired many of the original features of this “British Volkswagen”. However, the reason Mini was seen as an asset for BMW to begin with, is that it has always been a retro-cool British icon with starring roles in quintessential British films like “The Italian Job” (talk about classic and quirky combined, even just in that title). Unsurprisingly, the re-launch included whole model lines with a Union Jack livery scheme. Furthermore, when BMW first launched the new MINI, it went as far as investing in a new 2003 production of The Italian Job, resulting in what Pulitzer prize winning film critic, Joe Mogentern, called “the best car commercial ever”. A decade later, as recently as 2013, when that year’s “New MINI” was launched, it was launched with the reference to provenance literally written into the background. mini The crucial role of provenance in the story of a brand – its past, present or future, makes federated provenance brands, such as “made in” and “product of” brands quite interesting. They let brands of all sizes come together to share, discuss and celebrate their common strengths and communicate them to the world. Once some of those brands pass a certain level of notoriety, the power shift described above may occur and they then give back into that collective power-association pool. So “Made in Britain” is at once an asset to many brands and a way for them to engage with the changing definition of what it means to be British. When my team at The Partners was approached to create a new brand for the “Made in Britain” campaign, we felt privileged to get such a rare opportunity to support both today’s and tomorrow’s British success stories. We knew using the flag wasn’t enough and risked looking dated, which is why our use of it is highly untraditional, controversial even. The brand is inspired by the flag but through the flexibility of colour, the cropping, its functional use as a directional device and the ability of the system to adapt the marque to live across every imaginable application or context, it also sends a contemporary and progressive message. All the while being crystal clear about provenance. The brands joining the campaign don’t do it because they feel their own identity is too weak. They do it because they realise Britishness plays a strong part in their identity just as it plays a part in our own identities as individuals. It’s part of the ongoing dialogue we are having as a nation. It’s a debate of both our similarities and differences. Of where we are headed and how far we have come. Commerce plays a part in that definition. Companies and their customers are looking for something to rally around. Not in order to relinquish their individuality, or to dwell on the past, but as one of the many ways they embrace forming an identity, connecting it to a rich tapestry of community and history. Today’s networked consumers are empowered. They don’t care less, they care more, about everything. And so, brands also start caring, they realise they are not merely labels or communication platforms. Rather, they are jointly conceived cultural metaphors and engagement interfaces. They are part of the cultural ecosystem. They help define it, engage with it, are influenced by it and come together to make the most of it. So no brand is an island. Certainly not those from our own island nation.

The keys to the candy shop: how Candy Crush offers a masterclass in marketing

(Originally published on The Drum)candy I was standing on a London Underground platform two days ago when an announcement came through the PA system: "Please mind the gap between the train and the platform… even if it means you have to stop playing Candy Crush until you safely board the train." That degree of pop-culture ubiquity doesn’t happen often to such a young franchise (since April 2012 on Facebook, November 2012 on smartphones). As with Angry Birds before it, if you are on a train this summer, it feels like every other person holding a smartphone or a tablet is playing King’s Candy Crush Saga. If you are on Facebook, you must be getting "requests" from at least a couple of your friends. This ubiquity also means big money as widely reported  by the media over recent weeks. King's figures mention 45 million players playing 600 million times a day. Think Gaming reports $632,867 in revenue per day on the iOS App store alone, and the game is just as high up the charts on Android devices and on Facebook. It's safe to say that across platforms it's bringing in millions of pounds every week. (Note that as a side effect, for any company who deals with related data, Candy Crush PR is a highly effective article bait. At the time of writing "Think Gaming" + "Candy Crush" has over 1500 results on Google.) But behind the lure of a surprise success story, there’s a master-class in the fundamental digital era paradigm of marketing. King has been around for 10 years. It is an established company with strong backing (€34m from Apax and Index Ventures back in 2005) and a large portfolio of existing games. Its Bubble Witch Saga is one of the most successful Facebook games of all time (and was also among the pioneers of Facebook-mobile syncing about a year ago), but it's nowhere near as successful as Candy Crush, which truly is its first mega-hit. And yet, a lot of the recent media debate mentions how unremarkable the game itself is. That it lacks originality.  ReadWrite goes as far as saying: "As a game, Candy Crush is remarkable for how unremarkable it is." Many go on to say that the success is because the timing is just right: casual gaming coming of age thanks to the new platforms of Facebook and Smartphones (now integrated), because the candies are nostalgic, because the freemium model has evolved just right, because it’s summer… All true, but I believe this specific product isn’t a random success. You could say the entire category is completely random, lots of similar games rocking gently until they reach a tipping point and then explode. That's a little like saying casual gaming success works like avalanches, but even with avalanches you can point to some consistent qualities that make them more likely to happen. It's in their design. And while reverse engineering success is always dangerous, I'll stick my neck out and point to some interesting elements that frequently aid success and which are especially prominent in the case of Candy Crush. The first striking thing is how the game looks. Candies are a great metaphor, executed in a glossy yet economic manner. It reminds me of Steve Job's comment re iOS buttons: "We made the buttons on the screen look so good you'll want to lick them." Even when compared to other games by King, it's very clear that the specific visual style of Candy Crush is the most economically expressed. It has a certain clean gloss; it's highly polished and focused. Soundscapes and in particular sound effects, enjoy a similar sense of accuracy. King owes the graphic and sound designers of this game a lot. Gameplay itself is instantly recognisable and follows the tradition of pattern-matching games like Bubbles or Bejewelled, with some extra layers of fun added on, all previously tried twists using familiar formulae, but combined meticulously: combos producing special candy, and puzzle-like challenges through level design (rather than procedurally created gameplay) produce variety and depth that keep players interested over time without complicating the basic premise. Notice this is less about explicit story elements, although there's a loose "Saga" narrative thread tying things together, it's more of an excuse for showing candy, and even those animations use a more abstract illustration style than in most games (you may even refer to Scott McCloud's 'Big Triangle' model in that sense). If you've played even just a few casual games before, you will feel how tight the gaming experience of Candy Crush is. Visual language, sound design and game mechanics combined into an extremely slick package. Candy Crush limits your number of attempts at completing a level, and a few levels in, once you’ve been hooked, you will run out of lives. When that happens, unless you are willing to wait 20 minutes, you are given two options: pay for it, by buying lives, or work for it, by marketing it to your friends. The social marketing aspect happens primarily through asking friends for lives (via Facebook). If enough friends are playing, you can limit the asking to that group already playing the game, but that activity still has a chance of bringing back for new plays (sending free lives is also encouraged). Secondary signals are sent when you pass a level, complete a combo, or overtake a friend in the score rankings of a level, and while many of those never get to show in your feed, some of them come through. Finally, to progress to a new chapter (a collection of levels) you will need three friends to help you “unlock” the next stage. The alternative is to pay. And, eventually, someone, somewhere does - either to simply play again or in order to get through a particularly infuriating level. And while the company says over 90% of users will never pay and even finish the game’s 400+ levels without paying, King still achieve nearly a $3 average revenue per user that adds up to over half a million dollars per day on the iOS*. Freemium model games can often be frustrating if not brutal. Compare Candy Crush with, say, The Simpsons: Tapped-Out, from gaming giant EA. The latter is a game where you rebuild Springfield through Farmville-like mechanics and it celebrates its lucrative license with much love. However, playing it without resorting to buying premium ingredients for extortionate prices is an endless grind that no amount of the game's knowing winks could cure. By comparison, Candy Crush comes out as extremely generous. It allows a lot of fun, indeed endless fun, without paying money. That fact is probably what makes it easier for users to pay once or twice during their lifetime**. So, just like with the design, Candy Crush's Freemium elements aren't ground-breaking, but they seem very well balanced and no doubt come from years of trial and error and accumulated data from the company's less successful franchises. To summarise, this is a game experience polished to an almost peerless degree, and that experience is matched by equally optimised marketing mechanics. Candy Crush hides a staggering degree of craftsmanship in plain sight. This is a sweet cocktail tweaked to perfection, and like many of summer’s brightly coloured concoctions, it takes a lot of artisanship to make sure it works without becoming sickly. The Skype team had a saying, during its early years: "The brand is the product is the brand". It's an interesting characteristic of pure digital products (and similarly with all media-based products) where the products themselves embody and execute the majority of the communications about the product’s proposition. This leads to a situation where the product and brand don't just "aspire" to get closer, they practically become one. This, in turn, creates a new, seamless, kind of marketing communications, at once clear and effective. Marketing becomes one with the user experience. It's not that Candy Crush doesn't need a marketing campaign; a marketing campaign simply couldn’t achieve better results then what’s already at work. With marketing ecosystems becoming increasingly integrated and digital, this dynamic will continue to spill into other categories and the distinction between any product/service and its marketing will continue to blur. And that state of play points to a whole lot of sweet opportunities for marketing. * Naturally I've never spent a penny on Candy Crush, but I have a friend who has. ** Personally, I only play Candy Crush for the articles.

Marketing ideas as disruption, the case of Swatch

(Originally published on The Drum)Swatch 30th anniversary_0 Swatch turned 30 this year, but its story could have been entirely different if the Swiss watchmaking industry had continued on its downward trajectory of the 70s. A look at how brand embraced disruptive technologies through marketing idea and reversed the fortunes of a floundering industry. In popular culture, Switzerland is synonymous with clockmaking and watchmaking. The tradition of Swiss clockmaking craft dates back to the 16th century, and while the second world war saw watchmakers in other countries limiting production and supporting the war effort, Swiss neutrality gave the industry an unexpected push. However, in 1983, centuries of history nearly came to a bitter end as the number of watchmakers shrunk to a quarter of the industry’s size in 1970. The legendary Swiss watch industry was on the brink of being erased. No industry is safe from disruption and the Swiss watchmaking industry was late to adopt the disruptive technology of that time – quartz movement. Conductive quartz crystals use electronic means for accurate measurement of time, with significantly less moving parts than mechanical watches. The development process presented many new challenges, but the potential was clear: slimmer, more affordable watches. In the 50s and 60s a consortium of top Swiss firms competed with Japanese Seiko to come up with the first quartz watch. One of Seiko’s earliest models was used in the marathon of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. A couple of years later both Seiko and Swiss Longines presented quartz pocket watches at a similar time. Competition seemed close in the 60s. For America and Japan, the following two decades became known as The Quartz Revolution. And yet to this day the Swiss still call that period The Quartz Crisis. The Swiss were hesitant to trade their tradition of mechanical watchmaking for this new electronic technology. They had a traditional, organised, close knit industry with a strong sense of identity. They knew what watchmaking was about – it wasn’t electronics. Throughout the 70s, other manufacturers pushing forward the cost effective and accurate new technology slowly took over, producing slimmer, lighter, attractively priced watches. And this was even before the world fell in love with LCD digital watches from companies like Casio. By 1978 the world had moved to quartz movement and the Swiss watchmaking industry was in trouble. Global market share fell from a comfortable 50 per cent to a worrying 15 per cent. The future looked grim. For too long they focused on building better horse-drawn carriages in a world of cars. Salvation came unexpectedly, and at the darkest hour. In 1983, the industry merged the two leading watch groups into a new group called SMH. This was partly an outcome of a consolidating and shrinking industry, and partly a last ditch attempt at saving the industry. Bankers stepped in and took control of the dying business and nominated an unlikely industry outsider, Lebanese-born entrepreneur Nocials G. Hayek who knew little about watchmaking and originally headed an engineering consulting firm out of Zurich. Hayek empowered the newly appointed head of the watch division to come up with something new. This was Ernst Thomke, another outsider and a man with an eclectic background. Thomke created what we can see as ‘an implicit brief’ with principles that went against almost every traditional inclination. The new watch must have a contemporary, fashionable style. It must be cheap to make, priced at the low-end rather than compete in the range between premium and luxury that Swiss watches more comfortably occupied. He set out with a focused team of engineers to come up with a new concept. If this happened today he’d be swarmed by brand managers crying about throwing away brand equity and pouring out the baby with the bath water. They had every reason to doubt this concept and yet, in March 1983, the Swatch was born. Traditional Swiss watchmaking was about history, craft and strong links to luxury. Japanese and American brands were about technology, both as a vehicle for innovation as well as democratisation. The Swatch took a different approach. On the one hand, it embraced the disruptive quartz technology and evolved it: it contained and continued to add technological innovations. On the other hand, it packaged technology under an analog face and used that face as an artist’s canvas – a playground for contemporary design and fashion. The name was coined to stand for ‘second watch’. The idea was to make a watch so affordable and stylish that people would own more than one. Swatch quickly became a huge success for SMH. So huge that over the next couple of years it won back much of the dominance lost to the Japanese and saved the entire industry. Over the next decades it quickly became the dominant lower-end brand, releasing hundreds of designs with collectible and fashion appeal. It’s not just poetic justice that SMH changed its name to the Swatch Group in 1998. And here comes an extra twist in the plot. Not only did the introduction of Swatch resuscitate the Swiss watchmaking industry, it also gave mechanical watches a new lease of life. Swatch took over a global mass-market audience and mechanical watches used its success to reinvent themselves as luxury status symbol celebrating craft and tradition. The luxury wristwatch is the opposite of Swatch frivolity. It’s a wrist-based monument for human achievement. And to further reaffirm that status, they religiously refer to themselves as ‘timepieces’. One major player in that category, Omega, is still owned by Swatch. History is written by the winners, so we tend to celebrate the disruptors rather than mourn the disrupted. But the story of Swatch doesn’t fall into this pattern. First, because it’s one of those rare stories of an industry facing disruption and yet prevailing. But more interestingly, because its solution mixes the embracing of a new business paradigm, like quartz and affordability, with taking that paradigm to new places – creating a new ‘fast fashion’ market for watches. Nowadays, many sectors are facing disruption. For many industries the internet served as a massive disruption engine. High street travel agents, traditional airlines, newspapers, paper, landline phones, high street retail, post, fashion, traditional advertising, TV, logistics… The list goes on. Even businesses which are digital at their core aren’t safe – progress is so rapid that disruptive technologies come in quick succession. Think how quickly Google demolished the paradigm of the generation of search engines which preceded it. It’s better to be the disruptor than being disrupted, and there aren’t many choices left in the middle any more. But if you are in an industry going through cataclysmic change – and it’s likely you are – ask yourself: how creative and bold is your thinking? How can you embrace the new paradigm? Can you make a genuine new contribution to it? And as uncomfortable as it may be to break out of your own paradigm, look for inspiration outside your industry and mix strong outsiders with real power to influence with your existing experts. Hopefully, you won’t need to face extinction before you start seriously exploring new ideas. And remember, exploring ideas is one thing, but being bold enough to act on them and trust your future to them is the hard part.