logo EHM

How to Stay Relevant in Business: 3 Tips to Remain Competitive

picture of Allen Adamson

Allen Adamson

Co-Founder, Metaforce

How do some companies stay on the top while others go out of business? The answer is change. If you want to move forward in business you have to embrace adaptation. In fact, it’s always been this way. Technology is just advancing at a faster pace than ever now.

In this episode, we’re joined by branding expert Allen Adamson. He explains what steps companies need to take to stay relevant, how to successfully evolve with the times, and why diversity matters when it comes to your team.

listen to this episode

We covered:

  • Why most companies fail to stay relevant in today’s world
  • What happens when you stay focused on your competitors
  • How disruptors put major companies out of business
  • The reason why your business should stay in startup mode
  • Why companies who stay ahead tend to have a diverse team
  • How to convince risk-averse leadership to change things
  • Why word of mouth drives the marketing world today
  • How to become a purpose-driven business with authenticity


Full Transcript:

Louis: Bonjour, bonjour. Welcome to another episode of EveryoneHatesMarketers.com, the marketing podcast for marketers, founders, and tech people who are sick of shady, aggressive marketing. I’m your host, Louis Grenier.In today’s episode, you will learn how to stay relevant in the business world before it’s too late.

My guest today is a branding expert who has worked in industries ranging from packaged goods and technology to healthcare and financial services. Hospitality. Entertainment. As you can see he’s quite an expert. He has appeared on NBC, CNBC, Fox Business Network. He’s often quoted in publications, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Advertising Age, and plenty of others.

He is the co-founder and managing partner of Metaforce, which is a marketing and product consultancy company designed to help businesses identify the right strategy that would yield the biggest results. Allen Adamson, let’s see what you’ve got.

Allen: I’m ready when you are. Thank you for inviting me.

Louis: You are very welcome. It’s clear that the world is changing very rapidly. I’m not going to teach you that, specifically not you. I’m not going to teach the listeners that either. It’s clear that technology is advancing at a pace that is absolutely insane. It’s very difficult to keep up. I think it’s quite overwhelming for people, marketers in particular.

What are the signs, in your perspective, that the business you’re in, the company you’re in, is starting not to keep up with the changes that are appearing in today’s world?

Allen: The most important sign is to realize that everyone is becoming your father’s Oldsmobile, as we say in the US. Becoming more irrelevant every day. The biggest mistake business leaders make, founders make, is to assume that everything is fine. They’ll just keep on doing it.

We did over a hundred interviews with a hundred companies. Large ones. Small ones. Public. Private. Start-ups. By and large, most of the companies, even though they knew they needed to change to stay relevant, failed to successfully change. Even though everyone knows that the world is changing faster, most companies fail.

One of the number one reasons is realizing that we all live in the old TV show called Frasier: Marty Crane’s chair. We’re all more comfortable with the familiar. One of the most important findings we found is that most people need to realize that they’re already falling behind because they’re more comfortable with yesterday than tomorrow.

Louis: That, I think, is a symptom of human kind. It’s incredibly difficult to fight: to go into the uncomfortable place and to do that. There’s a good reason why there are so many business coaches out there, marketing coaches out there, and all of those people telling you what you know already, but reinforcing it so that you can do it yourself. Right?

Allen: Yeah, everyone is on cruise control. You go into the office. You do what you did yesterday. You open your emails. You check your messages.

Most people operate based on yesterday’s frame of reference. I know I should go to the gym every day. A lot of people tell me that. But I still don’t go every day. The same thing happens in business. You got to realize that every day you’re slipping further behind. As you grow older, you don’t realize it until you look in the mirror one day with fresh eyes.

Louis: I wanted to ask you another question and dive straight away into the problem and dive into the solution that you propose. You’ve interviewed around 100 companies for this book. By the way, what is the title of the book?

Allen: Shift Ahead.

Louis: Shift Ahead. You’ve used your experience and the knowledge that you get throughout those 100 interviews. Right?

Allen: Right.

Louis: And the book is full of all the insight that you got from those conversations?

Allen: Yeah, it’s a combination of “Here’s what happened to Facebook” and “Here’s the lesson learned.” What are the teachable moments? What should you learn from what Facebook went through?

Louis: What other type of companies that you’ve interviewed? You mentioned start-ups and bigger companies. What type of people did you also interview?

Allen: The companies you would expect. P&G. GE. Facebook. Comcast. Maybe ones you wouldn’t expect. A public library in Connecticut. Who goes to a library anymore? A deli in Manhattan that serves pastrami yet is doing very well.

We tried to look for different types of nonprofits. It’s not a surprise to people in technology. When you’re out in Silicon Valley, everyone knows that you’re toast if you’re not moving forward. We wanted to see what’s happening across other categories as well.

Louis: How did you identify this public library and this deli? Was there a particular reason? Was it really random?

Allen: To some extent, somewhat random. I was thinking about libraries. “If anything’s obsolete, who goes to a library to get a book today?”

Somebody said “You should check out what’s going on at the Greenwich Library. They’ve shifted ahead from a library to a new business model.” We can talk about that later on.

Louis: Moving back to the actual problem we want to solve today, how to shift ahead, how to keep up with change, if you have to select the top three red flags that a company is serious in danger of becoming relevant, what would they be?

Allen: One of them is they tend to be playing too much tennis and not enough golf. Let me explain what I mean by that. When I was in brand management, I worked at a company called Unilever. We talked a lot about keeping an eye on the consumer. I used to sit in their kitchens and talk to them as they made dinner about what soap they were using. Why their skin felt differently. What shampoo was good.

We were very proud of ourselves for really watching the consumer and doing a ton of research. But at lunch all we talked about, and lots of the conversation in the hall was, “Did you see what P&G did yesterday? Did you see what Colgate” … We became totally fixated on Colgate and Procter, much more than the consumer.

Same when I worked with Pepsi. Pepsi was totally fixated on Coke. The world could be in flames. They were more interested in what’s going on with Coke in what country than how people are changing what beverage they’re drinking.

In tennis … I’m bad at both sports. But when I try to do better at tennis, my main objective is to watch the other guy, or the other person, and try to hit the ball where they’re not. But if you’re always focused on the other person, you get into trouble.

In golf … I’m also bad at that sport. I play with somebody. I want to beat them, but I’m not usually worrying about them. I’m usually worried about, “What’s the wind? What club do I use?” You’re more in touch with reality.

One of the big syndromes of people that fail to shift ahead is that you’re totally focused on what’s right in front of them: their competition. They must know something. They stop to look around. And most disruption, as you know happens not from your competitor, but from somebody on the side or behind you.

Look at what happened in the shaving category: the P&G and Gillette. They were totally fixated on Schick, but some Millennial in a warehouse came up with Dollar Shave Club. Did a video for almost nothing. Got a million views overnight. Is close to being able to put Gillette and Schick out of business.

He may not get the chance because he collected a huge paycheck from Unilever, but most disruption, as everyone knows, happens from around you, yet most people are only watching the other guy in front of them.

Louis: I love the description: the allegory between tennis and golf. That’s actually a very nice way to put it. I never thought about it this way. In golf, you need to focus on yourself. You need to focus on the trajectory you want to go after. You look at the market. You look at the things ahead of you. You don’t really give a shit about what the others are doing. You shouldn’t.

Allen: You made a bet on a hole, you lose that anyway. It’s not going to help your game. In tennis, it does make a difference. If you hit the ball right to the other player, you’re going to lose every time.

Louis: That’s one that a lot of people would definitely nod their head and agree. If you don’t focus on the customer and focus on your competitor, you’re kind of doomed. What would be the second?

Allen: The second one mostly affects companies that are publicly traded or there’s a stock price. Most of those companies, almost all of them, have what we found to be and what we call “golden handcuffs.” They always talk about doing what’s right for the long-term, but the entire business is driven to doing whatever it takes to make this quarter’s number and take some cost out.

It was rampant across every story, even to the point where we spoke to the folks at Campbell’s Soup. Campbell’s Soup is a big US brand. You don’t have to be a marketing genius to know that fewer people are going to a supermarket versus buying food elsewhere. Even fewer are picking up a can and opening it up and having soup.

They were sitting there. They’re saying things are pretty good. They showed us dollar sales volume going up. Of course, they showed their management dollar sales volume. The way they did that, they kept on raising the price of cans of soup. Even though volume was continuing to go down, dollars were going up. So Wall Street said “Good job. Let’s give you guys a bonus.”

At a certain point, no one’s going to pay $40 for a can of soup anymore and the whole bubble is going to burst. That’s an extreme case, but almost everybody was faced with that sense of drive quarter to quarter.

The big poster child for failure, even though it’s a very old brand, is Kodak. They owned photography around the world. They owned pictures. They had a profit margin that was phenomenal. They were swimming in money.

One of the things we found out, I worked with Kodak early in my career, was did they not see the train coming? To our surprise their forecasting people were incredible. They knew the day that the film business would be eclipsed by digital four or five years in advance.

Then the question is if you saw this train coming, why didn’t you get off the track? One of the big reasons was the golden handcuffs. Film was so profitable they couldn’t move $50 million from the film business to put it in a break-even digital business. They had to pay the bonuses to the film salespeople and the chemical people. They couldn’t make what some people refer to as an “asymmetrical bet.” They couldn’t move money from one bucket to the other. That’s a big challenge.

Louis: How can you shift to a new trend that you have identified five years ago and move the juicy profit that you’re making right now to this, even though it’s not going to be super profitable for now, but make a bet in the future? How can you do that when you only focus on the next quarter and shareholders?

Allen: When the research people made this project, the leadership who were into photography said “Digital cameras? Look at how fuzzy they are. They’ll never get–” … But the research people knew what they were talking about. Like electric and self-driving cars, people said “That will never happen. Maybe one day.”

If you look at the numbers, it’s going to happen sooner than you think.

The other one that broadly affects lots of organizations, big and small, is arrogance. Probably the poster child for arrogance, we spoke to people who were at BlackBerry while they were king of the heap. They ended up out of the business.

Same sort of questions. Anyone how was a mover and shaker had a BlackBerry strapped to their belt like a real nerd. Anyone in business seen using a phone. You talk to them and they believed that serious business people would never give up the keyboard. The iPhone was a music player. A toy. That too shall pass.

The number one challenge for the folks inside of BlackBerry was their belief that they were king of the hill. Somebody making a music player, piece of glass, that when you typed on it half the time your fingers were too big, didn’t hit the right letters, they said: “That will remain a niche toy.”

Arrogance, big or small, was a major challenge.

Louis: I was hoping you would mention the data conundrum that leads to absolutely no insights. Maybe you can talk about that a bit as well as a side.

Allen: Part of it is they collect tons of data but no one’s looking at it. I refer to it as a “Jerry Seinfeld.” You ever wonder why that’s happening? Why is that happening?

Early in my career, it was astounding that some people could look at numbers and say here’s why and here’s something interesting, and other people just report all the numbers. I was in a meeting at Unilever. Somebody said, “28% of people’s bathrooms have white tiles.”

I said, “Why are we collecting that data?”

“It’s up 5%.”

“Great. So until somebody clever in the research group said, “You know why that’s interesting, Allen? 95% of people who shop for soap try to match the color of the soap to the color of the tile. If white tile bathrooms are exploding in the US, we better come out with white color bar of soap. Otherwise, our pink bar won’t be” … But you still go to step back and say “Why do I care about it?”

Most people collect data and don’t say “So what?”

Louis: That’s a pretty good introduction to this episode. I think listeners are probably interested to hear your perspective on how to practically avoid all of those mistakes that you’re mentioning. How to practically avoid turning into a company like BlackBerry or Kodak or any of those companies that used to be huge leaders in their field that lost their way.

How do you do that? I know it’s going to be difficult perhaps to distill down to that level, but what is the first step to actually stay relevant and keep up with the changes?

Allen: To add on to your point, of the hundred companies there were a hundred ways you could fall behind and become irrelevant. There were very few, “Here are the three things we do to shift. They all need to do these three things.”

There was not a magic potion. There were a few things. Back to tennis, you had to avoid the unforced error. You had to make sure your pizza tasted good. You had to make sure your product wasn’t killing somebody. There were a lot of ways you could fall behind.

But there were a few things that help companies shift. The first one–where we started with Marty Crane–was attitudinal. The companies that tended to stay ahead of the game had a bit of what the famous founder of Intel said: “Only the paranoid survive.”

The companies that were succeeding and shifting ahead, the attitude was, “Just because we were successful yesterday, so what?”

In fact, we spoke to the folks at Marriott, who is one of the companies that’s tended to stay more relevant than many, many others in the hospitality chain. They just bought another huge chain. One of Bill Marriott’s famous quotes was, “Success is never final.”

The first one is to realize that just because you have a good quarter or a good year, the only thing for sure is that was yesterday. You better have an attitude of trying something new. So attitudinal openness or realizing that, just because you’re top of the heap, the only that means is you’re not going to be top of the heap tomorrow unless you change.

Louis: You’re working with a lot of big brands at the minute. You have worked with many companies in the past as well. From your experience, what does it take for a company to switch their attitude from thinking they’re on top of their game and they don’t have to change anything to thinking, “Shit. We constantly need to make sure that we move and shake things up.”

Allen: Not surprising: leadership. If the CEO was risk-averse, and most CEOs are risk-averse … “What could go wrong? How do I not get fired?”

Any time you shift ahead, the one thing that’s true is that betting on tomorrow is never a sure bet. Even when you think, “Apple knows what they’re doing,” it’s always a crapshoot. You need to have a culture and a leadership that says, “We’re going to try this.”

If you wait till you’re 100% sure, the only thing you’ll be is the number three or number four to market. You’ll lose that way.

When you’re looking at shifting your business … I think the auto business is perfect. You’re still going to make more money selling gasoline combustion engines. You’re still going to make more money building SUVs. The electric car is not going to be a moneymaker for most manufacturers until the convergence happens and a tipping point happens.

By the then, if you said, “Now I’m going to get into it,” forget it. It’s over. Across every category, when we’ve seen that happen, if you wait to see what happens tomorrow, it doesn’t work.

The other dimension is groupthink. Everyone yeses everyone to death. The firms that hire everyone that went to the same school, that grew up in the same neighborhood, that see the world through one lens, tended to more often than not get shifted into the ditch.

Companies that tend to stay ahead have a diverse workforce. Multiple points of view. Everyone looks at the world differently and don’t have a fixed worldview. Having an organization that looks at life differently and having a diverse team around you.

There’s an old book about the forming of the US government back in the 1700s. It was a team of rivals. If you surround yourself with people that see the world just like you and tend to agree with you, that was another massive recipe for it “It won’t be long until you are irrelevant.”

Surrounding yourself with people that see the world differently, and are comfortable speaking up, and a culture that’s comfortable disagreeing, and having good debates and good arguments, tended to lead to organizations that did well.

Louis: There’s a very good resource of the particular aspect, sharing your point of view and sharing your feedback, not being afraid to say what you think, a book called Radical Candor. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it.

Allen: Yes.

Louis: Very practical. Very interesting on this point of view. Hiring a diverse team seems to be something a bit more practical and–

Allen: It’s practical. Most companies don’t do it. Every company, they recruit from schools. “I went to this school, so we’re going to go there.”

They are all good schools. If you go to a good school, you hire someone who learns how to think and problem solve, not memorize and be wrote. But if you only hire from two universities, you’re going to myopic thinking.

Louis: Yeah. You’re going to get white males coming from middle class or higher. Then you start losing touch with customers, if the customer you’re selling to are not necessarily white males coming from the same background.

Allen: Exactly.

Louis: I want to go back briefly before we move on to step two or the other segment: the leadership side. A lot of listeners would contact me about this issue. They do struggle to change their leader’s mind when they do shady marketing. When they think that the way they do it is fine. They really struggle to change their mind.

From your perspective, when you come into a business where you clearly see leadership to be in a position where they don’t change, they don’t like change, they are uncomfortable with all of the stuff you mentioned before, what do you say? How do you convince them to change?

Allen: It’s difficult on the outside. It’s difficult on the inside. The best strategy is to make tomorrow real in front of them. When we share research, we don’t say, “42% of consumers think you’re irrelevant.”

We go out and film four or five consumers telling them, “I would never buy your pizza. It tastes bad. It tastes like cardboard. I’m online every day telling my friends your pizza tastes like cardboard.”

Making the number come to life is one dimension. The other is to prototype to show what the world is going to look like. Help them see around the corner.

There are a lot of major companies that hire futurists that will predict what life will be like. You don’t have to hire a futurist to really figure it out. You can go watch a 50 year old movie, 2001, or a Star Trek episode. They got most of what’s going to happen pretty right. They’re just sort of off on the “when” part.

When is really important. Most of the big failures have happened when people think the future is here and they’re ahead of it.

I had a great conversation with a senior person at LVMH, in the fashion business in Paris. He came out of P&G. The P&G world was all about certainty. He says, “What I learned at P&G is really not relevant at LVMH. The skill that’s most relevant at LVMH is I need to think of myself as a surfer. If I’m too far ahead of the trend, the wave is going to wipe me out. If I miss a trend, I’m dead.”

Part of it is feeling that balance. You need to be slightly ahead of the wave breaking. It’s much more of a touchy-feely game to try to figure out where the world is going than it is, “In 2019, people are going to give up their cars and start using scooters.”

Louis: To come back to the first point you made about having actual people telling you what they think of your brand, of your company, of your product, instead of just spreadsheets of numbers is super powerful. We talked about customer research a lot on this show. That really connects.

A huge tip that I would always say as well is, instead of sharing PowerPoints, even invite a few customers of yours in the office. Let them talk. You’ll see, it’s going to be much easier.

I get the concept of the wave, making sure that you surf at the right moment on it to stay relevant, yet to test new things. How do you know you’re going too far? How do you know you’re being too conservative?

Allen: Another thing we found out is, if they tended to be ahead of the curve all the time, they were better off. Then you just have to wait. Hopefully, your time will come. But most companies waited too long. They were too late because they researched it to death. They analyzed it to death. They got into the classic “analysis paralysis.”

You look at every bankrupt company in the US lately. Toys “R” Us. We spent a lot of time with the Toys “R” Us former executives. There was an internal raging debate for years at Toys “R” Us. “Do we try to compete with Amazon and Walmart? Try to sell you toys buy two get two free? Or do we try to make a high-end toy experience where you go in and say ‘My kid likes this. What do you recommend?'”

They couldn’t decide, so they did both. They opened a flagship store in Times Square, they opened warehouse stores, and they failed on both fronts. Same with Barnes & Noble.

You’re better off being early and launching, as Apple did a Newton, and having four people buy a PDA back 20 years ago that didn’t work, a lot of the learning lead to the iPhone, than you are waiting till the iPhone is launched and doing what Microsoft did and trying to launch a Zune.

Louis: I think that’s what Apple does quite well. They are the first trillion-dollar company ever. Obviously, they are successful for a reason.

I think one thing that they do quite well sometimes is they launch new products to learn. Obviously to sell. You can also see that they could do it much better, but they want to test the concept and they can afford to. They can actually afford to do that.

For a smaller company, it will come from the lean start-up type of thinking. Creating a team. That’s what Seth Godin shared on this podcast. He was saying to innovate and actually come up with new ideas and really be a bit more ahead. You have a team inside your company that you put in another building and you let them take risks.

Allen: By far, otherwise the gravitational pull will pull them back.

The other big thing we were talking about, “What else can a company do?” you need to make sure you have the right what we call “DNA.” Barnes & Noble tried to make tablets. They came up with a tablet called the Nook. But they were a book retailer. By the time they launched a tablet, they had no skillsets.

Lots of companies try to shift ahead but don’t have the DNA. We had a great conversation with the leaders of Hasbro: a toy company. We said, “How did you make Hasbro successful?”

He said, “I came into the company 15 years ago, 10 years ago. But there was a big uproar because I came from a tiny division in Hollywood that was making some bad movies for the company. When I came to the headquarters, they said ‘What are you bringing this guy in to lead the company? He only makes crummy movies. He doesn’t know the difference between Monopoly and Risk. Are you crazy?'”

It turns out that DNA, bringing that Hollywood DNA into Hasbro, made them successful where every other toy company is still dying off in the toy business. Making sure you have the right skillset inside. If you want to compete in a new space, don’t assume you can retrain somebody to out-Apple Apple.

Louis: That’s the first category: the attitude. Making sure that the leadership understands it. Making sure that you share real data from an actual customer in front of you. Making sure that you paint the picture of what tomorrow looks like and start prototyping.

Making sure that you have a team that’s out innovating. That you put outside of the building to avoid the huge gravitational pull that will make them do a Toys “R” Us and basically not try anything. Making sure that you don’t overly analyze launching stuff. Is it a good summary of this first theme?

Allen: Yeah. Very good, Louis.

Louis: Thank you very much.

Allen: You get a B+. The final piece is that execution matters. Companies do a few things brilliantly. Lots of companies are still stuck.

We had a great conversation with New York Times journalist Tom Friedman. He talked about this notion that average is over. If you’re average at anything today, somebody will outdo you. Most companies succeeded because they were the first or only. They just do things averagely.

If you are going to get into the market, you’ve got to be really focused. Especially in the new marketing world we live in, which is all driven by word of mouth. No one shares ordinary. You don’t go and say, “I had an okay flight from London to Paris. They got me roughly on time. They didn’t spill anything.”

You will either share what happens when they fly you to the wrong city, or that you get there and the chef on the plane came out and served you a birthday cake. The whole world of average afflicts every company. If you’re not going to be extraordinary at anything, you’re going to be invisible today.

Louis: That comes back to one point we made about Apple. You made the point that started with this PDA. 20 years ago they started to sell it. It didn’t really work out. You mentioned that they learned a lot from it.

By executing quite fast and making a lot of mistakes, they learned a lot of lessons. That enabled them, for the next iteration, to do something better and better and better.

When I started in my career, I had this idea in my head that you must work hard to make sure that something is really, really, really good before shipping it out. In fact, I realized that the only way to actually create something really, really, really good in the future is to start now.

Allen: And continuously improve.

Louis: To be comfortable with something shitty enough that people will tell you feedback and share their feedback so you can improve. There’s no other way.

Allen: Yeah. In the world, you have to move fast. If you test and test and test until it’s perfect, you’ll be toast.

Louis: This is how I started a podcast. You wouldn’t believe the level of the interviews when I started. The quality wasn’t that good. The fact that I kept going and going and going, that made me a bit better at interviewing people. The podcast started to be a bit better as well. That’s a small example. Still, I think it’s relevant.

So attitude. The big shift towards execution versus over-planning or analyzing. Based on all the conversation you had, based on your experience, what is the second pillar of shifting ahead? What are the items in there?

Allen: Make sure you’re not looking at your business myopically. That’s a business school word. Make sure you understand why people are going to buy your service and product. Really understanding that. There’s so many examples.

Let me go back to the Greenwich Library thing. It was so fascinating when I spoke to them. I was expecting people to say, “People don’t borrow books anymore, so we rent podcasts.” They went out into the community and said “The whole mission of the library needs to change. Our purpose needs to change.”

A lot of people are talking about purpose-driven marketing. They said, “We need to be the hub of Greenwich.”

Greenwich is a small town out of New York City. “If we were the hub of Greenwich, what would a hub deliver?”

You could still borrow books, but a hub in Greenwich would fuel the start-up community. You’d want to have sort of a WeWork there, so people can come in and use it as office space.

A hub of Greenwich would need to be a tech shop. What happens if you have an Apple laptop but a PC? You’re screwed most times. You can’t go to the Genius Bar. Microsoft customer service is awful. So they set up a Genius Bar in the Greenwich Library, but for any technology. “You can’t download this?”

What are librarians good at? You can always ask Google. But if you ask Google, you end up with 500 paid things. You’re still better off getting to someone who really knows how to find a needle in a haystack. Having a librarian work with you to try to find something out accelerates.

They became different. They set up training, classes. Everything but borrowing books. And as such, have become a crowded, vibrant … It feels like a start-up inside the library, not a sleepy place you go to read a novel.

Louis: How do you think they did that? You mentioned the mission behind it. We also mentioned the importance of focusing on the right thing. Not overdoing.

You mentioned Toys “R” Us where they started to do two things at the same time. Your library example seems almost a bit like this. They did this tech shop. They also did this coworking space.

Allen: But they had a clear, laser focus on, “If you’re going to be the hub of this community and help this community succeed, what’s important to it?”

It was about business. It was about technology. They had a clear sense of what their constituents … Greenwich is probably not the best test case. Once they figured out what they needed to do, they could also fund because it’s an affluent area, they could rebuild the library. They could hire the right people. They could execute it, which was another piece.

Getting to that right definition, we had a great conversation with another brand I grew up loving, which was National Geographic. They almost didn’t make it. They were in the magazine business, but no one’s reading magazines, like no one’s looking at books. So when they dug into it, what do they stand for? They stand for helping you understand nature. Maybe not understand. Maybe experience it.

One of the first smart things they did was they formed, about 10 years ago, a partnership with a Swedish cruise line, a tiny cruise line called Lindblad. Instead of cruises where you sit on the deck and you drink pina coladas and go to dinner, Lindblad was about cruising you so you could get off on a glacier in Antarctica and walk with the penguins.

All of a sudden those became National Geographic Expeditions. Now, instead of reading a magazine, you go with a National Geographic naturalist. You land in Antarctica. You have a National Geographic photographer show you how to take a picture. If you have an SLR, he’ll get you the perfect penguin picture. If you have an iPhone, there’s a National Geographic iPhone expert. They’ll help you actually have a conversation with a penguin.

Sure enough, when the people look at your Facebook feed or your Instagram feed, they go, “Oh my god! I got to do that!” They pivoted from just reporting what’s going on in Antarctica to experience Antarctica. They did other things and realized, “Why magazines?”

They said, “We’ve got great talent like Jane Goodall, who for 40 or 50 years had been studying gorillas in Africa. Let’s make a movie about it.”

It came out this year. Released in movie theaters. It’s called Jane. They got out of their critical flaw, which was, “We’re in the magazine business. That means we send a reporter out to write a story and take a picture.”

Louis: Applying this to Toys “R” Us, as an example, it seems like the mistake that Toys “R” Us did was focusing on two missions in a sense.

Allen: Exactly. Unrelated mission. Two things you could not combine. You couldn’t be the lowest price option and provide the highest level of expertise.

Louis: If you were working with Toys “R” Us when they were questioning this, you would probably have said, “Let’s focus on one core mission. What do we believe in as a company? What is our point of view? Let’s execute on that.”

Allen: Laser focus. Then you have to execute well. Most companies fail on two fronts. One is they couldn’t decide. Two, even if they could decide, they didn’t have the right execution.

If you were going to go after the price game at Toys “R” Us, years ago you would have said, “Maybe we should buy Amazon. No matter how big we build a warehouse, we’re never going to win the toy business.”

Even if you pick the right path, you still go to figure out how to win. That’s by no means easy.

Louis: In terms of this second theme we started to talk about, which is about this mission-driven thing, do you see anything else important that is in there that we haven’t talked about? Anything at all?

Allen: You need to constantly revisit it. Just because you have a mission doesn’t mean it’s the right one or you should stick to it until you’re out of business.

We had a great conversation with the leadership at Conservation International: a global nonprofit. Their mission was to protect endangered ecosystems. For 30 years they were phenomenally successful at trying to protect.

One day the founders got up and said, “We’re on the wrong mission. We can’t build walls around these ecosystems and keep the outside world in Africa and Asia. We have to work with the local communities and have a symbiotic relationship with the outside because we can’t keep the walls to stop all the poachers. If we don’t make it economically viable to harvest the coffee beans or to work with the animals, then we’re going to fail.”

They changed their mission and made it more symbiotic. Half the board quit, “How could you support Starbucks? How could you do this?” but it’s phenomenally successful. They’ve been more successful in fulfilling their mission, executing it, because it’s more realistic, even though it’s not what the found originally said when he started the organization.

How does one think of a mission in the first place? How do you typically invite companies to find why they are even existing?

We talk about marketing BS. One of the biggest bullshit industries out there is, if you’re on the outside, “I’m going to tell you your mission. Your purpose.”

Lots of companies go out and say “Let’s do research and find out what people want.” They will say, “We do that.” They fail 100% of the time because instantly it’s not authentic. Instantly it’s not believable. Instantly they can’t pull it off.

The first thing to do in trying to be purpose driven is to not hire all these fast talking marketing experts who try to write fancy lines, but to say, “Do you have a purpose?”

If you don’t, don’t make it up. If you’re just in there to make a fast buck, don’t say you want to save mankind because consumers are getting smarter and smarter and will call BS on you. I would say maybe 25% of companies can possibly say they’re purpose driven. The other 75 are all bullshit.

Louis: How do you deal with that when you are in the 75%?

Allen: You’re better off not having a purpose and just doing your job than making up a fake purpose and having people find you out. Authenticity matters with younger consumers. If people see you saying, “I want to say the planet” and dancing on ads, yet your leadership team is driving big SUVs, forget it. You’ll be found out.

Louis: For that 75 %, do you think that they’ll be able to shift to keep up with the change?

Allen: If they do many other things. You don’t have to be purpose driven to shift ahead. You just have to execute and be able to change fast and be a pretty good chameleon. It certainly helps, especially with Gen Z and Millennials.

People want to know not only what a company makes and what it delivers, but why. They’re voting, as everyone knows, more and more with their credit card than they’re voting at the poll booth.

Louis: My guts tell me that these purpose-driven start-up organizations are going to flourish more and more. You mentioned the G-word and the M-word: the Millennials and Gen Z. I am part of the Millennial category. I fucking hate the term because it’s such a bad term.

Allen: It sounds like you’re just going to hangout and live at your parents house until they throw you out.

Louis: Exactly. But there’s something I can see happening in the younger generation: the fact that people really give a shit about something bigger than the product they buy.

Allen: And they read the fine print. They do the research. They’ve grown up with so much bullshit being thrown at them, they have a better nose to smell you’re full of shit or you’re not.

Louis: That’s why everyone hates marketers. So attitude. The second one is more about finding your purpose and aligning that will what you offer to the outside world, if you do have a purpose. If not, let’s not try to fake it. What would be the third theme?

Allen: The third theme is a pretty obvious one, what we started with. What a surprise: move fast.

When we did some conversations out at Facebook, and Facebook’s certainly going through its challenges now, on the wall, there is, “Move fast and break things.”

When I was speaking to the team there, they said, “When we’re on an assignment for Mark, I get a hall pass.”

“What’s a hall pass?”

“I can get out of all the bullshit meetings. I don’t have to go to HR. I don’t have to go to the dental plan meeting. If I’m on a project, I can close every door and go into the basement and focus on it and break things along the way.”

When they first bought Instagram, the marketplace looked at Facebook and said, “Are you crazy? Paying all of that,” but they knew already, way back then, that people were sharing more pictures than words. They have a lot of headwinds right now, but in general, if you’re going to shift ahead, no matter what you do, you have to move faster than you think.

Louis: Shouldn’t all of the Facebook employees have a hall pass?

Allen: Yeah. It’s such a big company. This is another major finding for companies that don’t shift ahead. Most of them have a tomorrow meeting, a futures meeting. “On Thursday, we’ll discuss tomorrow.”

If the future is what we call an “agenda item,” where they say, “On Thursday we’re going to talk about what we’re going to do next year,” you’re screwed. Thursday comes, “I’m too busy. I’ll go home,” or something else.

Companies that are paranoid every day, and every day they’re trying to reinvent tomorrow, and don’t leave it for the strategic planning group or the five-year plan or three-year plan or the 90-day plan … Companies that maintain a start-up hunger.

Another famous book called The Founder’s Mentality. Your listeners could pick it up. We talked to lots of founders. My father-in-law was a founder of a company. He was in the retail shopping business. On a Saturday or Sunday, he would go to retail stores and just wander the mall and talk to me about, “Look at this shopper.”

It was so much part of them. They stay close to their customer. They ask people at dinner. They say, “What do you think of this?”

They are constantly paranoid. “Is this right? Is this right?”

Once you lose that hunger for saying, “What do I have to do to succeed?” and the future become an agenda item, you are on your way to Shady Farms retirement home.

Louis: It sounds like you need to be paranoid about your customer and what they think. It sounds like you shouldn’t be paranoid that much about what Coke is doing if you’re Pepsi.

Allen: Exactly.

Louis: If I have to summarize the step-by-step or the themes that we discussed together on this episode right now, focusing that much on our customers that you can’t be irrelevant. If you really are paranoid and talk to them every day, face to face, not just via spreadsheets, you are probably in a better situation than most.

Allen: You’re in a better situation. But once you see the customers changing, you got to be able to do something about it. Whether it’s changing your offer–not easy–or making sure you have people on your team that have the skillset.

If you’re in the book retailing business and you decide you want to sell computer tablets, you better hire some people from Silicon Valley and have some geeks in there. You can’t take a book retailer and make them into a tech retailer.

Louis: So understand your people. Understand your customer. Understand your purpose, if you have one. Get shit done. Move fast. Don’t be afraid to break things. You should be in a better position than most companies are.

Allen: You have a 50/50 chance of shifting ahead then. Execution matters. You can do everything right and still fail. It’s just really hard.

Louis: Right. Allen, you’ve been an absolute pleasure to talk to. Thanks for taking the time to do this step-by-step with me. I have a few more questions before I let you go that I always ask my guests.

Allen: Okay.

Louis: What do you think marketers should learn today that will help them in the next 10 years? 20 years? 50 years?

Allen: People only share extraordinary, you better be extraordinary, and extraordinary changes. Everyone has a check the box mentality. “We have social media. We’re doing that. We’re doing a little product sampling.”

Everyone does a check the box thing. You’re better off doing one thing, because average is over, and doing it extraordinarily. Stay more focused. Do less and be better at it than try to do everything.

A lot of marketers do … Earlier in my life, when my seven-year-old used to play soccer, football for the rest of the world, everyone chased the ball. There were 10 kids around the ball. The whole field was empty. That’s what’s happened in marketing. Everyone says, “We got to be on digital. Social.”

Everyone’s running after… The rest of the field is open. You got to zig where everyone else is zagging.

Louis: You have a lot of spot-on analogies.

Allen: Bad ones.

Louis: They’re good. Tennis. Golf. Soccer. Interesting.

What are the top three resources you would recommend our listeners today? That could be anything. Books. Conferences. Podcasts.

Allen: My first is get out of your office. The companies that read too much and look at everything online and run their life, like my kids when they have their nose in the smartphone all day-

Louis: Fucking Millennials.

Allen: They have no clue what’s going on! So get out. Travel. Talk to people. Try to see everything with fresh eyes. Get out of your neighborhood. Shop in a different neighborhood. Go to a part of the city you’ve never been to. Go talk to people at a train station. Get out from behind your desk and start looking around and living a bit, not just be totally myopically focused on what you’re doing and answering emails.

Louis: That’s number one.

Allen: Yeah. I would even broaden that further. When I came out of business school, I had interviewed with a big ad agency. I went through nine interviews and they finally said: “You’re going to meet the chairman.”

I sat in his office. I was ready to talk about market segmentation and all the bullshit I had learned in business school. He said, “Allen, tell me the last book you read and the last movie you went to. What did you think of it?”

I said, “Green Eggs and Ham.”

He goes, “Tell me about Green Eggs and Ham.”

I go, “I’m screwed now.”

Finally, after I survived that somehow, I asked him, “I’m coming here for a marketing job. Why’d you ask me about the last book I read?”

He goes, “We don’t want people who have read business books. Our clients need people who are in touch with what’s going on in culture. If you don’t zoom all the way out, you’re not going to see what’s going on, so I don’t want you studying marketing books. I want you to be our clients’ eyes and ears and see what’s going on.”

That’s another extension of getting out from behind your desk, but broader than just looking at the Pepsi can, the Coke can. Really seeing how people are living. What’s going on. What else is interesting to them. In a world of too much information, more information ain’t going to help.

Louis: That’s number two. A very strong statement again. What would be the third resource?

Allen: The third resource, it’s somewhat related to the other. It’s hang out with different people. Get out of your bubble. They’re all about getting out of your bubble. It’s the number one thing.

The elections in the US, people in New York and LA were surprised, but they were in a bubble. They were in Facebook, listening to their friends say what was going on. Get out of your bubble on a friends basis too. Talk to people that you ordinarily don’t talk to. Try to get diversity into your life. Don’t hangout with your same four friends in your basement, saying the world is crazy. We’ll all same purview.

Get out and diversify your view of the world. The more clarity you have on change happening right in front of your nose, it will likely come not from you, but from your friends. Get different friends too. Don’t just hangout with the same old suspects.

Louis: Allen, as I said, it has been an absolute pleasure to talk to you. I learned a lot from you.

What I liked the most about our conversation was the amount of examples that you shared: illustrating many points. Thanks for doing that. Thanks for taking the effort to do that.

Where can listeners connect with you and learn more from you?

Allen: You can go to shiftaheadbook.com. I write for Forbes often and up there, or metaforce.co. It’s my consulting firm that drives helping companies shift ahead in the marketplace.

Louis: Once again, thank you very much.

Allen: Pleasure. Enjoyed it. Have a good day.

Next: check out the 500+ marketing resources mentioned on the podcast over the years (sorted by the number of mentions and format).

Become a confident marketer that gets real results (without treating people like garbage)

Bonjour bonjour! I’m Louis Grenier I’m a no-fluff marketer living in Dublin, Ireland (but yeah, I’m French).

Sign up to receive my no-fluff, 7-lesson email course based on what I’ve learned over the last 10 years as a marketer (+ more than 150 hours of interviews with no-bullshit marketers like Seth Godin, Mark Ritson, or Joanna Wiebe).

I believe you can treat people the way you’d like to be treated and still generate results without using sleazy, aggressive, hack-y marketing. This is why I’ve started Everyone Hates Marketers – a no-fluff, actionable marketing podcast – as a side project in 2017.

Since then, EHM has been downloaded more than 500,000 times and got praises from many from industry leaders as a marketing podcast you can learn stuff from (crazy, right?!).

7-lesson email course to become a confident & effective marketer

Related Content


Make Your Brand Stand Out, Fight Sameness & Be Genuinely Different

picture of Peep Laja

Peep Laja


Balancing Between Brand, Performance, and Creative Marketing In 5 Key Concepts


Why Marketing Agencies Mostly Suck At Marketing Themselves (And How To Fix It)

picture of Dan Englander

Dan Englander


Take F*cking Risks: 3 Ways to Get Noticed

picture of Paul Mellor

Paul Mellor

© 2017 - 2020