by Colin Jowell

It used to be said that running a business without marketing it was like winking in the dark - pretty futile if no one can see you doing it. Today it seems that there is a more futile and commercially lethal version of this.

Imagine holding 89% of a high margin, multi-million dollar category, with a brand name that’s synonymous with the product you’re trying to sell. Your product sells itself with an advertising tagline that pretty much every man woman and child in your market can recite. And, on top of that, a 100 year history that has you believing you might have the staying power to last forever. Sounds incredible.

Unless you are Kodak.

In fairness, Kodak has recently emerged this year (after two years of what must have been hellish bankruptcy and restructuring) as an imaging solutions technology company for businesses. But here is a fun fact: Kodak invented a digital camera in 1975. It was not released due to the “need” to protect the core business. Which worked quite well for them for 20 odd years until the digital revolution happened in earnest. They then managed to gain quite a strong foothold in the digital camera market, only to find it swiftly commoditized and taken out by unforeseen diversification of mobile phones. It would be easy to write this story off as a classic example of a dinosaur industry, but other analog brands, like Leica and Nikon survived.

You don’t have to be in an aging category to face this threat. Take the category of digital mapping, and the war between Google and Apple for supremacy. According to Bloomberg, Google deliberately released versions of its mapping without the critical turn-by-turn feature in order to convert Apple customers to its mobile platform, Android. Apple’s mapping solution in response was riddled with flaws upon release, leaving most commentators to assume that Google had won. Wrong! 23 Million Apple customers switched to Apple’s platform- potentially proving that when it comes to technology, people are not just fickle, but also exceptionally lazy - opting for whatever is most conveniently placed on their phone.

What must separate the winners from the losers isn’t just the lack of an innovative idea. It has to be something about the failure to act, both timeously and appropriately. Fast followers win all the time. Just ask the guys at MySpace how they feel about Facebook.  The new “winking in the dark” isn’t being in business without marketing, it’s now innovating without acting. The notion that there are things that are good for customers that are not good for the business may be true about pricing, but it’s seldom true about ideas.

Things to think about:

  • Have you assumed your past winning formula is the recipe for future success? It pays to be a little paranoid!
  • Are you keeping an eye out for new ideas that might affect your business? Just because someone else has thought about it, doesn’t mean they are going to act on it, or bring it to life as well as you can.