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To Keep Your Business Relevant, Look to the Fringes

By Allen Adamson

As marketers, we know that among the most significant reasons for an organization’s success or failure is its ability to stay relevant. To continue to matter to consumers and provide them an offering that is different in a way they find valuable year after year. In today’s environment, staying ahead of marketplace changes may seem an impossible task with change taking place at such unprecedented speed. How is it possible to continually evolve at a pace that keeps you ahead of the curve? In my book, Shift Ahead, I explore why some organizations can continually evolve to meet the times, and why others struggle to keep up. Among the key factors that separate the winners from the laggards are the ability to see what’s in the road ahead and the wherewithal to react quickly and effectively to whatever this is before it’s too late (wherewithal running the gamut from money to company culture). Obviously, seeing and then reacting – or seeing and seizing, as I call it - is easiest when the implications for your business are, well, obvious.

But, what happens when changes in the road ahead are not immediately obvious and, ergo, the implications for your business not immediately apparent? This takes another organizational skillset; the ability to pick up on and make inferences from the activities and behaviors that are happening on the fringes. Companies that pay attention to the small changes happening all around them with the realization that small changes often converge and lead to big changes are those most likely to be successful in being able to shift ahead to stay relevant. Wait for the big changes to make themselves known and you’ll likely miss the boat.

What’s a good example of small things happening on the fringes that are converging to create a major categorical disruption? How about the transportation and automotive industries? The ways and means we get ourselves from Point A to Point B. None of the changes I’ll cite seemed (or seem) immediately dramatic, by themselves, but taken together they are converging and gaining in significance for multiple collateral businesses and current business models. Among the most (for now) obvious; Uber. Someone was looking at the behavior on the fringes and noticed that young people (read, millennials) don’t want to tie up money for car payments. They want to use their money for experiences. They want to live in urban areas and not have to worry about garages or parking tickets, not to mention insurance. They don’t mind sharing rides with strangers. And, they live on their smartphones. Uber has not only disrupted the taxi industry, but the restaurant and food delivery business, as well, with Uber Eats. Noting, again on the fringes, that it’s not even cars people require to make short jaunts across town, Uber is now investing in fleets of ride-share electric scooters.

Another example in this realm? Self-driving cars, which based on increasingly louder signals from the fringes have the potential to transform our lives in more ways than one. First, road safety. According to a study by the Eno Centre for Transportation, if 90% of the cars on American roads were autonomous, the number of accidents would fall from 6 million a year to 1.3 million. And, because self-driving cars are built to optimize efficiency in acceleration and braking, they would help improve fuel efficiency and reduce carbon emissions. While companies from Chevrolet to Ford to Google are jumping into the autonomous driving game, it will definitely take a few more years for the industry - and consumers - to catch up. The convergence of small changes in this category into a very big disruption is not a matter of if, but when. This is equally if not more true of electric cars. With so many smart minds working the challenges, eventually the prices will drop and charging stations will become more ubiquitous. Electric cars have fewer moving parts than those with a combustion engine. Electric cars will most likely last longer, and break down less. And, they can be driven more miles without maintenance.

It’s true that adoption rates of new modes of automotive transportation are a function of three factors: technology, regulation, and behavioral impact. Technology will only continue to go faster, and regulation will continue to act as a speed bump. But given the potential benefits for both businesses and consumers, companies are working through these issues given the increasing noise from the fringes relative to these benefits. In sum, the automotive industry – the personal transportation industry - of the future will be electrified, autonomous, shared, and connected. This has significant implications for many collateral industries, from insurance to technology to myriad others in between.

Based on my experience studying organizations that have, or haven’t shifted ahead successfully, what secrets did I glean relative to their efforts? Again, to state the obvious, if you can see that the small changes in your industry have already converged into a big bang, it’s probably too late to catch up. It’s better to explore several potential opportunities, make a few false moves, than miss a major disruptive one. Said another way, if you go up to the bell, ring the bell. Also, don’t make “tomorrow” an agenda item. Review and assess fringe activities and behavior on an ongoing basis. The best organizations know success is never final. They move fast and are not afraid to break things in the process. Most important, they also know that success starts and ends with the customer. In other words, don’t focus on what your competition is doing. Look at what your customers are doing.

To be successful in shifting your business ahead, it’s critical to pay attention to the little, seemingly insignificant changes that could converge to have amazingly disruptive significance. Companies that see the small changes and begin to think about and plan for the implications have a greater chance of becoming – or staying - leaders in their category.

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About the Author:

Allen Adamson is a noted industry expert in all disciplines of branding. He has worked with a broad spectrum of consumer and corporate businesses in industries ranging from packaged goods and technology, to health care and financial services, to hospitality and entertainment. With his perspective and depth of experience, Allen has helped his clients understand and activate strategies that enable them to shift ahead of the market and the competition, generating long-term value and increased brand equity. Allen and his teams help clients identify what truly matters to the audiences they serve - what is relevant to their audiences - and to brilliantly deliver on it.

How organizations do – or do not - stay relevant is the subject of Allen’s most recent book, Shift Ahead. Using fascinating first-hand accounts and detailed case studies, Shift Ahead explains how the best organizations recognize when it’s time to change direction, and how they pull it off while bolstering their brands. Following the approach of Allen’s previous books, BrandSimple, BrandDigital, and The Edge:50 Tips from Brands That Lead – which are used in universities across the country - Shift Ahead offers up practical and readily applied lessons learned.