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What david bowie can teach corporate america

January 17th, 2016
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David Bowie’s extraordinary ability to reinvent himself at different stages of his legendary five-decade career is a lesson in market savvy and branding. Known for his chameleon like behavior, this artistic and cultural icon was able to sift through the cultural chaff of the time to find original gems to create new images and music that would repeatedly propel him to stardom for multiple generations of fans.

The artist/performer who started life as David Jones and transformed himself into David Bowie, and added well-known monikers like Ziggy Stardust and Starman during his long career, could be a business case study on how to create products and brand loyalty in a world with notoriously fickle consumers.

In today’s disruptive digital age and highly competitive global economy, this is a challenge for companies large and small. But for large legacy companies that started in the 20th Century, it is an especially difficult challenge with a lot at stake.

When a major company fails it is a real tragedy on several levels. Workers lose jobs. Shareholders forfeit investments. The local economy suffers. Whether a contributing factor was a bad economy, disruptive technologies, bad management, or a combination of reasons, the end result is still the same.

True, the collapse of a troubled business can be good for the economy. Bankruptcies can result in reorganized companies that are managed better and more efficiently to produce products or services. Competitors and new market entries have opportunities to fill outstanding consumer demand. Economic forces help to restore the market’s equilibrium.

A 127 year-old legacy company reinvents itself into a technology giant

In reality, though, the failures of large and small businesses will happen for a variety of reasons and under several scenarios. What I find fascinating are the stories of large legacy companies that have survived, if not thrived, in the transition to the digital age. One of the most impressive on my list is General Electric. Founded by Thomas Edison and funded by J.P. Morgan in 1889, GE has been a household name for manufacturing light bulbs, electronic consumers goods as well as energy generation, transportation and aviation. But that’s not all. Today, GE is commonly mentioned in the same sentence with Google, Apple, and Microsoft as a major technology company.

The reinvention of GE from its 20st Century manufacturing roots to an A-list 21st Century technology giant was not just sheer luck. GE did not watch technology developments from the sidelines like Kodak, which ceded the consumer photography market to other companies who had embraced digital technology. It shed non-performing businesses, like its financial capital division. GE stayed ahead of technological changes and marketplace demand, and thrived.

I was reminded why GE has been successfully transitioning into the Digital Revolution while watching one of its television commercials highlighting its technologies that will “change the world”. The ad scenario features a young software engineer just hired by GE who excitedly tells his millennial age co-workers and friends, and boomer age parents of his success. But, to his dismay, the Millennials don’t know anything about GE. His parents give him the sledgehammer used by his grandfather when he worked for GE, with the unspoken assumption that he will be able to use it in his new job.

The idea that the public’s awareness of GE is so low, as portrayed in the ad, seemed a little over the top. GE is one of the world’s most well-known and valuable brands (The Best 100 Brands 2015, Interbrand). Despite this significant cache, GE, like David Bowie, never took for granted that today’s successes will be in demand tomorrow.

Be flexible, an innovator and tell the world about it

In today’s disruptive digital age, there are two vital survival lessons worth committing to memory. One is to stay ahead of changes in technology and consumer demand no matter if you are a large company like GE or a startup. The second is to tell customers what you have done often and again when you do something new. To ignore this is to put at risk not only investor’s equity, but jobs and livelihoods of local economies.

Legacy retail companies like J.C. Penny and Sears are struggling to reinvent themselves in the face of intense competition from Amazon and other Ecommerce retailers as consumers increasingly embrace online shopping. Technology pioneers like IBM recognized earlier than HP that reinventing itself from being a computer manufacturer to offering enterprise solution technologies was vital to survival in the digital age. IBM sold its computer business years ago, while today HP struggles with a corporate reorganization to sell or spin-off its legacy computer and printer businesses.

In an exciting development, the legacy companies of the Motor City are reinventing themselves by partnering with technology companies to build self-driving automobiles. After the Great Recession of 2008 brought near financial collapse, bankruptcies and a federal government bailout, America’s automakers had record-breaking sales in 2015. Building competitive products and burnishing stale brands like Buick’s ad campaign to convince millennials that it no longer makes their grandparent’s cars were critical factors. A huge boost came with GM’s announcement that it was partnering with the ride-hailing firm Lyft to build driverless cars. Google and Ford are also reportedly in discussions about a possible collaboration. Ironically, one of the major customers of the self-driving car could be older people who are no longer able to drive.

The promising trajectory for legacy companies like GE and GM is good for the economy. But history suggests that their products and brands will periodically lose their luster in the future. Studying David Bowie’s extraordinary career would perhaps inspire ideas for how to make and keep their stars shining brightly.

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