“To dare is to lose one's footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself.”
- Søren Kierkegaard
“That’s what rock ‘n’ roll is. It’s about playing the songs and not being too precious about them.”
- Adam Clayton
In Part 1 of this two-part exploration of existential progress, I left things at “don’t be so tied to who you are or existence at all”. This is it. This is the future of commerce. The world is changing faster than ever. Your position in the world is changing faster than ever. Your relationship with your customer is at stake, so you must be ready to change - faster than ever. Success in the 2020s is going to require responsiveness and pivots at a scale we’ve only seen glimmers of in prior generations.
Pivot As A Plan
We’ve seen pivots on display in very obvious ways in 2020 with brands like Dyson converting significant production to ventilators, countless distilleries producing sanitizers instead of spirits, and perhaps slightly more subtly with brands like Starbucks closing traditional stores and opening walk-up windows instead. This week, FC’s favorite GenZ newsletter High Tea cited Olivier Rousteing’s bold move to give his fashion show a - wait for it - digital front row. “Those who dare win” warble authors Alice and Faye.
These are bold, reactionary strokes to a very tangible crisis. Here’s the thing: change is our crisis. If our world is moving and changing faster, then - while not always faced with a pandemic - we’re faced with an onslaught of new platforms, technologies, changing customer expectations, and cultural paradigm shifts that occur on a nearly perpetual basis.
Wharton’s Mauro F. Guillén published a phenomenal prescriptive piece in HBR on how to successfully pivot in the pandemic. It was released in July when many businesses in dire straits had already completed their transformation or failed, however, I think the value of this article extends well beyond the crisis.
In the article, Mauro concludes that the “economic crisis triggered by the pandemic does not necessarily spell the end of entire industries or companies. It does weed out business models that fail to pivot toward the new reality characterized by shorter value chains, remote work, social distancing, consumer introspection, and enhanced technology use.” Substitute the word “pandemic” for “accelerating rate of change.” Even prior to the pandemic, we saw swaths of retailers struggling even while retail grew as a whole. The “acceleration of change” was upon us, then intensified by the pandemic, and is here to stay. If we’re going to learn anything from 2020, perhaps it’s that we must be more responsive than ever before.
Nilla Ali, SVP of Commerce at Buzzfeed (and two-time guest of our podcast) recently noted to Digiday regarding their affiliate business that “...in today’s world we’re making game-time decisions on a daily basis” and notes that “BuzzFeed’s most important commerce priority this year is being more responsive.”
You may counter: “being responsive feels different than pivoting.” At the scale Nilla is talking about - this is true. I think we need to apply Nilla’s thinking at a larger scale. The kind of responsiveness I’m preaching is the ability to change things at every level - macro pivots (vision, mission), micro pivots (product, markets, customer, brand), and yes the day-to-day tactics Nilla is referencing.
Another objection might be that all this responsiveness might lead to a lack of brand identity and focus. That it might lead to where Crocs was about 10 years ago - with overextended product lines, inventory, and channels. But it’s actually Crocs that I hold up as a shining example of doing exactly what I’m talking about.
Crocs started off with a bang. They incorporated in 2002 and hit their proverbial tipping point around 2006. But by the early 2010s, Crocs was a bit of a mess. They received a lot of criticism - as ugly tasteless shoes - perhaps culminating with Time calling them one of the 50 Worst Inventions in 2010. In that feature, Time noted that Crocs would also start making ballet flats. "If we make it a little bit more stylish, then we start to appeal to a larger audience," said then CEO John McCarvel. In 2011, they introduced golf shoes. By October 2011, people were done. The stock price tumbled nearly 40% in a single day after lowered earnings expectations.
If the following statements were reflective of my version of responsiveness, any criticism of my assertion would be appropriate:
- If we make it a little bit more stylish, then we start to appeal to a larger audience.
- Introduce new product lines to address additional audiences.
Thankfully, a stock crash and overextended product lines didn’t mean the end of the Crocs story. Enter Andrew Rees as President of Crocs in 2014. He added CEO to his title in 2017. His strategy? To refocus the brand on its core product, tighten up channels and distribution, and rebuild the Crocs identity. In a 2019 FN article, he called it “brand elevation” but I would go so far as to call it a pivot. Andrew went on to say one of the largest challenges was that “there was disbelief in the approach. We had a vision for how the brand should move forward and how the company should operate, and in many cases, that vision was diametrically opposed to the previous strategy…
“We had to change the team, get everyone to believe in the strategy, and then we had to fix the broken things one by one. Since [our new] strategy was so different, it took a long time to embed it and have it be accepted and understood.”
I know nothing personal about Andrew Rees but this an accomplishment with lauding. He grappled with the Crocs identity (perhaps initially with a few colleagues) and then it sounds like he grappled with it over and over again - patiently working through it with his full team until they were able to understand the vision and see how it led to success.
Andrew and his team went on to launch the oft-discussed Post Malone collaboration, along with a host of additional successful collaborations and initiatives (along with a rising stock price). A far cry from golf shoes and ballet flats, these ambitious moves are the outflow of a clearly defined sense of who Crocs is and what they mean to their customers.
And that’s just it. Responsiveness must be rooted in identity, not the whims of the market, or adding assortment for the sake of boosting sales. While those tactics have the appearance of being responsive and may even momentarily grow revenue, the impact on customers and even on the internal organization can have lasting negative effects that can require years to course correct (or in the case of many recently bankrupt brands, irreversible).
How to be Responsive
Here’s the word you’ve all been waiting for: responsiveness must be authentic. In response to “The Existential Brand Part 1,” a longtime friend of Future Commerce wrote me,
“Isn't the great differentiator between Eileen Fisher and JCP the factor of authenticity? Fisher remained authentic in their choice and definition of self, whereas JCP lacks any central anchor or definition for purpose...the same could be said for the mediocre brands/product you mention....surely this plays a role in a brand creating and sharing value with their consumer?”
Web Smith of 2pm said something similar in his response to the Ben Schott “Blands” article (referenced in Part 1). “Build with authenticity in mind,” Web concluded. The reason for premium mediocre brands is that “many of these brands were built before a single product shipped. The narratives were packaged neatly, ready for press release.”
I agree with both of these takes. In many ways that is why I wrote Part 1 - we need to grapple with our identity so we actually have a telos and ethos to which we can be authentic. JCP lacks the ability to be authentic because they have no actual identity. Crocs nearly fell down the same hole. Many playbook-following DNVBs haven’t taken the time to ask themselves the hard questions about who they actually are.
The step further though is this: lasting brands will reconsider, take risks, and evolve to become something better whether by micro or macro strokes. As companies, we can be authentic to something that will pass away. We can avoid becoming the Uncle Rico of our industry if we can recognize the need to change.
Self-Driven vs. Relationship-Driven Identity
“Just focus on the humans that are doing the things that keep your brand afloat”
- Kristen LaFrance, Resilient Retail
Given having an identity is key, let’s take a minute to consider how identity is formed.
Often when we think of identity we think of ourselves. Who are we? What is our story? What do we do? How do we go about doing it? What do we care about? What do we believe? You see some form of this on almost every “About Us” page of brands’ sites. Notice anything about these questions and their answers? They’re incredibly self-centered.
We’ve seen playbooks on telling your brand story - drawing people in and getting them excited about you. But what if “About Us” was actually just as much about our community and customers as it was about ourselves?
On Resilient Retail, Kristen LaFrance and Shopify’s recently released podcast, Michelle Cordeiro Grant, the founder of Lively (and multi-appearance guest on our show) explained:
“Lively is a community-first brand… community means human interaction, support, networking and unlocking likemindedness among a group."
It’s not that Lively is only defined by their customers - they do have their own story and distinct take on the world - but they are not defined apart from their customers. About Us is hidden down in the footer, Community is front and center in the main navigation.
How did Lively respond to the COVID?
“We stopped, we paused and we looked to our community - and that’s the beauty of having a community-led brand - you can go to them and ask them what they need… [then] we looked within ourselves and said what do we have the capability to deliver to our community and our customer right now.”
Lively was planning to focus on swimwear and lace and instead led with tiny categories of loungewear and bralettes, which now are the pillar of their business. The community shaped their identity.
Relationship-driven identity keeps you focused on your employees and your customers. It gives you the freedom to - when the time calls for it - make changes that are necessary to remain relevant while staying true to yourself. It allows for growth because you’ll have been understanding of when you need to change - when you need to add and cut.
It’s like any other intimate friendship in life. We need other people - family, friends, community- in our lives to help shape us, guide us, keep us grounded, to tumble off our unnecessary and sharp edges. A life lived in deep connection to others allows us to be better people and have richer, fuller, longer lives.
An org may not be a living, breathing person, but it is made up of living, breathing humans. The more your community grows, the more it grows in perspective and maturity. The question is, will you expand your brand’s identity to serve that community growth or will you stay pigeon-holed in a static rut?
Identity that begins and ends with our own brand is a dead-end—a surefire path to decline and bankruptcy.
“Once you label me you negate me.”
- Søren Kierkegaard
If the line between commerce and content is becoming ever more grey, perhaps we should look to content-driven brands to guide the way. Commercial bands and musical artists are perhaps the purest form of content-driven brand (it’s only music now). By 1989, U2 built one of the strongest “brands” a band could build - when they gave their Jan ‘89 SPIN cover story interview, The Joshua Tree had already sold over 14 million copies. And yet in one of the final concert sets of the year on December 30th, Bono exhaled into the microphone (as only Bono can):
"I was explaining to people the other night, but I might've got it a bit wrong – this is just the end of something for U2. And that's what we're playing these concerts – and we're throwing a party for ourselves and you. It's no big deal, it's just – we have to go away and ... and dream it all up again."
U2 could have continued to play uplifting stadium rock and ride that train into insignificance (I’m a U2 fan and I see a future where that could have happened). What they understood was that they had explored all they could with their current sounds, ideas, and visions, and they needed to expand into something new. The result was Achtung Baby (selling 18m albums, critically acclaimed as one of the best albums of all time).
Many of the musicians that maintain long relevant careers expand their sound. Bowie, Beyoncé, Dylan, etc. Some musicians have gone further and expanded into film, fashion, and commerce. Rihanna and Kanye come to mind. Rihanna’s last album was released in 2016. Over the past four years, she’s been focused on Fenty, as CEO and Artistic Director. She’s launched Fenty Beauty, Savage x Fenty (including her own Amazon Original show), and more. Talk about expanding her identity. Kanye has done the same with Yeezy via Adidas, and now with Yeezy Supply.
These were massive risks for these artists in that they expanded into new territory. These are success stories, but there are also lots of failures: look at what happened when Robert Downey Jr tried to release an album. Or Jeremy Renner, yikes.
There’s a direct line back to brands and our evolving identities. Look no further than the elephant in the room: Walmart. Walmart had long cemented its position as a downmarket brick-and-mortar giant that sold cheap stuff, paid unlivable wages, and generally made a mess of towns and communities it entered. Then Amazon crashed into Walmart’s happily dominant existence and reset how we all shop, taking a hefty bite of the consumer goods and retail market and dominating US online sales (over 50%).
Walmart recognized that they weren’t who they needed to be if they wanted a future. In 2016, they acquired Marc Lore’s Jet for $3.3b and then went on an acquisition spree of a series of midmarket brands with products and customers that didn’t fit with the low-cost, low-margin ethos that Walmart currently represented. They also spun up a Silicon Valley office, launched innovation labs, and made a targeted effort to entice Ivy League grads to join the team. They recently partnered with Shopify to connect a whole community of small businesses with their online platform. They started working toward paying workers liveable wages.
They were forced to look in the mirror, face the facts of their existence, and become a different company.
Brands were forced to change during this pandemic. Walmart was forced to change because of Amazon, eCommerce, and cultural trends. Let’s use this moment to make Change the rhythm of our businesses. Kanye, U2, Rihanna - they all evolved at their peak, not because a pandemic forced them to. Instead of waiting for some to force change, let’s initiate it on our own as part of our strategy.
Look back to Faculty again. They’ve built the ability to evolve and change into their DNA. You don’t have to do like they did, but you do need - like Michelle Cordeiro Grant and Lively - to have relationships with your community (which includes your team) that allow you to grow and evolve with them. Create an identity that is a core truth but can take steps out into the unknown and new. Evolution has risks. But the dangers of stagnation are far higher.
Be whatever is most interesting to you. Be that one thing that helps your customers with their problem. Be whatever the market needs right now. Be high art. Be popular culture. Be now. Be past. Be new. Be consistent. Be raw. Be strategic. Be understanding. Stay the course. Evolve. Be what you need to be.
Here ends my existential series. Until I decide to extend it.