Iconic brand failures like Blockbuster and Blackberry are not all that far back in our memories, and Yahoo’s recent acquisition has raised questions about what makes a once-celebrated brand able stand the test of time. For many companies, success was built on a product or service that made sense at the right time and place, but when the tides shifted towards new platforms and channels, the core offering ceased to be relevant.
However, while many established companies are falling at the hands of an increasingly competitive and digital world, there are a special few that have found success—not in spite of these developments, but because of them. By focusing on the philosophy that powers their brand heritage rather than the products that have already made their mark, brands like GE, the New York Times, and Lego have introduced new, modern offerings that are still true to the ethos that drove their inception.
GE: Growth Through Focus
Nearly 150 years ago, Edison invented the first electric lamp, merged with three similar companies, and formed what we now know to be GE. Since then, that company has continued to invest in similar industrial innovations, leading development in transportation, aviation, healthcare and more. This horizontal expansion wasn’t just the product of continued investments in electricity (which would have been true to GE’s original product) but GE’s devotion to imagination at work – a philosophy that is as much tagline as it is driving principle.
Each and every GE development has been powered and evaluated by this ethos, including its decision last year to divest financial business GE Capital and focus more intently on GE’s industrials practice. While many companies see growth as a function of acquiring more capabilities to strengthen existing product lines, GE has grown intentionally through a continual re-focusing on capabilities that are core to industrial innovation. Today, GE is pioneering the Industrial Internet, a “cloud-based Internet of Things platform” that is changing enterprise connectivity in a way we’ve never seen before.
The New York Times: Expansion for Relevance
With 62% of Americans consuming news via social media, and ad spend moving towards digital channels, print media has been tasked with continuing to monetize while reaching consumers where they want to read. For The New York Times, these challenges were very real. Since its founding in 1851, the Internet age meant the first real shift in news consumption habits—a change that threatened the Times’ core heritage of daily print journalism. Rather than doubling down on its print product, the Times refocused on its storytelling philosophy, finding new ways to deliver the same engrossing stories.
This manifested in more ways than most could have probably imagined. In 2015, NYT VR launched in partnership with Google cardboard, allowing consumers to experience the news in an entirely different way. The same year, the paper announced Interactive Storytelling, using multimedia features and data visualization show as much as tell, and this year, the Times announced a podcast team to develop audio content. The Times understood that in an increasingly digital world, resistance is futile. But what’s really notable about their approach is that they didn’t just assume that translating the print product to their website would solve the “digital problem;” they embraced emerging channels that allowed for more engaging, modern, and relevant storytelling that was unique to them and true to their core.
Lego: Building More Than Blocks
The brand began in a Danish woodworking studio almost a century ago and has been successful by defining itself on its philosophy of play, rather than on its interlocking plastic pieces. By aligning the brand with this ideal rather than its core product, it’s been able to adapt to changing behaviors better than its peers. In fact, Lego employs a famously secretive R&D group called Future Lab, devoted entirely to brand innovation – and the results are fascinating. In 1998, Lego was experimenting with robotics; in 2011, the brand announced a game that paired with a smartphone; and in 2013, Lego video games were launched successfully. By openly adopting the varied ways that children play, Lego has been able to ingratiate itself into every generation’s nostalgia.
While the importance of adapting to a digital world is no revelation, the actual practice of guiding a brand into a new era is extremely challenging, particularly for brands that have found success with a single product for so long and are inclined to stay the course. However, the last twenty years have changed the way consumers engage with brands. Information on competitors is more readily available, so customers are more likely than ever to turn to a more accessible, modern brand than your own.
Ultimately, the lesson that these three heritage brands teach all companies is a valuable one: build your product on a constant principle so that when, not if, the winds blow the other way, you have room to shift focus while being true to what you’ve built.