If there’s one phrase planners hear most often, it’s probably the six words ‘We’re looking for evolution, not revolution’. Fair enough, different businesses move at different speeds. However, the more I understand about the way the world works, the more I realise that you can’t have evolution without the occasional revolution.
The other day I was talking to a more than usually thoughtful creative director. He’d just come across the work of the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould. He explained to me that Gould had thought long and hard about the mechanism of evolution. As a result, the good professor had invented a concept he called ‘punctuated equilibrium’.
We naturally think of evolution as a painfully gradual process, a little like the movement of the minute hand during a monthly client status meeting. Slight variations in different generations of organism are marginally more fitted to the prevailing environment. As a result, the characteristics of species imperceptibly change over eons of time.
Gould questioned this view. He suggested that there are points in time when evolution makes a leap, usually as a response to cataclysmic environmental changes or accelerated variation in a species caused by disease or interbreeding. These leaps ‘punctuate’ the equilibrium of steady-state evolution. They are, in effect, the revolutions that help make evolution happen.
I was mulling this over when a client suggested, apropos of nothing in particular, that I should look into the history of Listerine mouthwash. Perhaps she was saying something about my breath. Anyway, that evening I did a quick search on Wikipedia. I discovered a story that would make the late Professor Gould punch the air with joy.
It seems that (and I insert the word ‘allegedly’ for purely legal reasons) Listerine was originally invented at the turn of the last century as a clinical antiseptic. It was used to clean the floors of operating theatres. At the end of WW1, American doctors found that it was also an effective treatment for a disease which afflicted all too many returning doughboys, namely, gonorrhoea. Apparently, the patient was instructed to apply the liquid liberally to the affected area. Which must have brought a tear to the eye.
Some time in the 1920s, Listerine made the revolutionary leap from the gentleman’s area to the mouth. As an example of punctuated equilibrium, this must surely be up there with the development of opposable thumbs, or the taming of fire. A decade later, Listerine made the leap from the mouth to the hair, as a cure for dandruff. This, however, proved to be an evolutionary dead-end.
It’s a funny story, but it illustrates an important point. Today, when we look at Listerine, we see a venerable brand, rooted in tradition and presumably the result of years of gradual evolution. However, in reality, Listerine is as much the product of revolution as it is of evolution.
Another good example, in a rather different category, is the Porsche 911. This car is often derided by people who should know better for its boringly gradual, evolutionary approach to design. However, its evolution from fast-back Beetle to today’s supercar has been punctuated by more than a few revolutions, from turbo-charging to four-wheel drive and even – horror of horrors for 911 purists – a water-cooled engine.
Staying with the automotive theme, I have recently finished a hair-raising book by the Fortune Magazine editor Alex Taylor. Called ‘Sixty to Zero’, it tells the harrowing story of the collapse of General Motors. Never have I come across a better illustration of what happens when you try to do evolution without the occasional revolution along the way.
Much of the story is the familiar one of an ossified management culture and a failure to keep close to customers. GM was founded by a visionary genius who pioneered the principle of building a brand portfolio to serve a carefully-segmented market. However, subsequent generations of management failed to prune the portfolio as the market changed, which resulted in the embarrassing mass cull of GM’s brands in the last decade.
Just as revealing is the number of times that GM leadership saw the need for a revolution, only to have their best intentions overcome by inherent conservatism. For example, GM adopted flexible manufacturing in the 1980s. However, the company failed to exploit it, committed as it was to the practice of ‘one plant, one model’.
Another brave new dawn was promised by the experiment of Saturn, an all-new fighter brand designed to go toe-to-toe with the Japanese in the US market. Yet once again, this was a turning point at which history resolutely failed to turn.
Saturn certainly looked new. Based in rural Tennessee rather than decaying Detroit, it boasted excellent labour relations, a cute advertising campaign by the wonderful Hal Riney, and an excellent CRM programme, which I remember ripping-off for Vauxhall.
The only problem was the cars. They still lacked the build quality of their rivals from Toyota, Honda and Nissan. Yet they weren’t priced especially keenly. Worst of all, their design and engineering didn’t live up to the revolutionary claims made by the brand. They were merely warmed-over versions of other GM products, or cast-offs from GM’s European Opel subsidiary.
As Professor Gould wrote: ‘Don’t be tempted to equate transient domination with either intrinsic superiority or prospects for extended survival’. In the case of GM, I couldn’t have put it better myself.
This column originally appeared in Marketing Week.
Rare roast beef on good bread, Plymouth Gin, thunderstorms, Autumn, a long sea voyage.