Gone So Soon

Recently I gave an interview about one of my favorite career projects, Carmen Sandiego. It was being researched by an archivist! I hadn’t been asked in years about the mysterious thief in the red trench coat and fedora. As big as she was in my life and on the national stage, save for a new motion picture in development, few people remember dear Carmen as much more than nostalgia. For that matter, who remembers the massive multimedia magic of CD-ROM computer games with all of 700mb of storage?

There she is. There she isn’t. Nothing lasts forever. Very little lasts long at all. That is the stuff of our culture. That is the stuff of our careers. Hold on too tightly to anything and you find yourself grasping ancient pixel dust.

Creative destruction is increasingly real and accelerating faster than ever. A new company comes, an old company goes. Brands emerge and evaporate before our eyes. In the start-up world, the notion of permanence is almost impossible to envision. Look forward with alacrity or don’t bother looking up from abandonment.

Contemporary taste is fickle. Technology trends are more fickle. Customer loyalty is most fickle.

Earlier this year I watched the National Geographic Channel limited series Valley of the Boom. I couldn’t tell if it was a dark walk down memory lane or an idealist’s time capsule of lost promise. Netscape—the big bang of the internet age—went from conception to extinction in all of about four years. The Globe—the biggest IPO of its time—was practically eviscerated at birth. Pixelon—a scam extraordinaire foiled by its own iBash—today doesn’t even make a decent trivia question on a game show.

Those were just three emblematic stories, real-world cautionary tales of boom and bust. You might remember the history of other exploded rockets, from Pets.com to Webvan. Maybe you don’t want to remember. Of the big consumer-facing internet companies that emerged from dotcom v1.0, it seems Amazon, Priceline, and eBay are the only lauded brands continuing to operate at large scale.

Google emerged in the second wave of the internet, capitalizing on all the failed portals’ inability to understand the essential nature of search, most notably the excruciating death spiral of Yahoo. Can you think of another important round-one bubble survivor? Which will be the next to vaporize? Jeff Bezos has already said Amazon won’t last forever. He knows inescapably it will be replaced by something fast moving and better.

Today there are reportedly 300 or so companies affectionately refered to as “unicorns.” These are start-ups largely in the technology sector with a valuation of more than one billion dollars regardless of revenue or earnings to justify the bragging rights. You are undoubtedly familiar with many of their quirky names: Uber, Lyft, WeWork, Airbnb, DoorDash, Slack, Pinterest, Instacart… these are widely regarded as some of the good ones.

How many of these brands will today’s schoolchildren recognize when they become adult consumers? You know they won’t all still be around. History assures us of that—unless of course this time is different (and when someone tells you this time is different, keep your hands on your wallet).

Early last year I wrote an article titled Is Facebook the Next AOL? At the time I wasn’t sure. Later in the year I wrote about it again. By then Mark Zuckerberg had testified before Congress and I had become sure. Facebook is going to fall hard. The level of cynicism over there is no different from the hubris of America Online. Today cash is pouring in and it has no serious competitors, so hey, it must be invincible, a forever brand!

Facebook only has one major problem corroding its innards: customers don’t trust the people running it. No product or service can last long that way. It’s hard to be a forever brand when your promise is held in contempt. You can pay lip service to addressing the failings in your business model, but if the core concept is fundamentally conflicted, you can’t beat the reaper.

Even General Electric has fallen from grace. GE, the one original Dow Jones industrial average company dating back a century, is no longer in the Dow 30 index. How can that be? Yes, it is still an enormous enterprise, too big to fail, one might say. Does that mean the brand matters a fraction as much as it did a decade or two ago?

Nothing lasts. Creative destruction is consistent that way.

Google will last a long time because it has built a mighty moat, but it won’t last forever.

Apple? Depends on how it deploys its seismic war chest of cash.

Netflix? Hard to imagine, but it seems like a transitional platform. It could be bumped off.

Microsoft is evolving again, truly embracing the cloud, so maybe it will be the new GE. It has lots of runway to continue reinventing itself, but like GE, no runway is infinite.

What’s the point? Think about your own Carmen Sandiego, that gig you love that will be gone someday, and plan your career accordingly. Are you ready to lose the inevitable and discover what comes next? The ship you are on may appear to be built out of steel, but steel eventually rusts. Are you looking beyond the bow?

Creative destruction wins every single time, but don’t despair. Where old jobs become obsolete with antiquated value propositions, new jobs emerge requiring fresh ways of looking at the world. I doubt that will change. While so many companies have come and gone in the last quarter century, the planet has lifted two billion people out of abject poverty. There are new pockets of middle-class workers emerging all over the world in an increasingly shared global economy. That seems like a decent enough tradeoff for a few trampled unicorns.

Maybe someone will even capture Carmen Sandiego. You never know what can happen when you let go of everything you don’t need anymore.

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Brands in Memoriam 2013

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos made a spectacular impact recently when he went on 60 Minutes the day before Cyber Monday and gave us a glimpse at the future—a fleet of small delivery drones he branded Prime Air. It was a bold statement, and whether intended or not an incomparable public relations move that got much of the nation talking about his online retail company at precisely the most important time of year for consumer purchasing.

Yet I might be in the minority thinking that was not the most interesting thing Bezos talked about on television and in the zillions of video clips that got sent around the digital world in the days that followed. What I latched onto in the Bezos appearance was this little exchange with Charlie Rose:

Jeff Bezos: Companies have short life spans, Charlie. And Amazon will be disrupted one day.

Charlie Rose: And you worry about that?

Jeff Bezos: I don’t worry about it ’cause I know it’s inevitable. Companies come and go. And the companies that are, you know, the shiniest and most important of any era, you wait a few decades and they’re gone.

Charlie Rose: And your job is to make sure that you delay that date?

Jeff Bezos: I would love for it to be after I’m dead.

Well, if Jeff Bezos who is currently sitting on top of the business world knows that sooner or later his company is toast, I think that is about as telling a tale of creative destruction as I can imagine! With that, here is this year’s short list of additions to the Dead Brand Graveyard:

BlockbusterBlockbuster: Aptly named for its status as the big bust of this year, Blockbuster is a sad loss for me. Harken back to the early days of video home rental and there were thousands of mom and pop stores in neighborhood strip malls. It seemed inevitable that these shops would fall victim to industry consolidation to achieve buying power and scale where margins were thin, and Blockbuster came to rule the day. My experience of Blockbuster was that it somehow held onto that mom and pop feel of a local video store, and at least where we rented they always were friendly, helpful, movie nuts, and the checkout line moved pretty quickly. Then as VHS gave way to DVD, along came the startup Netflix to reinvent the space, and Blockbuster went to sleep. By the time they woke up and decided that Netflix was onto sometime with their mail order subscription programs, Netflix was already reinventing itself as a digital distributor, and Redbox had figured out how to pick up the kiosk business with zero personnel vending machines. Blockbuster was two generations behind the innovation curve, and when Dish Network bought Blockbuster ostensibly as a storefront competitive tool in its battle with DirecTV, it was too little cavalry too late to justify the ongoing operating costs.

Current TV: It is hard to argue that Current TV ever acquired much momentum as a brand unto itself, although it’s hard not to draw a certain amount of attention when one of your masthead investors is former Vice President of the United States Al Gore, coming off a nail biter contested single state vote count that almost made him President of the United States. If you poke around the web for remnants of Current TV’s brand strategy, it was to be something like a news network for ages 18 – 34, where much of the content would be user-created, uploaded to a destination online site, and then curated for television cable audiences. I think the notion that I have to say something like denotes that the ill-formed brand strategy never got much resonance, which might have been reinforced when the strategy suddenly shifted to hiring high-profile former ESPN star turned MSNBC darling Keith Olbermann—at a big salary, with even bigger expectations. The concept of building a line-up around a tent pole Olbermann anchor also never resonated, so when Al Jazeera America came knocking with a monster payday for the founders of the 60 million subscriber reach network, it was an easy call for our former VP to call it a win and walk off the field. Not surprisingly, Olbermann went back to sports.

MetroPCS: Remember when we could look forward to airwaves of virtually unlimited choice and price competition due to the wonders of telecom deregulation? No, you forgot, too? MetroPCS is another brand that probably didn’t leave behind a lot of emotional longing with customers, but it is interesting to note that its founding dates back to 1996 and it came to position itself as a carrier with unlimited wireless communications for a flat fee and without an annual contract. The company was a pioneer in 4G LTE rich communication services, and with more than 9 million subscribers grew to become the fifth largest carrier in the United States—both good reasons for it to be acquired by T-Mobile which cemented its position as the fourth largest carrier in the nation. Still feeling good about all the many companies out there fighting hard for your smart phone bill?

What are the key takeaways from this year’s exit crop that might inform a Bezos-like objective of bolstering your brand to outlive your own era? First, speed is everything in the digital age, rest even a millisecond too long on your laurels and it will probably be too late to catch up with that company that leapfrogged you (Blockbuster). Second, a confused brand strategy results in a confused product strategy (and vice-versa) and swinging at that with pricey tactics doesn’t clear the confusion (Current TV). Third, an undifferentiated commodity without sufficient scale will not stand solo long in a consolidating market (MetroPCS).

Last year in my Brands in Memoriam post I went out on a limb and called Blackberry dead. I took a little heat for that, what I probably should have said was RIM (Research in Motion), the holding company for Blackberry was dead, and Blackberry was on deathwatch. Honestly, I feel okay about calling Blackberry dead, to me it’s spiritually dead, and while some loyals are still pounding thumbs on their mini-keyboards, it’s hard not to believe the clock is tick-tick-ticking to Final Jeopardy on this one. Slammed by creative destruction and inexcusably poor management—a very tough critique because it was a visionary company much beloved that lost vision—it is today a zombie brand at best.

Going out on less a limb this year, I don’t think I would be alone in calling for grave concern around the survival of Sears, J.C, Penney, and Radio Shack. I will climb out a little further and hope that Dell finds a fruitful path soon, as it is hard to believe the PC or laptop business is on the mend, or there is much room on the shelves for another flavor of tablets or tablet/keyboard combos. U S Airways is also likely to evaporate when its merger with American Airlines is completed. I hope I am wrong about all of these because we are talking an awful lot of jobs at risk in our too fragile economic recovery if we lose any let alone all of these. Let’s hope management is inspired with some leapfrog ideas for reinvention and revitalization.

Did I miss any for this year or in the near term gun sights of creative destruction? Feel free to chime in below and add your assessments, predictions, and prognostications. Just remember, if you tiptoe out on the limb, forward judgments of demise have an excellent history of being proven wrong!