Back in the Box

I can’t count the number of times I’ve been called by companies searching for a miracle cure–a speech or a day’s consulting to help them “get out of the box.” Invariably, what these firms really need–and what I’ll venture most organizations on the lifeless American corporate landscape could stand–is to get back in the box.

In their endless rush to embrace the next big thing, too many businesses have forgotten what they are and what they really do. The fashionable compulsion to break with the past has, bizarrely, come to mean abandoning the true value they once offered customers.

The latest evidence comes courtesy of Volkswagen of America, which has, over the past few years, lost the plot of its own brand story–efficient “people’s” cars with minimalist interiors and mechanics. Expanding its offerings to a luxury sedan and an SUV, and filling its most basic models with plastic and padding, VW turned off its core constituency. Meanwhile, BMW rose to fill VW’s abandoned niche with its Mini Cooper: simple, solid, and small. So after four years of declining market share, what does VW do? It hires Mini Cooper’s advertising agency!

It’s as if companies can’t fathom that the most powerful link they have with customers is their products themselves. A car company says more to its customers with the placement of its cup holders than it does in any TV advertisement. A credit card company communicates to its users through the privileges it offers–not some silly online Seinfeld “Webisode.”

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