Friday, May 12, 2006

Power Is a Funny Thing

We all know the cliche, "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." What we do not know is how to avoid the trap.

I am currently reading The Chronicles of Narnia to my children. Right now we are on book 4, Prince Caspian. Near the end of the book, King Peter (the high king of Narnia) challenged King Miraz (the imposter king of Narnia) to a duel rather than a battle.

This is a foolish proposition, as Peter is likely the better fighter, but Miraz has the far superior army. However, two of Miraz's lieutenants, Glozelle and Sopespian, conspire against their king. The reckon that if they can get Miraz killed by Peter, then they will be in charge of the superior army, and they can defeat Peter's army and rule Narnia. Thus they make Miraz feel as if he would be a coward for refusing the challenge. He accepts.

Machiavelli would be proud.

The question is how to avoid this kind of treachery and still maintain power. Will every Caesar have his own Brutus? Is a benevolent leader doomed to failure? Must one rule with equal parts of love, fear, and hate?

The brand landscape shows the same pattern. For every Coca-Cola, there is a Pepsi waiting to take it down. Avis tried harder, but Enterprise is now number one. Look at Lucky Strike cigarettes. In a bit of exaggerated puffery, the brand used to claim that they outsold every other brand of cigarettes in America two-to-one. That's market share, people. Today they are a fringe brand at best.

How does Hoover vacuum get pounded by upstart Dyson? How does Sears get purchased by K-Mart? How do my Kansas City Chiefs blow an 18 point lead against the Philadelphia Eagles and miss the playoffs? Oh, wait, that's another matter.

A brand can be loved. But it cannot be complacent. Levi's jeans took the market for granted. Now they fight to regain market share. My students remind me every day how fast time moves. When I was teaching at Kansas State during graduate school, I was just a few years older than my students. Now more than a decade separates us.

I'll start to use a popular culture reference in class, and I will quickly realize that it would be lost on them. They weren't born yet.

So it is with companies and product category leaders. Brands that were cool are now irrelevant. I asked my students how many of them owned a pair of Doc Martens, a staple of my college career. Perhaps 2 of more than 100 raised their hands.

Brands get old, fat, and lazy. They stop listening. They believe they are the best because they should be. Then they lose.

It is much as my father wrote in a recent comment here, as we become bloated by success, we care more about what we want to hear than what others want to know.


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