Embracing This Milestone 500th Blog Post As An Opportunity For Transformation

Do you recall the zeitgeist of our society in January 2009? The global economy was collapsing, a Second Great Depression was threatening, and the first African American President in the history of the United States swept into office on the rhythms of Yes We Can.

At that moment, I realized that a business educator and management consultant with complementary Academic Qualifications (AQ) and Professional Qualifications (PQ) might be able to find something interesting to editorialize about on a weekly basis. And thus I launched the blog AQPQ.org.

Now, roughly 500 weeks later, I’ve achieved this 500th milestone post. How am I celebrating?

By deciding that it’s time for transformation.

Why? Because the world itself has been transformed during the past decade. A global economy in utter ruin in 2009 is, by and large, in fairly robust shape today.

But what of the health of our society and natural environment? Sadly, they appear to be evolving in the opposite direction.

In the meantime, the structure of the internet has been transformed too. Consider, for instance, the world’s most popular web site platform WordPress. When I launched AQPQ in 2009, I selected it because of its singular focus on blog hosting.

But today, WordPress’ home page invites potential customers to “Build your beautiful site today. Everything you need for a website that works for you.” It barely mentions the word “blog.”

So I’ve decided to embrace this 500th post as an opportunity for transformation. I will conclude my utilization of the blog format to express my editorial views, and will shift my commentary to alternative publishing venues.

To be sure, I’ll continue to utilize this web site to describe my professional activities. Nevertheless, I’m ready to embrace an indisputable truth: a structure that provided a strong foundation for my editorial expression a decade ago may no longer represent an ideal venue for me today.

500 iterations of any endeavor is a good run. After 500 blog posts across a decade of global transformation, it’s the right time to embrace the future.

Marketing Dissonance

A century has passed since the consumer advertising industry first emerged to sell brands like Cadillac automobiles and Lucky Strike cigarettes. In all that time, wouldn’t you assume that the industry would have achieved some level of consensus on a common strategy for resuscitating mature and declining products?

During the past few weeks, for instance, the retail industry has been abuzz about the continuing declines in consumer demand for formerly ubiquitous products like soda, soap, cereal, and orange juice. One would assume that brands like Diet Coke, Ivory Soap, Lucky Charms, and Tropicana would implement common (or, at the very least, similar) marketing campaigns to recover lost sales.

Interestingly, though, the parent companies of these brands are taking wildly dissonant approaches to addressing their sales declines. Coca Cola, a firm that has always emphasized the social aspects of sharing soda, is doubling down on this theme with its new Share a Coke campaign. Conversely, General Mills is repositioning the Lucky Charms brand from its traditional adolescent focus to a nostalgic adult emphasis.

And what of Ivory Soap and Tropicana? It’s hard to ascertain the direction in which Proctor & Gamble and PepsiCo will take these brands. Rumors abound that P&G will simply divest itself of Ivory, an iconic brand that it has produced and distributed since 1879. And as for PepsiCo and its Tropicana brand, after a disastrous juice carton redesign led to a 20% sales decline in 2009, it has shied away from any major marketing initiatives.

Only time will tell whether a traditional marketing message, a new “retro” nostalgic message, a divestiture, or a product redesign will prove to be the most effective method for managing such declining household staples. Nevertheless, we already know one fact for sure: after a century of active engagement with American consumers, the marketing sector remains at a loss to identify — let alone implement — an effective strategy.

Sears, Kodak, and the Product Life Cycle

Father Time and Baby New Year.

They’re the very personification of the holiday season. The father character first emerged in Greek mythology as Chronus, the godlike manifestation of time itself. The baby character, though, is a relatively modern creation, surfacing in consumer magazines a century ago and then becoming a fixture of American culture.

Pictured together, they personify the adage “out with the old, in with the new.” Although the news media seems to embrace this adage every time it fawns over the introduction of a new technology product, it diverted its attention during the final week of 2011 to note the stark decline of a pair of American corporate icons.

The Softer Side of Sears

An advertising jingle regarding the “softer side” of Sears once referred to the department store’s apparel offerings, but it can easily be applied to its 2011 revenue figures as well. Last week, CEO Lou D’Ambrosio announced that same-store sales during the crucial holiday season plunged 5.2% at a time when industry sales grew 4%, and that over 100 Sears and Kmart stores would thus be shuttered soon.

It’s easy to forget that Sears once reigned for decades as America’s largest retailer, with a mail order catalog business that was launched in 1888 and that later became an indispensable resource for America’s emerging consumer economy. But in 1993, Sears walked away from the mail order industry and simply shut down its catalog business.

Just two years later, Jeff Bezos founded Amazon.com and reinvigorated the industry; and what of Sears? Although the firm is still the fourth largest broad line retailer in the United States, the store closings will undoubtedly accelerate its decline.

The Kodak Moment

The final week of 2011 was also a brutal one for the Eastman Kodak Company. Although the firm’s classic advertising campaign associated the phrase “the Kodak Moment” with happy times, the phrase now connotes an image of a failing firm, desperately trying to transition away from an obsolete core product.

As with Sears and the mail order retail industry, Kodak virtually invented the film industry in the United States. Since its founding by legendary industrialist George Eastman in 1880, Kodak became an icon of American society; by 1976, its ubiquitous Brownie, Instamatic and Kodachrome brands helped it achieve respective market shares of 85% and 90% in the camera and film markets.

The emergence of digital cameras, however, doomed the entire industry to obsolescence, and Kodak to decline as well. Last week, after the firm announced that Laura Tyson was joining two other high profile professionals by resigning from its Board of Directors, the media reported that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences might shift its Academy Awards ceremony from Los Angeles’ Kodak Theater to a larger venue.

Understanding The Product Life Cycle

Many investment analysts characterize Sears and Kodak as similar organizations that are facing similar circumstances. However, most marketing professionals would disagree with this characterization.

That’s because marketers define the product life cycle as an arc that progresses through four distinct stages. Film, for instance, was only a niche product for professional portrait artists during its introduction stage during the late 1800s, until it entered its growth stage and rode the wave of American economic prosperity.

Once products like Brownie, Instamatic and Kodachrome achieved market dominance, film entered the product maturity stage. And finally, as low-cost competitors like Fuji entered the market and consumers began to adopt newer products, film fell into its current stage of decline.

Indeed, the aging of the film business is reminiscent of the life of the proverbial Baby New Year, as he ages into Father Time. But can we characterize the arc of Sears in the same manner?

Simply Poor Decision Making

Although Sears, as a firm, progressed through the stages of introduction, growth, maturity, and decline during the same era as Kodak, the American retail industry hasn’t done so as well. After all, the advent of online shopping holidays like Cyber Monday has reinvigorated the mail order industry, and the emergence of innovative retailers from American Girl to Cabela’s has redefined the live shopping experience.

So how can we explain the decline of Sears? It may simply be attributable to a case of poor decision making. After all, Sears failed to follow the “big box” warehouse trend that was pioneered by firms like Costco and Walmart, preferring to remain in more traditional shopping mall locations. And yet Sears also failed to spruce up its traditional decor, while department store rivals like Macy’s and J.C. Penney opted to do.

In other words, investment analysts may be overlooking an important distinction when they characterize Sears and Kodak in a similar fashion. After all, as long as Sears continues to operate hundreds of stores in viable locations, a corporate turnaround does indeed remain possible. It is difficult to envision any turnaround, though, of a firm that sells film.