My guest today is Allen Adamson; a world renown “brand guru” and sought-after industry commentator, who has appeared on NBC’s Today Show, CNBC’s Squawk Box and Fox Business Network. He is often quoted in The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Advertising Age, USA Today, the Washington Post, and Forbes, for which he also writes a column on brand strategy. Allen is also the Co-Founder and Managing Partner of Metaforce - a marketing and product consultancy which takes a multi-disciplinary channel-agnostic approach to marketing challenges.
He is also the author of Shift Ahead - a book that uses fascinating first-hand accounts and detailed case studies, to explain how the best organizations recognize when it’s time to change direction, and how they pull it off while bolstering their brands.
I invited Allen to be my guest on my show to talk about how brands deal with change. I wanted to learn what it means to “shift ahead”. And I was curious to get his POV on how the pandemic has changed the way businesses compete.
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Hi, I'm Joelly, your Branding Badass, and welcome to season two of Branding Matters. My guest today is Allen Adamson, a world renowned brand guru and sought after industry commentator. Allen has appeared on NBC today show CNBC Squawk Box and Fox Business Network. And he's often quoted in the New York Times The Wall Street Journal Advertising Age, USA Today, the Washington Post, and Forbes for which he also writes a column on brand strategy. Allen is also the co founder and managing partner at Metaforce - a marketing and product consultancy, which takes a multidisciplinary channel agnostic approach to marketing challenges. He's also written several books, including Brand Smple, Brand Digital, and TheEdge:
50 tips from brands that lead. And his latest book Shift Ahead uses fascinating first hand accounts and detailed case studies to explain how the best organizations recognize when it's time to change direction, and how they pull it off while bolstering their brands. I invited Allen to be a guest on my show to talk about how brands deal with change. I wanted to learn what it means to shift ahead. And I was curious to get his point of view on how the pandemic has changed the way businesses compete. Allen, I'm so thrilled to have you with us today. Welcome to Branding Matters!Allen Adamson:
Thanks for inviting me, it's fun to be here.Joelly Goodson :
Glad that you're here. Thank you so much. So I want to start off with a quote from Dickens, because I think it's very apropos for what's going on today. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times". And when I think about that quote, and I think about what's going on in the world today, I think it really is relevant because there's no denying that it's been the worst of times for many, if not most people around the world. But we also have to acknowledge that it also has been the best for times for some companies as well. You know, during COVID, I have customers specifically that have really thrived during COVID. As far as business goes, especially those clients that have really pivoted quickly. I know that's the word does your these days, what brands you think got it right, as far as pivoting? And which ones you think missed the mark?Allen Adamson:
Yeah, well, I'll start off by throwing another quote back at you. adversity is the mother of invention, you know, people tend not to change unless they have to. And this disruption caused a lot of businesses to change. I think the companies that got it right, were the ones that were forced to change and reimagine themselves, where a whole bunch of other businesses didn't change. Maybe if you're in the zoom business, if you're at the zoom company, you had a capacity issue. But fundamentally, you know, your business didn't change, it just got bigger, but a whole bunch of other businesses needed to reinvent themselves. And one's gonna see the most change in the category the seeds the most change is to Saudis and the food business because it was a period of time that you were not running to restaurants all the time. And all of a sudden, you were eating more at home and takeout became a bigger thing beyond just what you can get from the Chinese place down the corner of the pizza place. You know, Walmart has put in this ghost kitchen ghost kitchen is a Canadian company. And instead of going to a fast food place, and getting either hamburgers or pizza, this goes kitchen inside of Walmart has 12 major restaurant brands, you can choose from the menu. So instead of just going to Walmart to pick up paper towels, which of course didn't do in a pandemic, that to ship it to you, you can order in from not just your traditional fast food places, but from restaurants that you ordinarily would never be able to order rent through this concept called the ghost kitchen, which is growing like crazy. Now, even as the pandemic sorts to ease back a bit, at least in parts of the world. I think the businesses that have struggled to reinvent themselves to some extent are the more difficult ones. I don't think business conferences, I don't think Vegas is going to have 10,000 people coming to whatever it is to CES just to walk the floor again, certainly people be returning to that one day. But it will be augmented with a virtual component for those people that don't want to fly for one day to walk through a show for two hours or hear one speaker at an event. So I do think some businesses are in the process of figuring out how they can adapt and how they can reinvent themselves. To some extent it ties into you know, my last book, which will shift ahead talking about why it's so hard for companies to change. And part of that is it's hard to teach old dogs new tricks and know if your business is going well. And things are great. You know, there's not a pressure to reinvent yourself, which is why I start with that quote is that companies have to reimagine what they do. Usually when things go bad when things are going great the idea or let's do what we did yesterday, it works so well. Let's do it again. brands and companies get caught in that if ain't broke, don't fix it. And huge disruption like COVID causes that formula not to work and they have to go to plan B and some companies are good to go and plan B and other companies can't do it.Joelly Goodson :
Why do you think some companies struggle? What do you think it is? You know, I mean, you talk about change being something that everybody's so afraid of, why are some able to adapt better than others?Allen Adamson:
It's usually not one reason. But I was in brand management, a lot of my activity was optimizing the product, making the advertising a little better, changing the formula a little better. It was a optimization game. So most companies are in the How do you do it cheaper, faster, slightly better now with more whipped cream on top. So most companies are in the incremental ism optimization game. They're not in that we have a blank sheet of paper, what do we do get the people that are there tend to be very good at following what's done before, but not good at saying, oh, my goodness, what do we do? You can't generalize. But getting them to get into the ustun. We have a problem mode is what COVID did. And some companies are better than figuring out how to get the astronauts back when the rocket fails and other companies are doingJoelly Goodson :
Hmm, do you think it has to do with how long a company has been around? Like, do you think younger companies are more nimble and able to switch on a dime versus the older companies? Do you think that has anything to do with it?Allen Adamson:
I think part of it is in very established businesses where innovation doesn't matter. And it just matters to do it really well. And this is how we run the airline. And you know, the planes come and go. And this is our schedule, there's certain industries that have been operating unchanged for years, grocery stores, fundamentally, look at that segment. It's a big store, lots of stuff on shelf, people go up and down the aisles. Once a week, you make a list that hasn't changed in generations. Now all of a sudden, that business is changing, it would delivery services beforehand. But now the number of people that are probably buying everything at the corner market and floating it in the wagon, and taking it home is strong dramatically and is never coming back. The other thing that happens a lot that we find there's analysis paralysis, when you don't know what to do, and you look down the road, and it's not clear if you should turn right or left. Because you know, it's very clear, when you're running your business or grocery store what you do every week, you put the melons in front and you move. Yeah, it was a set formula, and you knew how to play that game. But once it's not working anymore, you're looking at two choices. And both are risky. There's no obvious good way or bad way I spoke many years ago to the folks who were trying to help Toys R Us which is a brand that disappeared. And they they knew their business was shrinking. They saw it every day. And one broad to the left said let's become a high end boutique toy store you can go in and there'll be people there to help you find the right toy and their educational toy and you could curate the thing. And it'll be like a great experience. And the other option was let's really compete with Amazon and beat them on price and do a Costco and both were viable options. But management stared at that forever because that argue both ways. There was no perfect left turn or right turn. And both required money both require change. And so oftentimes when you're forced to change, which way to go is not clear. And most companies are risk averse. And so what happened with COVID is a whole bunch of them were thrown into the deep end without knowing how to swim. And that's why we have the disruption but it's been going on for years, when you're faced with a business is no longer viable. It's really not that easy to say, oh we need to do is you know, at home delivery, we're fine. Most of the companies that are struggling, they're struggling, because there is no easy answer. And figuring that out often takes time. And if your business is going straight down to zero, you know, the last thing you have is time. And then the other thing that's happening when your business is going straight down to zero, there's no money. So you're trying to cut costs faster than you're losing money. That's why most companies once they get into trouble once the sales start falling, they can't get out of it because they've been asleep at the wheel so long, and they're just cutting costs, and they have no more time they have to do something tomorrow, everyone thinks, oh, new ideas just happen. But it takes a long time, you have to have a couple iterations to make it work.Joelly Goodson :
You know, it's funny, you say before COVID, a big brand that comes to mind for me is Blockbuster. There was a perfect example of how things were changing. And they just weren't, they didn't have the foresight. Because hindsight is 2020. Right?Allen Adamson:
You can look back and say on Monday morning to say you should have could have would have right they should have been the Netflix ramp. But the Netflix folks saw down the road further. And they didn't also have the other problem, which is this other thing that it's golden handcuffs, I call it you know, blockbuster had all these stores. They had all this real estate. So their headset was not how do we reinvent getting people movies, their headset was oh my god, I gotta fill up those stores. What do we do to get people in the stores, let's give them some popcorn. Let's advertise more. Once you own an asset, you're looking at every solution through that asset, whereas Netflix didn't own retail stores. So they were able to start from a cleaner space. But I think they've also done a great job of reinventing themselves again, the reinventing they're doing is they realize people are changing how they watch television, people are bingeing. And when you're bingeing, you don't want 30 episodes to binge, you want five good hours. So they're creating content that is perfect for the new way media is consumed, which is not once a week, 30 minutes for 30 weeks or 26 weeks, whatever the traditional network thing. But how do you create content that is more than an hour or more than a short snack, but not so overwhelming that the binge is like running a marathon, and that's why you got the Queen's gambit and all those screaming companies Apple with Ted lasso, have realized there's a new way to consume media. And we need to package content up in a different way. So it's another shift about to happen.Joelly Goodson :
I think it's tapping into Your market and tapping into what? You know people just don't know they need that I don't think people knew they needed Netflix until Netflix came around. And then they realize how great it was.Allen Adamson:
I mean, the insight was there, you could interview blockbuster users. And they would talk about how they got to the store at 530 on a Saturday, and they wanted to see blank blank film and it was gone. So they ended up taking a film they didn't want to see the customer problem was there. But their business model which is have a couple movies in a couple of 1000 stores, didn't permit them to change it will be interesting to see which I don't know it was what will happen. The movie theaters now there's a business that can't just reopen. There'll be some of it for the big movies, but just more popcorn better popcorn, a little bit more reclining in the seat, probably is not enough to counter Apple TV, Netflix and Disney and large screen surround sound systems that people spend a fortune on during COVID. No, IJoelly Goodson :
Totally agree. It's funny. My boyfriend I talk about that we're always like, I have no desire to go to movie theater.Allen Adamson:
Again, we're gonna have to do something more than just say there's a nice movie and yeah, you know, we'll help you get the bubblegum off the seat.Joelly Goodson :
Exactly. So I'm going to quote you here. I've heard you say change is a constant, and the pace of change is accelerating. As the world continues to change what we've been talking about at an extremely accelerated rate, obviously, what are some things you think businesses can do to stay relevant, as things change so rapidly,Unknown:
If you wait for the sky to fall, a disruption, or your sales to drop? If you treat innovation, like well, we'll deal with it tomorrow, things are good today, you're already in the end zone, you're already in trouble. Because you wait that long, you won't have the money, the time, the time meaning not only to figure it out, but to iterate and get it right. Lots of people have the same idea at the same time that you know, the iPad was not the first tablet out there. But the iPad got it right. And success in business is about not necessarily having the best idea, but executing the best idea. And so if you wait too long, you won't have the chance to do another quote by the former chairman of Intel, Andy Grove said you know, only the Paranoid survive. And so if you have a company that is constantly worried about, oh my god, Will anyone buy the products tomorrow, you have a better shot at reinventing yourself. So one of the jokes I used to have in my company, we'd say, let's schedule a new products meeting or new services meeting next Thursday at four everyone come to that meeting. And sure enough, the only meeting that ever got cancelled was that Thursday meeting because there was always a current fire, if your head said is we will worry about tomorrow's business on Thursday at four o'clock, that's another red flag. So step one is to do it every day. Step two is to realize that it's not about our great idea. It's about having the time and money to optimize it and to get it right.Joelly Goodson :
Can you elaborate on thatUnknown:
Lots of things have to come together this idea of convergence to get you to try something new, you're looking at your online dating, there have been a lot of email@example.com hinge. You know, there were lots of people had the same idea. But getting that exactly right, figuring out how you get the right people online, how do you get them to talk to each other? How do you get them? You know, getting that to happen was not about say I have this idea. It was about optimizing lots of things about and if you listen to one of my favorite competitive podcasts is how I built this.Joelly Goodson :
You mean your other favorite podcast exactly? How I built this it's an NPR thing. You hear entrepreneurs talk about how close they came to almost not making peloton almost didn't make it. They just had to get the bike exactly right. The videos had to be right. The instructors have no right. It was never just Oh, people would want to have on demand spin class. So let's just send them a bike and duct tape their iPad to the front of it. And that's all they need to do. It's interesting. So what I'm hearing in a sense is be first to market. But I want to challenge you on that for a second here because I've also read about the idea of maybe not necessarily being first to market and an example that comes to mind for me is Myspace launch. And it did okay, but it was missing some things. And you know, I think Facebook saw what they did wrong, and then launched Facebook.Unknown:
I think you're right. I think we're saying the same thing from two different angles, you need to leave a lot of time to do it. Because just because you say let's do an online social network doesn't mean you'll do it as well as Facebook. And Facebook succeeded because it got a lot of things right. This came before fixed. Yeah, but they didn't iterate. Facebook looked at it and say what's wrong with my space? How can I do that better? And part of it is there is a piece of timing on it. first movers don't always want people who do it right. When and if that's your the first mover, the last mover when it snaps together like two Lego blocks clicking together, it's a game of inches. It's not about oh, let's do this big idea. So it does matter. I do think starting early gives you the better chance. That doesn't mean you go out with the first thing if you don't change it and too I think it's having a bit of that paranoia. If you hear the hinge story, which is another online dating thing. He struggled for five years until he figured out how to do it right.Joelly Goodson :
Yeah, it's kind of interesting how businesses go and what I'm taking from what you're saying is Instead of being reactive be proactive. Right?Allen Adamson:
Right.Joelly Goodson :
And I think that's really true in business in general.Unknown:
It's hard to do easier said than done. The other big thing, which is why it's hard to innovate most is most companies are playing tennis and not golf. And what I mean by that is, when I was at Unilever, we were just totally focused on what Proctor was just, that's what the conversation in the cafeteria was, we were just laser focused on trying to be Proctor and COVID. When I worked with Pepsi, they were just focused on coke. And most businesses, when they're thinking of how to grow, the thing that they're looking at, is the podcast right next door, you know, how do we beat those podcasts. And disruption, as you know, doesn't necessarily come from right in front of your nose. If you're playing golf, yeah, you're watching your partner or your opponent. But you're more also focused on the wind, the land, the course and how you hit the ball, you're not just totally focused on your competition. And so if you're going to be successful besides constantly innovating, also, don't just look laser just as the person right like you and say, Well, how do I beat them, because if you're going to change, you need to have some peripheral vision. Gillette did not get disrupted by Shaq, they got disrupted by Dollar Shave Club, as you look at most categories, where the change really happens, is usually not right in front of your nose. So that means you have to zoom out of it. If you're in the golf club business, you can't just read golf today and club today, you've got to look out at other sports, you got to look at other entertainment, you got to see your business in a broader context. And that's also hard to do. Because when you're very focused on just delivering the best golf club, that's your world when you started your podcast, you know, it's not like you've been in the podcast.Joelly Goodson :
Oh, my God, ignorance is bliss. Because if I knew before I started, I don't know if I would have jumped in, but not knowing anything and jumping in. It's just been greatUnknown:
You're just not so set in your ways you look at everything with what I call fresh eyes.Joelly Goodson :
Yeah, absolutely. We're gonna talk about sports here because I saw an interview recently where you were talking about the Washington football team, formerly Washington Redskins, I read that their new name is going to be launching. And I want to know if you know what it is?Unknown:
Well, it's a pretty unusual case where you have a sports brand, which are hard to change, because they're called what I call bad friend, when people go to a sporting game. They don't just go there, they they they are the brand, they wear the sweatshirt they become paint their face as a patriot. And so there's a deep emotional connection to that the Washington team had a challenge where they were forced through some disruption, the world changed rules change, to need to change their name, and they were taking a fair amount of time to do it. And this force publication said, Why is it taking them so long to do it? And they said, Would you help us rename the Redskins? If you were going to do it in your team? rename it? So we simulated that process? We work with Martin tipping who has been on your show before? Oh, okay. And he generated some names. And we went through the process to show because your fans were saying Why is he taking so long? Why don't you just call them the senators, I want you to call him the representative everyone thinks they can do named Martin probably shared with you on that episode. And so the fans were saying Why is it taking so long? It's taking so long, because it's really hard to do. But one of the strategies that you would follow when you follow in this thing is to say what are some things that are already real? What are some parts of the DNA that we can maybe build off as opposed to saying, here's our new name, it's space flying saucers. And it's really cool, because it has to connect to something that real that you put a spotlight on to try to bring voice. So we went through that process, the most difficult assignment, because it's like getting somebody needing to throw out every sweatshirt in their closet and say, well, son, I'm not going to wear that anymore. So it's an example of how hard it is to change your brand, when that bat brand is a badge brand tool that's through that process, because naming is just one branding element. But it's particularly hard one to do, we came up with a couple names that are pretty close to some of the names that are reported to be their finalists. What makes it hard is you can't do a piece of research and say, Let's ask 10,000 fans what they want. Because if you have three names, you're going to get 3333 and 33. And usually the one that people glom on to initially is not necessarily the best, it has to match what you want your story to be there has to be a story. And ideally, the story is not what we named it because there's a bridge so we took its name. So I think calling it the Washington football club FCB to be part of a club is an inclusive and it's used and of course the Premier League. The only thing that I think the lesson learned there is that the bigger the brand, the more emotionally attached your users are to it, the harder it is to change in any way. And probably the hardest part of it might be the name Yeah, no matter what you do in marketing today, which is the other thing that's changed is no matter what you do, because of social media, you're going to have half the country or half your audience or half your customers love it and hate it right. And the ones that hated tend to scream louder on social media, you just better be ready for a bumpy take off no matter what you do in marketing, and then a rebranding.Joelly Goodson :
So before we go, we touched briefly on your book Shift Ahead, can you tell us a little bit about what it's about?Allen Adamson:
It's about why it's so hard to do. Every everyone says oh, I'm constantly reinventing my business. We always talk to customers, we always keep up and we're always changing but when we Look at it most companies fail at RadioShack did not come back. Kodak did not come back. Sears did not come Yeah, you can go down the list of the number of companies that used to be great, that should have been pure today. And so there's such a litany of brands that were hugely successful one day and then gone tomorrow. Is that why is that? And what we found was, it's not just one thing. It's not like they didn't read a marketing book or didn't listen to a podcast, or, you know, it's usually a combination of lots of things. But the most important ones, were seeing the change potentially happening far enough in advance Did you can get into shape and react to and most of those companies tend to just cost cut, and they try to cost reduce your way to profitability, trying to invest in businesses, but it's hard.Joelly Goodson :
So why shift ahead?Allen Adamson:
Like having to shift a company ahead. Most companies always want to stay ahead and shift their business ahead. But it's really hard. And this book helps you understand how daunting and challenging you're going to run a marathon, you better run a few miles every day before you run the marathon and shifting your business head. It's like running a marathon. Most people on his side Well, maybe I have to run today because business is bad.Joelly Goodson :
Well, I think that's a book that a lot of people could probably learn from, especially today with all the change that's been going on and continue to go. So thank you so much. And it's available, I'm assuming on Amazon, andUnknown:
Of course on Amazon. And if you can find a bookstore in business.Joelly Goodson :
Well, thank you so much on it's been such a pleasure chatting with you. If people want to learn more about you or what you do, what's the best way for them to get a hold of you?Unknown:
Well, something called Google or it's firstname.lastname@example.org.Joelly Goodson :
You talk about Google and you talk about a brand. I mean, you know, a brand is successful when it turns into a verb, right?Unknown:
Yeah, exactly. They own the category. There are a lot of brands that have successfully done, zoom. Zoom is on the way to do that.Joelly Goodson :
Yeah, right? Alright well, thank you again, it was really pleasure chatting with you. And we'll talk again soon. Take care. And there you have it. I hope you enjoyed the conversation and maybe learned a few things to help you with your branding. But most of all, I hope you had some fun. This show is a work in progress. So please remember to rate and review on whatever platform you listen to podcasts. And if you want to learn more about me and what I do to help my clients with their branding, feel free to reach out to me on any of the social channels under you guessed it, branding, branding matters was produced, edited and hosted by Joelly. Goodson awesome. So thanks again and until next time, here's to all you badass is out there.