Timeless academia in need of re-publishing

TODAY'S GUEST POST IS BY MICHAEL DRESNER, CEO, PEPPERCOM'S BRAND² SQUARED LICENSING DIVISION.

Long before I entered the workforce I read an article in college called “Marketing Myopia” by
Usps-USPostalService Theodore Levitt. It was laborious reading– not because of complicated subject matter, but because I was two years out of high school and acting my age. I never forgot it. And, in the same way readers refer back to “Catcher in the Rye” or “Huckleberry Finn” (other books I didn’t understand the first time I read them), there are profound lessons that can’t be missed.

“Marketing Myopia”– first published in 1960– provokes a businessperson to rethink and sharpen the definition of the industry in which they have a presence. The more narrow that industry is defined, the more risk a businessperson applies to her or his future. Fact is, too many industries become obsolete once new innovations fulfill the same customer needs– more easily, more quickly, more cheaply. The classic example from “Marketing Myopia” is the railroad ecosystem of the 19th century. Railways and train manufacturers alike had a grip on the industry of getting people from points A to B. But they always (and still) define their industry as one of train travel. If they considered their industry as one of people travel– and leveraged their engineers, government relations, cash position accordingly– they could have been the automobile and highway conglomerates of the 20th century. Henry Ford and Alfred Sloan would have simply worked for Union Pacific. The rest is history there.

I was reminded of this analogy in a Newsweek article last month, quantifying the electronic communication trend from 2000 to 2010. Unsurprisingly, 12 billion e-mails sent in 2000, 247 billion in 2010.  Four hundred thousand texts in 2000, 4.5 billion in 2010. Here’s another trend: 208 billion letters mailed in 2000, and 176 billion in 2010. Where was the US Postal Service (either the service, the infrastructure or the brand name) in all of this?  They rode the contraction train for sure. If they have anything to do with society’s expanding e-mail and texting activity, I haven’t seen them.

What a shame. For centuries, the USPS had a near lock on the industry in which they are now a dinosaur. Like the railways of old, USPS had (and has) staff by the thousands. Consumers across every demographic go out of their way to stand in line and prepay for the service. Its balance sheet is a practical ATM machine that most CFOs would kill for. And the universal experience of pressing a fresh stamp on an envelope is a brand moment no other entity has ever been able to replicate. No doubt– they have stayed atop the mail business. 

Except that’s not what their business is or ever was. The USPS was a driver (and now follower) of the written communication business. And by sticking to paper, envelopes, stamps and metal boxes, they were wedded to the feature instead of the benefit. Imagine having an electronic “stamp” option to credentialize every e-mail. (MS Outlook does have that option, hidden obscurely.)  It may sound inconvenient, but we’ve been doing it for centuries. The USPS could have brought their leadership from traditional postal service to digital communication. Their brand equity was far more embedded in consumer psyche even 15 years ago relative to Hotmail, Gmail, Facebook, and most every other way we now express ourselves in writing. Postal service personnel still abound, but let’s face it– en masse at least, they’re on borrowed time. Kind of like trains.

Nearly twenty years after I first read “Marketing Myopia” I spend my days trying to convince brand owners that by testing their relevance in new categories they can rethink the industry definition in which they must thrive. It shouldn’t be this tough.  But lots of managers have noses to the grindstone, putting out the fire du jour, with so little time to step back, putting their company’s futures in peril. Is the New York Times in the newspaper business or the information distribution business?  Are PR firms in the media placement business or the client repositioning business?  Are these legitimate questions?  Does anyone go back to re-read business articles from the early 1960s?  “Marketing Myopia” is worth a re-look.  Unlike the industries it laments, Theodore Levitt’s treatise will never go out of style.

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