With Facebook and Google vying to be champions of social networking, you'd think there would be scant room for a competitive product. But you'd think wrong: By remaining focused purely on business folks, LinkedIn established itself as the go-to site for recruiting, job hunting, and developing sales contacts. The strategy paid off with an IPO that rivaled dot-com debuts of yore.
Lesson: Know your niche, and stay there.
Companies whose equipment causes ecological disasters seldom emerge unscathed. (If you don't believe me, just ask BP.) But General Electric managed to fend off criticism that the reactors it designed for the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant contributed to the massive meltdown. Combine that with a year of strong earnings, and you've got a brand that's still known for bringing good things to light ... without making them radioactive.
Lesson: When, uh ... stuff happens, it's best to lay low.
Herman Cain's presidential campaign may have self-destructed, but it was unclear from the start whether the bid was just a way to increase his visibility. In any case, Cain emerged from the electoral process as the world's most famous motivational speaker and can now command
as much as $50,000 for a single speech.
Lesson: Keep your eyes on the prize.
Despite its top market share, Verizon was looking increasingly out of step, thanks to non-standard architecture and the lack of an Apple offering. The Verizon-compatible iPhone and iPad 2 releases in March 2011 not only increased the company's share, but forced smaller providers AT&T and T-Mobile to attempt a defensive merger. The government blocked the merger and AT&T eventually withdrew, leaving Verizon dominant.
Lesson: All things come to brands that wait.
In the spring of 2011, Berkshire Hathaway was embroiled in a trading scandal involving Warren Buffett's former top lieutenant, David Sokol, and became the subject of an acrimonious shareholder lawsuit. All that slipped into the background, though, when Buffett publicly and graciously pointed out the obvious: that billionaires like him were getting a free ride from the tax code.
Lesson: Greed is good, but noblesse oblige builds a better brand.
With the iPad 2 coming out in March and Apple surpassing Exxon Mobil as the world's most profitable company in August, Jobs was already the superhero of CEO world--even before his untimely death. It's a tragedy he died, of course, but as far as a personal brand goes, there's something to say for exiting the scene when you're at the top of your game.
Lesson: Timing is everything.
Amazon got into the e-reader market when the concept seemed utopian. Today, there are plenty of e-readers on the market. There have been complaints about the new Kindle Fire's usability, and publishers and libraries continue to harp on Amazon's pricing and policies--but even so, it's clear that Amazon is positioned to dominate a world where paper books are becoming an oddity.
Lesson: Sometimes you have to create your own market.
When South Park creators Parker and Stone launched an obscene musical entitled The Book of Mormon, officials at the Church of the Latter Day Saints could have gotten their magical underwear in a twist. Instead, they made a simple statement that the musical was "entertaining" and directed people to read the book itself. Such mature restraint is unusual for a religious brand. (Imagine if the musical had been named The Koran!)
Lesson: People like brands that don't take themselves too seriously.
Just a few short years ago, General Motors looked like a terminal patient on government-sponsored life support. By 2011, GM was making big profits, even in the midst of a nagging economic slowdown. The key to the brand's revival? Better products and fewer product brands.
Lesson: Products, not marketing, actually create your brand.
At first, Occupy Wall Street seemed like a non-story: a bunch of hippie protesters who somehow got lost on the way to Burning Man. When the police started acting like cartoon thugs (forgetting that cell phones now have cameras), the Occupy protests went viral, changing the national dialogue about wealth, poverty and the middle class.
Lesson: To build a viral brand, provoke a ham-handed enemy.
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