Some think the recent GM layoffs may signal the beginning of the end for America's love of the automobile. Perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise. According to research from Ohio State University, Americans, especially millennials, are buying fewer cars now. Self-driving cars are on the horizon and ride sharing is popular. The signs have appeared for years, but many automakers were slow to react to shifting market trends.

Americans have also been breaking up with retailers like Sears, Kmart, and Toys R Us. Payless ShoeSource just announced it's closing all of its stores after having filed for bankruptcy in 2017.

Such "breakups" between individuals and once strong brands offer valuable lessons for entrepreneurs. Here are some things you should do if you want to stay successful and maintain customer loyalty for the long haul.

Listen actively and closely.

Most brands claim they're listening to their audiences. But many haven't mastered the art of really paying attention. It's easy to jump to simplistic conclusions based on what you think you know or heard. In many cases, what felt like an "overnight breakup" with customers was actually more of a gradual falling-apart. The brand just may not have been listening actively and closely.

Tesla is a prime example of effective corporate listening. Last year, Elon Musk tweeted right back to a customer who suggested a change to vehicle features. It shows immediate acknowledgment from a brand and a willingness to consider what customers want.

If you're not listening this actively you may be falling behind. Make sure you're monitoring customer opinion and sentiment diligently, whether it's through in-person interaction or social media listening tools.

Don't ignore global trends that affect everyone.

Another mistake brands make is paying attention solely to trends related to their industries. Instead, look at the bigger picture, including any environmental, social, political and economic factors that might impact your customers or even competing brands. 

Automakers are dealing with several emerging trends that dramatically impact their businesses. According to a Gallup survey, people are increasingly working from home, part- or full-time, instead of commuting. The number rose from 39 percent in 2012 to 43 percent in 2016. Research shows that more people are shopping online for the holidays instead of hitting the local mall. They're also starting to live more in urban centers where they can use bikes and scooters or just walk. These trends, as well as environmental concerns, are on the minds of every auto executive as they make business decisions.

Adidas is an example of a company that leveraged a global enviromental trend to its advantage. The shoe maker partnered with Parley to manufacture athletic gear and shoes from plastic found in the ocean. Executives wanted to be seen doing social good by tackling pollution, which they knew is a priority for customers. Adidas says it sold one million of the shoes. The point is, understanding what's going on in the world influences whether you deliver relevant products to people.

Think like a disruptor.

Disruptors shake things up and create change through turbulence. This occurred with some of today's most widely used services, like Google and Amazon, as well as more maligned brands like Facebook. However, automakers long appeared to be anything but innovative, continuing to roll out the same internal combustion engine vehicles.

Rather than blaming the economy, politics or technology, stagnating brands should embrace new approaches. First, examine your current beliefs and question whether they still add the same value they once did. Next, determine what beliefs are in direct opposition to your current, stagnating ideas.

Then examine these opposing beliefs. How might they add new value to your target audience? Incorporate them into a product you can test on that audience, and seek their feedback. Do your users think the new product adds value? Keep revising the product this way until you reach a level of sustained value that works for customers. This way you can create a new business model to accompany the rollout of that product.

Before you know it, your mindset has changed and you are disrupting the market. It's how Apple, Uber, Amazon and others have done it. It works across multiple fields and industries, and it can help you avoid going the way of corporate dinosaurs who never learned the lesson of "adapt or die."

Published on: Feb 22, 2019
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