Winston Churchill once was purported to have demanded over dinner, "Take this pudding away--it has no theme!"
In this fast paced, interactive world, it pays to be increasingly sensitive to the lurking, insidious danger of creeping commoditization--of becoming a pudding without a theme.
While I've been kicking my own ass lately about not moving quickly enough with the times, either personally or professionally, there is a value to maintaining a consistent tonal brand. It is tempting to leap onto the latest seemingly lucre-enhancing bandwagon. Whatever the savants of Shark Tank may be pushing this week.
I read Howard Schultz' memoir Onward a few years ago. One of the notable passages in his book is his useful discussion of the dangers of commoditization.
Schultz reports that, in the spring of 2007, Starbucks' stock kept bouncing to new highs and there was intense pressure from Wall Street to continue increasing profitability and velocity of sales. At one point Starbucks was opening as many as six new stores per week. This growth was taking a toll on quality control and service.
But, more importantly, Starbucks also was adding new items to the menu, which, while highly profitable, filled Schultz with foreboding. He felt his firm was increasing profits at the cost of its identity. For example Starbucks had introduced breakfast sandwiches which often left the smell of burnt cheese in the air, rather than the signature aroma of roasted coffee beans. He felt Starbucks, in its rush to coruscating profit, was losing its essence. He states, "...negative incrementalism, like one thread after another pulling at our seams, could be the company's undoing." He did not want Starbucks to become more like McDonald's. He recognized the threat of long-term brand dilution and commoditization. Accepting an initial loss of company revenue and internal company cultural distress, he set about uncommoditizing Starbucks and restoring Starbucks traditional trope of quality and specialness from top to bottom. He sought to restore Starbucks soul, no matter the price.
Commoditization is a real bete noire for modern business. You can't sell everything, even if it is temporarily profitable. If you try to sell everything, you may ultimately sell nothing. Long-term business health requires a constant honing of the identity and essence of your company. With pressure to meet profitability goals, it is so easy to take on business that blurs your image and your essence.
Then you become, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, a pudding without a theme.
Thank you, Winston.