Don’t let nostalgia become inertia and hold back your innovation

I was at a wedding reception last Saturday, where the groom was from Rawtenstall and the bride from Haugesund, Norway. It was held in a Methodist Hall with dark wood tables and chairs, dimly lit by candles, but set alight with a vibrant atmosphere of celebration and noise, born from the warmth and intimacy of belonging and togetherness that humanity creates.

It was a Norwegian wedding, so on each table was a huge basket of fjellbrød – a nutritious Norwegian bread (there are all sorts of seeds in it, made from a mixture of whole-wheat and rye flour and rolled oats) and an even bigger bowl of fresh shrimps. I was looking forward to getting stuck into the quivering crustaceous flesh.

The place filled up quickly as we got to work on the shrimps, emptying the flimsy shells faster than a fishwife. The cold bits of pink flesh were washed down with Lervig Aktiebryggeri Stout. At 13%, no wonder the Vikings were fierce fighters. Then, just before I disappeared completely behind a pile of husks, a hush fell over the room and in strode a large bearded man.

He introduced himself as Toralf, a lubricous man with a hangdog expression, he took to the stage. He was a standup comedian. Interesting wedding entertainment! As he was from Norway, half the gathering didn’t get a word, but I was not concerned, as I was busy scoffing. Shrimps.

Toralf was going down well, but not half as well as the shrimps. You could have covered me in Thousand Island dressing, laid me on a bed of lettuce and I’d have passed for the starter on any menu.

I’d struck upon a conversation with a bloke from Utsire, which I found out was a lump of rock in the North Sea off the west coast of Norway. I don’t think I’d ever spoken to a Norwegian before. After chatting, he said he had to go – and reappeared on stage as the band struck up, a Norwegian folk ensemble. The room was filled with whirling figures, their rosy cheeks shining, caught in the candlelight, eyes flashing and laughter rising above the music.

A (brave) Norwegian woman whisked me from my seat and whirled me around the dance floor. Given that I dance about as well as a squirrel plays the piano, this was a selfless act on her part. My shrimp ‘n ale fuelled attempts at shaking my booty in a lithe and groovy way went well, even if I say so myself. The lady was Wenche (pronounced ‘Venker’), from Stavanger. I thought they had played in the UEFA Cup some years ago but Wenche didn’t know. End of conversation.

Norwegian folk music filled the room, and Wenche gave me a running commentary on the instrumental, vocals and dancing. I learned that as a rule, instrumental folk music is dance music (slåtter), whilst Norwegian folk dances are social dances and usually performed by couples, although there are a number of solo dances as well, such as the halling.

We lurched into traditional wedding dances (bygdedans), then the band moved into Sami music centered around a particular vocal style called joik, the sound comparable to the traditional chanting of the Native Americans Indians.

Exhausted, the lights came on, the night had to end, the floor awash with folks awash with shrimp. The air was warm with laughter and back-slapping. Brexit? hey, I prefer the Norwegian model.

It was a great night, a throwback to memories of parties of my youth. It was a traditional, if somewhat ‘old fashioned’ event, filled with nostalgia and away from i-this and i-that, just talking and enjoying good company, storytelling, banter and people being people. Twenty years ago I’m sure Toralf and Wenche could become pen pals, but today we’d probably default to a WhatsApp group.

Nostalgia, a longing to return home, is a word that comes from Greek –nostos (to return home) and algo (pain or ache), first coined by C17th Swiss doctor Johannes Hofer as a label for the anxieties displayed by Swiss mercenaries in their return from fighting away from home. Whilst we mostly regard nostalgia as warm memories of an evocative past, it was initially recognised as a real medical condition, often a pre-cursor to depression.

I’m sometimes a little wistful, but I see nostalgia as passing history forward. It’s not just reliving the past, but thinking about how events in that past affected where I am today. But there’s no room for nostalgia in today’s business, nowhere more so than on the High Street where many established brands have disappeared as consumer preferences, choices and options moved forward, and they didn’t, locked in their business models of yesteryear.

Nostalgia can add value to brands that tap into their heritage and yet be relevant to the customer choice and demands of today – consider the resurgence of the Mini – but generally nostalgia makes you hold onto the status quo, become closed minded to change and complacent, and you take your eye of the ball.

Recent examples include Psion, developers of the Palm Pilot had what seemed an amazing power of organising your diary and phone book electronically. Sadly, Psion failed to spot early enough that mobile phones were catching them up and would soon incorporate all that and more.

Related to this, as the mobile phones of the 1980s became smaller, Nokia quickly became synonymous with small, practical mobiles. Sadly for the Finnish company, it failed to see the growing importance of internet-enabled smartphones, and a decade’s technical advantage was eroded.

Nostalgia creates inertia. The challenge is to focus on the future, and not let nostalgia block innovation to challenge what has always worked – Kodak are perhaps the prime example of this. The world’s biggest film company filed for bankruptcy in 2012, beaten by the digital revolution. The only problem is, the enemy started within.

George Eastman, the company’s founder, invented roll film which replaced photographic plates and allowed photography to become a hobby of the masses. Kodak did not quite own the C20th, but it did become the curator of our memories.

There is an emotional connection to Kodak for many people in that you could find their product and name in virtually every household. But 1986 was the year when Kodak, a company that for so long was the emblem of American industrial innovation, began to be eaten by others, notably from Japan, who learnt to innovate, and more quickly.

Kodak was the great inventor. In 1900, it unveiled the Box Brownie camera. You push the button, we do the rest, ran the advertising. Kodachrome film, the standard for movie-makers as well as generations of still photographers because of its incredible definition and archival longevity, was introduced in 1936 and only went out of production 2009.

Nor should we forget the Instamatic, the camera with the little cartridges of film that spared us the fumbling of trying to get film to spool properly. Between 1963 and 1970 Kodak sold 50 million of them.

The trouble began with the decline of film photography. In the 1990s, Kodak poured billions into developing technology for taking pictures using mobile phones and other digital devices. But it held back from developing digital cameras for the mass market for fear of killing its existing film business. Others rushed in.

So who invented the digital camera? Ironically, Kodak did or, rather, a company engineer called Steve Sasson, who put together a toaster-sized contraption that could save images using electronic circuits. The images were transferred onto a tape cassette and were viewable by attaching the camera to a TV screen, a process that took 23 seconds.

It was an astonishing achievement. And it happened in 1975. Sasson was met with blank faces when he unveiled the device. For Kodak’s leaders, going digital meant killing film, smashing the company’s golden egg to make way for the new. Sasson saw in hindsight that he had not exactly won them over when he unveiled his invention.

In what has got to be one of the most insensitive choices of demonstration titles ever, he called it Film-less Photography. Talk about killing heritage and nostalgia! Other manufacturers, notably Fuji, were nibbling at Kodak’s dominance: at the 1984 Olympics it was Fuji that supplied the official film, after Kodak declined the opportunity.

In 1976, Kodak sold 90% of the photographic film in the US and 85% of the cameras. Historians may one day conclude that most of the company’s unravelling can be traced to the failure of its leaders to recognise the huge potential of Sasson’s invention. But this is what we do…you can imagine the fear going through the minds in the Kodak boardroom.

So, Kodak developed the world’s first consumer digital camera but could not breakaway from the shackles of their heritage and their nostalgic anchors to launch or sell it, because of fear of the effects on their existing film market.

Reflecting on Kodak, how does this reshape your marketing thinking, because there is a lesson not just in innovation, but also a case for challenging the traditional marketing solutions most businesses adopt arising from their decline.

C20th marketing has been dominated by Jerome McCarthy’s 4P model – Product, Place, Price, Promotion – but its legacy has created a culture that focuses on the product’s attributes, neglecting its value and appeal to customers from the customer’s perspective.

Richard Ettenson completed a five-year study involving more than 500 organisations and found that the 4P model undercuts the current needs of business in three ways:

  • It stresses product technology and quality, even though these are no longer differentiators.
  • It under emphasises the need to build a robust case for the superior value of a solution compared to others
  • It distracts from leveraging their advantage as a trusted source of service, support and advice – attributes in addition to the product

From his research, Ettenson developed a new marketing model for C21st, Solutions, Access, Value, Education:

  • Products to Solutions Define the offering by the needs they meet and benefits provided, not their features, functions or technological superiority.
  • Place to Access Develop an integrated multi-channel presence that considers customers’ entire purchase journey, instead of individual purchase locations and channels.
  • Price to Value Articulate the benefits relative to price, rather than stressing how price relates to cost or competitor prices.
  • Promotion to Education Provide information relevant to customer’s specific needs at each point in the purchase cycle, rather than relying on general advertising, PR and selling activities.

There’s little doubt that marketers who continue to embrace the 4P model and mind-set risk getting locked into a repetitive and increasingly unproductive technological arms race – just as Kodak. There’s no doubt with the advent of digital media and changing customer expectations, there are some fundamental strands to marketing today around creating meaningful conversations, communicating value and developing an online community.

The future rewards those that press on, experiment and have a go. You need to have a picture of your future self and make decisions on that basis. Life is divided into three periods – that which was, which is, and which will be.

Don’t look backward, you’re not going that way. The past is both a wonderful and an awful thing, both our best friend and our worst enemy, depending on how you look at it. There will be times throughout our business lives that we don’t want to remember, and there will be times that we won’t ever want to forget, but we can’t continue to dwell on the past that we can’t change.

As Walt Disney said, Around here, however, we don’t look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things, because we’re curious…and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.

My shrimp feast was a throw back to days gone by, but you can spend your life living forwards whilst looking backwards over your shoulder.

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