It’s often said that success in business comes down to being ‘at the right place at the right time’. There is, almost always, an element of luck involved when a company experiences exceptional traction early on.
But luck will only get you so far. As McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc famously said: “The two most important requirements for major success are, first, being in the right place at the right time, and second, doing something about it.”
And the longer a company is around, the less of a factor luck becomes. A bit of luck might get you to the top fairly quickly, but it won’t keep you there for thirty, forty or fifty years.
Surviving in business is hard, and it’s only getting harder. Thanks to constant innovation (and disruption) and a highly competitive global marketplace, companies are disappearing at an alarming rate.
It was widely reported a few years ago that, based on research from Yale professor Richard Foster, the average lifespan of a company listed on the S&P 500 in the United States has decreased by an astonishing 50 years. In the 1920s, the average lifespan of a company was 67 years. Today? A mere 15 years.
The secret to (long-term) success
But it’s not all bad news, of course. There are plenty of examples of companies that have managed to stay the course for years and years. The vast majority of the world’s most recognisable brands have been around for decades. They have survived tough economic times, disruption, increased competition and changing demands from consumers.
How have they done it?
Here’s some great advice from great brands. Read on to discover how they have managed to stay relevant for so long.
Turn challenges into opportunities
Jane Wurwand, founder of Dermalogica, believes in looking at challenges and asking yourself how you can turn them into opportunities.
In the early days, for example, Dermalogica was trying to talk about skincare and health while the rest of industry was obsessed with beauty. A lot of people didn’t understand why the brand was taking such a ‘medical’ approach to skin products. Instead of succumbing to the peer pressure, though, Wurwand and husband Raymond were committed to their unique approach.
“The fact that the industry didn’t understand our approach was a challenge, sure, but we also saw it as an opportunity to carve out a very specific niche for ourselves,” says Wurwand. “We were doing something no one else was doing.”
Another challenge was the rise of the Internet. Dermalogica had relied on a sales model based on real-world relationships. The company embraced the challenge, however, and now runs a successful online store, boasting a vibrant online community. By embracing the challenge instead of ignoring it, Dermalogica was able to grow and flourish in a digital world.
“You have to look at a challenge and try to see how it could become an opportunity. That’s the true entrepreneurial mindset,” says Wurwand.
Customer first, always
Spitz is a well-known brand, and its elegant shoe stores can be seen in just about every high-end mall in South Africa. Today, it is owned by the JSE-listed AVI, but it started out as a simple family business.
Spitz was started by Anthony and David Spitz in 1968, right in the centre of Johannesburg’s business district. The brothers eventually sold the store and Anthony Spitz moved to London in 1989, but he rejoined the company in 2000 as a non-executive director. He is still there today.
When asked why he believes Spitz has grown so successfully, his answer is simple: “Because it is still run like a family business. We used to know and care about our customers. We valued them, and did whatever we could to keep their business. The same is true today of the Spitz stores. The customer still comes first.”
According to Spitz, this is the secret to long-term success. Once you stop caring about your customers, your business goes into decline.
“Companies spend millions to acquire customers, and then throw all that money away with bad customer service. A marketing campaign might bring someone through your door the first time, but it’s customer service that’ll keep them coming back. Care about your customer, and your business will flourish.”
Innovate your own way
Consider for a moment the forces of disruption currently impacting a manufacturer of high-end luxury goods
Gadgets such as the Apple Watch and Fitbit are making people swop their flashy watches for something that can count their steps, track their sleep and monitor their heart rate. Laptops and tablets mean that most business people need a stylus instead of a pen. And then there’s the fact that simple yet elegant luxury items are no longer good enough. Everything needs to be ‘smart’ and ‘connected’ these days.
So where does that leave a company like Montblanc?
Many companies in the same position would probably try to jump on the bandwagon — try to push out their own line of smart items. But emulating competitors and chasing trends rarely leads to long-term success. So Montblanc has done something different. It hasn’t ignored modern trends, but it hasn’t let them dilute its essence either.
When Olivier Laurian, Montblanc’s international director of business development, visited South Africa, he explained how the company is keeping up with the times.
“A Montblanc pen or watch is a timeless piece — not something that will become obsolete in a year or two. So in order to balance modern demands with our classic approach, we provide alternative solutions to customers’ needs. We still sell a classic watch, but we put the modern tracking technology in the strap. So it remains something that can be passed on for generations. Similarly, we have a pen with a tip that can be swopped out to turn it into a stylus — modern and functional, yet timeless. These are all modern items that stay true to the heritage of the brand.”
Take risks, but stay consistent
Innovation and consistency can seem like opposites, but great companies manage to take risks and innovate, while at the same time providing customers with a consistent and predictable experience.
If you’ve ever had a Big Mac in Europe or the United States, you’ll know that it tastes exactly like it does in Joburg or Cape Town. And that consistency keeps customers coming back.
At the same time, though, McDonald’s has been a great innovator. Over the years, it has greatly modified both its menu and its services. In the 1970s, the company created the drive-thru. Today, it delivers food. Its menu has grown massively, and McDonald’s now even sells breakfast and premium coffee.
The key to success when it comes to balancing these opposing forces is knowing where you can afford to take risks, and where you can’t.
Ray Kroc expected the following from every franchise: “Consistent restaurant operations, procedures, service, quality and cleanliness.” But when it came to the menu, Kroc allowed franchisees to experiment. The Happy Meal, Hot Apple Pie, Egg McMuffin and McFlurry were all created by franchisees. Even the Big Mac was created by a franchisee.
It all comes down to knowing where you can take chances, and where you can’t. Coca-Cola has changed the design of its bottles and cans, it has even added Coke Zero and Coke Life, but it’s only tried to change the formula of Classic Coke once. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.
Be obsessed with the consumer
We live in an era of big data in which everyone is always telling you to crunch the numbers and look at the big picture. This is important, of course, but it brings with it a certain danger: If you’re not careful, you can lose sight of the consumer at the individual level, especially when your business scales quickly and real customers are replaced by dots on a chart.
According to Charl Bassil, marketing director for Pernod Ricard South Africa, you need to be obsessed with the individual consumer and understand what he or she expects of you, regardless of how large your organisation is.
“Consumers are not just stats on a page that need to be manipulated,” says Bassil. “For us it’s incredibly important to not only know consumers — understand that they’re real people with real needs — but also to have genuine empathy for them.”
This isn’t only the ethical and socially responsible thing to do, it also makes good business sense.
“By understanding and having empathy for consumers, we believe that our business will grow and increase its market share,” says Bassil.
“If you add real value to consumers’ lives, more and more of them will migrate to your brand, which means you will benefit commercially. Selling consumer products has to be a mutually beneficial relationship. We can’t just flog stuff. In the modern business environment, you need to understand consumers and give them what they need. It’s the only way to survive long-term.”
Always be humble
Humility is something that large and fast-growing companies often lack. When everything keeps going your way, you start thinking that you can’t lose. But even giants fall… or at least stumble, on occasion.
Starbucks, which opened its first stores in South Africa in 2016, is a good example of a company that, despite exceptional growth, has stayed humble.
Starbucks, like McDonald’s, is all about consistency, but it also knows that you can’t just replicate the exact same experience everywhere. You need to be sensitive to different cultures and countries.
Visit the Starbucks store in Rosebank to see how the company incorporated local culture into the design of the shop. Artwork in the store includes woven leather ceiling panels that pay homage to the South African tradition of basket weaving and a 3D recreation of the famous Starbucks Siren in wood.
Related: Taste Holdings: Carlo Gonzaga
“This store will not only offer amazing coffee and world-class customer service, it is a representation of our commitment to South Africa through its localised design,” said Carlo Gonzaga, CEO of Taste Holdings (Taste Holdings is Starbuck’s official partner in South Africa).
“We have taken inspiration from rich local colour palettes and designs, with materials and artworks produced by local artisans. It signifies the start of our coffee journey in South Africa.”
In addition to opening its first store in South Africa, Starbucks will also be entering another new market soon: Italy.
Having been inspired by the coffee shops of Italy in the first place, the company is acutely aware of the fact that it can’t barge in without a lot of respect. Selling an Italian experience to the Italians is risky, which is why Starbucks is only going there now, decades after it first started operating.
“Starbucks history is directly linked to the way the Italians created and executed the perfect shot of espresso. Everything that we’ve done sits on the foundation of those wonderful experiences that many of us have had in Italy, and we’ve aspired to be a respectful steward of that legacy for 45 years,” says Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz.
“Now we’re going to try, with great humility and respect, to share what we’ve been doing and what we’ve learnt through our first retail presence in Italy.”