Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Analogy #221: Timely Vs. Timeless

There hasn’t been a lot of good news about the US newspaper industry lately, but they had a pretty good day on November 5, 2008. The New York Times, which normally sells about 220,000 newsstand copies, printed 475,000 copies that day and sold out quickly. The Washington Post has a daily circulation of about 623,000, but quickly sold out about 975,000 copies that day.

There were over 1800 active auctions on Ebay selling copies of newspapers from November 5th, at prices in the hundreds of dollars. Some were selling bundles of papers from November 5 on Ebay in the thousands of dollars.

What was going on here? Well, this was the newspaper announcing the historic victory of Barack Obama as the next President of the United States. The newspaper became a collector’s item, a memento to hang onto for years in order to remember and celebrate the occasion.

The irony here is that newspapers were originally designed to provide the timely news of the day. They were designed to become obsolete within 24 hours (when replaced by the next day’s paper). However, their most successful paper in decades was bought to be a timeless reminder to be held onto for generations.

A good strategy creates a good position in the marketplace. As long as you own that position, you can usually do quite well, provided there is sufficient demand for it.

In the news business, timeliness is a good position to have. Being known as the first to offer the “news” is successful, because so many people want to know the latest right away. For generations, newspapers owned this position of timeliness. Competing papers would fight to be the first to get a story and “scoop” the competition. It sold papers.

Well, newspapers are no longer the most timely way to get news. Between the internet and cable news networks, one can get the latest news instantly—as it is still happening. You no longer have to wait until tomorrow’s edition of the newspaper. Since newspapers no longer own the position of timeliness, their circulation has plummeted and most newspaper firms are in serious financial trouble.

The irony in the story is that their most recent success comes from the exact opposite positioning—the idea of timelessness. Cable news and the internet are not positioned well for timelessness—they are just fleeting digits. They don’t have that image of permanency which comes from tangible newsprint.

Unfortunately, there aren’t enough November 5ths to bail out the newspaper industry. So they tend to be stuck in the middle between timeliness and timelessness. The middle is not a great place to be.

This is a common principle for most strategic decisions—the middle ground is typically not a great place to be. “All things to all people” typically loses out to “The perfect thing for a few people.”

Although we could take the broad approach and talk about the principle of not being in the middle, I want to be more specific. In looking for a position, one place to look is on the timeliness/timelessness continuum. In many product categories, there is the option to be known as the timely brand or the timeless brand. This may be a fresh way to look at your category for options.

It isn’t that only one extreme works. There are successful and unsuccessful brands on either end of that timely/timeless continuum. You can typically make either work for you. Just don’t get stuck in the middle.

Look at beverages. Coke is positioned as the timeless brand. It is full of heritage, has stood the test of time, and will continue for generations. Pepsi has taken the timeliness approach to beverages. It latches onto every trend and fad in beverages. It has aggressively gone after sports drinks, energy drinks, fruity drinks and whatever else is the hot beverage of the moment.

Apple is the master of timeliness. It’s product obsolescence is extremely rapid. It pushes the envelope for what’s the latest in “cool.” It finds getting the design right (latest look) is as important as getting the technology right (latest performance). Microsoft was always known for being late in its releases and not being as cool as Apple’s operating systems, but it was the timeless standard. You knew that Microsoft would always work and be backwards compatible. You knew that businesses would stick with Microsoft, so it was the safe, timeless way to stay in tune in the business world.

Then came Vista. Although Vista was an attempt to become more timely, it still wasn’t as timely as Apple. At the same time, the timeless reliability of Microsoft was compromised. It was stuck in the middle, a bad place to be.

In automobiles, the Ford Mustang is a very successful “timeless” automobile, whose design has remained fairly consistent over the years. It evokes a timeless image reaching back to the days of the muscle car. The rest of the Ford automobile fleet tends not to be timely or timeless, and is not as successful as the Mustang.

Toyota tried to compete against the Mustang with the Celica. Rather than reaching backwards, the Celica kept redesigning itself to be the most trendy and forward looking in design. It took the “timely” approach. Of course, now Toyota has abandoned the Celica and devoted itself to getting out in front of even timelier car issues—the Prius hybrid and the Yaris high fuel economy car. Ford isn’t even close in these trendy (and timely) areas.

In fashion retailing, you have many brands which focus on the timeless quality of their product (great design that stays in style). This would include brands like Talbots, Ann Taylor, Burberry and J. Crew. On the other end of the spectrum are stores that pride themselves on short production runs, rapid obsolescence and timely trendiness. This would include brands like Forever 21, H&M, Zara, Arden B., and Wet Seal. The problem location is the traditional department store, which is trying to be both timely and timeless. This middle ground is a tough place to be.

In an age of digital photography, when digital picture are zapped all over the place online and on personal web pages (which are kept ever so timely as old photos are replaced with new), there is still room for timelessness. You can see this in the growth of scrapbooking—an old tech way of preserving photo in a timeless manner.

When it comes to blogs, nearly all are positioned to be as timely as possible. However, to stand out, I have tried to position my blog as being timeless. Nearly every one of my blogs is just as relevant today as the day it was published and will still be relevant years from now, because of taking a timeless approach.

Can newspapers find a position as being timeless? Well, I know of a suburban newspaper firm that gives away its newspaper for free. However, their key secret is that whenever they cover a local event, they take an extra ton of quality photographs. If you go to their web site, they will sell you quality reprints of these photos at a hefty profit. It is your chance to commemorate a special moment in the life of your child, the local high school sports team or a special moment for your community. They are selling timelessness.

As an editor of a different community newspaper told me, “We try to get photos of as many people as we can in the paper, because we know that if you see your picture in the paper, you will want to buy several copies as keepsakes for yourself and your friends.”

But here is the important point. It takes a particular type of culture, mindset and operating philosophy, if you want to excel at timeliness. It’s all about rapid obsolescence, a focus on being on the edge in design and performance, about chasing the latest in “cool”, about jumping from one short-lived success to another.

This is very different from the culture, mindset and operating philosophy needed to excel at owning timelessness. This is about building transcendence, about permanence, about becoming a part of the fiber of humanity, about creating classic legends, about extending the life of a brand.

Since they tend to be so different, it is difficult to manage both at the same time. For example, it is hard to go full-speed at obsolescence with one brand while also trying not to hurt a timeless brand at the same time. Fear of cannibalization has kept many timely innovations from seeing the light of day. For example, Ford owned the timeless station wagon design. This kept it from bringing out the timely minivan, which their engineers invented. Chrysler’s former Ford executives introduced the minivan because they didn’t own the “timeless” station wagon. They had less risk in being timely.

Therefore, either only focus on one extreme (timely or timeless) OR separate the timely brands from the timeless brands and run them under different structures.

Successful strategies tend to avoid the muddle in the middle and try to stand for something more specific. Although there are lots of positions to choose from, one that could be very relevant to you is the timely vs. timeless continuum. Either end of that continuum could bring you success. Just pick one and then build the appropriate culture and organizational style which fits the position.

I was a paperboy for the Detroit News back on the day when we landed a man on the moon. The Detroit News knew that people would want to save that timeless cover, so they printed it on higher quality (magazine quality) paper. That special paper would not fade or get brittle, making it a perfect keepsake. If you want to own the timeless position, it may require making those kinds of changes to what you do.

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