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Lessons from three undisrupted brands

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It seems that disrupters and the disrupted get all the attention these days.

Related: How to disrupt the high-tech disrupters

You know who never seems to make headlines? Brands that have been around for 100+ years.

Such businesses definitely could have been disrupted, yet they are still growing, innovating and most importantly, remain highly respected.

This notion struck me during the winter holidays at a moment when I found myself simultaneously gift shopping (online), watching TV and brushing my teeth. Yes, I know that sounds weird, but here are the three brands that may consciously or unconsciously have mastered the art of disruption avoidance:

          1. Hallmark
          2. National Geographic
          3. ARM & HAMMER™

I’d dropped into my local Hallmark store to buy some greeting cards and peruse the gift selection. If you step back and look at what the stores sell, it may seem like a hodgepodge. In addition to greeting cards, these shops tend to stock kitschy mugs, eye-catching jewelry, stylish scarves and home goods, and lots of knickknacks. 

But when I took a closer look, I found myself tearing up at nearly every turn. Why? These “products” were actually vehicles for messages that hit people in the heart.

On the surface, the company appears to be in the greeting card and gift business, though that is not how the company defines their “why.” They define it as: “Making the world a more caring place by helping each other laugh, love, heal, say thanks and make meaningful connections with others.”

Now that’s an enduring mission!

Back home, despite many TV channel choices, I had a hard time finding programs that are appealing. Nevertheless, one evening my husband and I stumbled upon a fascinating show about Mars. It exposed facts about which I was not aware. More importantly, the show gripped us and made us feel as though we were actually visiting the Red Planet.

I was curious about who produced the program. Then I saw the little yellow rectangle and knew it was National Geographic.

I remember collecting that magazine as a kid. I had hundreds of them. Today, when viewing the company through the eyes of someone who examines business innovation and disruption, it would seem that the magazine might have become obsolete, as people now get their information in various other ways. Many magazines have gone out of business or have been bought and sold because of this trend. But National Geographic is still on newsstands.

If print media is so much less relevant today than, say, 50 years ago, how has National Geographic survived since 1888?

Let’s consider one last brand. As I was shopping for toothpaste recently, I realized that the ARM & HAMMER™ logo is virtually unchanged from when I was a kid. Back then, like now, I hated the taste of baking soda but knew that it was something that made everything smell clean. There are plenty of other brands of baking soda, and even generic brands that are no different in terms of ingredients. Yet ARM & HAMMER™ is clearly the most recognized brand, and it’s been the cornerstone of manufacturer Church & Dwight’s success since the mid-1800s.

Over the years, that company has figured out how to use baking soda in everything from laundry detergent to kitty litter. But it’s not really about the baking soda; it’s about their lasting brand and unchanged mission to further cleanliness and hygiene.

There are four shared traits among these brands:

          • They are all over 100 years old and still growing.
          • They are products that continually attract new entrants while worrying competitors.
          • Their logos have not really changed at all over the years.
          • Their original product is still thriving in its original form.

What can we learn from this? Old, growing companies that don’t make headlines and don’t get disrupted are excellent at defining their purpose as something much deeper than just the product they originally sold. What’s more, there is no other company in the space better known for that unique purpose.

How many companies can we say that about in the insurance and finance industries?

Maria Ferrante-Schepis is executive vice president and managing principal of Insurance and Financial Services Innovation at Maddock Douglas, an internationally recognized innovation consulting firm. She is co-author of the book “Flirting with the Uninterested—Innovating in a ‘Sold, Not Bought’ Category.” She can be reached at [email protected]

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