To adapt is not to survive, it is to win

Adaptability has always been the defining characteristic of the fittest. Adaptability enhances longevity and adds armour to withstand the winds of change. Charles Darwin’s immortal “survival of the fittest” adage seems to be getting more and more relevant for brands in today’s age.

In the animal world, adaptability takes various forms. It includes the ability to camouflage by changing colour, developing new bodily features to survive in changing environments, the ability to hibernate, the ability to grow additional layers of skin, having organs that allow you to be amphibious and even the ability to mutate over generations.

If we were to identify similar characteristics in brands that have survived for a long period of time, we will find striking similarities. Brands like GE, Coca Cola, Nike, Guinness, Nivea, Samsung, Budweiser, Microsoft, Dell etc have all used adaptability strategies to remain relevant and purposeful.

It’s a worthwhile endeavour to understand how “classic” brands remain “classic” in a world of fleeting attention, disloyalty, mass consumption, insatiable greed for the ‘new and the different’ and constantly evolving consumer behaviour.

The defining characteristic of adaptability is woven on a strong underlying core. Classic brands have values that have longevity, have positioning that address real needs and provide experiences that transcend behavioural changes.

With such strong core tenets, it is relatively easy for classic brands to adapt to changing consumer needs, evolution of markets and categories and new modes of engagement. Nike successfully evolved a sports shoe brand into an overarching sports and fitness solution. Nivea expanded from a baby care brand into a skincare regime solution for both women and men. Guinness strengthened its heritage and legacy to establish itself as an authentic expression of ‘good times’. Coca Cola has remained a proverbial thirst quencher for generations with its association with relevant occasions and successfully expanding its portfolio to cater to rising levels of health consciousness and emerging wellness trends.

GE has successfully held on to a strong legacy of being one of the world’s foremost manufacturing and engineering brand. This was achieved through constant modernisation of manufacturing capabilities, strong focus on innovation, expanding its footprint into high technology domains and staying on top of emerging trends in industrial manufacturing.

Microsoft’s current resurgence may have been a byproduct of current CEO Satya Nadella’s vision, but the seeds of success were shown by the brand’s ability to successfully enter new categories. After shedding of its Windows legacy, Microsoft has successfully entered hardware, physical and cloud based storage services and social networking. It’s adaptability to transition into categories that allows it to position itself as a complete software and hardware solutions provider has been key to its success. One of the brand’s core strategies is to enhance interconnectedness betweens its products and strengthen ‘integration’ and ‘seamlessness’ across platforms.

In 2015, Forbes published an informative piece covering 14 signs of an adaptable person:

14 signs of an adaptable person

Most, if not all, of these 14 traits can be identified as those of adaptable brands. If I were to the example of Guinness and its strategy to stay relevant in a changing world, it exemplifies the traits of ‘staying current’, ‘seeing systems’, ‘opening their minds’ and ‘knowing what they stand for’.

In March 2016, Guinness announced a global brand reboot, but not by launching some fancy variants, but my tapping into its history to identify and rediscover recipes. This trawling through its extensive recipe list (created over generations as the brand developed) has already led to the launch of Guinness Blonde American Lager, Guinness Nitro IPA, Guinness Dublin Porter and Guinness West Indies Porter in the US market.

More about this brand reboot here: Guinness reboots its iconic brand

This whole adaptability strategy is driven by the need of Guinness to stay relevant when tastes and preferences of beer drinkers have become fickle and there is a constant risk of stigma for long standing brands to be classified as those from the “fathers and grandfathers generations”. Guinness’ approach towards implementing this brand reboot is characterised by three traits of ‘staying current’, ‘seeing systems’, ‘opening their minds’ and ‘knowing what they stand for’.

It will be wrong to say that ‘adaptability’ is required only by classic and iconic brands to stay relevant in changing times. ‘Adaptability’ is a critical trait for any brand that has long term ambitions and believes in its differentiating values and positioning.

Most brands confuse adaptability as a survival instinct or a reactionary process against external forces. This is why they act late. In reality, the need to adapt should be recognised way before the actual need starts staring at you in the space. Or even better still is the attitude of ‘creating a need’ (which is where the oft quoted example of Starbucks will appear). I will take an extreme example of ‘adaptability’ from current times – In the middle of 2015, Facebook officially rolled out Facebook Lite in multiple Asian and African markets.

Why was there a need for Facebook to adapt its brand in the absence of any existentialist threat?

Purely because of the opportunity that exists for Facebook. In these data poor but internet-hungry markets, it is a strategic first-mover advantage to be one of the few sites that will work even when you have abysmally slow connections, poor bandwidth and feature-poor Android phones. The first mover advantage is a strong need for any brand to adapt. In many instances, the opportunity is so large that the size of the pie can be a motivator for other competitors to adapt.

In the world of brands, adaptability has come a long way from being only a survival strategy. It has become an essential element of any strategic plan that aims to identify new opportunities for growth, increase competitiveness, expand brand portfolios or even a complete brand repositioning. For classic brands, adaptability has always been a key piece of armour. For new age brands or emerging brands, adaptability is more of a “need of the hour. But it is important that brands have a very clear understanding of adaptability – it is not about reinventing the brand and neither is it about changing core values. It is about identifying opportunities and stretching the brand to better leverage such opportunities. It is about being future focused and constantly evolving the brand’s capabilities to solve new problems and provide new solutions.

 

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