Happy Birthday to You; Now Shut Up About It

Relevance Trumps Longevity Every Time

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It's been a few weeks since I've posted on the Small Agency Diary. You see, I hadn't been able to come up with anything remotely interesting, relevant -- let alone useful -- to a reader of Ad Age .

But then I had an epiphany. My birthday was coming -- the actual day I was born, 40-mumble years ago. I'm sure all of you want to learn about my history, as well as the fact that I've been around, you know, for lots of years. Today's my birthday, and you're gonna help me celebrate.

Happy Birthday to Me! *

Still reading? Thanks for hanging in there. Sorry to take you through that . It felt pretty creepy, didn't it? At the risk of convincing you of any narcissistic tendencies -- and maybe going too far to make a point -- it is my birthday. But, I'm not really asking you, or anyone else, to celebrate it with me.

However, I do want to examine why so many companies' impose their birthday or anniversary celebrations on consumers? I've always been fascinated by marketers who insist on celebrating their milestone anniversaries publicly.

I'm sure many of you have been in the meeting where the marketing director says, "You know, next year's our 25th anniversary. We'll definitely have to work that into the campaign," with a tone that implies it's the most obvious marketing strategy ever defined. Unfortunately, consumers have short memories. They want to know what you're going to do for them today, not what you did for them yesterday.

The anniversary campaign is the official sign that a brand has officially run out of ideas.

Way back in 1960 (dang, I missed the 50th celebration), Theodore Levitt coined the phrase "marketing myopia" in his Harvard Business Review article, as he discussed companies that failed because they clung to -- or were more interested in -- what they were selling, rather than recognizing the needs or interests of the buyer.

To be successful, he wrote, "They must ascertain and act on their customers' needs and desires, not bank on the presumed longevity of their products."

Despite Levitt's teachings, this myopia is more rampant than ever in our "me-oriented" society. Our human nature compels us to protect what we know, as well as the status quo. To look beyond what it is that you've been producing for years; to truly see what the consumer wants takes both discipline and intuition.

Our best example today is Apple, which just recently became the world's most valuable consumer brand. Steve Jobs' vision helped Apple cross the chasm from a company that sold cool computers to a brand that stands for imagination. Apple doesn't dwell on the past. It's taught us to anticipate what it will come up with next. And we can't wait.

But doesn't longevity mean something to a consumer? Sure. Depending on the product or service offered -- like insurance or maybe even automobiles -- consumers do want some level of assurance that the company will be around to stand behind their product. However, longevity didn't save Oldsmobile, whose 100-year history probably did more to damage its survival than enhance it. And, back in the day, Polaroid and Kodak were two of our stronger brands, but they evolved too slowly and clung to their proprietary technologies far too long. And now Blockbuster, a former powerhouse, fights for survival as Redbox and Netflix provide more consumer-friendly services.

Relevance trumps longevity every time.

But what about those brands that have survived? Heck, these days, any company that can weather the continual economic storms of today is to be commended. And maybe it should celebrate. But brands should do it on their own, internally, with their employees and stockholders, instead of making it the basis for their next marketing campaign.

The realization should be this: As your brand's birthday rolls around -- even if it's what's considered a major milestone -- spend less time celebrating what has passed and look ahead to assess how you plan to be viable in the future. While it's fine to reflect on what's been successful in your own company, it's far more critical to pay attention to your customers. Continually understand what's relevant to them to ensure that you do stick around for another 10, 25 or even 50 years.

And if you do make it to another milestone, resist the temptation to unleash "the 45th birthday celebration," because you'll just be signaling that you don't have anything remotely interesting, relevant -- let alone useful -- for them.

And you might not make it to 50.

Tom Denari is president, Young & Laramore, Indianapolis, Ind.

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Tom's birthday was actually Aug. 11. Happy (belated) Birthday, Tom!

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