Falling to New Depths of Shallowness

What happens in the corporate world often is a reflection of the values and trends in our society. Here are a couple of recent stories that, well, leave me scratching my head…

The world’s leading soft drink company, Coca-Cola, has found a rather creative way to reverse the long slide in soft drink sales. They have developed a marketing campaign called “Share a Coke,” whereby they imprint popular names like Chris, Jess, and Alex, on soda cans and bottles. Apparently, in response to this personalization, soft drink sales have rebounded sharply. A Wall Street Journal article tells the story of a couple searching all summer for bottles with their names on them, so they can keep them forever. Really? Meanwhile, another corporate icon, Apple, is battling complaints that their recently released and largest phone ever, the iPhone 6 Plus, bends when people sit on it.

I’m getting the disturbing picture of a poor soul named Jess who, after a relentless search, has found her personalized bottle of diet coke. Feeling true joy for the first time Jess holds the bottle, lifts it skyward, and sits down into a chair. Mesmerized by the experience she forgets that her new IPhone 6 Plus is in her back pocket…

And then, of course, the entire story goes viral on Facebook. What, if anything, does this nonsense say about our society?

For decades, Coca-Cola has been one of the most recognized global brands, and has had a long history of marketing success. I’d like to teach the world to sing, remains one of the iconic ads of all time. Perhaps Coca-Cola now understands that we have become the “Me Generation” and simply putting our names on products will motivate greater consumption. Would future marketing initiatives include our picture on the bottle or our voice recording when we unscrew the cap?

In a similar vein, should there be warning labels on iPhones? – Remove phone from back pocket before sitting down or jumping in to the pool… Wouldn’t you rather have Apple spend its creative resources developing the next amazing product as they have done throughout its history? Perhaps they still can, but I fear there is a trade-off.

In essence the question to me is this – Will true innovation, driven by scientific research and discovery, be sacrificed by a focus on marketing to an increasingly superficial consumer, who moreover, seems less willing to take responsibility for their own actions?

Innovation, mind you, is the life blood of long-term earnings growth and ultimate business success. In a highly-competitive global economy, companies that can continually out-innovate their competition will be the winners over the long run. When Henry Ford introduced the Model T, he said “Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants, so long as it is black.” How odd that seems today.

In a society that values substance over style, patient, yet determined research and discovery naturally predominates. But when a society becomes too self-absorbed, it becomes impatient, demanding instant gratification. And when society puts too much of a burden on the corporate sector for irresponsible behaviour, innovation and growth suffer.

The United States economic system flows through cycles of prosperity and decline, affecting participants unevenly. While it is far from perfect, it is better than any other system, and has created more wealth than any economy in the history of the world. An amazing record in our relatively short history, but are our best days behind us or ahead of us? Stay tuned.