The author and his Alfa Romeo, circa 1988.
The author and his Alfa Romeo, circa 1988.

Shifting in My Alfa Romeo

That Alfa Romeo saved my life. My social life, that is. The thing is, when I started my career in marketing it was in the hypercompetitive soap category. I spent my days studying ring-around-collar and trying to figure out ways to get consumers to switch from one brand of detergent or fabric softener to another.

Great from a strategic-learning perspective, sure. But, the women I was dating did not want to hear about the trials and tribulations of the soap wars. So, the Alfa Romeo.

It was back when I began my career that the movie “The Graduate” came out. Dustin Hoffman spent a good part of this iconic film driving a fantastic-looking Alfa Romeo Spider all the while doing whatever he could to win the affections of the fantastic-looking Katharine Ross. I figured if it could work for Dustin, it might work for me. Lest you think I’m about to share the trials and tribulations of my subsequent dating life, I’m not. (Suffice it to say, I have been happily married for many years.) More germane to the topic at hand is the experience of driving that car. While I had driven a stick-shift on occasion prior to the Alfa, I was now driving one every day.

For those of you who have never driven a car with manual transmission, or stick shift, listen up. It’s nothing like driving a car with an automatic transmission. It necessitates that you are totally attuned to the road conditions, the bumps and potholes, the hills – both the ups and downs – not to mention the traffic’s ebb and flow, along with the weather conditions. More than this, it necessitates that you are totally in tune with the car itself. The variations in the sounds of the engine, the fluctuations in moving parts as you accelerate or decelerate, the subtle interaction between the clutch and the shifter. Not only is a stick shift car more fun to drive, it requires far more skill than a car with automatic transmission. You must anticipate, grasp, and then intuitively react to the situation, over and again, in equal measures.

So, where I am going with all of this car talk? It’s to draw an analogy relative to what’s required to successfully manage a brand in a marketplace in which change is the only constant and branding on cruise control is not an option. The best brands today know that getting ahead and staying ahead requires being open and agile enough do two seemingly opposing things simultaneously. The first, to fluidly and quickly shift gears to meet the demands of the market. To anticipate, grasp and then intuitively react to the situation. The second, to do so without losing focus on the brand’s core equities, the things that drive what it stands for. That magical two percent that sets the brand apart from the competition and makes it meaningfully different in the minds of consumers. The “who, the what, and the why” of the brand.

If an organization doesn’t have what it takes to shift on the fly, it fails. If it shifts but doesn’t maintain focus on its brand’s true colors, safeguarding the brand’s authenticity, it fails. The ability to adroitly manage the constant tension between these two activities in order to keep a brand relevantly distinctive in any and all market conditions is what separates today’s brand winners from the losers. And that is what this book is about.

Fitbit Must Be Careful Not to Tip the Scales – in Apple’s Favor

It was a success right out of the gate. Fitbit was founded in 2007 by James Park and Eric Friedman, who saw the potential for using sensors in wearable devices. In this case, it was a wearable device that tracked fitness. The pair launched the first Fitbit model in 2009, shipping around 5,000 units with over 20,000 orders on the books. Sensing success, Best Buy got in on the action, stocking the increasingly popular trackers in over 650 of its stores. The brand soon became the standard bearer for fitness tracking wearers.

FitBitAmong the reasons for the brand’s success during its first few years on the market, was that its founders continued to make investments in newer models, beginning with the addition of simple features like altimeters, a digital clock and a stopwatch, and then more sophisticated features, including apps that connected to Bluetooth, syncing to both iOS and Android phones, as well as the Fitbit website. One model after another rolled off the assembly line, from the Fitbit Classic to the Fitbit Ultra, the Fitbit One to the Fitbit Flex, each one offering more ways for the physically (or, hopefully) fit to keep track of their health and wellness. Like all strong brands, Fitbit knew it had to keep shifting gears to keep itself relevant to its current, loyal users, and also to appeal to potential users. But, alas, what the brand might have begun to lose track of in its quest to stay relevant was the simultaneous need to focus on what made it successful to begin with. This common conundrum – the need to balance shift and focus – became apparent to the millions of people who were watching Super Bowl 50 in February of this year.

Spending millions of dollars for a Super Bowl ad, Fitbit used its 60 seconds to tout its newest model, the Fitbit Blaze, the brand’s first “fashionable” fitness watch. In doing so, it not only jeopardized some very valuable air time, but its reputation as the first, and potentially best, maker of fitness trackers. With the Fitbit Blaze, the brand leapt right into direct competition with Apple and its smartwatch, the first and potentially best in this technology category. Rather than looking at and focusing on what it owned and what it was known for, Fitbit lost its balance. It jumped into a space it absolutely didn’t own. It put itself into a position of being a me-too brand.

For those watching the Fitbit ad (if they weren’t out refilling the nachos platter), it was not that it was almost identical to the Apple Watch – the ad and the device, itself – but that it begged the question why a successful brand like Fitbit would rock its credibility, chasing a brand with which it will have a hard time competing, let alone beating. Every brand, especially every technology brand, needs to shift to stay relevantly differentiated. The key to success, however, is being able to look before you leap – looking both inside at what strengths you own and can build upon, and at the same time looking outside.