Trend expert sets companies straight
By Chuck Howitt, RECORD STAFF
Jeremy Gutsche is an expert on things that are trendy, cool and about to go “viral in the marketplace.”
Sometimes that means spotting things that definitely aren’t cool, such as braille tattoos, baby toupées and terror apparel. More often it means helping some of the world’s largest companies figure out “what they’re trying to do” and what market they should be going after.
Many successful companies don’t have a clue where they’re headed or how to adapt to change, Gutsche told a Tech Leadership conference sponsored by Communitech yesterday at Bingemans in Kitchener.
Gutsche, who runs a Toronto-based website called Trendhunter.com, used the example of Smith-Corona, which once made the world’s best typewriter.
Innovation was one of its strengths. It also invented the grammar checker, the laptop processor and the personal digital assistant.
In 1989, Smith-Corona decided to partner with Acer to start making computers. With annual revenues of $500 million, Smith-Corona had plenty of money to throw around. The timing seemed perfect.
Yet three years later, Smith-Corona’s chief executive officer killed the deal, Gutsche said.
Acer went on to become the world’s fourth-largest maker of personal computers. Smith-Corona? It filed for bankruptcy in 1995 though it continues to sell electronic typewriters.
Smith-Corona is a classic case of a company that was big, rich and resting on its laurels, said Gutsche. “Complacency is the architecture of downfall,” he repeated several times during his speech. If the company had thought of itself as “making products that record human thought” rather than just typewriters it might be much bigger than it is today, said Gutsche.
Speaking on the theme “exploiting chaos,” he said companies shouldn’t fear the current recession. Some of the world’s most successful enterprises were started during recessions, including Disney, CNN, Gillette and IBM.
The business magazine Fortune started four months after the stock market crash of 1929, he noted. “People wanted to know what was going on in those boardrooms.”
On the subject of marketing, it’s important for companies to make a “cultural connection” with their audience, Gutsche said. That means “speaking with, not to, them.”
For example, Texas wanted to start an antilittering campaign. It could have used an old ad from 1971 featuring a stoic-looking Native American with a tear running down his cheek. But after doing research, it learned that the worst culprits for littering were young males who drive pickup trucks. It came up with a campaign called “Don’t mess with Texas,” pitched by celebrities such as Chuck Norris, Matthew McConaughey and Lance Armstrong. Littering fell by 72 per cent.
Innovation used to mean surveys, interviews and focus groups, he said. Now it means observing your customers “in their zone,” sometimes for hours and days.
Gutsche was hired by BP Oil to reinvent its gas-station stores.
After spending a day hanging out in one of them, he discovered that the biggest spenders were teenage males. He advised the company to stock its stores with energy drinks and snack food.