Necessity: The Mother of Invention

Part 2. The people and brands that inspire us to go the extra mile

Isn’t it extraordinary how we humans develop superhuman capabilities in the face of daunting Few people really know what they’re capable of until they have been motivated to explore their limits. The pandemic inspired many apparently ordinary people to do extraordinary things, from those responsible for the fastest ever vaccine development programme to airline cabin crews taking on the challenge of frontline healthcare. In Part 1 we looked at how we humans can develop superhuman capabilities in the face of seemingly daunting threats, reflecting on how technological advances in aircraft design in the two decades of 1931-1951 (incorporating WWII) were dramatically quicker than throughout the five peacetime decades of 1967-2017. But do we need a crisis to release our superhuman potential, or can we be inspired to achieve extraordinary things by a great leader or, more particularly, a compelling brand promise?

Brands that inspire superhuman potential…

We know that inspiring brands, like inspiring people, have the power to motivate. Moreover, brands with an inspiring leader at the helm often achieve the most powerful results of all—brand values snap into sharper focus when lived and modelled by the chief that espouses them, intensifying the brand experience for customers and employees (it can, of course, be similarly polarising for rejectors for whom the leader is the very personification of the brand they have come to loath!). 

Two brands that deliver against these criteria are Apple and Tesla.

Apple

Since its inception in 1976 Apple has accumulated generations of dedicated followers with an almost religious zeal for new product announcements. The level of pride in owning a new Apple product has always been legendary (just search ‘Apple unboxing’ on YouTube) and that passion is shared by its employees. Apple is a perfectionist culture that was personified by its single-minded founder, Steve Jobs, and perpetuated by the conviction that ‘we’re here to put a ding in the universe’ with clever thinking, iconic design and pure simplicity; customer satisfaction is not engaged enough for Apple, it strives for ‘joy of ownership’. 

The organisation structure is as simple yet radical as the product and the company takes an entrepreneurial approach to product development with employees enjoying a high level of freedom and flexibility but a high degree of accountability. Every live project has a Directly Responsible Individual (the DRI) who is personally answerable for it. This generates a sense of ownership and responsibility with teams focused on comparatively few products at any one time, before moving, together, onto the next one. Apple’s ‘focused excellence’ approach means that every job is done brilliantly, by not diluting effort across several jobs only the highest quality products are launched (and if others are delayed, that is a price worth paying). By elevating design quality to iconic levels it has heightened the desire for its products, making every rival look and feel ordinary by comparison. Idiomatically, rather than follow the traditional approach of hiring a star designer, Steve Jobs created Apple’s own star by raising the profile of its talented British design chief, Jony Ive. He designed Apple stores to resemble art galleries to celebrate the latest Apple sculptures. Packaging became as exquisite as the products inside them (empty boxes are collector’s items). Ives’ numerous celebrity appearances and awards culminated in his receiving a knighthood in 2006. Sir Jony Ive is Apple’s knight in shining designer armour and the ultimate expression of how Apple inspires superhuman levels of performance. He succeeded in putting a ding in the universe—with an Apple logo on it! 

It is this single-minded approach, inspired by a passion to deliver the values the brand promises, that sets such extraordinarily high expectations of Apple employees. And they repeatedly do whatever it takes to deliver. The result is new generations of customers experiencing the ‘joy of ownership’ that Jobs dreamt of and which has continued to make Apple the iconic brand it is today.

Tesla

Elon Musk is Tesla. An ambitious force of nature that makes the impossible possible and hauls the rest of the world into the future. It is not a place for the feint-hearted, the pressure is intense and demanding. Musk regularly overpromises to the world, then holds his employees feet (along with his own) to the fire to deliver. Employees frequently claim that everyone has to work harder than they would at any other company in the world, but they also claim to have done the best work of their lives at Tesla—even if some leave exhausted.

Musk believes that it is his job to be intimately familiar with the company’s operations and puts himself, physically, in the middle of the action. He leads by example and lives out Tesla’s three brand pillars of Boldness, Openness and Sustainability. He is driven by a conviction to make a global impact and audaciously puts the planet before shareholders. This ethos is embodied in the products and is also manifest in his making innovation patents public—demonstrably putting principles before profit.

Tesla owners are as dedicated and enthusiastic as its employees. They frequently participate in product development and testing, making them feel genuinely invested in the brand and its success. Their loyalty and advocacy levels have been sustained at such high levels that Tesla has never sought to invest in marketing—even with a range of cars starting at $38,000. 

Over time, the brand’s commercial performance has become as spectacular as the cars. Since its launch in 2008 it has brought electric vehicles into the mainstream, completely transforming the way the world thinks about them. The big motor manufacturers were quick to dismiss Tesla as an eccentric niche, today it is worth more than the worlds top seven car companies combined. The Tesla brand is driven by a bold vision, bigger than itself, to create a better, cleaner and more sustainable future for the planet. Tesla’s refusal to accept the status quo, its obsession with reinventing products and sectors from first principles rather than following any existing industry practices, are pure Musk, but have been the means by which the firm’s outrageous ambitions have consistently been delivered. 

He and his staff systematically over-deliver on their conviction that nothing is impossible. If Tesla can claim to have changed the world it is because its employees, mentored by Musk, achieve more than anyone else in any other company.

Superhuman overachievement is always possible… at a cost

The quest to go beyond and deliver what was previously thought impossible seems to be as much a characteristic of a single-minded brand (especially one with an uncompromising culture driven by a larger-than-life personality) as it is of a national crisis or global pandemic. The cost is that such brands can be intensely polarising for customers and employees. But any distinctive brand is defined as much by those it rejects as by those it attracts—Apple and Tesla command a premium precisely because their distinctive values, exemplified by their products, give them an emotional appeal that sets them apart. How many employees of GM or HP do you suppose feel as motivated to overachieve each morning as their equivalents in Tesla or Apple? How proud do they feel when someone asks them who they work for? Have you seen how a Tesla or Apple customer glows and gushes when asked whether the Model 3 parked outside, or that cool new Mac on the desk, is theirs?

Is a personality-driven brand necessary to achieve superhuman results?

There is nothing quite like having a brand brought to life by an inspiring leader (Branson, Dyson, Disney, Roddick, Chanel, et al). Apart from making the brand values easier to relate to, their personal value means that they usually have the power to take, seemingly irrational, risks that would terrify most boards or shareholders. This courage of conviction has been a vital component in the growth of both Apple and Tesla, both of which have endured troughs in shareholder confidence. But it is now a decade since the demise of Steve Jobs and Apple has shown that its brand values are sufficiently well defined and firmly-entrenched to be sustainable without the personal driving force of its founder. Indeed, its market value has risen tenfold over this time to make Apple the world’s first $3 Trillion corporation. Significantly, its employees remain as fanatically-eager to overachieve as ever. 

Unfortunately, the magic of most entrepreneur-led brands starts to fade when the founder is no longer leading them, or when they sell-out to bigger groups (few of which truly understand how to sustain brand values). But Apple has convincingly shown us that, with a zealous commitment to resolutely-held brand values, sky-high expectations can continue to be met thanks to the superhuman efforts of team members—without or without a charismatic chief to model them.

The challenge for boards and shareholders

More people than we might have thought are capable, with the right motivation, of achieving things that go above and beyond normal expectations. It need not take a crisis to unleash they potential. They need a purpose that stirs their emotions and propels them to over-deliver, to be voluntarily immersed in a shared culture where they can believe that their efforts can change the world. 

This is encapsulated in a promise. The promise we call a brand.

Necessity: The Mother of Invention

Part 1. Capitalising on a Crisis

Isn’t it extraordinary how we humans develop superhuman capabilities in the face of daunting threats? Our ingenuity becomes  boundless, teams unite with common purpose to crack the most resilient challenges with urgent haste. We even become more caring, community-spirited (NHS-clapping) versions of our former selves.

We rise to the challenge…

The last year has, for most of us, been one of the most challenging in living memory. We have seen superhuman acts of courage and determination from doctors, nurses, carers, centenarian fund raisers and more. Meanwhile, medical researchers have created, developed and tested vaccines faster than anyone dared hope, then rolled them out across the nation at a similar pace; meanwhile, home delivery services have expanded to enable food and provisions to reach every corner of the nation and web developers have launched new solutions ways to enable home working and socialising. Even the most resolute office-dwellers have risen to the challenge of working from home and adapted to holding meetings on-screen via Teams or Zoom (something many would ordinarily have refused to entertain). 

Plato was right. Necessity has always given birth to invention.
It’s in our DNA. Wind the clock back 80 years and we can see another example of it in action (especially for an aviation enthusiast in lockdown).

In 1931, the Hawker aircraft company’s latest front-line fighter for the Royal Air Force was the Fury. Designed by a brilliant young engineer, Sydney Camm, it was the RAF’s first fighter capable of exceeding 200 mph and could climb to 10,000 feet in under 4 minutes. Then, as war loomed, Camm’s team worked round the clock to redesigned the biplane around the latest Merlin engine and reconfigure its canvas-skinned structure into a faster monoplane, called the Hurricane.

Together with the Spitfire, it gave the RAF air superiority in the Battle of Britain. As the war went on, the relentless pace of innovation continued and, by 1942, Camm’s team launched the all-metal ‘Typhoon’ with an engine twice as powerful as the Hurricane’s enabling it to fly at over 400mph.  

By 1951, just 20 years after launching the pre-war Fury, Camm’s  team had created a jet fighter that could fly three times as fast and climb seven-times as quickly to twice the altitude.

Then we relax…

Just as extraordinary, perhaps, is the ease with which, when the threat subsides, we default to ordinary human equilibrium—as if nothing had happened. 

So, as the world breathed a sigh of relief after the war, aero engineers set about putting military advances to civil use and, by 1952, the first jet airliner, the de Havilland’s Comet went into service. Unfortunately, it had to be grounded with technical problems—the kind of problems that would have been quickly exploited by a military rival in wartime, but for a commercial rival in peacetime the urgency was lost. Boeing spent six years in studious contemplation before finally launching its rival jet airliner, the 707. It was then a further nine years before Boeing introduced a smaller derivative, the 737, for short-haul routes. 

Since its launch in 1967 the 737 has developed comparatively modestly—can you spot the difference? What’s more, after more than 50 years in production, the latest model is actually 60mph slower than the original.  

Who would have thought that the superhuman ingenuity in less than a decade of crisis would be followed by decades of technological torpidity in the era of plenty that followed.

It is sobering to reflect that, had the 1952 Comet airliner been based on a 50 year-old airframe it would have been a hot air balloon (the Wright brothers not having mastered powered flight for another 4 years). 

Reigniting the spirit…

We have seen that crises, particularly the shared fear of a common enemy, are powerful human motivators (as George Orwell warns us in ‘1984’). We instinctively go further if we’re fighting for survival but, without such an imperative, most of us will settle for doing enough to get by comfortably—which, if you are in an organisation seeking innovative solutions (and which of us is not?), seems like a waste of potential, doesn’t it? So, as we emerge from the current crisis, how can we sustain the spirit that has sparked some of us to go that extra superhuman mile over the past year—or reignite it if we have been sidelined by lockdown? 

One approach, of course, is to wilfully contrive a workplace so stressful that it triggers employees’ elemental survival instincts. This might, potentially, work in a totalitarian ‘work or starve’ regime, but is hardly relevant in free markets (though, arguably, some seem to have tried). The traditional capitalist solution is one of bribery—rewarding high performance with, say, cash bonuses. Sadly, this has proven, in the long run, to be barely more sustainable (and a lot less effective) than the first approach, because the impact tends to fade over time and the reward becomes the norm (one reason why directors’ bonuses have ballooned as companies compete to attract and retain high performers). Over time we get used to a bonus and it becomes a hygiene factor for the function, rather than the motivating factor we need to go beyond it. So, what are the motivating factors that will make a difference? 

It could be that the answer lies in our feeling part of something something ‘bigger than ourselves’, something that captures our imagination and drives our ambition, inspiring us to go further? Simon Sinek might describe it as ‘finding our why’. It happens when we are engaged with a company, cause or purpose (let’s call it a brand) with which we feel an emotional connection. A brand that gets us out of bed in the morning, that we would support even if we weren’t being paid to. A brand that reflects and encapsulates the mission and core values of the organisation we work for—as opposed to a set of promises dreamt-up by the marketing team, then superimposed upon it. A brand that lives in the HR director’s domain as much as the Marketing director’s, that consistently shapes and reflects both culture and communications and which employees can relate to as readily as customers. Organisations like this are rare, but they do exist. Not surprisingly, they frequently attract the best talent, who often do the best work of their lives while working there—you might say the brand becomes their chosen necessity. And, for all their flaws in other respects, such organisations buzz with dedicated individuals giving birth to inventive ideas that might just change the world. Incidentally, before he died, Sir Sydney Camm was planning the design of an aircraft to travel at Mach 4. The man who, aged 10, had been inspired by the Wright brothers first flight never stopped inventing.

Who are the people and what are the brands that continually inspire us to go the extra mile? What is their secret?See Part 2

Luxury Swiss Watches: Is innovation shifting from technology to brand?

When we hear “made in Switzerland” a host of images spring to mind, among the most prominent is likely to be a classical Swiss watch. Not just any watch, a superior, high-quality, mechanical watch. Explore a little deeper and we enter a world of luxury, privilege and sophistication. Brands like Patek Philippe, Rolex, Omega, Jaeger-LeCoultre and Zenith shimmer alluringly in our minds.
A recent international survey ranked Switzerland highest in the world as a country of origin associated with quality (ahead of Japan and Germany). Another study showed that consumers all over the world strongly associated Swiss products with ”high quality”, “reliability” and “luxury”. But, curiously, the same people also rated Swiss poorly when it came to “price competitiveness” and “innovation”. For the luxury watch industry, “price competitiveness” hardly matters, after all pricing is always relative and when your competitors are also Swiss the collective impact can actually be quite positive as it reinforces the cost of entry and perceived prestige of ownership. But what about innovation? It seems that many iconic Swiss watch brands seem to regard innovation as a core strength, they proclaim it in their advertising, on their websites, in their brochures and through their spokespeople. Here, for example, are some quotes from three luxury watch brochures:
“…ground breaking technological development that provides better long-term accuracy”
“…a new chapter of horological history for a new millennium”
“…futuristic, daring, high-tech and cutting edge… superior technical solutions”

It would appear then that there is either a growing anomaly between what the industry wants its audiences to think and what their audiences actually believe, or the Swiss national brand no longer reflects the industry with which it has been intrinsically-linked for the last two-and-a-half centuries.
Interestingly, there was a time, a few generations ago, when there would have been no such discrepancy. Watches might be regarded as the first high-tech gadgets in history and Switzerland‘s burgeoning watch brands lead the world in technical innovation. The development curve for the mechanical watch design actually began in the 18th century and by 1800 most of the cleverest innovations (including the chronograph, the self-winding mechanism and, most notably, the tourbillon) had already been invented, with Breguet, the premium-priced technological leader, firmly positioned as the Apple of its generation. By the end of the 19th century most of the major watch brands had established themselves and their biggest challenge was to manufacture these high-tech gadgets in ever greater numbers and at more affordable prices to meet growing international demand. It was in so doing that Switzerland’s legendary watch-making was consolidated and, as its products reached wider audiences, they had a profound and lasting effect on the national reputation. It would not be unfair to say that for much of the last century the basic architecture of the mechanical watch has remained largely unchanged. There have, of course, been significant advances made in the manufacturing processes (finer tolerances providing more consistent quality) and in the application of new high-performance materials, but these are comparatively minor to the average consumer most of whom have long given-up on the Swiss watch for daily timekeeping anyway and for whom a Swiss watch is primarily a luxury accessory.

As if to prove the point, a recent advertisement for the Cartier Santos (the wristwatch created by Cartier for the early aviator Santos-Dumont) simply takes the headline: “Since 1904”. Ironically, you could purchase the same timepiece used by Santos-Dumont to time his record-breaking 21-second flight from the airport boutique before you jet-off on a 14 hour flight across the globe!

It was, of course, the arrival of the quartz watch in the 1970s that changed everything. In terms of scientific innovation the world had moved-on and, by rational analysis, the Swiss watch industry suddenly looked about as outmoded as the record player would look on the arrival of the CD a decade later. But, for similar reasons, its appeal was re-born. It was no longer a rational product to be assessed scientifically, rather it became a subjectively-satisfying product with which buyers connect emotionally, creatively, intuitively. The luxury Swiss watch was reborn as an exquisite, hand-crafted indulgence whose functional capabilities are patently not the primary motivation for purchase. It is, today, a lovingly-crafted piece of functioning jewellery, an object of fascination and desire.

From a scientific/technological perspective, it is fair to say that the gadget innovation baton has now been seized by Japan and the USA (the national brands that rank highest in public perception for ‘innovation’). Products like Seiko’s revolutionary ‘Eco-drive‘ and ‘Ananto‘ and Citizen’s ‘Kinetic‘ models have accelerated the performance expectations of the wristwatch into a new dimension. But then, their customers’ motivations are as different from the Swiss luxury watch buyer as those of the latest Panasonic digital audio system’s are from the specialist hi-fi chosen by the audiophile buyer.

As with any market, it is vital that the brand owners understand their customers’ motivation. Clarity of positioning is essential and, with the best will in the world, no amount of window dressing about cutting edge technology is going to sell a piece of precious time-keeping jewellery even to the most technically-minded customer. While even the very finest Swiss watch mechanisms have now been eclipsed by newer technologies, this is immaterial to the appeal of the brands whose beautifully crafted products and breathtaking intricacy continue to enchant their privileged owners.

It is the brand promise and pride of ownership that will increasingly enable Swiss luxury watch brands to stand-out and thrive in the luxury marketplace. Their ability to deliver a distinctive, relevant and consistent experience will maintain their appeal and customer loyalty over time. It may well be that the key to future success in the luxury watch business will be ever less associated with the mechanism and ‘technology’ within the watch and increasingly with the sense of style, finish, quality of materials and personality that the watch exemplifies as a luxury accessory.

Although it might sound like contentious sacrilege today, is there really any reason why we should not, in future, see a luxury Swiss watch brand with a Seiko ‘Ananta’ or Citizen ‘Kinetic’ mechanism concealed within its stylish gold case? Just as Aston Martin has been dipping its toe in the water with its Cygnet concept car (a genuine Aston Martin luxury experience beneath which is a mechanically unmodified Toyota iQ city car), perhaps the future direction for all luxury brands will be to define, own and express their own authentic, emotional brand experience. Then, to determine the best way to deliver this via the most appropriate technologies currently available. This is, after all, the business model used so successfully by Apple Corporation – spiritual successors of those pioneering 18th century trailblazers, Breguet.