Staying relevant in a sea of start-ups

The standard lifecycle for many companies in terms of perception follows this model: first the scrappy challenger, then the contender making its mark, then the serious challenger sparking industry innovation and finally the thought leader – a proven company with gravitas.

Ironically, it is often when companies reach the thought leader stage – the north star of awareness – that media interest begins to fizzle.

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We are all attracted to the shiny and new. The media’s job is to keep their audience engaged, and shiny new startups breaking the mold are an easy way to do just that. Companies that are proven leaders in their field don’t seem to generate as much interest given the perception they have nothing new to say.

The media also loves a good David and Goliath narrative, the nimble startup taking on industry giants. All too often, successful large enterprises have found themselves cast as the villain. In a world where income inequality dominates the discourse, corporate executives in billion-dollar enterprises struggle to generate sympathy.

In many ways Google fits the mold here. Soon after launch, the company included the mantra “Don’t be evil” into its code of conduct and the press loved it. Google was positioned as a new type of company, taking on the staid old guard and aggressive business practices. Today, now a giant of the technology world, Alphabet – Google’s new holding company – noticeably dropped the mantra from its code of conduct, a sign of just how far the company has come. 

So how does a company that has reached this level of success and is viewed as a behemoth stay relevant in the eyes of the media and their audience?  

  1. Don’t try and compete with the startups entering the market. Odds are a company that is a leader in its industry is publicly listed, has an active shareholder base and is accountable to a large number of employees. It cannot compete with the “new kid” X-factor, nor should it try to. Decisions must be made with the impact to all those stakeholders in mind.

  2. Embrace rather than hide from your position as a leader. An established company can and should position itself as a voice of authority and balance – a captain in a room of unproven but energized players. In order to do so, a company must have a perspective to share. To be viewed as an influential and still-relevant thought-leader, take the time to get to know the key start-ups in the market, recognize and acknowledge the gap that they have filled and above all embrace ongoing innovation.
    An established legacy can be a meaningful asset in this regard. A company with a firm place in the market can become the hub for both old and new – creating forums to showcase the best of innovation from all players in the market, leading consortiums to bring coherence to the industry and sharing best practices based on years of experience.  

  3. Don’t become complacent. Stay at the forefront with thought-engaging, vision-forward discussions at all times. Too often large, established industry players are accused of no longer being innovative. Their size and success is somehow – and not always unjustly – viewed as making them staid and out of touch. As such, the onus is on these companies to demonstrate to media that becoming a major industry leader and remaining innovative are not mutually exclusive.

    Microsoft has done an incredible job in recent years re-energizing its brand. The company’s heavy investment in Windows 10, the cloud and Office 365 have resulted in a surge in stock price value. That combined with the tough decision to divest from unsuccessful businesses has helped the company appear more lean, nimble and innovative once again.

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Media cycles go in waves. One minute there is a surge in startups and everyone is the next potential Google or Facebook. The next minute, company valuations drop, the market is rattled and short-lived superstars like Homejoy disappear.

That doesn’t mean established brands should ignore or dismiss startups in their space as just a media-fad. However, it does mean leaders in their field should remain true to the factors that built their business in the first place: investment in innovation, sound business strategy, hunger for success and a desire to have even more impact.