Change is easy. It takes place in an instant. What’s harder — much harder — is overcoming inertia and the resistance to change, which grows out of the simple fact that we’re creatures of comfort and habit. We’d always rather keep doing things the old way if at all possible especially when they’ve worked pretty well for us in the past. The problem (and the risk) is that the old ways aren’t going to work for us in the future. If we don’t change and sometimes even cannibalize ourselves, someone else will quickly come along to do things better, faster, cheaper or more easily and we’ll be left behind. So, in today’s global and super-competitive world, you can change, or you will most assuredly and eventually die.
But what do you do when your customers are basically “fat and happy” and don’t want to change? We’ve all seen examples in which a company attempted to simply impose a new change on customers and — even before the days of massive social media — the customers quickly revolted and rejected the move. If social media has done anything, it’s mainly upped the ante and the pain and costs associated with getting these things wrong. And what do you do if you know that the necessary changes are going to actively drive existing customers away? Nobody wants to sign up for a near-term revenue hit, even if you know that you’ll come out ahead of the game in the long run.
I’ve written about how many ads have recently blown up in advertisers’ faces (Pepsi, Dodge, Nivea, Heineken, etc.) and thereupon required not simply remaking the ads themselves, but also canceling national media buys and whole time-sensitive campaigns. I suppose the failure of New Coke will always be the classic example of misplaced enthusiasm and horrible market research; and the GAP trying to change the color of its logo will be one of the more seemingly trivial cases that nonetheless required immediate apologies and the abrupt abandonment of millions of dollars of new materials.
And, of course, my personal favorite — especially given just how high-flying Netflix is these days — was the Qwikster disaster, which lasted maybe all of two weeks before the plug was pulled and Netflix retreated from the stillborn attempt to split up the DVD-by-mail and its streaming service into two separate businesses. Funny, because today no one even remembers the red envelopes any more than they recall the millions of AOL disks that they also got in the mail daily. Actually, my friend Mark Walsh swears that AOL only mailed a billion or so of the disks and that the rest were shoveled out of low-flying crop dusters that blanketed the entire Midwest.
And, talking again about the expanded impact of social media, if you get it wrong today, you not only have to deal with actual unhappy customers and buyers, you also have to deal with the trolls and professional complainers who bitch just for the sake of seeing their own comments out there and most likely never have used or will buy the products or services in question.
So, who’s done it right in the recent past and what can we learn from their example? Surprisingly, McDonald’s did a great job with the whole McCafé transition and the world’s pretty much none the wiser. The company got the job done literally right under the noses of its customers without anyone catching on and launching some crusade to turn back the clock.
Here’s what happened. In the last few years, alternative coffee brands and other offerings have exploded, and these new choices were making a serious dent in the daily numbers at Mickey Dee’s. In addition, coffee tastes in general were changing and, across the board, coffee has gotten both stronger and sweeter. In particular, younger coffee drinkers were looking for a lot more flavorful brew and various confections, but seniors (among the largest segments of McDonald’s coffee customers) liked things just the way they were and didn’t want expressos, lattes, syrups, or much of anything else except good old regular joe. Starbucks dealt with the same issue years ago when it launched the Pike Place (which you and your friends call Pikes Peak) line of drinks.
So, McDonald’s undertook a careful plan (probably close to two years in the overall implementation and completely under the radar) to slowly and consistently – month in and month out – increase the strength of its basic coffee without saying a word to anyone. Today, if you look at the menus, everything, including regular old coffee, is part of the McCafé family.
What’s the lesson: it’s easy by the inch, but hard by the yard. Sometimes slow is the way to go, with small and sure incremental steps, and you’ll still get there. Maybe a little later than you’d like, but with a whole lot less wear-and-tear and a lot happier and larger overall base of customers.