The challenges of a leader


Post-colonial democracies in Africa have followed a similar pattern: the liberation movement ushers in independence, democracy or both. It then enjoys a golden age for a decade or two before things turn sour. Despite what fans say, no party will govern until Jesus comes back — unless he comes back fairly regularly or citizens have no say in the matter.

Ruling parties just don’t stay at the top of their game forever.

Steps To Goal Target by Master isolated images courtesy of

Some ruling parties come to undermine and subvert the democratic institutions they had helped to build in order to hang on to power, while others accept electoral defeat. How these ruling parties respond to their decline is one of the most important tests for a new democracy, and some political theorists believe you can’t consider democracy entrenched until there have been at least two peaceful, elected changes in the party that governs.

Leading private-sector brands are put to the same test: do they respond to declining relevance by reinventing themselves or do they fail?

According to KPMG, the average amount of time that a company spent in the S&P 500 in 1937 was 75 years. Today, it’s less than 15 years. The biggest, most successful companies and brands in the world today usually last less than 15 years at the top of their game before they are subsumed by a young upstart challenger, or simply forgotten by consumers whose tastes have moved on.

The burdens of incumbency

There are many reasons that leading brands lose their shine.

The first is that they can become complacent. They don’t have to work quite as hard as they did when they were fighting to get to the top. There is a certain ease that comes with having a strong brand. It buys you loyalty and time. Like party faithfuls in the early days of poor service delivery, customers will forgive certain things from brands that they love.

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And if those brands come to take that support for granted, they take the foot off the gas, their culture shifts and they will even start to attract employees who are more interested in job security than innovation and disruptive ideas — the cadres of the brand world.

Market leaders become invested in the status quo in a market that is always changing — they have built an empire with their existing products, services, processes and brands, and that makes them more cautious of experimentation and change and risk. They become stale; they become insular. They think they have all the answers already.

Then the market changes and, by the time the incumbent notices, they are already irrelevant.

So what is to be done? Here, as always, there are a few lessons from the political world.

Rediscover your purpose

What evil are you liberating your customers from? The enduring brand power and citizen loyalty that liberation movements enjoy are a result of the grand battle they won for those citizens. They were the victors in a grand crusade against colonialism and oppression. It is rousing, life-and-death stuff. Citizens feel deep gratitude and emotional attachment because the purpose of those movements was so inspiring.

Those movements lose their way when their purpose is no longer so clear. Private-sector brands are no different: they only really matter to consumers when their purpose is meaningful and inspiring.

Don’t obsess over sales and profits — think about what kind of ding you want to make in the universe. It certainly seemed to work for Apple.

Disrupt yourself

Challenger brands are ungovernable. They disrupt the conventions that don’t work for them.

The EFF, for example, has completely changed the behaviour of Parliament — challenging the Speaker, ignoring requests to withdraw comments, chanting and wearing bright red overalls. It has worked to position the ANC as reactionary, conservative and oppressive.

Leading brands can stay relevant by disrupting themselves and always questioning whether their own conventions and practices actually serve the customer.

Virgin Active, for example, has stayed ahead of outdoor challengers such as CrossFit and British Military Fitness by taking itself outside, launching The Grid, outdoor classes and offering bicycles for use outside of their clubs.

Avoid the yes-men

The ANC is in trouble because it has a president who has surrounded himself with people who are too scared or unwilling to disagree with him. They protect him, rather than confronting the cold, hard truth, and it results in a growing disconnect between citizens and the party.

Big brands should avoid making the same mistake. Listen when market research tells you there’s something wrong, even if sales are still healthy. Listen to employees who have ideas for doing things differently.

And listen to people hating on your brand on social media — it’s a valuable source of ideas about things to change to stay relevant and useful to the customer.

Stay young

If the revolutionaries in your business age and their stories remain the only stories worth telling, you’re in trouble. Markets change, the goalposts of what’s culturally relevant keep shifting, and customers want to know what you’ve done for them lately.

Staying in touch with the zeitgeist is important not only for your advertising, but for your products and services, too.

You can see the big brands that have done this well — Nedbank, FNB and Allan Gray have all introduced youthfulness to their messaging and platforms, making their traditional, old-fashioned and complicated categories relevant to a new generation of consumers. Others that have remained proudly old-fashioned are struggling to survive.

The trick

Brands rise and fall faster than ever before. Consumer tastes move on, competition heats up and innovation comes from everywhere. When you’re at the height of your powers and a strong market leader, it can be difficult to appreciate how precarious that position really is.

The trick is to act like a challenger brand even when you aren’t one — to commit to a new liberation struggle for your customers and for the generations of new customers who are yet to come. Build a collaborative movement with them. And then keep fighting the good fight.


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