Monday, January 6, 2014

This is One Way to be Brave

A friend who is reviewing my book proposal read one of my chapters and it made him think of this classic Monty Python skit.

I suppose this is one way to be brave, although I don't advocate physical violence.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Vita-mix's Identity Leads to a Brave Future

Today I talk about a brand that I have some recent personal experience with - Vita-mix.  This experience started after my wife brought home a blender that I later found out cost hundreds of dollars (the Montel Williams version).  I'll admit I wasn't aware of Vita-mix prior to that and since that time it seems the buzz has only grown louder among our friends and acquaintances.

While the technology behind the blender are impressive (blades spinning at 240mph and the conical shape of the container that creates a vortex that emulsifies food), it was another innovation started by its founder, William Grover "Papa" Barnard, that impacts how we buy and sell today.  According to a recent BusinessWeek article,
"It took some fast talking to convince customers that turning solid foods into liquids was a good idea. But Barnard was a skilled salesman and found that people were more likely to buy his blender if they could see it demonstrated. So one evening in 1949, he donned a pinstriped, double-breasted suit and headed to the downtown Cleveland studios of WEWS, where he showed off the “home miracles of the Vita-Mix machine” on live television in what became the first infomercial."
Barnard must have been brave at the time to sell the way he did.  No one had ever bought significant air time with a specific pitch to sell a product and many of the aspects of his pitch can be found in infomercials today.

The most impressive thing about Vitamix is how it stuck to an identity over decades, when growth was stagnant, when only hippies were its customers (Ads from this period suggest its blenders were marketed mainly in fringe publications to mystical, earth-worshiping hippies.), when people had never heard of blenders or turning solid food into liquids.  They could have been impatient, and if they were chasing fast growth or being driven by shareholder interests they might have.  Instead they stuck with who they are...
“We never gave up,” Berg says. “We were doing research, publications, explaining how a high-performance blender can improve your health. The Internet had a big impact. We, as an organization, have stayed with our same vision, but all these different trends have made it easier for people to realize how big an impact a Vitamix can have.”
It wasn't without a moment of weakness that led Vita-mix to experiment with products that, while still serving is primary purpose of healthy lifestyles, were outside the primary thrust of the product categories they were known for.
"The decades of focusing on health, even as most Americans were not, produced some lean years and curious choices. During the ’70s and ’80s, Vitamix experimented with selling exercise bikes, trampolines, and juicers."
But at the end they are still the company that Barnard founded.  Jodi Berg, Barnard's great granddaughter, runs the company as CEO today.  Each of the five company CEOs including Berg and Barnard were family members and it is still family owned today.  Jodi sums up this unwavering identity best in this quote from the magazine,
“As you can imagine, we endured decades of the whole world going through phases of convenience, fast food, pieces and parts, extract the nutrients and give it to me in a pill, stick it in my cereal, the Atkins diet, and all the rest. But we never lost sight of that vision of helping people eat healthier.”
So why is knowing who you are as an organization and staying true to that identity so important in a business context, and more importantly in the context of being brave?  Because being brave starts with having a clear and concise idea of the organizational identity that answers questions such as; what markets do we serve, who are our customers, how do we compete best for those customers, what kind of skills and people are necessary to accomplish our goals, what is our financial philosophy, and what work environment allows our people to be their best?  Vita-mix can answer these questions clearly and it shows.

To learn more about their full company history, visit the Vita-mix company history page.