Why revolutionaries are the mother of evolution

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Brands can learn a lesson from the ’punctuated equilibrium’ academic theory that argues revolution is necessary.

The phrase planners probably hear most often is: “We’re looking for evolution, not revolution.” But the more I understand about the way the world works, the more I realise that you can’t have evolution without the occasional revolution.

The other day I was talking to a creative director, who had just come across the work of the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould. He explained to me that Gould had thought long and hard about the mechanism of evolution and, as a result, the professor had come up with a concept that he called “punctuated equilibrium”.

We naturally think of evolution as a painfully gradual process, a little like the movement of the minute hand during a monthly client status meeting. Slight variations in different generations of a species or product are marginally more fitted to the prevailing environment. As a result, the characteristics of species imperceptibly change over time.

Gould questioned this view, suggesting that there are points in time when evolution makes a leap, usually as a response to cataclysmic environmental changes or accelerated variation in a species caused by disease or interbreeding. These leaps “punctuate” the equilibrium of steady-state evolution. They are, in effect, the revolutions that help make evolution happen.

I was mulling this over when a client suggested that I should look into the history of Listerine mouthwash. Perhaps she was saying something about my breath. Anyway, that evening I did a quick search on Wikipedia and discovered a story that would make the late Professor Gould punch the air with joy.

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It seems that (and I insert the word “allegedly” for purely legal reasons) Listerine was invented at the end of the 19th century as a clinical antiseptic and was used to clean the floors of operating theatres. But at the end of World War One, US doctors found that it was also an effective treatment for a disease that afflicted all too many returning soldiers, namely gonorrhoea. Apparently, the patient was instructed to apply the liquid liberally to the affected area. Which must have brought a tear to the eye.

Some time in the Twenties, Listerine made the revolutionary leap from the gentleman’s area to the mouth. As an example of punctuated equilibrium, this must surely be up there with the development of opposable thumbs, or the taming of fire. A decade later, Listerine made the leap from the mouth to the hair, as a cure for dandruff. This, however, proved to be an evolutionary dead-end.

It’s a funny story, but it illustrates an important point. Today, Listerine is a venerable brand, rooted in tradition and presumably the result of years of gradual evolution. But in reality Listerine is as much the product of revolution as it is of evolution.

Another good example, albeit in a rather different category, is the Porsche 911. This car is often derided by people who should know better for its boringly gradual, evolutionary approach to design. However, its evolution from fast-back Beetle to today’s supercar has been punctuated by more than a few revolutions, from turbo-charging to four-wheel drive and even – horror of horrors for 911 purists – a water-cooled engine.

Staying with the automotive theme, I have recently finished reading Sixty to Zero: An Inside Look at the Collapse of General Motors and the Detroit Auto Industry by Fortune magazine editor Alex Taylor. Never have I come across a book that better illustrates what happens when you attempt to do evolution without the occasional revolution along the way.

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Much of the story is the familiar one of an ossified management culture and a failure to keep close to customers. GM was founded by a visionary genius who pioneered the principle of building a brand portfolio to serve a carefully segmented market. However, subsequent generations of management failed to prune the portfolio as the market changed, which resulted in an embarrassing mass cull of GM’s brands in the last decade.

Just as revealing is the number of times that GM’s leadership saw the need for a revolution, only to have their best intentions overcome by inherent conservatism. For example, after adopting flexible manufacturing in the Eighties the company failed to exploit this bold move because of its commitment to the practice of “one plant, one model”.

Another brave new dawn was promised by the experiment of subsidiary brand Saturn, a “different kind of car company” designed to go toe-to-toe with the Japanese in the US market. Yet once again, this was a turning point at which history resolutely failed to turn.

Saturn certainly looked the part. Based in rural Tennessee rather than decaying Detroit, it boasted excellent labour relations, a cute advertising campaign by the wonderful Hal Riney and an excellent CRM programme, which I remember ripping-off for another car brand.

However, the cars lacked the build quality of their Japanese rivals, they weren’t priced especially keenly and, worst of all, their design and engineering didn’t live up to the revolutionary claims made by the brand. They were merely warmed-over versions of other GM products, or cast-offs from Opel, GM’s European subsidiary.

As Professor Gould wrote: “Don’t be tempted to equate transient domination with either intrinsic superiority or prospects for extended survival.” In the case of GM, I couldn’t have put it better myself.

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