There may be no more important quality for business leaders to possess than embracing an era’s zeitgeist––literally, the “spirit of our time.” Wikipedia describes zeitgeist as the dominant set of ideals and beliefs that motivate the actions of the members of a society in a particular period in time. For business leaders, it means keeping our finger on the pulse of ideas and technology that drive industry and economy. My suggestion here is that even the zeitgeist of corporate culture is an important tool to use. Understand it, feel it, listen to it.
I also think we have to be present enough as business leaders to carefully scrutinize models that, although in the “spirit of our time,“ might not work out. Even though these ideas are sexy and create a great buzz, the economic model isn’t right.
For instance, today I was told that my business advice (as an advisor in a large Fortune 200 company) was dated. Why? Because I said it didn‘t make sense to me to invest in a model of business that has no path to making money. Guess I am out of sync with the zeitgeist of the business world, or at least the current tech industry.
Just to provide another perspective (without breaking any confidentiality) let’s look specifically at Blue Apron. I love the business model of enabling people to prepare gourmet meals without the store experience, just assembly and cooking. The zeitgeist of nutritious meals for a family of 4, delivered to my home is extremely exciting. But when you pull back the kimono a little bit you find that in 2016, Blue Apron spent $178M on marketing to add just 387,000 customers. That equals a customer acquisition cost of $460. Oh my! I would need additional data on customer stickiness to say for sure, but no company that I know of has succeeded with that type of customer acquisition cost.
The classic “unicorn” example of this was Theranos, who told us with a drop of blood they could diagnose ailments while you waited in a Walgreens. They got a valuation at one time of $9 billion dollars. But at the same time every doctor I talked to was questioning the technology. Then suddenly, there’s a front-page blockbuster that casts serious doubt on the efficacy and accuracy of Theranos diagnostics, and the whole thing falls apart. It turns out that the virtues of honesty and transparency where not ones that this company exhibited. But the zeitgeist of wanting to believe it could be true is alive and well. The Theranos investors and board of directors was a who’s who of experts. This was clearly an example of the zeitgeist getting out of sync with reality.
On the opposite side of this coin is Amazon, and we could probably say the same about the expense of its model. But look at the success of Jeff Bezos. In fact, there are many other business models that have recently popped up that are on a path to success––but they have a value proposition that consumers and businesses were willing to pay more for. So I am struggling with what I believe may be a business era of pure hype. The current zeitgeist of business, lead by the tech sector and Silicon Valley, might be “fake it till you make it.”
Which brings me to an offset to the zeitgeist of “fake it till you make it,” and that is the famously iconic and disruptive company, Uber. The zeitgeist of today, the same zeitgeist that supports the “fake it till you make it,” would not let Uber’s co-founder and CEO, Travis Kalanick, get away with any bad behavior. Yep! The zeitgeist had a moral consciousness that overcame the commercial success, and ultimately made him step down as CEO.
As business leaders (trying to find the next opportunity while also pleasing investors and shareholders) it is so easy to get out of sync with society as a whole. This happened to me many years ago, and it is still with me today.
I will never forget working for a particular CMO in a large public company, selling a wide range of common consumer products. The CMO told his marketing team to read The Enquirer and Star Magazine everyday because if they didn’t then they were not in touch with their consumers. In another meeting, he asked how many people in the room reviewed all of the coupons in the Sunday paper inserts?
Needless to say, from that day forward I have glanced at Star Magazine and The Enquirer (yes, they are still alive and well in the “impulse” section of your neighborhood retailer.) But I confess I haven’t read a physical Sunday paper in years. Can’t imagine why I should when news is so plentiful online. Maybe I have fallen down on that one just a bit, but I mean it as an example of how marketers need to be in sync with what’s going on with their consumer base.
One of my friends, who has run several presidential campaigns, uses the 80% rule––which means if 80% of the members of society agree on the issue, go with it, hands down. Every time! Sometimes the issue is not really big or that relevant, it’s just an issue to get momentum. This is understanding zeitgeist and using it to your advantage.
Use Zeitgeist As Your Ally
In my experience, from watching my father support his family as a fisherman, to my first entrepreneurial enterprises, to crisis management and helping companies in need of a turnaround, to supporting cause-based movements like organic and natural foods, understanding the zeitgeist has always been at the forefront of any business leader’s successful approach. Ignoring it means the demise of the business (which I have had quite a few of these myself!) So embracing the “spirit of our time” has always required balancing the best business practices of the day, with the ageless business skills of communication, honesty, transparency, and a willingness to take risk. These virtues always rolled up to a business model that’s made economic sense. In other words, the value created always exceeded the cost to create the value, no matter what. For a business to stay around, it had to have a profitable business model. Is it possible that this may have changed? I don’t see how it could. Profitability is still the gasoline that makes the engine go.
So the theme here is: use the ideas of zeitgeist, the “spirit of our time,” as your ally as a business leader. Be conscious of it and make sure you are in sync and if you are not, be very specific on the facts of why you aren’t. Trust that over time the zeitgeist will balance out as it has in all the 1000s of years that human beings have been around trading thoughts, cells, air and developing a social consciousnesses––even while it sometimes creates subsets like the techie “fake it till you make it.”
Onward and upward—
On a personal note, this is the last post in my A-Z of Business blog series. It has been a blast to write these and I want to thank everyone that has helped me with it: Colleagues and friends, my lovely wife and my family. Most importantly, I want to thank anyone who read it and gave me feedback. The net is that I will be back with another series starting soon. I hope you will find it interesting, inspiring and exciting. I also hope you will always remember how incredible and extraordinary you truly are! Thank You again! Anthony