The art of changing nothing

The most difficult (and often effective) strategy for any company to master is this: changing nothing.

We all suffer from an almost irresistible urge to tinker. To be active. To keep things fresh and interesting. Not to stand still. We’re told constantly that innovation is the lifeblood of a business.  So its understandable that, if you’re running one, you would want to shake things up now and again.

However customers see things precisely the opposite way.

If you love a product or service, your one wish for it is to never change. It represents a tiny portion of your life, one which – now that it’s settled – you’re grateful to never have to think about ever again. It is this inertia, this satisfaction with something as it is, that is the great driver of loyalty. This little piece of my life is now sorted, and I’m happy to cruise along with it indefinitely forever more.

Tinkering jeopardises that. It wakes customers up, and invites them to question their relationship with the company. Is this what I really want?

The textbook example of this error was the disastrous launch of New Coke – a Coca-Cola recipe change in 1985 that was so damaging that it was reversed in the space of three months. Far from being an aberration however, New Coke represents the tip of a very deep iceberg that spans all industries and businesses.

We kid ourselves into thinking that we do this stuff for our customers, but really we do it for ourselves. We live and breathe this business every day of our lives, so of course get bored of it. But customers never get bored. They value consistency and comfort above all else.

One of the most publicly visible examples of this pointless tinkering is branding. It’s quite typical for normal companies to update this stuff every 3 or 4 years – generally because a new marketing director has arrived who want to “put their stamp” on things.

But what is the one attribute shared by all the world’s most beloved and iconic brands? Consistency. Rabid, relentless, consistency. Have the public become bored with “Just do it”? Or “Red Bull gives you wings”? Or even “Have a break, have a Kit-Kat”? I have no doubt that all these companies have had to resist their fair share of smart-ass executives and agencies who thought it was time to “freshen things up”. But it would make about as much sense as freshening up Christmas. It is the unchanging nature of these things that makes them work, not their novelty.

I only use branding because it’s an obvious example, but the principle applies equally to all public facing parts of the business. Recently Nandos – the gloriously consistent casual dining establishment – decided to remove sweet potato wedges from their menu. Their reasoning? “We are always looking for ways to give our menu a refresh and keep things interesting”. Interesting for who exactly? Not these people:

But of course, the business employs many people in an innovation capacity, so if you’re paying for them you’ve got to use them I suppose.

Now of course, if a business has problems, then it may well need to change things in order to stop the rot. That’s reasonable. But in general never underestimate the virtue of consistency, and the value of inertia. Because it takes years to build. But only a moment to throw away.

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