Believe it or not, many firms actually openly discourage innovation. Brands with long family history, tradition and craftsmanship may resist transforming their processes for marketing products in a digital age. The logic is: “We make the product by hand, so we’re going to market the product by hand.”
Many old-world companies could easily fall into this complacency trap, whether for a product or a service. But many others find a way to balance their need to maintain tradition with the demands of the digital marketplace. They have learned how to keep just the right things the same while adding less dramatic forms of disruption.
A great example of a company that has found this balance is Kirby, the vacuum cleaner company. I recall as a young child the time a door-to-door salesperson came to our house to demonstrate the features of a high-end Kirby vacuum cleaner. The representative dumped dirt and hair on our (shag) carpet, pushed it in deep with his feet, and then showed how the dirt reservoir filled with what he dropped, along with an unimaginable number of other things. Most shocking is that he then asked to go into the bedroom to vacuum the mattress to show us how much grit even the most obsessive-compulsive homeowner would find on the mattress.
Not only did my mother buy a new mattress, but I think she still has her $1,000 Kirby — 50 years later! Yes, this was a month’s salary for many people in the 1970s.
Fast forward to 2019. In a world of huge online retailers selling in a price-sensitive market, how can students of digital transformation ever expect a consumer to have a vacuum, of all things, demonstrated in one’s house for the privilege of paying $1,000? And needless to say, certain door-to-door direct-selling models have fallen victim to home privacy and safety concerns. Can you imagine seeing an uninvited Kirby salesperson with a vacuum demo cart in your Ring video doorbell in 2019?
But can you afford to totally abandon your roots and your unique direct selling proposition? How much change is needed in such a dynamic market to remain the same in the most important ways? For Kirby, it wasn’t eliminating its famous home demos, despite the instantaneous digital retail movement. In fact, maintaining the in-home demo tradition wasn’t really that complicated or disruptive. Kirby needed to transform the word-of-mouth message that convinced my parents to shell out a month’s pay and to make the purchase only after the century-old demo in the house — not by clicking: “Check out now or purchase now.”
So what could be a better channel for this than a social media presence and the ability to tease customers with cleaning-quality videos and enable them to schedule demos online? This is a great example of keeping one foot in the old world and one in the digital world.
Oh, and by the way, Kirby sales continue to be strong, and the company is now part of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway empire!