Time Travellers

Watch out, if more and more of your customers are living in the past.

I recently moved to the country. Well, I do at least spend more time there, though my personal mentoring clients don’t, so I lead a rather nomadic life at times, but when I’m at home I live in a lovely village in Sussex. My new home still has shops that have half-day closing on Wednesdays and the new supermarket closes on Sundays too. The short high street has a variety of individual shops and less big brand name retailers than I’m used to. I can’t buy everything I need here but it is very nice somehow: I think it reminds me of what shopping was like as a child. To some extent I’m now living in the past: history is always alive and well, somewhere.

The sorts of shops that can prosper in the village I now live in are different to those from whence I so recently came. They serve a different market and thankfully Tesco has yet to diversify into village post offices, though I fear one day it might. Market segmentation is a key ingredient of any marketing strategy and I have been struck recently by how “modernity” is shaping and prioritising segments for some pretty big organisations somewhat outside of their control. Social changes are growing some and shrinking others and that is interesting because how an organisation responds to emergent trends always dictates how long it will survive. More developed and prosperous societies in particular have undergone some pretty significant changes; what was once considered normal, like smoking in pubs, or closing on the Sabbath, may seem a little odd today.

The segmentation that I find most interesting at the moment is what I like to call developmental, or “time travel”. To many of my readers living in more developed, or “up-to-date”, countries the idea of smoking seems pretty barmy these days. In response “Big Tobacco” is investing heavily in electronic cigarette substitutes, in a rather belated effort to preserve market share and revenues in these markets. Meanwhile, it relies heavily on less developed markets, those living further back in the past, if you accept my rather romantic temporal notion. Third world countries are the main markets for traditional tobacco products these days. My readers in these countries may recognise the aspirational pull of the “fag” even through the pall of carcinogenic smoke hanging in the air.

Big Tobacco has begun to redefine its more mature markets and its businesses there by effectively selling electronic nicotine dispensers rather than traditional cigarettes. Leaders in these businesses have reacted to a difficult reality about its products and have begun to diversify to meet today’s demand for less harmful addiction, but with perhaps a little more social impact and caché than wearing a nicotine patch.

Another organisation facing a similar challenge is the Catholic Church, whose current leader has just thrown in the towel in the face of old age and a pretty daunting leadership challenge; to my mind on a par with selling a fridge to an Eskimo, or cigarettes to the educated. Again, it is Third World, traditional, demand that is sustaining this philosophical and social institution; in the developed world its teaching and behaviour looks nearly as ludicrous these days as the idea of rolling-up some dried leaves, setting fire to them and inhaling the smoke did to Bob Newhart. Employee celibacy, a contraception ban, and the appalling child abuse that has gone on over the years, are no longer attractive attributes in many more developed societies: isn’t it about time the Church did something about it?

Whilst you might be able to “flog” traditional cigarettes, and uphold a ban on abortions, in Manila, it doesn’t work in more developed societies any more. The Catholic Church is facing a watershed leadership moment and more pressure to change than it has probably ever had in its history, so it now needs a leader to reposition it in the 21st Century; a big challenge because it is currently stuck in the 17th Century. If it doesn’t change soon it will just end up being so far out of touch with the modern world that it will become even more dependent on the past for its customers: a quaint anachronism whose developmental history stopped so long ago that no one can remember when it was. (So, to my mind at least, appointing a Third World Pope won’t help much; or an old one, or a man, for that matter, but at least one of those ideas is just impossible to imagine, the other is probably sacrilegious.)

The Catholic Church has the legacy, scale, and cultural inertia to give it a fair chance of adapting, no matter how long it remains a temporal anomaly in more developed societies; Big Tobacco are nearly in the same category too, so they are both likely to survive in some form. However, mere mortal businesses need to react much more quickly, to this sort of incremental but profound social and cultural change that has such a big impact on valuable market segments, if they want to continue to serve the modern world.

Watch out if your products or services are no longer in tune with the zeitgeist and more and more of your business has to rely on segments who value what might now be considered to be somewhat out of date ideas and beliefs.


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