Vinyl records. Audiotapes. Typewriters. Carbon paper. That white stuff that Mike Nesmith’s mom invented that we used to use to correct typing errors. Rotary phones. The Post Office (well, not yet). Look back over the past 10, 20 or 50 years, and you’ll find countless examples of products and services that simply no longer exist — or that have morphed into something else. Products and services that, for whatever reasons, have become obsolete.

We tend to think primarily of obsolescence being driven by technology, and that certainly is common these days. But obsolescence can occur due to non-technology-related impacts as well. Examples are changing fashion trends and changing tastes in food, music, movies or literature.

Whether your company is based on, or dependent on, technology, you are at risk to become obsolete. The concept of evolution — “adapt, migrate, mutate or die” — applies as much to marketing as it does to biology. Could your product or service become the victim of some kind of market disruption? Absolutely. More importantly, though, what can you do to become one of those companies that stand the test of time?

The ability to not only respond to a changing environment and changing consumer expectations but also anticipate those changes is critical. Market shifts are constantly occurring due to new advancements, new alternatives or changing consumer demands. Sometimes the shifts occur slowly — sometimes rapidly. But some companies are able to successfully ride the waves of change. Some of those companies are right here in the Chippewa Valley, as this issue illustrates.

How do they do it? There are, undoubtedly, a number of factors that contribute to their success and ability to remain relevant in a changing market landscape. And while we don’t claim to have any inside insights into their success, or the success of the Chippewa Valley businesses that have reached the 100-year mark, some important marketing factors are undeniable when we consider the differences between the companies that last and the companies that don’t.

Companies that last tend to adhere to the following rules:

They don’t become complacent, or rest on their laurels. They don’t just kick back and think that they’re guaranteed the continued good will and business of the customers they serve.

They listen to the market.

They are more likely to accept, rather than reject, signs that their products and services may be losing value in the eyes of their consumers.

They mine, and mind, the data!

How often do you give any consideration to the tenure of your own product or service? Are you aware of emerging or existing innovations that may make your company, or its products and services, obsolete? There are two key ways that you can prevent your product or service from becoming an anachronism:

Paying attention — continually monitoring the external environment and listening to your customers, your competitors and your community.

Refusing to “believe your own press.” How many organizations go out of business simply because the leaders behind them refused to believe that their product or service could ever possibly be replaced? Too many.

We obviously can’t accurately predict the future. But, what we can and should be doing is continually evaluating the variety of impacts that affect us by staying aware and current.

Why is it that companies like DuPont (1802), Wiley (1806 — yes, the publisher!) and Colgate (1807) still exist after two centuries in business, while others like Woolworths (1879) and Compaq (1982) are long gone? There are still stores. There are still computer companies. But there is obviously something different about the companies like Saks Fifth Avenue (1867) and IBM (1911) that still exist despite weathering environmental changes and fluctuating economic conditions.

The difference is that they’re paying attention. They’re refusing to become complacent. They’re refusing to believe that nobody could ever possibly replace or improve what they have to offer.

They’re refusing to hold fast to the old way and, instead, are embracing new challenges and new opportunities that could potentially launch their company into another century.

No, it’s not easy, but it’s certainly worth the effort. The start of a new year is not a bad time to give some consideration to what you could or should be doing to ensure that you have the right listening posts in place to hear, and respond to, early warning signs that you might become a victim of disruptive innovation.

And, conversely, it’s not a bad time to think about ways that you might drive disruptive innovation in your industry.

Linda Pophal of Chippewa Falls is a marketing communication consultant, business journalist and the owner of Strategic Communications in Chippewa Falls. She is also the author of “The Everything Guide to Customer Engagement.” Contact her at linda@stratcommunications.com or 715-723-2395.

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