January 31, 2020
What a 20th century physicist can teach us about modern brand and business-building
We have all heard of that moment in the 16th century when humanity’s understanding of the universe shifted from believing that Earth was the center of all planetary motion (the Ptolemaic model) to realizing instead that the sun is actually the center of the solar system (the Copernican model).
It is easy for us to laugh at the charming naivete of that earlier view given everything we now know. But imagine, if you will, what it must have felt like to be present for that moment of change … that moment when your entire perception of the solar system, of the universe and your place in it – of reality – shifted.
All of your sensory observations and data would be exactly the same as they had been prior to this shift. The planets would still move across the sky exactly as they had before, and those planets would still appear in the exact same relative positions. But you would suddenly be seeing that same reality from a completely different perspective.
That is what Thomas Kuhn – the 20th century physicist, historian and philosopher of science – called a “paradigm shift.”
In his groundbreaking book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” Kuhn introduced the idea of paradigms as a series of broadly accepted ways of thinking about the universe and its data, which repeatedly change in what he called “paradigm shifts,” such as the Copernican revolution we just discussed.
Today, you typically hear the phrase “paradigm shift” used to reference the kind of radical, disruptive change that is causing upheaval in so many of today’s industries and businesses – such as “Uber is a paradigm shift in how we think about taxi services.” Or sometimes you hear paradigm shift used as a stand in for “out of the box” thinking … as in, “Bob, we need a real paradigm shift here …”
But I believe that, properly understood, “paradigm shift” is an idea of such import that it is one of the keys to modern business – and even personal – success … but not for the reasons most people think.
The real power of Kuhn’s concept of a paradigm shift is that it represents a radical shift in perspective.
The real power behind Kuhn’s idea of a paradigm shift is not just that it represents a radical change from the status quo or some completely new, disruptive idea. The real power of Kuhn’s concept of a paradigm shift is that it represents a radical shift in perspective – a radical shift in the way we see the world – and that each shift can, and inevitably will, be replaced by yet another one.
Kuhn establishes the idea that what we once understood as objectively true in the world of science – the most objective of all fields of study – may in fact simply be a subjective construct that we imposed on our observations … a “lens,” if you will, through which we see the world; and that perspective can and will and probably should at some point change.
Because as uncomfortable as it may be, what Kuhn’s idea suggests is that none of us has a privileged perspective, and that there inevitably can and will be other equally valid or even superior perspectives that will help us better understand and describe the world around us.
What it also suggests is that maybe rather than thinking of “understanding” as some objective view of reality that we finally arrive at, maybe it is best thought of as the sum total of all of the different perspectives through which the same set of data may be interpreted. Maybe there are helpful aspects of insight inherent in each perspective; and maybe there is simply power in the realization that there are many more possible perspectives than we may be aware of at any given point in time.
This idea leads to some powerful implications – such as the real business reason for a diverse and inclusive work place.
Beyond the obvious moral imperatives of fairness and equality, an organization with an inclusive and diverse work force will inherently possess a more diverse set of viewpoints, perspectives, and ideas – and that organization will inherently be better positioned to identify and make the kinds of paradigm shifts required for sustained success.
An organization with an inclusive and diverse work force will inherently possess a more diverse set of viewpoints, perspectives, and ideas.
When I say inclusive, I mean inclusive in all possible senses. Because I literally experience everyday how powerful and valuable a diverse set of perspectives can be. In my role as CEO of VSA Partners, I am fortunate to have the opportunity to work with some of the world’s leading companies, and in particular, several of the world’s leading technology companies. As you can imagine, these organizations are sitting on tons of data and employ armies of the world’s best and brightest to analyze and interpret it for them. So I believe that the real reason they find value in engaging a company like ours is our ability to help them see that information and their opportunities in fresh, new ways and to help them implement those new paradigms both internally and externally.
Unfortunately, like the rest of our industry and most others, we are nowhere near the end of our journey toward achieving the levels of diversity and inclusion to which we aspire. But we remain committed to continuing to accelerate our progress and steadfast in our belief in the value and importance of our goal.
There is, however, another application of the idea of paradigm shifts that relates to a particular shift going on right now in how modern businesses go to market.
In the rapidly changing environment that we now find ourselves, including the accelerated pace of technological change and the emergence of alternate business models, more and more enterprises are challenged to move beyond traditional business and marketing approaches to instead focus on developing a “total customer experience” — or “CX” as it is known — that differentiates them from competitors.
More and more enterprises are challenged to move beyond traditional business and marketing approaches to instead focus on developing a “total customer experience."
“Customer experience” is an approach to creating business value that is considered by many to be the most powerful driver of new customer acquisition and retention. It is based on discarding many of the traditional approaches to branding and marketing, and replacing them with an unrelenting focus on the entirety of the customer experience and using it to create maximum value for the customer and strategic differentiation from competitors.
An unrelenting focus on the entirety of the customer experience and using it to create maximum value for the customer and strategic differentiation from competitors.
Instead of continually asking, “What else can we sell people?” or “How can we get people to engage with our programs or messages?” businesses are forced to truly put themselves in the customers’ shoes and visualize what would make every aspect of their experience more enjoyable, more valuable and more memorable.
In short, it is a true “paradigm shift” for business leaders, because it requires companies to view a set of data from a completely different perspective. Those leaders need to shift from seeing the world through the lens of their company’s annual plans and quarterly goals to instead seeing it from the perspective of each customer’s mission, in order to create a completely frictionless experience, where nothing hinders their path to a fulfilling and memorable outcome.
The best way for a company to achieve its goals is for it to help real people achieve theirs.
They need to realize that the best way for a company to achieve its goals is for it to help real people achieve theirs. Because when a customer experience is that well designed and managed, people reward that company with their business, their loyalty and their advocacy — because they want to.
As you can imagine, it is an enormous challenge for companies to make this kind of shift in perspective. Even those that can and do then often struggle to act on that information. This is not just because of the complexity of the task.
To actually deliver experiences that are more coherent and compelling for their customers, businesses are forced to confront the unique perspectives or paradigms of a diverse set of internal experts.
To actually deliver experiences that are more coherent and compelling for their customers, businesses are forced to confront the unique perspectives or paradigms of a diverse set of internal experts – from product designers, data analysts, retail merchandisers, and event coordinators to social media managers, package designers, eCommerce experts, and sales teams – each of whom see the world and the data before them from their own unique vantage point.
Think of them as scores of Ptolemys and Copernicuses, each envisioning a different body at the center of the business solar system and each understanding its dynamics through that lens.
As a result, organizations need leaders who are not only able to make the paradigm shift to truly viewing their business through the lens of the customer’s experience. They need leaders who understand the paradigm that each of the diverse set of internal experts brings to optimizing that experience, can identify how each paradigm can enhance the other and can explain those opportunities to each group of experts through the paradigm they understand.
They need leaders who understand the paradigm that each of the diverse set of internal experts brings to optimizing that experience.
As Kuhn so elegantly put it: “… before they can hope to communicate fully, one group or the other must experience the conversion that we have been calling a paradigm shift.”
Making these perspective shifts inevitably require three things:
As Kuhn noted: “Led by a new paradigm, scientists adopt new instruments and look in new places. Even more important, during revolutions scientists see new and different things when looking with familiar instruments in places they have looked before.”
I can think of no better definition of success for the modern enterprise and enlightened individuals.
So the real question is, with a shift in paradigm, what new and different things do you think you will see when you look in the places you’ve looked before?
I wish you all the opportunity to find out.
As chief executive officer, William leads VSA Partners’ vision, strategy, integrated capabilities and delivery of best-in-class branding, marketing, digital and design solutions for some of the world’s most recognized brands. William was previously partner and marketing practice lead at VSA, during which he drove significant growth and led the firm’s expansion into integrated marketing solutions and data analytics to complement its branding and design capabilities. Prior to joining VSA, William was president and chief creative officer of North America for Arc Worldwide, the global marketing company and part of Leo Burnett Worldwide and the Publicis Groupe. Widely recognized as a leader in marketing and brand development, William has been honored more than 300 times with major creative awards around the world, including Lions at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, Effie Awards, and the Oracle World Retail Award; and he served as president of the jury at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. William has published extensively on branding, marketing, data analytics and technology in the Harvard Business Review, Wired and Advertising Age and is co-author of the book "The Activation Imperative", which launched as Amazon’s #1 New Release in Business Marketing.