Toys “R” Us. Radio Shack. Blockbuster. At the time they launched, each of these iconic brands brought change to their space. So, what happened? The world continued to change, but they stopped. Eventually, the brands that once seemed so durable became unsustainable and replaceable.
I lead Team One’s The Legacy Lab, and in our research into the future of brands and business, we have surfaced an uncomfortable truth about the declining lifespan of businesses today. The average tenure of an S&P 500 company in the 1970s was nearly 30 years. In the 2020s, it is forecasted to shrink to around 15 years. This struggle for long-term survival suggests that even today’s strongest brands and businesses will face an accelerating relevance crisis over the next several years due to the rapid pace of social change and technological advancements.
To ensure the ongoing relevance and resilience of your brand in today’s world, it’s crucial to adopt a proactive approach. Our research reveals a paradoxical solution to this quandary: While many businesses focus on immediate demands in order to survive, the key to unlocking sustainable growth lies in looking beyond present-day problems, to future challenges. Although this advice may seem counterintuitive, today’s strongest brands owe their success to long-term thinking that inspires perpetual evolution. To illustrate this point of view, we compiled five lessons from brands that are creating greater value than their near-sighted competitors:
LESSON 1: MAKE THE PROFESSIONAL PERSONAL
In 2010, Helen Lo, then a 65-year-old retiree, was an experienced traveler growing frustrated by the airlines’ baggage limits: a suitcase plus a single carry-on item. While most carry-ons were created to fit into traditional cabin spaces, Lo needed an option that better fit her life, with room for more travel essentials, improved mobility, a sense of style, and made with sustainable materials. Lo and her two sons, Jan and Derek, looked for an existing solution. When they couldn’t find one, they launched a new brand to fill the market gap.
Lo & Sons emerged as a modern brand that prioritizes travelers’ needs—functional and emotional. Their bags are designed thoughtfully and sustainably: fashionable, versatile (often expandable), comfortable, durable, and made from environmentally responsible materials, such as recycled poly from water bottles and lightweight organic canvas. When air travel declined during the pandemic, Lo & Sons continued to sell well because their products’ practicality resonated with those staying closer to home, including weekenders and day-trippers. Even hospital healthcare workers found comfort and utility in the designs.
As a forward-thinking brand, Lo & Sons remains forever driven by customer empathy. “[Without] empathy you cannot understand how the users will feel with the product,” Lo says. Unlike traditional luggage brands that focus on meeting airlines’ strict rules, Lo & Sons envisions itself as a people-focused brand that adapts to its customers’ ever-changing needs and aspirations.
LESSON 2: STAY TRUE TO YOUR VOICE
In 1982, Amy Kurland experimented with a new idea: converting The Bluebird Cafe, her restaurant and bar, into a space where her Nashville songwriter friends could play. Initially, the performances were the sideshow. But then something magical happened: More songwriters asked to perform, and more paying customers wanted to see those shows. In response, Kurland reimagined The Bluebird as a listening room where the songwriters moved from the sideshow to the main stage. When she retired years later, Kurland entrusted The Bluebird to the Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI), ensuring that it would maintain its place in Nashville’s music scene as a sacred space for songwriters.
Kurland’s unwavering focus on songwriters allowed The Bluebird to make decisive brand decisions. As Erika Wollam Nichols, The Bluebird’s current president and general manager, said, “The heart of The Bluebird Cafe is the songwriters. Listening to the writers stands behind every decision that we make.” This deep commitment to songwriters gave The Bluebird the confidence to say yes to being featured in the TV show Nashville—growing a connection with a new generation of music fans while enhancing pride in the songwriter community. And it’s why The Bluebird said no to licensing its name at airports and cruise lines, where the writers’ voices risked being drowned out.
LESSON 3: CULTIVATE A HIVE MENTALITY
In 2009, a young Austin, Texas-based entrepreneur named Mikaila Ulmer introduced a unique lemonade brand. Differentiating her beverage in a crowded market, Ulmer sweetened her lemonade with honey. Why? As a child, after she was stung by bees, her parents encouraged her to learn about the vital role bees play in our food chain. This discovery inspired her to become a champion for bees and healthier habitats.
Ulmer’s honey-sweetened lemonade generated buzz (sorry, had to do it) when she received an investment from Daymond John on Shark Tank. This propelled her brand to new heights. Major news outlets, national retailers like Whole Foods Market, and even Barack and Michelle Obama joined her cause.
Throughout her journey, bees taught Ulmer about the value of collaboration in business. When faced with a trademark infringement lawsuit by a similarly named lemonade brand, she relied on her hive of “bee-lievers.” Together, they rebranded as Me & the Bees, enabling her to keep raising funds and rallying others to support the cause. “There’s always going to be a point where you need some help,” Ulmer says. “And whoever you are, you have [to have] a hive.”
LESSON 4: CREATE A NEW GENRE
In 1958, Alvin Ailey challenged the prevailing notion that dance was an elitist art form. Amid the social and cultural upheaval of America’s civil rights movement, he established the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater—a groundbreaking dance company that defied genre conventions. Initially composed entirely of Black dancers, it served as a refuge for those facing discrimination. As it evolved, the company continued to manifest Ailey’s firm belief that any form of discrimination is unacceptable and that every talent deserves an opportunity to be exceptional.
As the company grew, it expanded its scope to encompass a comprehensive range of training and arts in education programs, such as The Ailey School for students aspiring to a professional dance career, and AileyCamp to help inner-city students reach their potential. Collectively, these initiatives made dance more accessible to individuals of all ages and skill levels, including those from underserved communities.
Today, the brand continues to shine brightly. Under artistic director Robert Battle’s guidance, the steadfast emphasis on the mission to bring people together remains. The company’s permanent space in New York City is a hub for instruction and outreach, as well as for nurturing connections and providing dance opportunities and inspiration for individuals from diverse backgrounds. When many other performance groups had to suspend their operations during COVID-19, the company remained active by launching Ailey All Access—an online series featuring free weekly performance broadcasts, Ailey dancer-curated content, and a variety of Ailey Extension dance classes. It became an opportunity to share the Ailey worldview with a wider, geographically dispersed audience.
Alvin Ailey was a pioneer of modern dance and a true reformer; his work brings egalitarianism and inclusivity to a genre that long resisted meaningful change.
LESSON 5: BUILD SUSTAINABLE BRANDS, NOT JUST PRODUCTS
In 1974, Bob Taylor and Kurt Listug founded Taylor Guitars to revolutionize the guitar-playing experience. Prior to launching his eponymous brand, Bob gained recognition in the guitar world while working at a guitar shop. He repaired the neck on a friend’s old instrument in a completely new way: He sawed through the fretboard, popped off the end of the fretboard where it had been glued onto the body, fixed the problem area to improve the playability, and securely bolted the neck back onto the body.
Bob’s repair technique deviated from standard practice. While others unglued and reglued the neck on acoustic guitars, he instead cut and bolted it back on for greater accuracy—because he believed that playability and progress were higher priorities. Several years later, Bob and Kurt brought Andy Powers on board as Taylor Guitars’ master builder. Andy was not expected to conform to any existing industry practice, but to embody the brand’s commitment to enhancing the player experience. In turn, Andy fundamentally changed the internal architecture of acoustic guitars, introducing V-class bracing (V-shaped reinforcements) in place of the more-than-century-old X-shape. This gives the instrument greater dynamic range, affecting how loud each musical note is, how long each note lasts, even how accurate each note sounds.
As Bob and Kurt considered their brand’s future, they saw how even highly respected instrument manufacturers seemed to sacrifice values for short-term gains by selling off their companies to the highest bidder. These companies ignored their products’ long-term reputation by adopting cheaper materials and undervaluing decades-old relationships in the name of profits. Recognizing the restricted options for enduring companies, Kurt remarked, “Your choices are pretty limited if you want your company to continue. It’s going to be your family . . . a competitor, or . . . a financial firm.” He added, “There isn’t any company or financial firm that would retain the values that we have [at Taylor].” To avoid passing their brand to a new owner who would dismantle their long-term vision, Bob and Kurt promoted Andy to the position of president and CEO and entrusted the company to their employees—owners who share their founders’ view of sustaining the brand culture around building the world’s best-playing guitars.
The power of long-term thinking to make your brand more enduringly successful
The business world is uncertain. Change is inevitable. Yet many brands and their leaders are unprepared for it. Our research shows that, now more than ever, businesses are prioritizing short-term results over their original purpose and long-term vision. I mentioned Toys “R” Us, Blockbuster, and Radio Shack, but those are just a few examples of brands that lost their way by sacrificing their vision and values for immediate profits. We only need to look to the gambler archetype, desperately trying to recoup his losses by throwing good money after bad, to see that short-term “bet the farm” strategies can be perilous.
The paradox of doing business in a short-term world is that having a powerful, long-term vision is the best way to ensure your brand is relevant every day. Brands that remain successful over time teach us that by focusing on the horizon, we can navigate through storms and squalls, adjusting our course as needed without altering the destination. In a world of constant change, don’t leave your brand’s longevity to chance. Instead, design durability into its core. The further you can envision, the further you will go.
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