Ever hear the expression “if you drop a frog in boiling water, it’ll jump out but if you put a frog in water and slowly turn up the heat, it’ll cook itself.”

Personally, I have never tried this experiment but the analogy works for me.  The gist here is will the frog react if change is slow or incremental?  Even in if the environment and the consequences are severe?

Nope.  There it sits until the end.  Can the frog change?  Or is it ‘wired’ to become soup?

What other frogs are sitting in hot water?  Ummm, let’s see.  Where’s my WSJ….GM, Citi, Countrywide, Chrysler, Brunswick, Viacom, Comcast, UAL…plus anybody else that took or wanted TARP money.  My personal guess is that 1 out of every 10 businesses on the Fortune 500 list are in some sort of hot water.

Why?  Greed?  Stupidity?  I wish it were that simple.  To boil it down (no pun intended), it is a mix of hubris and over abundant capital that generated artificial, short term performance that wasn’t possible to sustain.  Sort of reminds me of the dot-com bubble in the sense that start ups were awash with VC cash that was acquired with a pitch, a sense of urgency to exploit a niche, a proof of concept and a 20 page business plan.

Remember the stupidity of the notion that losing a dollar on each transaction today could be fixed by volume?  The model was flawed most of the time because a stupid idea was pushed onto a market that didn’t see a need for it.  Therefore, it was rejected.  Simple supply and demand.  In the end, things corrected themselves.

Today, we have the same problem, only the stakes are much higher.  Should GM fail?  Will it?  Probably not but it will go to the back of the automotive excellence line (somewhere near the Yugo).  Why?  Management doesn’t get it, doesn’t want to get it and doesn’t think the consumer gets it.  They know better.  So the ads we see, touting reinvention, those are because GM needs us to buy their cars, not because they mean or believe in starting over.  Being entrepreneurial, leaner, transparent or nimble just ain’t in their blood people.  Ditto the rest of the companies that are in trouble.  They are there for a reason.  One hundred year old companies that have been the same for 100 years can’t change overnight.  Interestingly, companies like Zappos.com are held up as the shining example of customer centricity.  News flash.  That’s how they were born!  It is engrained in their very fiber of being!  Just as GM can’t change to be Zappo’s, Zappo’s will never be GM.  It’s their culture and organizational structure plain and simple!

My question is what about every other business?  Can they change/evolve?  Can (or will) they become more customer centric in this new economy?  Trust me, we are in a new economy.  Banking has changed (but the bankers are resisting!).  The government owns a big chunk of corporate America’s finance engine and policies are not going to allow to a return of how things were in the good ol’ days (i.e. the last couple of years).

So the ads we see, the social media campaigns we interact with are promises.  Are they empty?  Are the organizations behind the brand paying off these promises?  One to watch is Ford.  Is the Fiesta campaign real change or nothing more than Ford thinking that cool social media programs will eclipse status-quo?  We’ll see.

The problem in my mind is if the American frog boils, this country is cooked.  So, brands…figure out how to align with your organizations.  Marketers, work more closely with the unsexy parts of the business enterprise.  Most of all, engage your customers.  Let them behind your firewalls to help.  Oh, and tell the truth.  If you want to stay out of hot water, begin delivering real value and figure out who your customers really are and what they really want.  Not what you think they want.

Steve Hershberger
Steve Hershberger