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A few weeks ago, a brilliant marketer and former colleague of mine, Dee Papit, commented on my article about the “Branding of Barack Obama.” Her reference to Obama’s use of the Internet and social networking led me to reflect on the way he and libertarian candidate Ron Paul bypassed the smoke-filled rooms of power to connect directly with supporters. I thought I’d share a few of my thoughts on the cultural evolution that made these events possible and continues to reshape competition in the new century.
The Seeds of Change
In 1960, Ford didn’t need a better idea. They had manufacturing capacity, supply chain efficiency and a distribution network. The investment required to build this kind of capacity was an enormous competitive barrier and it successfully choked off the efforts of all but three of the world’s most powerful companies. By a wide margin, General Motors was the largest company in the world and industrial powerhouses like Ford, Chrysler, General Electric and U.S. Steel were all in the top 10.
It was an age of consolidated power. Three networks controlled all television programming. A handful of Hollywood moguls controlled mainstream film. IBM controlled 70 percent of the computer market, and the only phone service you could buy came from AT&T. In the ’60s, the scale that such companies operated on made it nearly impossible for smaller companies to compete. Fortunately, the ’60s also laid the groundwork for all this to change.
The rebellion by young people in the 1960s, punctuated by the popular slogan “Power to the people,” didn’t disrupt established power bases overnight, but it did establish a pattern of independent thinking that led to the proliferation of entrepreneurship. As more young people questioned authority, we saw the rise of cultural classes that would begin to reshape our world at the end of the twentieth century. Most notable among these were the hippy, the artist and the geek.
Hippies and their ilk openly questioned the motives of big business, big politics and anything that came out of an assembly plant. Their back-to-nature message set the stage for the rapid rise of the organic movement, but it also coincided with the spread of the creative class.
In the ’60s, the creative community came alive with writers like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Maya Angelou, Ken Kesey, Gloria Steinem, Truman Capote and Harper Lee; musicians like Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, The Velvet Underground, Jimmy Hendrix, Bob Dylan and Neil Young; and artists like Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg. These influences worked their way into film and television. They also inspired advertising leaders like Bill Bernbach to usher in the era known as the “Creative Revolution.”
At the same time creativity was on the rise, the growth of technology was accelerating, sparking new innovations in the ways people worked and communicated. “Geeks,” a derogatory term for social outcasts who tinkered with technology, would soon become a badge of honor as young geniuses like Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs, Adam Osborne, John Draper and Bill Gates turned their parents’ garages into the primordial pool of the evolution of technology. This growing subculture of basement businessmen was greatly influenced by social activists like Fred Moore, cofounder of the Homebrew Computer Club. In the 1970s and beyond, Moore and others around him pushed for the democratization of technology. This led to an increased number of these garage geeks breaking away from corporate confines to start their own, venture-backed businesses.
Throughout the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, anti-establishment attitudes, increased emphasis on creativity and expanded democratization of technology provided fertile conditions for the incubation of changes that were to erupt onto the scene in the late 1990s. The rocket fuel that propelled the final stage of transformation was the Internet.
Ironically, the Internet was born out of the US Department of Defense in the 1960s. It was originally known as the ARPANET and developed through the ’70s and ’80s, but it wasn’t until the launch of the Mosaic browser in 1993 and Netscape in 1994 that the “Information Superhighway,” as it was called, came into popular use.
In the latter half of the 1990s, the Internet would go from a largely unknown plaything of geeks, phreaks and researchers to a middle-class mainstay. With this change, virtually any individual or business had an equal shot at capturing the attention of a global audience. While the dot-com bust in 2000 purged the new economy of many of its weakest businesses, the transformation of the economy continued, altering the landscape, weakening large institutions and emboldening challenges to the status quo.
Aided by technology and a strong will to break away from mainstream institutions, independent enterprise has flourished. The Sundance Festival launched the era of the independent filmmaker, while cable access broke down the dominance of the Big Three Networks. AT&T’s breakup led to the vast expansion of communications options, including the development of mobile telephony, texting and smart phones. IBM’s dominance in computers gave way to dozens of new companies, like Apple, Microsoft, Oracle, HP and Dell. Electronic publishing, paired with distribution through online retailers like Amazon.com, would allow any author to bypass the major publishing companies and self-publish their book. And thousands of innovative new businesses, from eBay to Google, would change the nature of the way we trade and promote goods and services, democratizing access to online markets and advertising.
So where does all this lead? It is bringing us to a time when anyone with an innovative idea and the conviction to pursue it can compete in a global marketplace. We are seeing small branding boutiques pull choice assignments away from global giants. Multinational banks are crumbling, even as small community banks thrive. And political candidates like Ron Paul and Barack Obama are able to raise millions of dollars from small donors, while bypassing the traditional paths to power.
Only time will tell what lies next along this path, but it is certain to lead to greater diversity of opportunity and unprecedented competitive freedom.