A Young World is No Place for Old Corporations

Why is there a sudden affection for the Post World War II period in the US?

From AMC’s huge rating figures for the stylish TV series Mad Men, the resurgence of classic Americana styling among the young and fashionable, to the ever increasing number of “authentic” Americana brands being created or resurrected like Narragansett beer in New England.

Is this just baby boomer nostalgia? Or is it a significant yearning for what the WSJ calls America’s  ‘Midcentury Moment’, those post war  “golden years of the 1940’s, ‘50s and early ‘60s?” The boom years when Americans forged the world’s new super power, as those in Europe diminished.

Production lines hummed and capitalism flourished.  Millions of Americans literally bought into the American dream, enjoying new levels of comfort and security. Diligent workers toiled on production lines or equally mechanized corporate machines.

This was the time of BIG things in the US. Big government, big population growth, big ambitions and big civic construction projects sprang up.

In truth, it was a time when the world’s biggest economy was then a young, dynamic, fast growing market.

During this time US companies became dominant corporations on a world stage, strongly influencing how business was conducted all over the world.

Fast forward to 2011, America now competes in a fierce global market against young and dynamic economies. New companies emerge as world leaders such as India’s Tata, and new brands take top spot like China’s Snow Beer which is now the biggest selling beer in the world.

In addition to this, the US is suffering from a seriously stalled economy, job losses, and corporate giants losing their way. To top it off, in many parts of the world Brand America is now viewed with alarming degrees of vehemence.

Perhaps this is why so many Americans find themselves looking back to the Golden Years with aspiration. To a time when America was accelerating and seemed unstoppable, economically, socially, politically and culturally: Brand America was strong and healthy.

As a brand strategist I have spent a good amount of my career helping companies to reach their potential as brands, employers and stakeholders in society. As such I am a witness to the terrible frustration felt by smart executives who are constricted by the most potent and enduring by-product of the Golden Years of America: “corporate culture.”

Around the world, the phrase “corporate America” is used to denote a numb, faceless style of big business. Its characteristics will be familiar; global, hierarchical, process orientated, slow, uninventive, impersonal. “People are numbers” and the focus is firmly on profit at the expense of personality.

Understandably consumers, customers, employees and talented graduates feel this style of business is deeply out of step with our dynamic, interconnected and digitally cosmopolitan world.

The realization of this and stagnant growth, has prompted many executive teams to seek change and transformation. We are enlisted to begin the process of uncovering what is intriguing and relevant about the company and through redefining what their organizations and brands stand for, we unlock momentum and growth.

Interestingly, during this process we so often hear “we want to be like Apple or Google,” the success stories of today. But in truth, these firms were never created as corporations in the mid-century mold. Their founders were courageous and created something original, rather than mimic older corporate styles.

So, here it is. The Golden Years of the last century gave birth to so much. It gave America its confidence, its political and economic might. But it also fueled a style of business which seriously inhibits many companies today, and has rendered many American corporations unresponsive and irrelevant.

So as America nostalgically looks back to the Golden Years, and yearns for economic momentum once more, we need to recognize the need for new recipes of business appropriate for today’s fast, inventive, digitally interconnected global market place. And secondly the urgent need to unlock what worked so well in middle of the 20th Century when American ingenuity, enterprise and risk tolerance created the world’s strongest, go-go, youthful marketplace.

by Adam Swann

Vice President, Planning

Cross-posted at Ignite Something on the Forbes CMO Network