May 112012

During April, I went to see Edvard Munch’s famous 1895 artwork, “The Scream,” which was on display at Sotheby’s in London, prior to being auctioned in New York.  It was a theatrical experience. Getting to the picture meant enduring three layers of security checks. Finally, in a darkened room, there it was, embedded in a black wall in its original gold frame. Very dramatic!

At the time, Sotheby’s estimated it might sell for $80 million. But as the clock ticked towards the sale date, some art experts speculated the price might go even higher—perhaps reaching the $106 million record fetched by Picasso’s “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust” in 2010. On May 2, “The Scream” was knocked down to an anonymous buyer for $119,922,500 million dollars (including commission) after 12 minutes of bidding. Meanwhile, outside on the street, there was a protest by Occupy Wall Street and the Teamsters.

The sale catalogue for this iconic pastel proclaimed it “the second most immediately recognizable art work in the world, after the ‘Mona Lisa.’” It appears all over the place—on T-shirts, coffee mugs, posters, and elsewhere.  And the publicity it’s now getting will see it even more widely reproduced.

"The Scream," Edvard Munsch, 1895

So what’s this got to do with business, you ask?

Nothing, directly. However, “The Scream” depicts a moment of awful uncertainty and anxiety—the “zeitgeist” of the late 19th century. (Sotheby’s describes it as “the visual embodiment of modern anxiety and existential dread.”) And the mood that Munch captured is similar to the one that has now settled across so much of the world.

Munch produced four versions of his picture. The other three are in public collections, so only this one was available for sale. And only this one has these words, written by Munch, on the frame:

“I was walking along a road with two Friends

the Sun was setting—the Sky turned a bloody red

And I felt a whiff of Melancholy—I stood

Still, deathly tired—over the blue-black

Fjord and City hung Blood and Tongues of Fire

My Friends walked on—I remained behind—

shivering with anxiety—I felt the great Scream in Nature—EM”

In this age of uncertainty, mass unemployment, austerity, and customer frugality, there’s a screaming opportunity for companies to offer comfort, confidence, predictability, flexibility, and affordability.  But there’s also a need to surprise and delight customers, to meet their needs in unexpected ways, to enable them to have fun, to lift their spirits and make them smile and feel good about themselves.

There are countless ways to do this. It might be through offering innovative new products and services. Or by bundling your current offerings differently, repackaging and re-branding them, or promoting them differently. Or by adding new “bells and whistles”—or taking something away to make things easier for customers and perhaps drive down costs and prices, too.

But it always begins with focusing anew on just doing what you promise. On simply getting your “basics” right. So that should be the central debating point in any strategic conversation.

“The Scream” fetched its astonishing price in a room full of the world’s glitterati, in an art sale which fetched a total of $330 million—another Sotheby’s record. Speculation was that the anonymous buyer might be a museum or a possible donor—or, quite likely, a private collector from Asia or the Middle East. The rich have gotten richer. There are lots of them around. They’re customers for lots of stuff. And they’re spending furiously.

Consider, too, that the harsh new conditions now affecting people in Europe, the U.S., and other countries which have enjoyed decades of relative prosperity are normal for most people on the planet. They’ve never known anything else. So while you’re thinking of ways to keep satisfying your traditional customers, what about these others? The market opportunity is enormous.

This is a time to expand your horizons, discover customers you’ve ignored, and invent products and services that give them a shot at a better life. By changing what you do and how you do it for today’s customers, you almost certainly will meet some of the needs of tomorrow’s.  And in discovering new kinds of value to offer those unfamiliar customers, you’ll doubtless be able to bring some new offerings back to the markets you know.

In short, the worst of times might actually be the best of times. Finding out is surely worth a focused and determined effort.

Some questions:

  1. How has your customers’ behavior changed?
  2. What do they need and want now, that might be different from what they sought in the past, and how well do you meet those demands?
  3. How are your competitors responding, and what might they do next?
  4. How do your people feel, and what might you do to keep them focused and energized?
  5. What’s happening to your business partners, and what might you do to keep them on side, motivated, and sustainable?
  6. What else is happening in your world that demands change from you (think demographic shifts, regulation, politics, etc.)?
  7. How well do you deliver on your promises, and what must you do to lift your game?
  8. What can you do altogether to make the most of today’s mood and realities?
  9. What new market opportunities should you explore (and what ideas can you bring back from undeveloped markets into the markets you know)?
  10. What should you stop doing, because it’s no longer appropriate or working?
  11. What should your priorities be for the next 12 months?
  12. What must you do in the next 30 days to get things moving in a new direction?

“Value for money” means different things to different people at different times. How they see it changes constantly. To keep up with them, you have to walk in their shoes and see things the way they do.

Right now, many are being forced into a lifestyle they never expected—downscaling, skimping, saving, hunting harder for bargains. Their shopping behavior is not what it used to be and they’re killing firms that can’t shift with them. On the other hand, there’s a generation of enthusiastic new consumers who are enjoying better lives—and are shopping as if there’s no tomorrow.

“The Scream” is a vivid portrayal of the anxiety that is so much part of the human condition. And a harsh reminder of just how tough these times are. But it doesn’t tell the full story.

There are both problems and possibilities all around us. So while Edvard Munch’s remarkable artwork is notable as a comment on the state of the world, you might also see it as a catalyst for change, and an inspiration to make a difference in new ways.

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  •  11/05/2012