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What your struggling business model can learn from the Man of Steel

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Superman stands for truth, justice, and the “American way,” but that credo is also a great example of brand values — a necessary part of a company’s innovation strategy.

Even if your company is based on a new “disruptive” business model, you have to drill down to why you’re doing it in the first place, explained David Maddocks, chief marketing officer at Cole Haan, during a March 15 talk at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship.

Since the 1930s, Superman has upheld that trio of brand values, Maddocks said, whether fighting organized crime, Nazis, communists, or global terrorism.

“Business models are great and essential, and right now really exciting because of technology, but don’t forget the essential thing of why the hell you’re doing it in the first place,” Maddocks said. “That’s what you’ve got to be about.”

And Maddocks would know. He served as the CMO at Converse between 2001 and 2007. During his time there, the company went from a bankrupt brand to a company that in 2015 was — according to Fortune — selling two pairs of shoes every second of every day.

Cole Haan CMO David Maddocks, speaking at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship.

Along with the Man of Steel, Maddocks shared other examples of innovation strategy for a company’s successful turnaround.“Simplify, then exaggerate, he said. “You’re not doing it for the business model, you’re doing it for a purpose in the world. The more you understand that purpose, the more you can distill it down, then the more effective you’re going to be at communicating it.”Once you’ve got your purpose boiled down to a few essential things, Maddocks said, “make it bigger than life.”

In a similar vein, while it’s important to get small, it’s also critical to know the difference between a niche and the perception of scarcity. Niches are things that five people want and 95 people don’t want, Maddocks said. The perception of scarcity is when five people can get something, but 95 people are fighting to get it.

“Dad fashion” is having a moment in collections, Maddocks said, with fashion houses creating $900 sneakers that look more at home on parents’ feet than on the runway. Despite some Cole Haan designers attempting to follow that trend in their own studios, Maddocks said he fights them off because “that is nowhere land.”

“That is the definition of niche,” he said.

Conversely, Nike annually sells about 14 million pairs of Air Force One sneakers. Every December the company stops shipping all-white shoes, while it continues to manufacture other colors.

“They have deliberate scarcity. They keep it rare. They will choke supply; it’s one of the most disciplined companies in the world,” Maddocks said. “Everybody thinks they can’t get their hands on them, and yet they can. That’s just through the discipline of supply and demand — and obviously disruption, product creation, all of that.”

It’s also important to remember that taking chances throughout a turnaround strategy is OK, as long as it’s your job you’re putting on the line. If you believe in something enough, you’ll never lose your job while betting on it, Maddocks said. You will, however, get fired for putting the company in jeopardy.

“Don’t bet the company; don’t cut into the arteries,” Maddocks said.

How you position, market, and distribute your brand all comes down to a very simple set of things, Maddocks said. Do them right, “and the stories start to write themselves.”

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