Disrupt or Be Disrupted: How Legacy Businesses Are Changing the Game

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Evolve or die. It’s as true in business as it is in biology. Just ask Kodak.

Problem is, legacy businesses—let’s say those born before the digital age—can’t always move quickly when something upends their model. Little things slow them down. Like factories, inventory, infrastructure, equipment, processes, franchisees, federal and state regulations, and hundreds of thousands of actual employees. Unlike, say, Uber. With its independent subcontractors who own, operate and maintain its virtual fleet, it can turn on a dime.

But most businesses are legacy businesses. And as the Ubers and Googles and Instacarts mature and become more regulated (and themselves work to evolve or die), they too will become legacy businesses. And some yet-undreamt-of new model will arise and scare the pants off them. It will happen: 86% of the companies on the Fortune 500 in 1955 were history by 2015.

The good news? There is something a legacy business can turn on a dime: its image. Nearly overnight, I have seen a great idea stop people and change how they feel and think about a brand—even if that brand has been around for more than a century. Creating disruptive ideas happens to be our agency’s “legacy” talent. And has been ever since Leo Burnett opened the place in 1935.

“Advertising is the ability to sense, interpret…to put the very heart throbs of a business into type, paper and ink.” – Leo Burnett

In today’s world, I’d add “words and pictures, sounds and stories, bits, bytes, context and algorithms.” Legacy agencies, too, have had to evolve or die. But technology hasn’t changed the need to engage people in a great idea. It simply changes how and where we execute it. And dumb or boring creative will be ignored even faster.

Here are three ideas, created for three of our legacy clients, that can’t be ignored:

The Art Institute of Chicago (founded 1879): “Van Gogh’s Bedroom”

“Come look at old paintings on a wall” has been the traditional art museum pitch. But though old, the Art Institute of Chicago is anything but traditional, especially when it comes to the immersive marketing experiences they’ve created with Leo Burnett.

For the Van Gogh exhibit, we took one of his famous bedroom paintings and lovingly re-created it as a real bedroom, right down to the brush on his nightstand. But the real genius was letting people stay in the “painting” via AirBnB. “Van Gogh’s Bedroom” sold out immediately, generating massive PR and a 250% increase in online ticket sales—the highest attendance of any exhibit in 15 years.

Allstate (founded 1931): “Mayhem Sale

Mayhem was created to disrupt the insurance category. If you bought on price—not realizing you’d also cut your coverage—Mayhem would find you. This led to a unique event where Mayhem showed homeowners how important it is to have the right coverage.

We started with an increasingly common behavior—sharing on social media. We added a fact: 70% of burglars use social media to target homes while their owners are away. Then we found an oversharing couple—Matt and Shannon—who’d posted on Facebook that they’d be at the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

Mayhem broke into their home (actually, a reproduction meticulously re-created on a Hollywood set) and started selling exact copies of all their personal possessions online, from a cheesy squirrel statue to their new car. Seeing their stuff being sold by Mayhem on the Jumbotron at the game gave Matt and Shannon the shock of their lives. And had the rest of America laughing, logging on and learning about how Allstate home insurance protects you differently.


UnitedHealthcare (founded 1977): “Ways In” Campaign

Despite the fundamental changes shaking up health care, all health insurance brands looked the same. They featured vignettes of happy people and vague promises of “wellness.” To stand out, UnitedHealthcare decided to do something different: Use humor to help people notice and like their brand.

Inspired by the more than 76,000 official medical codes used to track how people get into the health-care system, we told funny back stories. For example, code “Y93.4 Activities Involving Dancing and Other Rhythmic Movements.” That became the story of a middle-aged couple making dinner, getting carried away when “their song” came on the radio, attempting the lift from “Dirty Dancing,” and destroying the dining room table. One tele-doctor visit over a laptop later, courtesy of UnitedHealthcare, they were bruised but unbowed. Our films stopped people, were widely liked and shared, and set UnitedHealthcare apart from the rest.

What wasn’t (outwardly) disruptive was our media choice. Yes, we live in an omni-channel world. But our target was so broad (adults 18 to 100+) that micro-targeting wasn’t the answer. TV and online video was. And it worked. With only 25% of category spend, the campaign has driven 97% of category engagement.

The moral of this story? Disrupt or be disrupted. A great idea can retool a legacy business faster than it can build a new factory or re-do its website. And that holds true whether your brand is 200 years old or 2 months old.

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