Lessons from Cool Hand Luke: Failures in Business Communications (Part 1)

The 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke earned Paul Newman an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of a nonconformist member of a southern chain gang. It also taught me two lessons. The first is that some people can eat 50 eggs (you had to see the movie). Admittedly, that has never proven to be especially useful information. Nonetheless, it seems good to know.

The second and more important lesson is that a failure to communicate can have potentially dire consequences to individuals, and by inference businesses.

I am tempted to explain away the reason for the high rate of business failure with the fact that they ran out of money. While a true statement, it is overly simplistic. It is also more descriptive of a symptom than the reason for the problem.

I believe a root cause of many business failures is actually a failure to communicate.

Communication is what successful marketing is all about. It is about establishing and strengthening customer relationships by communicating your message and your value statement to the right people, at the right time and using all the right channels. It is about a continual education and training process.

A review of major milestones that have shaped business communications over the centuries will illustrate an essential point. It is that societies and consumers usually accept and embrace communications changes faster than the business community can adapt to them. Even the most carefully designed marketing communiqué, be it a press release, an ad campaign, a newsletter, etc., is likely to fail if it is not transmitted in the optimal channel. The pace of change is escalating, thereby increasing the chances that businesses will fail to communicate their message to customers and prospects.

As you review the timeline, think about how each change influenced the growth and success of businesses that were foresighted enough to embrace it. Consider also the wide variation in the useful lives of the various inventions, ranging from the printing press that has been around almost 600 years to the Pony Express that lasted less than two years. Lastly, imagine how businesses might have successfully adapted to further changes as each of the milestones were eventually displaced or relegated to a lesser importance by later means of communication.

Here are several examples of innovations that significantly influenced businesses:

  1. Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1440 made the mass production of books possible. Mass production of newspapers followed in 1605. The first paid advertisements appeared in a French newspaper in 1836.
  2. The United States Postal Service began in Philadelphia in 1775. Free mail delivery in U.S. cities began in 1863, reaching rural America by 1896.
  3. On April 3, 1860, a rider left St. Joseph, Missouri and headed west. He carried a pouch containing 49 letters and five telegrams. A rider carrying another pouch left San Francisco the same day and headed east. The Pony Express was born. Both pouches reached their destination ten days later. It was the fastest means of east-west communication in the days immediately preceding the Civil War. A 1/2 ounce letter cost $5 at the start of the service, or approximately $135 based on changes in the consumer price index through 2010.
  4. Alexander Graham Bell was awarded a patent for the telephone in March 1876. The first “long distance” call between Cambridge and Boston, a distance of about three miles, occurred in October of that year. New York and Boston became the first cities linked by telephone in 1883.
  5. George Eastman developed film technology to replace photographic plates in 1884. He founded Eastman Kodak in 1892. With the slogan “You press the button, we do the rest” he introduced photography to the masses with cardboard box cameras that sold for $1, the equivalent of $25 in 2010.
  6. Chicago’s R. H. Donnelley created the first Yellow Pages directory in 1886. The name was coined three years earlier when a Wyoming directory printer ran out of white paper and used yellow instead.
  7. On November 2, 1920, Pittsburgh’s KDKA reported the results of the national election that saw Warren G. Harding elected president of the United States. This was the first broadcast of a commercial radio station. Paid advertising followed within two years. Large companies like Westinghouse, Philco, Wrigley and Maxwell House Coffee typically sponsored entire programs.
  8. Scottish inventor John Baird demonstrated the first television in London in 1925. The image had just enough resolution to discern a human face. Television was introduced to the public (including my father) at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Commercial television developed following World War II. Milton Berle became its first “superstar” in 1948. As with radio, broadcasts were usually sponsored by a single national advertiser including Texaco and Procter & Gamble. The first national broadcast of a show in color was NBC’s Tournament of Roses Parade on New Year’s Day 1954. Westinghouse began offering a color television in the New York City area about two months later. It sold for $1,295, or approximately $10,500 in 2010 inflation-adjusted dollars.
  9. Two decades of research into communication networks, much of it related to government sponsored defense projects, culminated on August 6, 1991 when the European Organization for Nuclear Research introduced the World Wide Web. By 1994, there was a growing public interest. By June 2010, the estimated number of Internet users had reached two billion.

Next week I will review more recent developments in the same communication mediums, and discuss the lessons that can be gained from those changes.

© 2012 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

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