How the Past Paves New Paths to the Future

By: Michael McQueen

Britain’s first female Member of Parliament, Lady Astor, once observed: “The main dangers in this life are the people who want to change nothing – or everything.”

She is absolutely right. There are many companies that are so embedded in the past that they miss every opportunity to venture into the future. We often hear about them: large companies that are so comfortable in their success that the future creeps up on them, rendering them irrelevant before they have had a chance to get moving.

However, a habit of businesses that poses just as much risk is that of progress addiction. In many cases, the failure of businesses comes down to an immature approach to innovation which overreaches and embraces every opportunity without the wisdom to discern what is dispensable from what is worthwhile. In an effort to modernise an organisation or brand and define it as distinct from its past, many leaders dispense with traditions and rituals and in doing so throw out the baby with the bathwater.

In the same way that maintaining tradition for the sake of maintaining tradition is dangerous, doing something differently for the sake of doing something differently is short-sighted, presumptuous and even arrogant.

The other side of the coin reveals that the past often offers time-tested ideas, lessons and approaches which can be rethought and reinvented for the present moment. Reworking the old in the context of the new offers a distinct but powerful road to innovation that is missed if a business is aimlessly running from the past.

This was certainly the case recently for both Tupperware and Netflix which both drew upon old forms to face a near future.

Usually modelled around the famed Tupperware party, this company was already suffering before COVID hit.  With growing competition in the online world, the structure of direct selling and personal recruitment fought to find a firm footing in a world of convenience and speed. As the party plan structure was designed primarily around the communal gatherings particularly characteristic of older generations, Tupperware has been struggling to sustain itself as forms of socialisation and sales have transformed with the rise of Millennials.

With shares having dropped nearly 50% in February this year, it could be justifiably expected that the shock and change of a global pandemic would be enough to tip the company over the edge.[1] Especially with the form of direct selling and in-person gatherings being crucial to its business model, COVID was sure to be a recipe for disaster for Tupperware.

However, it seems the opposite has occurred. With the world collectively locked down, confined to homes and kitchens, cooking became more of a trend, hobby and necessity than ever. Tupperware has thrived with the change, with sales spiking 72% along with recruitment.[2]

With the online gathering becoming an increasingly viable business option as well as interpersonal connection becoming a greater need than ever in the era of isolation, Tupperware has moved online with its parties and found a new avenue for an old form, reviving its business entirely. Providing greater possibility for attendance, flexibility and location, the online platform has given the party plan company new opportunity for revisiting its traditional structure.[3]

Despite the new circumstances and new global direction for sales, socialisation and services, the old sales model has found a new place in an isolated and locked-down world. By revisiting the ideas of its past while also engaging with the circumstances of the present, Tupperware has found a new pathway into its future.

The act of drawing upon old forms to find new pathways into the future has also found movement in the online streaming company of Netflix. Despite its distinctive quality being the user’s ability to freely choose entertainment, Netflix has in recent months been trialling a new streaming form which it has called ‘Direct’. Tested in France, the feature offers a continuous stream of prescribed shows, organised into a scheduled program. It uses its algorithm to offer content of interest to the individual user based on previously viewed content and the user simply presses shuffle and is presented with shows which others have been engaging with.[4]

What this new form of streaming resembles is the good old-fashioned TV channel, only with a modern twist. The combination of the old system of scheduled content in specific time slots with the curation possibilities offered by algorithms, Netflix will be able to counter decision fatigue while continuing to ensure users’ satisfaction.

Time will tell the fate of these innovations. Each very much in their early stages, the market for these forms may not be receptive in the long run. The post-COVID world may revert back to its pre-COVID structures of sales and socialisation and leave the Tupperware party behind it once and for all, or the online format will mark a new direction for the traditional form and welcome a new generation into its customer base. Netflix may find that its users value their ability to choose entertainment at their liberty and the traditional TV channel may be left as a thing of the past. However, a world of decision fatigue, vast amounts of choice and endless scrolling may provide fertile ground for this new streaming option.

Despite an ever-changing world, which continues to find itself in the midst of new technologies, crises and circumstances, consideration of the past offers vast potential for future action. Each of these renowned companies have revisited famed 1950s models of sales and entertainment in pursuit of new approaches to the present. Rather than running from its past, they have chased their futures and brought the powers of their pasts with them. So far, they have benefitted as a result.

[1] Cheng, A 2020, ‘Tupperware Shares Plunge, Wiping Out Half Of Its Value, As Challenges Mount’, Forbes, 25 February.

[2] Magloff L 2020, ‘Tupperware finds new life party via virtual parties’, Springwise, 12 November.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Adalian, J 2020, ‘Netflix Is Introducing Linear Channels in France, Mon Ami’, Vulture, 12 November.

Article supplied with thanks to Michael McQueen.

About the Author: Michael is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.

Feature image: Photo by Daniel von Appen on Unsplash