Opinion Piece by: Suraya Hamdulay

It’s the end of an era. Anyone growing up in the 90’s would have experienced shopping for CDs, DVDs and other music and movie paraphernalia at Musica. Alas, Musica is no more. The music retailer is finally closing its doors in South Africa. If you are nostalgic like I am, then it is a sad day. But as I listen to my iTunes, I ask: is there a lesson to be learned from Musica’s closing?

One would have thought that an industry that transitioned from vinyl to cassette player to DVD and MP3 would have anticipated that unless it evolved with the times, it would eventually become subsumed by technology.

The rapid advance of technology and digitization has disrupted many traditional business models and has changed the way consumers browse, shop and consume goods and services globally. This advancement in technology has led to some businesses close shop while at the same time it is also resulted in the creation of entirely new businesses which did not exist a few years ago.

One example of disruption is the smartphone which deserves its reputation as the digital equivalent of the Swiss Army Knife as it has replaced at least 50 items you no longer need to carry around with you. This ranges from a GPS, digital cameras, video cameras, alarm clocks, books, gaming devices and MP3 players, to name a few.

So, how do businesses use technology to their advantage to ensure that they are able to pivot and remain relevant so that they are not wiped out completely due to consumers no longer needing to buy their product? Traditionally, businesses pushed goods to consumers, and marketers convinced consumers that they needed to buy that product. Today, consumers shape the product and service landscape far more than they did in the past.

It is why you will hear about companies increasingly talking about being “customer-centric” and “purpose led”. Customers now have far more options on who to purchase from and where to purchase from. Global connectivity makes every country a potential marketplace and shoppers don’t even need to leave the comfort of their homes. Big data allows retailers to respond by designing “customer value management strategies” that analyses who the customer is, their age, their preference, their purchase behavior, where and how they want to be serviced, enabling them to respond more closely to the customer’s needs.

Consumers now also have the power to demand transparency on how products are manufactured, and demand increasingly more information on the true cost of manufacturing. Consumers want to know whether the labour input costs were fair, that workers were paid a decent wage, that their labour rights were respected and that working conditions are safe. Elon Musk recently came under the spotlight for abuses of worker rights at Tesla’s California plant where workers were fired because they refused to work in an unsafe workplace at the height of the Covid pandemic in the state.  Musk receives tones of publicity for being an innovative business leader, but actually has a human rights abuse record. How does that make you feel about him and the Tesla brand?

The more empowered consumer (you) has social media as a tool, giving us instant access to platforms that allow us to share experiences and report unethical corporate behavior. At the same time, consumers are able to garner support from anywhere in the world, leaving corporates with nowhere to hide from human rights abuses. This consumer scrutiny has led to increased ethics and integrity in manufacturing and even the global advertising industry has come under scrutiny for its lack of diversity and inclusion in print and other electronic advertising campaigns. Unilever’s Treseme beauty brand found out the hard way at home.

But I digress. What do businesses have to do today to ensure they remain relevant tomorrow and that their businesses still exist in the next 50 years? For one, businesses must disrupt themselves because every other business is a competitor, not just the traditional ones as defined before the digital revolution. Businesses must become more customer centric and invest more heavily in tech capability. The idea is that technology can no longer be seen as an operational expense but as a key enabler to value creation and must be prioritized and embedded into the business strategy.

What is required is the designing of a deliberate corporate culture that empowers employees, gives them permission to make mistakes, to take risks and to innovate organically. It’s about empowering leaders to think deeply about the future, about what purpose their business serves and whether it can meet the needs of consumers in ethical and fair ways. In this future focused way, employees stay motivated to innovate and push the boundaries of excellence- as they develop the products and services that meet and exceed customer expectations, that keeps businesses relevant and honest, trusted now and profitable into the future.          

So, are businesses thinking about what comes after the Internet? With artificial intelligence, augmented and virtual reality, robotics and big data capabilities becoming more mature and sophisticated what is the next wave of disruption? Cultivating this future-focused ability to predict what lies around the corner is the answer!

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