Once Upon a Time, There Was an Industry Dominated by Two Companies…

Once upon a time there was an industry largely dominated by two companies. Their domination, over some 30 years, was so nearly complete that they became understandably a bit arrogant. After all, their products were the biggest, the best, and by far the most popular.

They made tiny differentiations to create lots of slightly different models. They took care to make sure the largest, highest-profit models contained features that less profitable models did not have, even when these features cost little or nothing to add to the product.

They created a culture of built-in obsolescence and rapid replacement. On average, people replaced their product with a newer version every two years, which was wonderful for profits.

When there was little to actually differentiate their products from others, they used fanboy marketing to create a feeling that special features had special status, even though all of their products did basically the same thing.

Advertisements no longer presented facts regarding performance, as they once had. Now they used celebrity endorsements, or mood and attitude advertising, which claimed happy, successful people used their products, and insinuated those people were more successful because of it.

Some signs that their dominance was ending began to show. Other companies began making smaller and less expensive products.

The big companies found these amusing at first, but when the smaller, less-expensive products began to take market share during a recession they took notice and began to make such products themselves.

However, they wanted to be absolutely certain their smaller products didn’t take market share from their bigger products, so they carefully engineered them to avoid ‘big product’ features.

Not surprisingly, the smaller companies continued to take market share. “That’s a low-margin business,” the larger companies then said, “we make our money on the biggest, full-featured products.” The bigger companies forgot, though, that younger people were the ones buying those less expensive products, and younger people soon become older people with more money… and a new brand loyalty.

They also didn’t seem to notice that while those little products were low profit for them, the other companies seemed to be making them profitably.

Soon the smaller companies were building products with a feature set that was every bit as good as the big companies. The big companies found that they could maintain market share, but they had to give discounts and reduce margin to do so. After a while, even discounts did no more than let them maintain their production levels, while other companies began taking market share.

As profit margins dropped, the big companies took actions. They tried to monopolize repair service and make it a profit center to regain the margins they lost by selling their major products at a breakeven point. Since cost cutting had reduced quality assurance, creating more repairs, this seemed like a great idea — at least in the short term.

The smaller companies took note and began marketing their greater reliability and offering clearly superior customer support and warranties. Soon, even fans of the big companies realized they’d be treated better and have fewer problems buying elsewhere. The small companies, whose products had once been considered inexpensive but poorly made, soon were considered to be of higher quality and trouble free.

Even as the big companies became dependent on discounts and rebates to move their products, the smaller companies raised prices and margins. People were more than willing to pay them, since their quality control, service and warranties were better and their features seemed at least equal.

Now it was the smaller companies that were profitable and the big companies that were losing money.

As time passed, the big companies, while still big, were not considered leaders in technology or quality anymore. They depended largely on consumer inertia; that their fanboys would remain their fanboys, buy their product and tell others how great it was — whether it was or not.

Eventually, though, the inevitable happened. The big companies declared bankruptcy (one of them did, at least), asked for bailouts, and had to reinvent themselves in a different way.

The two companies I speak of are, of course, General Motors and Ford.

About the author: Roger Cicala is the founder of LensRentals. This article was originally published here.

Image credit: Allegory of Tuscany by covilha, Rebecca at the Well; Eliezer, the servant of Abraham, presents Rebecca with betrothal jewels – the bride of Issac, Mesopotamia – old bible etching, 1885 by Wonderlane, 202_235_quijote_cap46 by El Bibliomata

  • Ryan

    Nice allegory. Good read. Only problem – Ford never declared bankruptcy and never received a bailout. GM and Chrysler were the ones saved by the same consumer it had taken advantage of for several decades!

  • Spider- Man

    ford never took a bailout…

  • Louis

    Except that Ford didn’t declare bankruptcy nor did it receive any bailout monies.

  • Michael Zhang

    Thanks Ryan. We’ve made in a note in the last section to address this :)

  • Duke Shin


  • pieefi

    crappy nex wooo :D and sluggy sonuy

  • Sapientia

    Well played, guys. Well played. That ending had me in stitches!

  • ennuipoet

    Ahhhh POLAROID Choo

  • Matt

    Sorry, but this
    is just drivel. The problems at GM can’t be summed up in this way. And the assumptions
    that other companies make more reliable cars is just crap. The Japanese car
    companies fight recalls and hide issues in ways that should be criminal. The
    euro car makers are no better. We just have a lot of people that don’t want to
    deal in facts and make choices, they want to just be told what is best.

  • osh_sektabrand

    Religion – same story.

  • Greg Schmidt

    Don’t forget Chrysler went BK in the early 80’s and was “saved” by Lee Iocca and the “K” car.

  • Greg Hunt

    while the details are arguable, this is classic behaviour in a lot of markets, existing players chase the value, high margin business, new entrants, often subcontractors to the main players, start selling low function, low cost product that eventually hollows out the original market. It isn’t so much about quality and price but about the management value systems in the existing market that focusses on existing high margin customers.

  • flea

    Fanboys won’t like this…

  • Seaside-Mike

    Dont let the details spoil a (very) good allegory.
    Cars, Cameras, Washing machines, maybe even Running Shoes.
    The lessons are there, but are they learnt?
    What can we learn – Service, Quality, Features, Value ; these will compete,
    Even with the biggest, scariest competitors.

  • branden rio

    Yeah, at first I thought he meant Kodak and Polaroid

  • fahrertuer

    While the mesage is conveyed: do something about the writing. Please.
    As interesting as the information in Rogers more technical posts is: it’s often rather hard to read them

  • Trey Mortensen

    If you are referring to the major Toyota recall and lawsuits that happened a few years ago, I hope you realize that the research by the insurances turned out that every single case except for 1 was due to driver error and that all of the commotion was because of hyper media exploitation. And after owning GM, Japanese, and European, I would have to say that GM by far was the least reliable out of them all.

  • whoopn

    I disagree, this is actually well written. So many blog posts these days dispose of proper English and good story telling altogether…well done!

  • Jack

    Reminds me of two of the biggest electronic companies the world has ever known – Sony and Panasonic. Junk bond status is the first step towards chapter 11…

  • Eziz

    Natural progression, I guess.

  • Eziz

    Death clears way for new Life. Law of Nature

  • Eziz

    Death clears way for new Life. Law of Nature

  • CGP

    I thought he meant canon and Nikon.
    He could’ve just as easily have been talking about Gibson and Fender, though. Such a familiar story.

  • kb

    “Don’t forget Chrysler went BK in the early 80’s and was “saved” by Lee Iocca and the “K” car.”
    AND a government bailout!

  • sayithere

    it is now happening to canon and nikon..