Prepare To Innovate

For distributors to stand out from the pack, they need to truly look at their businesses with a critical eye. By Andy Cohen

Many business experts will tell you: Innovate or die. But how many CEOs truly live and breathe the ideal, and make sure to implement it into everything they and their companies do?

One that definitely does is Ken Chenault, the CEO of American Express. Think the 90th-largest company in America, which brings in $35 billion in revenue annually, would be able to rest on its laurels a bit? Not so much. Chenault, speaking in November at the Money 2020 conference in Las Vegas, showed off his innovative side.

“I love competition,” said the 62-year-old CEO of American Express, which actually began as a shipping company in 1850. “You have to have this spirit of reinvention, and that is what we have in the DNA of the company. If you don’t innovate, you die. You have to constantly innovate, you have to constantly challenge the status quo. One of the points I make consistently to our people is that we want to become the company that will put us out of business.”

That is a great statement, and it’s one all business leaders should take to heart. Your competition isn’t just the company you know – it’s often an entity or business that you can’t always anticipate. Chenault knows that new digital payment options – Apple Pay, Square, Dwolla, Merchant Warehouse – are trying to infringe on American Express’ business. And, he’s imploring everyone in his company to focus their efforts on making sure it doesn’t happen. In fact, he said at the conference that he’d be OK if the company’s iconic green card isn’t in people’s wallets anymore, as long as they’re using the American Express brand in their digital payments.


The head of one of the most well-known brands in the world is already thinking ahead to the point that its main product will be extinct.


Think about that. The head of one of the most well-known brands in the world is already thinking ahead to the point that its main product will be extinct. He has fully prepared his company to innovate, and they’re moving forward successfully because of it.

What are you doing to innovate and change how you go to market or service clients or separate yourself from the competition? Do you know where new competitors are going to come from for the last five years of this decade? The beginning of a new year is the time to think about these things. E-commerce is becoming an increasingly important factor in how business gets done in the ad specialty market. Call it the Amazon effect, but large companies like Staples Promotional Products and 4imprint (not to mention potential competition and game-changing market entries from the likes of Amazon, eBay, and yes, Alibaba) are changing the buying process for ad specialty items by making it easy for companies to make purchases online.

This is shifting how business is done for many buyers, causing traditional distributors to potentially miss out on opportunities. Your business has to adapt to this changing landscape. You have to see how changes coming down the road will affect how your company goes to market in the future – exactly like American Express is doing with its credit card business now. It sees the writing on the wall that physical cards are going away and digital is the wave of the credit future.

And, it’s shifting its strategies and processes as a result. Anticipating those market shifts is something that every good company spends time on, worries about and strategizes for.

Sure, your bread and butter are promotional marketing programs from corporate clients. But you can enhance your company’s value to your clients by becoming ecommerce capable and also expanding into additional services. Maybe it’s live event planning or website design or mobile marketing plans or recruiting fairs for HR departments.

Every business, even the biggest and most successful one, needs to innovate. Otherwise, there’s an untraditional competitor just waiting to step in and take advantage.

Enjoy the issue!