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4 Corny Business Ideas That Actually Make Sense

2013 October 9
by Greg Satell

Professionals are supposed to be rational, serious people and we try to project an image which is highly optimized and data driven.  In the cutthroat corporate world, the one thing we don’t want to be is corny.  That would be undignified.

Yet we’re not as rational as we’d like to think. We’re driven by cognitive biases, base desires and petty rivalries as much as anything else.  We try to keep up appearances, but it’s just a front.  When we say we’re being practical, we really mean conventional.

As John Maynard Keynes once said, “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” In much the same way, relying on convention often blinds us to promising new approaches.  That’s a shame, because some of the corniest ideas are also some of the best.

1. Tribal Leadership

The folks at Culture Sync believe that businesses are made up of tribes of 20-150 people (based on Robin Dunbar’s research) and each tribe has its own specific culture.  Their practice specializes in advising companies how to upgrade their tribes to improve performance.

While the overall concept may seem a bit too new age for most people’s taste, the tribes described in the bestselling book, Tribal Leadership, (co-authored by Culture Sync’s Dave Logan), seem eerily familiar:

Stage One Tribe (Rare in corporate culture): Hostile, mostly found in criminal gangs

Stage Two Tribe(25% of organizations): Typically dysfunctional corporate culture; antagonistic and sarcastic.

Stage Three  Tribe (49% of organizations): Competitive culture.  People focus on their own performance, time management and feel like everything depends on what they do themselves.  True collaboration is difficult, if not totally absent.

Stage Four Tribe (22% of organizations): Collaborative culture.  Everybody sees a win for the team as a win for themselves.

Stage Five: Tribe (Less than 2 % of organizations) Mission driven culture.  The high performing biotech company Amgen saw itself as competing against cancer, rather than other companies and that’s typical of a Stage 5 culture..  Unfortunately, Stage 5 is unsustainable, high performing organizations pop in and out.

One of the key insights of the book is that each type of tribe requires a different approach. What works in a successful culture will fail in a broken culture and vice versa.  Therefore, a successful manager in one type of tribe—say, a successful, competitive business—will often fail leading another, like a turnaround situation or a highly collaborative startup.

2. Lovemarks

Over the last decade, marketing has changed dramatically.  As media has become increasingly digital, it’s also become decidedly more numbers driven.  We optimize metrics, monitor conversations mathematically and focus on ROI.  Gartner predicts that by 2017, CMO’s will spend more on technology than CTO’s.

In that sense, Saatchi CEO Kevin Roberts is a throwback.  His concept of Lovemarks is decidedly irrational and emotive.  He believes that we should strive for businesses that inspire “loyalty without reason” and suggests that brands should be rated on a Love/Respect axis.



While the idea is positively corny (in fact, unabashedly so), it is an important one that is highly appropriate for marketing in the digital age.  As technology makes breaks down traditional barriers to entry, the only sustainable path to advocacy is loyalty without reason.

Most of all, as business is increasingly driven by algorithms, it’s nice to see someone is still thinking about humans.

3. The Rise of the Machines

While Kevin Roberts sees love ruling the world, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee of MIT argue that automation is taking over in their book, Race Against The Machine.

In effect, they observe that there is a new productivity paradox at hand, but this time the problem isn’t that computers aren’t showing up in the productivity numbers, but that technology is becoming so productive that machines are displacing humans.

This is an idea that leads to an abundance of corniness, because even the mere mention of it inspires visions of Skynet becoming “self aware” and unleashing killer cyborgs on our streets.  Nonetheless, it is very real.  Artificial intelligence systems like IBM’s Watson are already taking over jobs long thought to be solely in the human domain.

And while we have very little to fear from “Terminator” scenarios, Andrew McAfee points out in a recent TED talk that we will have to make serious adjustments.  There is already evidence of decreasing returns to labor amid increasing returns to capital, resulting in economic inequalities that threaten social cohesion.

4. The Passion Economy

The 20th century was the era of the scale economy.  Firms could wring ever more efficiency out of the value chain by lowering transaction costs through increasing size and scope.  Being big meant more than just having more resources and negotiating power, it also meant that you had more access to information.

However, in the 21st century we are seeing the rise of the semantic economy, where someone can access resources similar to those of large organizations even while sitting at their breakfast table, which greatly mitigates traditional advantages to scale.  So much so that organizations themselves often seem superfluous.

This is leading to a significant management shift.  In the scale economy, the management challenge was to leverage corporate resources efficiently.  Yet today successful managers must be able to focus the passion and purpose of high performing talent that can access significant resources themselves.

This is perhaps the corniest idea of all, because it means that the true value creation in the digital age will be more human than ever.  As pattern recognition and intelligence, become automated, the key human contribution will be the ability to imagine and to dream.

And that is the essence of corny, because it elevates sentiment to the sublime.  In an age where efficiency is increasingly in the domain of machines, it is our distinctly human qualities that are most likely to differentiate us in the marketplace.

– Greg

8 Responses leave one →
  1. Kuldip Singh permalink
    October 11, 2013

    inspire “loyalty without reason” – that is certainly a tough ask. Most certainly for me!

    It borders on blind faith. Somebody once asked a Sikh preacher, ” Should you have blind faith in a leader?”
    The preacher replied, ” Only if the leader is not blind himself.”

  2. October 11, 2013

    Good point. As I’ve said before, it’s often hard to tell the difference between a vision and a delusion:-)

    – Greg

  3. October 11, 2013

    Great post Greg, love the statement at the end that corny “elevates sentiment to the sublime”. Sounds like you got a little corny yourself writing this post.

    Perhaps it is the complexity and scale of modern life – billions of people from a multitude of cultures drawing on limited resources – that makes technology essential to safe, sustainable, societies today and into the future. The implication being that even for brands, vision will increasingly depend on technology for its realization.

  4. October 11, 2013

    I actually don’t think this is corny at all – if anything many of your suggestions are the mark of a brand that stands the test of time.

    Also, the “Loyalty Without Reason” I think you are maybe missing the larger element at play here. It isn’t loyalty without reason it is loyalty that stems from a feeling, which is hard to put into words. This is actually pure science – organizations who communicate and connect with their customers, partners, even employees through Why they do what they do vs. What or How create deeper connections. Connecting at that level is just pure biology and stems from the fact that when you start with your why you connect with someone in the Limbic part of their brain, the part of your brain that doesn’t have words it is nearly pure emotion.

    I wouldn’t say the above is “Corny” at all – it is the foundation of building a brand that truly connects at a different level. I would highly recommend watching this video from Simon Simek who does an excellent job of outlining the above:

  5. October 11, 2013

    Very true. Have a great weekend James!

    – Greg

  6. October 11, 2013


    Well, I guess corny is in the eye of the beholder (and for the record, I don’t see anything wrong with being a bit corny), but they all definitely make sense.

    Thanks for the TED video. I’ll check it out.

    – Greg

  7. October 20, 2013

    Another great post, Greg. I love how you keep me up to date on the wider ideas in the innovation space.

    I echo James Q’s thoughts above. I don’t particularly think any of these are “corny” in the traditional cheesy sense. But I do think that they might fall a little off the current mainstream. It takes guts to state and stick to something off-center these days, with such a deluge of others’ opinions around us. But it’s also a sign of authenticity.

    Thanks for highlighting these.

  8. Winston permalink
    November 2, 2013

    Thanks for sharing such a great post. Nice one!

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