Discover Success Like Columbus: The Power of Thinking Inside the Box

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Everyone thinks the secret to success is to think outside the box. That may be one path, but it’s not the only one.

In fact, there may be a far easier route. It’s also one of the most overlooked paths to success.

You don’t need to think outside the box. All you need to do is think inside the box.

The voyage of discovery undertaken by Christopher Columbus represents an epic tale of success long embraced by the vast American public throughout the history of our country. It contains everything a good story should contain.

The Columbus saga begins with a naïve but unpopular observation by an underdog of underdogs. It features the obligatory scorn of the establishment. It honors the power of tenacity by showing how self-confidence can be rewarded. It displays a hero against a mutinous and non-believing crew. Finally, just as all seems lost, victory blossoms as a new world is discovered.

All this may appear to be Columbus thinking outside the box. After all, legend has it that his contemporaries thought the world was flat. And clearly, no one had ever advocated the approach of taking the straight route across the sea to India.

But America was always there. Columbus didn’t invent it. He merely took what his culture already had and refashioned it in a way that no one had previously considered.

A measure of the “inside the box” reality was Europe’s immediate response to Columbus’ discovery: “Sure, that’s obvious. No let’s all go and discover America.”

It might not be immediately apparent how to apply the Columbus inside-the-box metaphor to your business. Here’s a more contemporary real-life example whose relevance you’ll be sure to see.

Have you ever ordered a beverage at a restaurant? Whether beer, wine, or pop, it usually comes in a glass (or sometimes a bottle).

Now, these aren’t disposable glasses (or bottles). Somebody else already drank from them. That means hundreds if not thousands of people have drunk from those same glasses and bottles.

Think of all those lips. I mean, where have they been?

And what about all that combined backwash?

Do you believe that you’ve sipped from the same drinking vessel as all those mouths?

Makes you want to think twice before ordering a beverage the next time you’re out.

Now, what if I told you each one of those bottles and glasses have been steam cleaned using a process well known to prevent fermentation of beer (and other sundries)? By virtually sterilizing each bottle and glass, it’s as though you’re drinking from a brand-new container.

Does that make you feel better?

Are you comfortable once again with the thought of having something to drink at your favorite establishment?

Remember that feeling as I tell you this story of one of the greatest advertising men in the history of advertising. In fact, some say he invented the field.

Have you ever heard of Albert P. Lasker?

There once was a time when Albert P. Lasker was the cats’ pajamas, the talk of the town, the man everyone wanted on their side.

In the first quarter or so of the 20th century, Lasker was the president of Lord & Thomas.

Ever hear of Lord & Thomas?

They were the “McMann and Tate” of their time. In fact, they’re responsible for all the McMann and Tates we’ve ever known. For those too young to remember, the most famous employee of McMann and Tate was one Darren Stevens, husband of Samantha, a.k.a. “Bewitched.” McMann and Tate was a fictitious advertising firm on a TV series popular during the “Mad Men” era of advertising.

But the very first Mad Men were born in the offices of Lord & Thomas.

Albert Lasker virtually created the advertising industry as we know it. He wasn’t merely a copywriter, he was the visionary that mined the greatest copywriters.

Among those great – and some recognize him as the greatest – was Claude Hopkins.

Lasker discovered Hopkins while reading one of his ads. It was an ad for Schlitz beer. What Hopkins did in that ad made him famous. That he did this repeatedly in every ad he created would make him rich. Lasker knew talent when he saw it and he saw it in Hopkins.

Lasker desperately wanted to hire Hopkins. So the two met.

Lasker asked Hopkins what genius inspired him to write that Schlitz ad. Hopkins told Lasker a story that, if you’re in the advertising business, you should have heard a million times by now.

Hopkins proceeded to tell Lasker the story of how he was invited to take a tour of the Schlitz brewery in anticipation of his constructing an ad for them. The eager plant manager hurried Hopkins past the more mundane portions of the facility. He was excited to show Hopkins the fascinating machinery that both brewed and bottled the beer – one part enchanting chemistry the other part raw mechanics.

But Hopkins froze in one room.

The manager said the room offered nothing of interest, nothing of differentiating value. (OK, he didn’t use the term “differentiating value” because it would be another 40 years before Rosser Reeves would invent the term “Unique Selling Proposition” at Ted Bates & Company, another premiere advertising firm).

Hopkins insisted the manager explain what was happening in the room.

“Oh, that’s just the bottle washing room. We steam clean the bottles because it prevents fermentation of the beer. Everybody does it. Now let’s move on. You’ll really find this next room interesting!”

But Hopkins did not move on.

He had found his answer. He now knew what the Schlitz ad would say.

When he told his client, he was met with an incredulous gasp.

“But everyone does it! We’d be laughed at. Besides, even if it works, they’d immediately copy it.”

Hopkins then laid it plain for the client to see. He expressed a wisdom we might now call “seeing the forest for the trees.”

He told the good folks at Schlitz: “Yes, you know everyone steam cleans their bottles. All other brewers know all brewers steam clean their bottles.”

“But the customers don’t.”

“The first one to tell the customer they do it will own the concept. Schlitz will be the one to own ‘we steam clean our bottles because it prevents beer fermentation.’ All others who then try to make the same claim will only have their audience think of Schlitz.”

It was this ad that caught the eye of Lasker and brought Hopkins into the firm of Lord & Thomas.

Did you see what Hopkins did there?

He didn’t invent anything new. (Well, anything physical.) He took an existing function and repurposed it in a highly profitable way.

He thought “inside the box.”

This is the way it is with most of the famous business successes. They didn’t invent the mousetrap. They didn’t even invent a better mousetrap. They took that simple mousetrap and used it in a novel way that spoke to the market.

You know what I mean.

Henry Ford didn’t invent the automobile. He found a way to make it cheaper and more affordable and became rich selling cheap, affordable cars to the masses.

Ray Kroc didn’t invent the fast food joint (neither did the McDonald brothers, for that matter). He found a way to take an existing concept and make it more appealing to the market.

Steve Jobs, IBM, or Michael Dell didn’t invent the personal computer. They just found a way to package the technology that appealed to their (something niche) markets.

Be like Columbus. Discover the winning secret you already know (but don’t know you know).

Think inside the box.

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