I have a friend who uses the examples of a Chevy Corvette and a Ford Thunderbird to demonstrate the difference between enterprises that have strong vs. weak corporate identities.

"If someone says they drive a Corvette, you instantly know something about their car and perhaps even speculate a bit about the owner," he said. "But if they say they drive a Thunderbird, you have to ask, 'Which year?' "

He's right. As the Thunderbird went from sports car to mock-Cadillac and back down to roadster over the decades, the Corvette stayed substantially true to its form.

But in reality, who could blame Ford for trying to keep apace with consumers who prefer small cars one year and then like 'em big the next? Tastes shift, demand changes over time, and the companies that don't make concessions to changing preferences risk stagnation and death.

The difficulty, of course, is trying to sort out which values your business should retain and which to cast off.

I recently met a CEO whose company found itself at this crossroads and whose customers seemed to have left him behind. But he did not frame the resultant self-examination of his business in clinical terms like "brand integrity" or "corporate identity." He talked about struggling to change his business while yet retaining its "soul."

Cedric Gobilliard, CEO of Club Med Americas, said that in the process of repositioning his properties, he discovered how difficult it could be to pinpoint the soul of his business and win back his clientele, which went from budget-minded, fun-loving singles to upscale parents traveling with kids.

"We're still fighting our own shadow," he said. "We were promoted for years as 'the antidote to civilization.' People are still asking, 'Can we lock the door? Is there a TV?' "

Club Med has been tinkering with its model for several years now, opening family-centric locations while maintaining others with a more adult focus. Ultimately, deciding to jump into the upscale family market wholeheartedly, the company has invested $140 million over the last two years to convert properties to deliver on that positioning.

"Is it possible to do this without losing your soul?" Gobilliard asked. "To offer suites and room service in a Club Med?"

What Gobilliard eventually identified as the company's "soul" -- that which needed to be retained -- was a sense of discovery, adventure and human connections, as personified by the "G.O.s" (gentil organisateur), the staff activity directors.

"Everyone has more luxury in their day-to-day life," he said. "But compare our Cancun property with the Ritz-Carlton in Cancun. We're upscale, but we're not uptight. You can stay at the Ritz and feel lonely. But not at Club Med."

By chance, the next day I ran into Simon Cooper, CEO of Ritz-Carlton, and asked what he thought about the comparison.

While diplomatically side-stepping the upscale/uptight description, his analysis of Club Med was not so different from Gobilliard's.

"They've got a great brand and, in many places, they got there first and got the best, prime locations," he said. "But they didn't realize their customer was changing, and they caught that late."

Cooper didn't see conflict between their core identity and their move toward the high end. "They're right to go upscale," he said. "There's no differentiation at the lower end. And they do need to rekindle that sort of edginess that Club Med had originally."

To that point, Gobilliard had reflected that while Cancun has its appeal, "going to Cancun is not an adventure." So the company is planning on opening new destinations and doing things no one else is doing.

For example?

"A Club Med in Vietnam. And a family safari in South Africa. We're still working on that, but we want to create a safari that's a safe environment for kids."

To get the word out about what has changed for Club Med -- as well as what has been retained -- Gobilliard is reaching out to travel agents.

"We did a lot of surveys," he said. "The relationship between consumers and agents is amazing, and for us, third-party validation is key. What consumers are saying to agents is, 'I trust you. Don't disappoint me.' "

Based on the human connections that Gobilliard identified as a core value for Club Med, travel agents may indeed be a complementary distribution channel. They, too, have stood at the crossroads. And most who survived were among the group that concluded that the human connection was the soul of their businesses, too.


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