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Bending reality
Queen Elizabeth II, from Colors no. 4, ‘Race’, Spring 1993  

The word “uchronia” is another term for alternative history. A combination of scholarship and imagination that looks at what happened in the past and poses, “what if?”

What if something different had happened? What if the South had won the war? What if Lee Harvey Oswald had missed Kennedy? What if the night watchman at The Watergate hotel didn’t bother to report the open basement door to the police? What would our world be like today?

While the concept of asking “what if?” is particularly compelling for writers of historical fiction, it’s also a critically important idea for stewards of brands. It’s about the value we can get out of imagining alternative brand/product/service paths. By considering the improbable and asking the “what if” questions, we not only free the brand from current constraints, we also set up a tighter perimeter for a stronger defense.

It’s easy enough to look at Apple as the uber-uchronistic, parallel universe brand. Steve Jobs was revered for the imagination and intuition to know what people wanted before they did. In fact, at Apple this was dubbed the Jobs Reality Distortion Field. He bent reality by ignoring what was and embracing what if. In the process, as his biographer Walter Isaacson says, Jobs transformed seven industries: personal computing, animated movies, music, digital publishing, retail stores, phones and tablet computing.
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1983 Dodge Caravan

Apple’s not the only uchronistic brand out there. And while others may not be as sexy or revolutionary as Apple, they still changed the world their brands lived in. Like Chrysler. Yes, Chrysler. Way back when, they took a basic truck chassis, re-imagined it and voila, the minivan. Not only was a new market segment born – a new way of life was created, complete with cupholders. Or Wikipedia. Here, the disruptive idea was not just the fact that an encyclopedia was free and online; it was the battle between traditional editing versus community editing. RIP Encyclopaedia Britannica.

What’s critical is to always be looking at what might endanger your brand – even if it doesn’t exist yet. Say you’re a health system. What if Nike, the ultimate brand of fitness and the promise of good health, suddenly decides to open Nike Hospitals across the country? Improbable, but not impossible. What if Facebook enters the smartphone market with the most socially aware mobile device? Improbable, but not impossible. To keep ahead of the disruptors, Kevin Coyne, author of “Brainsteering,” suggests a couple of questions to always ask:

1. Who uses our product in ways that we never expected or intended?
2. What’s the biggest hassle or problem in using our product?
3. Who would use more of our product if we removed a single, specific barrier?
4. How would our product change if it were customized for every user?

Alternate history. It could very well be the next chapter in your brand’s future.

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