All right, all right, we know. The late Canadian actor Leslie Nielsen really has no place in a business blog – but we loved the guy and want to mark his passing somehow.
Come to think of it, there is one great lesson entrepreneurs can learn from the man who went from “serious actor”
to Grand Master of Slapstick: Leslie Nielsen is a classic business case study in rebranding.
The interesting thing is how this was less of a dramatic change than it might appear.
First of all, his interviews suggest that in real life Nielsen seems to have possessed a genuine sense of humour, which is, to put it politely, rare in a professional actor. So his transition from tragedy to comedy was so not much evolution as reverting to type.
Secondly, like most truly great comedic actors, he understood that the key to comedy lies not in begging for laughs by trying as hard as possible to act “funny” but in reacting to funny situations with perfect seriousness. His success in comedies like Airplane and The Naked Gun trilogy was due to his ability to deploy, in an entirely different context, exactly the same straight face that he perfected in dramatic roles in films like Forbidden Planet and The Poseidon Adventure.
Indeed, it is impossible now to watch his reaction to a giant wave hitting an ocean liner – the tragic high point of the latter film – without smiling, half expecting him to say something hilarious.
The moral of the story is that a rebranding, or any other change of strategy, is not just a matter of trying to get away with the sharpest U-turn imaginable, but of combining change with continuity.
That might sound like a contradiction, but the art of managing change depends on the ability to distinguish between what should be kept and what needs to jettisoned. All too often, a new management team, or, even worse, a team of consultants, comes in determined to stamp their authority on an existing business, and they change everything simply for the sake of changing it. Only later is it discovered that they threw out the good with the bad – and possibly lost an existing customer base in a failed attempt to find a new one.
So do not be misled by the fact that we started off by talking about comedy. For many businesses, rebranding without building on what has gone before has proved a tragedy. Make no mistake: on this point, we are serious ...but don’t call us Shirley.