Something to Chew On

Before Christmas I found a display of older candy brands, and some of them made it into my cart. Among other things I picked up Beeman’s Chewing Gum to put in the stockings of several family members.

While visiting my Dad before Christmas, he told me a story about finding something at the store and buying all they had. As he told me the story he tossed me a package of Beeman’s. I burst into laughter and told him he would enjoy at least one of the things in his stocking later…

This all happened several weeks ago, and as I write this I am chewing Beeman’s Chewing Gum. If you are unfamiliar with Beeman’s it was invented in 1898 to ease heartburn, since it initially contained pepsin. Beeman’s was then a popular chewing gum brand for many decades.

I bought the gum out of nostalgia – the package alone brought a smile to my face and hoped it would for others too. Thankfully, I was right. What I didn’t know at the time of my purchase was that this gum would help me learn something about business, change, and myself.

I’m really not much of a gum chewer. Occasionally I’ll have a piece of gum if offered, or if I think it would help my breath. What I have noticed is that all the newer gums come in smaller portions but have amazingly long lasting flavor. I always find myself feeling like I’m chewing almost nothing, and having a sore jaw long before the flavor is gone.

Not so with Beeman’s. You don’t chew a piece of Beeman’s, you chew a stick. And while the flavor is excellent at first, it doesn’t last nearly as long. It was this insight that got me thinking…

Making Gum

Imagine a meeting at one of the big chewing gum companies. Someone proclaims, “What we need is more flavor – we need flavor that lasts a long time.” Everyone agrees, then they discuss what the flavor itself should be, and a new gum brand is on the way to market. Everyone would assume that people would want more and longer lasting flavor.

By these measures gum manufacturers have surely succeeded. But for an occasional chewer like me, I’ll take Beeman’s. I like the feel of a full stick in my mouth instead of a small pebble and I like flavor that seems to magically wane about the time my jaws start to ache.

At first I chalked up my feelings about this old fashioned gum to nostalgia, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought I had real reasons for my preference. Once I got past nostalgia, I got thinking about change.

The Flip Side

I spend a good bit of my professional life helping people and organizations think about, learn from, prepare for and manage change. I am a proponent of change, and have many items in my home and office that show I am far from a laggard. I am interested in willing to try new things.

While I embrace most change and am willing to try new products, sometimes the old products work just as well. Many people swear by 20 Mule Team Borax as a detergent or laundry additive, even though it has been around for over 100 years. People were shocked when Coca Cola created New Coke, and eventually, Classic Coke was returned to the marketplace.

Finding the Balance

None of this means we shouldn’t continue to innovate in our businesses, or that we as consumers shouldn’t try new products. Rather, in our quest for the new solution or product, we shouldn’t forget the older one.

As I thought about all of this for a few days, I kept humming a Merle Haggard song from 1981 called, Are the Good Times Really Over. In the second verse he sings,

I wish Coke was still cola and a joint was a bad place to be.

It was back before Nixon lied to us all on TV.

Before Microwave ovens when a girl could still cook, and still would.

Is the best of the free life behind us now and are the good times really over for good?

Both of the verses focus on a nostalgic view of the world, and are reinforced by the chorus,

Are we rollin’ downhill like a snowball headed for hell?

With no kind of chance for the flag or the liberty bell?

I wish a Ford or a Chevy would still last ten years like they should.

Is the best of the free life behind us now and are the good times really over for good?

But the song ends with a revised chorus, with a revised vision of change and the future:

Stop rollin’ downhill like a snowball headed for hell.

Standup for the flag, and let’s all ring the liberty bell.

Let’s make a Ford and a Chevy that’ll still last ten years like they should…

The best of the free life is still yet to come and the good times ain’t over for good.

We can value, learn from and use the products of the past; and still look forward to, try, and create innovative products in the future. These two things don’t have to be contradictory.

The book copyrighted in 2005 isn’t necessarily better than the one written in 1955 (or 1905). Rather than assuming the new is better, read both. The new gum is good, but so is Beeman’s.

You can be a champion of change and still like Classic Coke – in fact you can learn much from the existing or popular products of the past and use them as a springboard for the future. After all, Volkswagen made a new Beetle and had a hit and Ford is making a new Mustang that looks like a 35 year model.

I encourage you to think about your own feelings about change, and what you can learn from the examples I’ve shared with you.


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