Watching events unravel in the Middle East, one could only conclude that Egypt’s leaders suffered from far more than a tin ear when listening to the hundreds of thousands of protestors outside their doors.  They totally failed to realize the power of the people (a resurgent phrase reminiscent of the ’60s) until it was too late for them to do anything about it.

While the dissolution of a dictatorship and the ascent of democracy are to be celebrated on the geopolitical scene, the course of events in Cairo should serve as a lesson for brand marketers and corporate leaders here in America.

It took painful losses, Chapter 11 filings, revolving-door presidencies and online uprisings for more than two years before corporations finally began listening to the marketplace and made transformational changes to their products and services to satisfy public demands.  Whether we look at the auto industry, banking, news media organizations or tobacco companies, the common thread has been top-down decision-making that eventually was overthrown by the people—their consumers.

Marketers have since learned that to build their brand, they must place it in the hands of their customers.  Whether the brand thrives or dies will be determined by how the marketplace judges the quality, innovation, durability and utility of the brand’s offerings.  Through social media, brand images and success rates are shaped and re-shaped within days, hours or minutes; and trying to hold on to an old and rejected product is as futile as a government’s trying to hold onto to an old and rejected dictatorship.

The same reality applies to corporate leaders in dealing with employees.  Attempting to impose arbitrary policies severely restricting remote working, or codes regarding permissible underwear colors, is a futile action that can be viewed as the whim of a desperate despot or simply outdated leadership.  Companies also are learning (too slowly) that banning use of social media in the workplace simply drives more staff members to complain about the policy on social sites via their mobile phones—not a situation conducive to attracting future employees.

On the other hand, organizations that have embraced social media—for everything from customer service to employee collaboration and education—have risen up in rank over their antiquated counterparts.  Companies that give more creative power to their workforce are enjoying increased productivity.  And leaders who listen to and act on employee recommendations are finding themselves much better off and much more secure in their futures.

Egypt may seem to be a world away, but it instructs us daily in the dangers of creating corporate Cairos.

—Steve Friedman