Henry Ford is often credited with having said, “You can have any color so long as it’s black.” Whether or not he actually said it, we know that from 1914 to 1925 black really was the only option available for the Model T. Prior to 1914 and after 1925, things were more colorful, but there was indeed a black period. Beyond its historical value, the all-black paint job can tell us a lot about trends and consumer preferences today.
One argument for the car’s black period is profits. Black paint supposedly dried faster and the process (“japanning”) produced a more durable finish. Given the surge in demand Ford was experiencing, anything that got more cars off of the assembly line would boost profits. With little truly threatening competition at the time, the most profitable option for the company could win.
The other argument is preference. While other cars did come in a colorful variety, the Model T was the “it” car of the period. Its black color was a strength and not a weakness, with the color becoming part of its iconic image. Not having a black Model-T Ford meant not being part of the same echelon of car culture. Status is power.
The lesson for today is not just how products, profits and preferences go hand in hand, but how they also change over time. The Model T was black for 12 long years before they had to break out the other colors. The reasons are complex, but the message is simple: trends may last longer than we can imagine, but they always have a finite life. Some combination of the profitability that makes the trend sustainable will bring in competition, and competition will look for preferences with different profit models to gain their own foothold with new products. It happens in every industry.
If products, profits and preferences have to change, then adaptability is critical. We all have metaphorical black cars in our field that will be challenged. We have “it” products and services that may seem untouchable now, but someday will feel pressure. There are no sacred cows. All businesses change, it’s up to us to evolve alongside them.
There’s tremendous opportunity in staying knowledgeable of consumer preferences and keeping our eyes and ears open to what’s next in our field. We don’t always have to single-handedly move our businesses forward, but we should be able to tell the story of what’s going on and why. Being the non-crazy person with a finger on the pulse is often an underrated skill in many large organizations. For the entrepreneurs, this is the fountain of opportunity from which all ideas spring.