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Clarity Ain’t What it Used to Be

In the past few months, a perplexing new term has crept into the vocabulary of the business community. The word …

In the past few months, a perplexing new term has crept into the vocabulary of the business community. The word is “clarity.” Increasingly, we hear that investors failed to buy stocks or companies delayed making investments because they lacked the sort of “clarity” about the economy or the global political situation that they were seeking. Presumably, once this “clarity” emerges, things will start moving in a peachy-dandy direction.

Stripped to its core, the concept of “clarity” means that in an already miserable economic climate, no one wants to make any major decisions until they know what the future holds. Back in the Roaring Nineties, this theory proceeds, the stock market was predictable, albeit insane, and the state of the economy was reassuringly obvious, though no one was entirely clear why. Today, no one knows whether we are moving out of one recession or into another, nor is anyone certain whether the Internet Bubble was a short-term disaster like the Crash of ’87, or a zeitgeist-altering catastrophe whose reverberations will be felt for decades to come, like the Great Crash of ’29. Until we have some perspective, the economy will simply drift.

At the risk of sounding like a spoilsport, I think the quest for “clarity” is a fool’s errand. When McDonald’s, the apotheosis of marketing prowess, hit some rough sledding last fall, it suddenly became apparent that the company’s iron grip on the imagination of the American people had been broken. Thanks to consumer fatigue with an aging product mix, the failure to introduce a killer app foodstuff à la Chicken McNuggets, and growing public concerns about caloric intake, McDonald’s found itself losing market share for the first time in history to adroit upstarts like Subway. Slowly but surely the consumer zeitgeist had shifted, and McDonald’s had been slow to respond to the shift. So it was forced to play catch-up.

What we learn from all this it is that “clarity” ain’t what it used to be. For decades, McDonald’s knew exactly what the American people wanted. Then one day the public-or at least a substantial segment of the dining populace-shifted gears. Suddenly, the decades-spanning “clarity” was gone.

Tommy Hilfiger has also taken a thumping in the clarity department. For what seemed like forever, the designer enjoyed an intense popularity among urban youth. Then one day a bunch of younger, hipper designers launched a palace coup. The company’s stock hit the skids, Bloomingdale’s reduced its Hilfiger men’s boutiques from 23 to 1 and Hilfiger was forced to search for a new image.

Again and again, we’re seeing previously successful companies coping with the death of clarity. The dismal performance of several recent Disney films shows that the company’s once-close relationship with the American family is showing signs of wear. The minivan went from being the vehicle of choice among suburbanites to a somewhat homely cliché, ceding pride of place to SUVs. But now, with declining “clarity” about the direction of oil prices and burgeoning public disdain for at least the most monstrous of the oversized gas guzzlers, there is reason to believe that the “clarity” enjoyed by SUV makers for a decade may soon be a thing of the past.

The awful truth is, we seem to have entered an era where energy prices are subject to all sorts of external strains; where the public is exhibiting an increasing fickleness and selectivity about its spending habits; and where a sizable portion of the buying public- young people-seem almost perversely given to abrupt mood shifts. No one can say for sure which industry the public will jilt next. Will upscale coffee makers suddenly go out of style? Will the gentry suddenly give the thumbs-down to starter mansions and McChateaux? Will retro Studebakers make an astonishing comeback? Impossible to say. But one thing is clear: Companies should get used to sudden shifts in public tastes and get rid of the idea that any kind of “clarity” is emerging. Things are up for grabs. Seismic shifts are occurring. What worked yesterday might not work tomorrow. As Tommy Hilfiger, Ronald McDonald, and Mickey Mouse all have learned, the words of the immortal Jackson Browne are written on the subway walls: Don’t think it won’t happen just because it hasn’t happened yet. s

Joe Queenan (flipside@chiefexecutive.net) also writes for Barron’s, SmartMoney and The Wall Street Journal.

About Joe Queenan

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron's and The Wall Street Journal.