What’s in the box?

Marc Levinson’s book The Box explains why a “soulless aluminium or steel box held together with welds and rivets, with a wooden floor and two enormous doors at one end” was able to revolutionise trade.

As Levinson points out the container is about much more than what it does, it’s about what it now represents to all of us living and buying in the global economy: an extraordinary system for moving goods between places at minimal cost and with as little complication as possible.

Along the way, the humble container literally changed the world around it: new ports became valuable; just-in-time became possible; international trade accelerated; loading and delivery times shrank; trade became standardised; supply chains extended.

But the economic benefits that arose from the container didn’t come from the box itself, clever as it was. The real innovation came from entrepreneurs who, over time, discovered how they could apply the potential of the container to their commercial advantage. It was those people who saw that this box with “all the romance of a tin can” represented much more than just a change in shipping. It was literally the shape of trade to come.

As that happened, Levinson points out, the real shift occurred. Businesses that at first had struggled to see how the container would work for them came over time to reshape themselves to ensure they could make better and better use of the equipment that was redefining whole industries.

The container serves as a powerful parable for all of us developing brand strategies and stories. The temptation is to go so far as to ask: What does it do, or even What could it do?

But finding the real potential, the wonderful story, the innovation that the rest of the world may have missed in a product or idea requires us to go three questions further.

What could it be? Where might that lead? And who would that excite?

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