Why Business is like... The Edinburgh Fringe

The Edinburgh Fringe is now the biggest arts festival in the world. But wind back to 1947, when it began, and it was just a small gathering of eight uninvited theatre companies performing on the fringes of a major cultural event, the Edinburgh International Festival. So how did the Fringe achieve its meteoric success, eventually casting a shadow over the event it once clung to? And what can we learn from the Fringe to apply to business?

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

According to Jeremy Sturt, a director at consulting firm Just Add Water, the growth of the Edinburgh Fringe is typical of change in business. 'Change happens at the corners,' he says. 'If you want to institute change in business, whether change in employee culture or customer behaviour, don't try to engage everyone all at once, in one fell swoop. Get those on the edges to buy in, and the rest will follow.'

Changing the behaviour of entrenched customers or employees can be a daunting task - vast media budgets and an ever-wider range of communication channels exist for the purpose. But the Fringe teaches us that great things can flow from small beginnings. The internet grew into a global phenomenon in less than 10 years without a single ad or conventional mass-marketing campaign. It had a handful of committed evangelists in the form of a group of maverick scientists and computer geeks - characters on the fringes of mainstream culture.

Not every cult is a mass-market hit in the making, though. Success ultimately depends on the underlying appeal of what you are offering. Says Sturt: 'People are like magpies. They are attracted by bright shiny things.' But their interest will soon wane if the bauble in question turns out to be an old sweet wrapper rather than a gold sovereign.

Jenny Harris is director of JRBH Strategy & Management, www.jrbh.co.uk.

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