Posted by: kevinliebl | February 21, 2010

Has your Company or Product “Jumped the Shark”?

Happy Days Arthur Fonzarelli – “Fonzi“ (Henry Winkler)

Arthur “Fonzi“ Fonzarelli Jumping the Shark

Sometimes there is a phrase or expression that fits a scenario perfectly.  One of my favorite business terms is “Jumping the Shark”.  This is a term that became popular in the mid-1980s and was used to describe a successful television series that had reached its peak and was now in the decline.  The writers would often attempt to breathe life back into the series by writing plot twists and storylines that ultimately were perceived as absurd and desperate.

The term originated from a 1977 episode of the show Happy Days where the character Arthur Fonzarelli – “Fonzi” (Henry Winkler), wearing swim trunks and his famous leather jacket, attempted to jump over a shark tank on water-skis.  He completed the stunt as a challenge, in an attempt to prove his bravery.  The fact that he wore his leather jacket in the ocean and had never water-skied previously were just two of the many reasons this scene was silly.  Both the critics and the fans alike found this storyline desperate and while the show continued for several more seasons, it was never taken seriously again.  The show went through many cast changes and restructuring in an attempt to regain a leadership position.  It was clearly a tipping point for the ratings.

The upside of this terrible episode is that we have a great catch phrase that is now used frequently in business.  Anytime a company tries to extend the life of a marketing promotion, an ad campaign or a product line beyond it’s true value, it is perceived as “jumping the shark”.  This happens frequently when a company has a great ad campaign that is extremely successful.  They will re-use the same formula until it simply becomes a parody of itself.  It will also happen when a company relies on a single product for an unreasonable amount of its revenue.  If the product line does not have a clear roadmap of demonstrating value, the company is sometimes forced to create empty positioning which is perceived as absurd and desperate.  This can be sad because the original marketing campaign or product line is often a brilliant piece of work and when the company is forced to take it one step too far, we look back sadly because it tarnishes the original effort.

I believe that there are several lessons that can be learned from my wasted-youth watching sitcom television.  First, never get too comfortable riding the wave of success.  All good things come to an end and you need to be thinking about the next great success, whether it is an ad campaign, product line or even job opportunity.  Second, recognize when you are coming up on a transition point.  Cut over to your next success before you are forced to.  I admire athletes who can retire at their peak.  I am amazed by companies who introduce brilliant new products even when their current products are still industry leaders.  Finally, remember that the market is smarter than you think.  They will recognize garbage when they see it.  It is very difficult to put out poor work and convince people that it is brilliant.  If you can’t sell your campaign, product or proposal with a straight face, then don’t do it.  You never want to be perceived as desperate.

Can you share any experiences where you, your company or your competition have “jumped the shark”?


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  1. Good question. I wonder how many businesses are blaming the economy for their lack luster performance when in reality their products and services have finished their life cycle.

    • Brenda,

      Thanks for the comment. A great point. I think that we are being squeezed from both sides. The economy is forcing companies to cut back and squeeze what they can out of existing product lines, marketing efforts, etc… Therefore, we are not able to invest in leading-edge work. There is a strong argument that in tough economies, you need to invest heavily to take advantage of those companies that are struggling. The strong companies can quickly grab market share from the weaker ones. However, it takes a strong management team to invest during tough times. Only the strongest companies can afford to do so. As Warren Buffett says, “It’s only when the tide goes out that you learn who’s been swimming naked.”

      – Kevin

  2. Nice post. You can’t rest on your laurels. In my business I’ve learned the hard way that even your best clients can instantly become former clients for any number of reasons (political, financial, etc.). The flip side is clients don’t like service providers who seem to be more focused on the hunt for new business. It’s a delicate balance. I never watched that show, but heard about the “shark” episode. When a TV show goes south with its plot lines, it’s time for the producers to call it a day and live off the residuals.

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