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The power of the pivot

Mr Trump's refusal to pivot is understandable: he fended off more than a dozen rivals for the Republican nomination by spouting contentious things and feeding people's fears of immigrants and Islamic terrorists. But his obstinance threatens to weaken his chances of securing the White House: his hateful speeches and outrageous proposals resonated with white, working-class male voters during the primaries, but they've alienated minorities, women and many prominent Republican donors and politicians. Although changing tack could make the billionaire seem dishonest and disingenuous, doubling down looks to be a sure-fire way to lose the election.

Corporate question

Company executives often face similar dilemmas: do they stand by an existing business model, which may be doomed to fail, or transform their operations and potentially estrange customers and employees and scrap years of hard work? Many simply lack the energy, flexibility and appetite for risk to even attempt a transition. But there are several recent examples of businesses changing course in response to new challenges or opportunities.

After announcing a 'pivot to Asia' last year, banking giant HSBC (HSBA) has invested heavily in China and other parts of the region to capitalise on mounting demand for finance. It earned about 84 per cent of its pre-tax profit there last year, up from 70 per cent in 2013. Similarly, low-fare airline Ryanair (RYA) reacted to the Brexit vote by announcing it would concentrate on EU rather than UK airports over the next two years. And US networking behemoth Cisco (US:CSCO), which made its fortune selling cables and routers, has reacted to flagging hardware sales by switching its focus to cyber security software, data storage and internet-connected devices.

Success stories

There are plenty of famous pivots throughout business history. More than a century ago, Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A) manufactured textiles, mobile phone giant Nokia (Fi:NOK1V) was a paper mill and video-game titan Nintendo (Jp:7973) produced playing cards. Sony (Jp:6758) went from selling rice cookers to cameras and televisions, while WPP (WPP), the world's largest advertising company, began life as Wire and Plastic Products, a manufacturer of wire shopping baskets. More recent cases include Twitter (US:TWTR), created after the threat of iTunes forced podcast network Odeo to kitchen-sink its business, and photo-sharing platform Instagram - owned by Facebook (US:FB) - which began as a location check-in and gaming app called Burbn.

But perhaps the best examples of pivots come from beauty products group Avon (AVP) and chewing gum brand Wrigley, now owned by chocolate giant Mars. Their founders, travelling salesmen of books and baking powder respectively, realised the free perfume and packs of gum they handed out to customers were more popular than their main products.

Fictional echo

Pivoting has become such a popular concept in business circles that it's been the subject of satire. Silicon Valley, a TV comedy that follows the highs and lows of a software start-up called Pied Piper, devoted an entire plotline to one of its founders frantically attempting to pivot. When the company's data-compression technology seems destined to fail, he corners strangers to ask them if they'd use an app that can attract rats or buy a GPS device to track their kids. "I can follow your child anywhere and there is nothing you can do to stop me," he gleefully tells the perturbed parents of a newborn baby.

The term 'pivot' risks becoming yet another corporate buzzword, but it remains a crucial business tool. Executives in Mr Trump's situation - where a certain approach has paid dividends - must be willing to take a step back and consider if changes are needed, or they risk losing ground. Those that can recast their companies to meet their customers' needs and see off rival upstarts deserve significant credit. Investors should favour businesses that make careful, calculated shifts in strategy over those that can't or won't adapt to market forces. The fate of the free world may not be at stake, but a company's ability to pivot can determine its long-term survival and the scale of its shareholder returns.