Steven Van Belleghem’s favorite customer-obsessed phoenix companies

Phoenixes - companies that know when and how to reinvent themselves in order to thrive in a fast evolving world - come in all shapes and sizes. They tend to have very different approaches to keeping themselves relevant and that’s part of what makes them so exciting. But one thing that binds all of them together is a flawless understanding of what customers want. And if there is one person who excels at understanding customer experience, it’s my friend and nexxworks business Partner Steven Van Belleghem who has written many books and has given many keynotes on the matter.

Steven Horiz

So I decided to ask him about his favorite phoenix companies that were able to innovate themselves by creating fantastic customer opportunities. Here goes.


The Danish Egmont group was founded in 1878 by Egmont Harald Petersen, as a one-man printing business. It quickly changed into a company specialized in magazines and it has now evolved to become one of the largest content producers in Europe. Today, it not only produces weeklies, magazines, comics, books, educational materials and activity products but also makes movies and TV programs

Though the “what” of their phoenix transformation may be impressive, what Steven loves most about them is “how” they have been able to evolve over the last years. In September 2019, he had the pleasure of listening to the CEO of the company, Steffen Kragh, addressing his team. The latter literally said: 'I am no longer interested in being part of a failing and highly competitive market. Our magazines, books and TV-formats are holding their own, but the competition is fierce, and will continue to be so. I want to be active in tailwind markets.'

This 'tailwind markets' concept of theirs is truly fascinating. As far as Egmont was concerned, this meant looking at markets like e-commerce and gaming. Unlike the traditional magazine, book and TV-format industries, strong growth is still possible in the former two sectors. However, e-commerce and gaming are also challenging in that they are highly competitive, populated with plenty of powerful players. And so Egmont decided it was necessary to follow an approach that was very different from these other players.

In the field of e-commerce, they launched themselves in categories where major players like Amazon were less active: they focused on niche products for parents, outdoor hobbies and kitchen material. Amazon - the Everything store - also sells products in these categories, obviously, but by searching for the right niches Egmont hoped it could make the difference. And it worked: today, their e-commerce portfolio contains strong Nordic e-commerce brands like Jollyroom, Fjellsport and Outnorth.

In gaming, then, Egmont deliberately opted not to adopt a blockbuster strategy. Many games are incredibly popular for a short period of time, but thereafter quickly fade away, at which point the search for a new blockbuster begins. Here too, it decided to focus on underserved niches with great potential, like games for an older – often more wealthy and loyal – target audience, more prone to spending money on in-game purchases. One of the results of this strategy is the wildly successful game “Hunter: Call of the Wild”, in which people can hunt virtually in beautiful natural settings.

I truly love Egmont’s tailwind market strategy as a method for becoming and staying a phoenix: even in well occupied segments, it found a way to make use of its storytelling strengths to fill its sails with fresh wind.


Steven is also a really big fan of Lego, the Danish toy company that was founded in 1932 by Ole Kirk Christiansen, a carpenter whose primary business of producing household goods had suffered due to the Great Depression. After its initial big success, the company started performing really poorly by 2003 but was able to reinvent itself in a major way.

One of their most successful plans was to develop products with a connection to popular IP trademarks like Batman, Super Mario, Harry Potter, Star Wars, Friends, Spider Man and many more. Another fantastic idea was to develop their content and storytelling beyond their popular Legoland theme parks and focus on stop motion and 3D animation movies. The most clever about the latter is that these literally consist of 90 minutes of advertisement footage, paid by the parents who - at the end of the film - have a hard time navigating their children past the Lego toys on display.

Another very smart tactic of theirs, is how they involve their customers in their Lego design platform, where the former can suggest new products. If these receive enough votes, they actually get launched in the market and the inventor even receives part of the revenue. With this approach, they managed to turn adult Lego playing from guilty pleasure into something to be proud of.

For these past few years, Lego has pretty much constantly been reinventing itself as a brand. Its superpower lies in its storytelling abilities, combined with a very clever multiple platform strategy that allows it to be present in all the places where its customers are: from toys and games to content and theme parks.


Steven has been a big fan of Smartphoto for many years now, and he often talks about them in his keynotes. Today, the company is almost 70 years old: it was founded in 1964 in Wetteren, of all places, first as DBM Colour, then as Spector (in 1977) and later under the current name. Unsurprisingly they had to transform their original business model – the development of photographic roll films – into something more suitable for the digital era. And they did so with great gusto and success: today, this Belgian company operates in no less than 12 European countries, focusing on both consumers and businesses.

The first step of their reinvention process was obviously their move from analogue to digital photography printing. But then they decided to expand the printing possibilities from classical photographs and picture books to personalized gifts, cards, calendars, wall decoration and other types of prints. And in doing so they have become one of the market leaders in the matter. But a big part of their success is their simple interface with self-service functionalities.

Above all, what helped them grow so fast is their huge dedication to the customer. Steven loves to give the example of their employees being empowered to send spontaneous gifts when pictures show important life events like a marriage or a birth announcement. And another great example is how truly committed they are to solving mistakes, even if these are not of their own making. Many companies tend to look for the culprit when something goes wrong, in order to avoid extra costs. Customers hate this, no matter what. If the fault isn’t theirs, they’re annoyed that it took so long for the mistake to be rectified. And if they did make the mistake, they’re bothered by the finger pointing. Smartphoto has a very different approach: if a customer makes a typo in a picture book, they will reprint the whole deal without charging any extra costs. They’re one of the most human and dedicated companies that Steven knows, and their company culture of customer obsession – combined with a very pragmatic and go-getter attitude – lies at the source of their phoenix success.

If you want to learn more about how Phoenix companies are able to keep reinventing themselves in order to stay relevant, check my book The Phoenix and the Unicorn.