Sleeping Beauties

In the Walt Disney movie ‘Sleeping Beauty’ (1959), princess Aurora famously falls into a deep sleep after being cursed by an evil fairy, Maleficent, and is eventually woken up by a prince.

As I was researching the theme, I made the mistake to read its Freudian interpretation and it erased some of the innocence left in me. The psychoanalysis of fairy tales can match the most tortuous interpretation of ‘The Shining’. In addition, like many fairy tales, ‘Sleeping Beauty’ contains a deep gender bias: a product of its time, it is profoundly patriarchal, conveying the notion that women ‘are to be beautiful, sing and dance beautifully and be obedient and passive and care for the home.

Despite this troubling background, the concept is used across various disciplines when referring to dormant value.

In corporate finance, a sleeping beauty is an underappreciated and thus undervalued public-listed company considered prime for a takeover. The firm is said to be ‘sleeping’ ahead of being awaken by a prince or princess to achieve its full potential under a new ownership.

In marketing, brands which are no longer on the market and might even have fallen into oblivion are said to be sleeping beauties if they retain some brand equity. There has been an important trend for consumer goods companies to reactivate and transform these brands into ‘heritage brands which exude legend, a critical trait of luxury brands.

In research, it can be demonstrated that valuable innovation may go unnoticed for years before being awaken and allowed to make a positive impact. In Sleeping Beauties and their princes in innovation studies’, the authors explain that important publications can be subject to delayed recognition spanning several years, sometimes more than a decade. They identify scientific resistance to novel ideas as one of the main causes for such occurrence. They show that it takes many princesses or princes to bring a dormant piece of valuable research to the appropriate level of attention.

From a human capital perspective, there are sleeping beauties too. They tend to include many female employees. Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, provides some tangible evidence that women are not getting noticed in organization in The Power of Talk: Who Gets Heard and Why(1995) and in more recent studies (see also the Sunday note Smart Teams Level The Playing Field). These dynamics appear to have worsened with online meetings this year. The biases of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ live on.

While leadership teams tend to be focused on finding new sources of value, the above suggests that there is significant benefit in embracing the role of princesses or princes and in ‘awakening’ dormant value, whether in corporate finance, marketing, R&D or human resources. Tremendous upside may sit nearby waiting to be (re-)discovered.

And someone please do something to recalibrate those fairy tales for the future generations!

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