Posts Tagged ‘strategy’

The following quote has never been truer in marketing than now.

“The times are more powerful than our brains.” Pandolfo Petrucci to Niccolo Machiavelli (Kelly, 2006)

Marketing strategists attempt to exist in the future. Generally the very near term future (a few quarters out), but the future nonetheless.  When strategies are presented, they are usually presented as if this is the only approach to take, which smacks of a presumed ability to predict that future. It is a conceit that the brain can somehow get a grip on the times.

A quote I heard years ago went something like ‘Show me someone that claims they can predict the future and I will show you a liar’. Accurately predicting what will happen two or three quarters out is just as difficult as predicting what will happen tomorrow. It is all a best guess.

“I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity” Oliver Wendell Holmes (Kelly, 2006)

Marketing strategists try to own the idea that they can deliver that ‘simplicity this side of complexity’ in how they develop ideas for the client. The world is orderly and proper. The results of the focus groups point to a particular direction. A quick scan of the market has created this USP. Everyone aspires to that ‘single-minded idea’.

The continual hammering of the K.I.S.S dogma has created an allergy to openly complex and vague but actionable ideas. The desire to translate a program into ROI prior to pulling the budget trigger requires that assumptions be baked into the calculation.

Is it apparent that it has sprung from an attempt to bring a certain comfort to brand managers that are required to show that the program they have paid for will have a return on the organizations investment. But is the rush to prove the possibility of success limiting the chances of actually achieving it?

In preparing that guess, how much discipline has gone into the exploration of that strategy? Do they take the time to explore as many options as possible before landing on the preferred choice? Can we bring more knowledge from the methodologies used in futurism to explore more options and to put those options in front of the client?

Imagine if for every program that was planned it was required to create three to four alternate scenarios. These scenarios would be presented to the client and would be the basis for collaborative program planning. Multiple scenarios would be covered by the smart allocation of tactics that would have multiple roles and failure options built in from the beginning. The program would be able to handle several scenarios – not perfectly of course, but with a high percentage of coverage.

Marketing strategists would be responsible for a much better understanding of the present and of the variables they are beholden to. They would have to develop an ability to look into concepts that are much more nuanced than data. Being able to hold seemingly contradictory statements in the mind without seeking ‘black or white’ resolution would be a necessary skill. Observation and synthesis of seemingly disparate information is critical to parse the current landscape.

“How can you see, most clearly, the environment in which your actions will take place, and how those actions will fit with (or stand against) the prevailing forces, trends, attitudes and influences?” (Schwartz, 1996)

Facing a marketing landscape that is much more powerful than our combined minds, perhaps we need to move away from the pursuit of the rational and of the ‘single-minded-idea’. We need to apply the concepts of foresight and defend fuzziness in the face of the hegemony of data. We need to move towards holding multiple program concepts in an active state through a solid foundation of controlled futurism.

“All the notions we thought solid, all the values of civilized life, all that made for stability in international relations, all that made for regularity in the economy…in a word, all that tended happily to limit the uncertainty of the morrow, all that gave nations and individuals some confidence in the morrow… all this seems badly compromised. I have consulted all the augurs I could find of every species, and I have heard only vague words, contradictory prophesies, curiously feeble assurances. Never has humanity combined so much power with so much disorder, so much anxiety with so many playthings, so much knowledge with so much uncertainty.” Paul Valery (Schwartz, 1996)

Kelly, E. (2006). Powerful Times: Rising to the Challenge of Our Uncertain World. Wharton School Publishing: New Jersey.

Schwartz, P. (1996). The Art of the Long View: Planning for the Future in an Uncertain World. Currency Doubleday: New York.

Is there a minimalist approach to marketing, a stripped down version that relies on adaptation, variation, evolution, and a bare framework upon which the consumer builds the experience? Further to my post on incomplete design, I wonder if we can pare back the industry process baggage known as branding and be better positioned for success.

During a recent conversation about experience design with a former coworker, we discussed whether we are really designing the experience or really designing a series of hooks upon which a consumer can generate their own experience. In another conversation the idea came up that branding is like a ‘self-licking ice cream cone’ and has become more bloated and self-perpetuating while it becomes increasingly disconnected from consumers.

Several tweets struck a chord with me on this subject about a week ago. One of the people I follow (@mpwsmith) was at the #MEIC presentation by Brady Gilchrist. The tweets were vivid but one was very compelling “Think mercenary – get lean and kill.” It speaks to the idea of lean and efficient marketing. No heavyweight branding activity because an incredible amount of time is wasted on that activity which has little relative value. If the brand is created in the mind of the consumer based on their experience, is it a conceit to believe we can directly influence that construct with a large and complicated concept?

No doubt the branding purists are rolling their eyes at reading this. The concept of branding is gospel. The work required to develop it has become just as entrenched. Taking clients through the process is a given.

This self-propagating attitude is what George Stalk in his book Hardball calls a compromise:

…is a limitation on customer choice made by the industry…When such compromises are endemic to an industry, customers don’t even see them as compromises. They accept them as “the way the industry works.”

I suggest we break a compromise.

I think we should look at it this way: a great deal more budget should be spent on research, on the problem formulation; in essence the discovery phase. Much less time should be spent on the brand planning, development and ‘big idea’.

More time should be spent on determining adaptation responses, supporting variation, tracking evolution and dynamically measuring to create a constant feedback loop. More time should also be spent to architect the experience flow with the correct hooks.

Less time would be spent on gold plating an idea before sending it to market.

Rather than planning for success, the planning approach would be about planning the ‘fail plan’, how the program will cope with failure and with change. It would set rules for supporting the graceful degradation of the touchpoints rather than the build of the brand message.

I am not suggesting we do branding in completely, nor am I discounting the value of creative and having an ‘idea’ around which to structure the conversation. I think we just need to continue to question the compromises we force on our clients and our consumers and rethink our approaches. We also need to question how we manage a brand out in the market and do less building and more brokering.

UPDATE: A post on MarketingVox about a survey where a majority of CMOs feel that traditional branding is broken.

An overwhelming majority (87%) of US CMOs and marketing managers believe branding initiatives need to be more flexible today than in the past.

A large part of this exploration is to determine the attributes or characteristics of the type of individual that would excel in dealing with the wicked problem we face. The ability to grasp the whole picture at once is critical to being able to face the challenge. And not just grasp the problem, but understand the interrelationships between each of the components in a marketing experience. With so many moving parts, so many balls in the air, keeping a sense of where they are at any given time is a critical skill.

The definition of situation awareness allows us to break the skill into three parts:

“…is the perception of environmental elements within a volume of time and space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their status in the near future.” (Wikipedia, 2009)

Looking at the first part, you can understand that in an air combat context the pilot needs to have the ability to find and track other aircraft in the immediate airspace around him/her. Non-aircraft objects (like the side of a mountain) are also tracked and kept in a mental ‘holding pattern’. It is not until one of the objects exits the theater in some way that the pilot can let it go.

In a fractured marketing landscape the marketing strategist is also required to keep many, many environmental elements in mind as they work towards the resolution of a clients problem. Each channel, the targets, the messaging, the client, the creative, the market, the culture…and so on. The strategist must be able to quickly pick out the salient points.

In the second part, the pilot has to make a quick assessment as to the meaning of the object – is it a threat, how is it operating, what are my options. Being able to grasp the meaning of the object and act on it quickly is the key to success. The pilot must intelligently ignore the irrelevant and focus on that which requires quick resolution.

In the face of the information overload that we currently face, it has never been more important to be able to separate the signal from the noise. Grasping the meaning of a change in consumer behaviour, the appearance of a new trend, the market actions of competitors and so on is critical to achieving success. The key is to also be able to translate that understanding into action that will result in meaningful results.

The third part is about knowing what will happen next. Based on flight path or other signals, a pilot can predict the future state of another aircraft and start preparing the right course of action. Experience leads to a deeper understanding of the possible options and the reactions start to become tacit.

We are all trying to be futurists in what we do. For example, we plan programs based on predictive models or set target conversion rates based on customer behaviour. Planning is really just building a scenario and then acting on it. Research, brainstorming, discovery are all inputs into a scenario – of varying degrees of fidelity. This scenario is then acted upon when the program is produced and delivered.

Those of us that live and breathe in the digital space already exhibit the type of behaviour that builds this skill. Following a large number of people on Twitter demands a certain constant awareness of where others are and what they are engaged in. This has been called social proprioception. I would posit that in a marketing strategy skill context it is better to look at it as situation awareness.

We need to consider the challenge of paradox.

“The entire realm of strategy is pervaded by a paradoxical logic very different from the linear logic by which we live in all other spheres of life.” (Luttwak, 2001)

In his excellent book Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace, Edward N. Luttwak is talking about military strategy and the potentially beneficial behaviour of choosing the least ‘logical’ or inefficient approach to defeating one’s enemy. As I read the book, I realized that a similar paradoxical logic is also one of the factors contributing to the wicked problem we face in marketing.

Traditional marketing planning or strategy assumes a rational logic to the behaviour of individuals within a target group. That assumption is further supported by the use of research results to predict the response to a strategy or tactic. The conceit is that if we can figure out the right attributes of our target or figure out the behaviours of our target that are of highest value, then the plan to trigger the appropriate response is a nearly linear ‘if this then that’. But as we struggle with our challenge, it is becoming clear that the underlying logic of marketing is more and more paradoxical. In trying to control as much as we do, are we setting ourselves up for more failure because it is a Sisyphean goal?

Additionally, as we plan, we try to cover as many bases as possible. When there were limited options for reaching consumers, coordination would have been simpler and outcomes easier to manage. Now that there are so many variables at play, trying to keep a hand on every lever and a finger on every pulse may be impossible.

“…although each separate element in its conduct can be quite simple for a well trained force…the totality of those simple things can become enormously complicated when there is a live enemy opposite, who is reacting to undo everything being attempted, with his own mind and his own strength.” (Luttwak, 2001)

The current mind of the consumer actively works to unwind the efforts of marketers. The increasing level of skepticism, doubt, mistrust, self-knowledge, and sophistication works contrary to the marketer’s goal of finding a clear space to generate a consensual hallucination. While marketers try hard to simplify and fit the consumer into a persona or a segment model, the consumers become increasingly complex and difficult to classify.

We need to accept that the landscape is too complex and that we need to act differently than we currently do. We should consider that in the face of this complex monster we need to have a preference for the seemingly inefficient course of action. Taking the time to gold plate a brand or create an intricate ‘big idea’ may be the wrong approach. Perhaps there is a skeletal framework or a lattice structure that can be just enough for the consumers to build their world around. In paradoxical logic, the less articulated a program is may actually make it better.

Luttwak, E.N. (2001). Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace. Cambridge: Belknap Press.

What does that mean?

That is the first question I am asked by most people when I start discussing consilience. Their brow furrows, they take a moment, and inevitably ask me to explain the concept.

Which is a great pity actually, because the idea of consilience is actually quite powerful. It should be pervasive throughout our society. Unfortunately, the rush to specialization has discounted the value of seeing the links between disciplines. It is true that the massive amount of knowledge about a topic has made that specialization necessary, but we let the pendulum swing too far. It is time to bring it back to the middle.

A recent essay by Denis Dutton illustrates the power of consilience. He is bridging the artificial gap that arose between the arts and sciences to create a view of the world that is as unique as it is rich. I highly recommend you read this essay.

I also recommend you read and reread the introduction by Steven Pinker. One of the top minds in cognitive science, he clearly endorses the movement towards consilience:

I see this as part of a larger movement of consilience, in which (to take a few examples), ideas from auditory cognition will provide insight into music, phonology will help illuminate poetics, semantics and pragmatics will advance our understanding of fiction, and moral psychology will be brought to bear on jurisprudence and philosophy.

We will truly begin to tackle our wicked problem when we can look at the challenge influenced by thinking that is a hybrid of (for example): Michael Porter x Yves Behar x Alice Munro x Damien Hirst x Peter Schwartz x Tim O’Reilly x Paola Antonelli

This blog is about change. It is about the need for a new way of thinking and working in the discipline I am in – marketing strategy.

The hypothesis is that Marketing Strategy is in a fractured state right now and that it is deeply in need of a renaissance. With the current marketing landscape and the number of different disciplines/roles/processes engaged in defining strategy across so may channels the community needs to rally and begin to look at our challenges and opportunities together.

The thinking has three fundamental platforms: 1. The discipline requires a ‘unity of knowledge’; that currently there are too many silos and a better interdisciplinary approach is the only way to tackle the future, 2. That we need to be more meta; we need to be better at creating an objective approach to our targets and also to redefine the way that agencies engage with each other – a new model and vernacular is required, and 3. We need to be able to truly deliver in a transmedia style; using each channel to its strengths and proper role within the holistic narrative.

I hope to use this blog to share my thinking and to point to great thinking from others. I believe that knowledge should be shared and that the process of change should be open and transparent.

I will also be posting to Twitter on a much more frequent basis. You can search for it under #newstrat or follow me @cuthbertsteel.