I was inconsolable. Littlefoot’s mother was perishing from mortal, T-rex-inflicted wounds at the bottom of a ravine and Littlefoot’s limpid dinosaur eyes were welling with animated tears. It was my first encounter with the 1988 children’s classic, Land Before Time (a masterpiece by Spielberg and Lucas, the same duo that introduced us to the two lovelorn rodents who serenade each other underneath the same night sky). It was also my first encounter with a concept that is usually – incorrectly – deemed to be a quote by Charles Darwin: it is not the strongest, but the most adaptive that survives.
Phrases of this ilk have been trotted out in the business context for years (usually accompanied by a pregnant pause as everyone stares worriedly at either their hands or the tepid lemon water in the centre of the boardroom table). However, as marketing strategy becomes increasingly intertwined with overall business directives and product strategies, planning for change is a skill that marketing departments and agencies are increasingly interested and invested in.
Planning for Change
Bob Dylan assures us - in his signature twang - that change has been around for a while now, but it is the rate of change in our culture and economy that is unprecedented. The fundamentals of a business may change overnight, fueled by the adoption of social and mobile technologies, disruptions in publishing and advertising and the advent of bizarre-sounding capabilities like mobile ultrasound and cloud-connected cars.
Start-ups such as Airbnb, DropBox and GiltGroup are valued at above $200million and newcomers such as Zillow (a property portal) and LegalZoom (a DIY legal document service) are stealing market share from long-established industries. The implausibility of developing multi-year marketing plans, complete with competitor analyses, becomes evident when one considers that the companies that will truly thrive in this environment are those agile enough to adapt, embracing the opportunities for growth that this chaotic and fluid paradigm offers.
Placing the Microscope on Agility
Multiple models and methods for agility are being developed and explored, as businesses attempt to stay competitive and field the curveballs thrown at them by chaotic external markets.
One of the first key themes to emerge has been the success of case-based thinking over rule-based thinking. That these terms should derive from economics is fitting, given that economics is, at its core, the study of how individuals, groups, companies and organisations react to change.
Case-based thinking encourages us not to attempt to develop formulae for how the world is, but rather to develop models and analogies to understand the relationships between real-world elements. We see this in examples such as ‘bonfires and fireworks’, a simple model that defines standard advertising as an attention-grabbing ‘firework’ that burns and disappears and social media as a more long-burning, time-consuming and participatory ‘bonfire’ method of connecting with consumers.
A second major theme of agile planning and marketing is frequent iteration and testing. The success of this method was first touted by Thomas Edison, who never failed, but rather “found 10 000 ways that wouldn’t work”. From IDEO’s famous “fail fast, fail often, succeed sooner” mantra, to scientific studies that demonstrate that student groups that are tested more often are more successful than groups that study for longer, the cases for frequent iteration (whether this applies to a product, a service or a communications message) are numerous. Coca-Cola, for example, employs a 70/20/10 rule with regard to their content marketing strategy, dedicating 70% of their content to bread and butter, low-risk content, 20% to innovative activities and 10% to high-risk, high-potential activities.
Linked to frequent iteration is the idea of a minimum viable product – the very barest, most basic working prototype of the final vision. Minimum viable products allow businesses to accurately test even complex products or ideas on their market (or a defined segment of it), placing the potential for failure at the beginning of the innovation cycle, when there is less to lose and positive variations are possible. Building frequent iteration into marketing and product development processes opens the business up to the kind of collective intelligence harnessed by bodies, such as market insights group Brainjuicer or the Hollywood Stock Exchange (a group of traders who predict Oscar winners and the performance of movies at the Box Office with striking accuracy) and creates an open and honest testing forum. Unlike focus groups, which are often inherently flawed (how can we trust the people who didn’t like Seinfeld?), multiple iterations allow an audience to test and react to a product or idea as it is, not as it is planned to be. This creates an opportunity for a business to adapt accordingly, early on enough in the process to minimise economic losses.
The dissolution of the silos between executive powers, marketing functions and product development is a third and major trend in a shifting landscape. Consumers, fighting their own battles in the new, chaotic context are receptive and appreciative of brands that diversify in ways that make sense, adding layers of value around their core brand essence. For brands to do this is welcomed, almost expected, which affords businesses an opportunity, a platform to define their core and look for exciting ways to engage new and existing markets. For example, while branded health food might be a tempting potential revenue stream for Nike, it sits too far from their core essence of sport. Instead, the brand has built out their offering around their core with Nike+, which, among other capabilities, uses sensors placed in Nike trainers to capture information about route, speed, heart rate and calorie uptake, streaming it via an iPod and enabling online viewing and progress-monitoring.
Planning for change can be particularly difficult for mammoth enterprises and industry dinosaurs (we all know what really happened after the credits rolled on Land Before Time), as they are challenged to adapt long-standing structures, processes and methodologies. However, as adaptability becomes a strategic imperative in order to stay relevant, it is important to begin the first iterations of agile planning in order to succeed sooner.