Choose an emergent strategy

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Do you remember when you were a child the first time someone made you a paper plane? If your recollection is anything like ours, you couldn’t believe how it left your hand and made its way across the room. Before long though, it lost height and velocity, and fell to the floor. Your strategy may well do the same – unless you employ an emergent strategy.

If you adopt an emergent strategy, your business chooses to continue to react and respond to actions and initiatives. HBR describes this strategic approach as “spontaneous innovation”: your strategy sets a broad course – but there is flexibility within your mapping to change position or direction depending on what is going on around you. If you want to see the business case – Joshua Freedman has written an excellent analysis of why Emergent Strategy is conducive to addressing the issues we face now.

Luck is not a strategy

Mark once had a flatmate who was a pilot. He used to fly these ridiculously small aircraft in and out of crazy airstrips throughout the Pacific. Every take-off, he used to say, was almost literally a leap of faith. You barrelled down a runway in the middle of the mountains, literally fell off the end and waited for the winds to pick you up.

He used to come home from an assignment, throw his bags on the couch, and announce, “So far, so good”.

It always amazes us the number of companies that seem to believe they will be the ones to defy gravity. They’ll take the profits without reinvesting anything. Or they’ll keep running their brands to the very last drop without any replacements or refreshments in sight. And when their value and market share falls, they seem to do next to nothing new, perhaps more of the same … they talk about their history and their past achievements and they wait.

They wait for the uplift.

Here’s the thing. Any brand, no matter how strong it has been, without renewal, without invigoration, without powerful forward leadership … will eventually run out of air. The only brand that you can sustain, in other words, is one that you continue to refresh, or at the very least review.

Do brands just burn money?

A cynical friend has this joke about how much media budget is needed to keep a brand going successfully: “Give me all the money you can burn and it will go like a rocket!”

It’s easy to see a brand as an expense that relies on getting attention to make its presence felt and to make the expenditure worth it. Detractors see it that way too. They’re very quick to opine that unless they’re constantly fed money to keep them in front of consumers, brands simply fizzle and fall to earth.

We don’t share that view. Particularly now, with all the different ways that we access and talk about brands, we see them less as rockets kept airborne by media schedules, and more as planes that need air flowing over their wings to help them maintain lift.

 The 12 elements that lift brands

A number of elements collectively generate value. They include:

  1. Perception
  2. Reputation
  3. Distinction
  4. Awareness
  5. Relevance
  6. Image
  7. Loyalty
  8. Story
  9. Competitiveness
  10. Packaging
  11. Availability
  12. Offer

These elevators work in different combinations and to different levels of intensity and effectiveness at various pricing and positioning points across every competitive sector. And when they are working well, brands maintain their position, even climb.

The key point here is that success is not just about the money you spend on your brand, it is about the lift you generate and maintain through this combination of factors, some of which you control and some of which are beyond your control.

Media presence is just a small part of what’s needed.

Strategy, as the great Vijay Govindarajan reminds us, is not a set-and-forget exercise. On the contrary, as the Professor has tenaciously and convincingly argued, your strategy starts dying in terms of its effectiveness the moment it is created. The initial lift-off does not last.

Downward pressures

Two market dynamics put brands under downward pressure. Together, they help explain the need for an emergent brand strategy:

  • Market friction – the levels of resistance your brand encounters in the marketplace. These are the forces that combine to make your brand fall short if it runs out of impulse. Most of these are generated by competitors, some by wider macro-economic factors, some by reputation
  • Market gravity – there is a natural inclination for brands to fall. When currents diminish, stall or fail, it does not take long for brands to start to lose height. Some will lose prominence but continue on. Others will go into an arcing dive, at varying angle of acuteness, that may or may not lead to their demise. That’s why you cannot set and forget a brand, or assume success.

Continuing attention

An emergent brand strategy, in fact an emergent business strategy, is about checking the ‘height’ of your brand relative to your competitors and to your history, and adjusting and responding to the volume and the dynamics of the currents passing across your brand.

There are other strategic options available. But many brands, particularly when they are younger, need an evolving strategy – one that addresses Govindarajan’s theory by, for example, ensuring that they shed or at least reduce their reliance on hero lines once they start to commoditise and continue prospecting for new ways to replace them. (The key is to ensure that those incoming lines fit with the brand and its storyline without simply repeating what is being replaced.)

Is an emergent strategy right for you?

The only strategy that really matters is the one that’s right for your brand and your business. If you’re looking at defining your future, we can quickly help you identify the best strategic approach to meet your goals in a strategic session.

Photo by Virgil Cayasa on Unsplash

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