Planning beyond now

Longer term planning in a world of spontaneity

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Ever since the GFC, global markets seem to have become more volatile. Oil prices rise and crash; China’s growth soars and slides. When market dynamics are this dramatic, how should you look to effectively develop a longer term plan for a business in a world of spontaneity? Do you go with the ebb and flow, or act as a beacon of constancy?

In a recent piece, Deloitte’s Jonathan Copulsky drew attention to the difficulties for marketers in looking to compete in a world where “spontaneity represents an increasingly common decision-making and consumption pattern”. The environment, he says, is a two edged sword. “Barriers to trial and switching drop significantly, while the elimination of a protracted capital budgeting process streamlines decision-making. But, what helps me by making it easier for consumers to purchase what I have to sell, helps my competitors as well.” These micro-moments, he quotes Jim Lecinski as saying, are the new battleground for brands.

Very true. Add in technology’s signal that ‘new is best’ and brands find themselves operating in economies where frequent change is not just welcomed but expected and where speed of delivery and personalisation of experience continue to shape not just moments generally but ‘my moments’ specifically. Brands must work fast if they are to compete effectively. And working fast means not just acting quickly but being understood quickly, messaging quickly, reacting quickly, being mindful and present.

A strange confusion of signals

So spontaneity and currency are the underpinning drivers for the consumer. But they are not the only dynamics. The markets within which brands operate remain highly volatile. People’s lives are in a state of flux. And that leads to a strange confusion of signals. Because now consumers also look to the brands they know to be stable and in control. Brands today are more than just symbols of commerce, they are also symbols of familiarity. They have trust memory – and they must keep that in order to retain consumer confidence and to provide clear reference points for decisions.

How should we look to reconcile this two-speed dynamic? I see it this way. Brands must have history in order to build story – and that sense of longevity needs to be embedded in them from the start. They must also leverage that history to remain current – and that’s much more difficult. They must create snap based on what they have come to know about themselves, their competitors and their consumers. Because if they don’t, they risk building brands that lack substance, that are so locked into this tweet, this click, this offer, this like, that they lack direction, dimension and long-term interest.

Seeing past the smoke

It is those attributes that give a brand guidance beyond the immediate. And critical confidence. You can run towards the smoke if you have a strong sense of what’s on the other side of the fire.

Here’s an example of why I think that’s so important. The danger of breaking marketing down into digital and non-digital strategy is that you confuse the smoke and fire of now with the wider strategic landscape that your brand operates in. Put too much emphasis on social initiatives, for example, and companies risk developing brands that are so locked up in the present through their digital expression that they live in one moment and are struggling the next. What’s more, their sense of themselves risks being driven by consumer whim and feedback rather than by a deliberate sense of where they need to be at a given point in time.

Brands need to be bigger than that. And the role of strategy is to make sure they are.

So, let me pick up on something that both Mark Ritson and Erich Joachimsthaler have observed. There should be no such thing as digital strategy or social media strategy or content marketing strategy – because none of these things are strategies. They are actions and tactics that talk to consumers’ need for spontaneity but they don’t seek to change the market position of the brand for its long-term competitive benefit, which is what strategy in the true sense of the word does.

I don’t disagree with Jonathan Copulsky at all and I’m in no way diminishing the role of digital campaigns, social media initiatives or content marketing. But don’t stop there if you want to build a brand that will outlast today. Now is important but it is not everything.

Note: A version of this post has been published elsewhere under the title The Role of Brand Strategy In Volatile Times.


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