It’s time to think not just about how brands grow, but how they grow up

Like raising children, planning too far ahead and relying on theory can be a futile exercise for marketers when faced with so many future unknowns. We should adapt to what we find works, not to change but to improve.

In only a few weeks from the current time of writing, if all goes well – that is, she looks like her mother and not me – I will be welcoming a beautiful daughter into the world

Becoming a parent is, as if it would ever need to be said, a monumental change to one’s life. Yet it is also something that one cannot entirely prepare for – you have to experience it for yourself. Oh, one can (indeed should) read books and take courses, obviously, but speak to other parents and there will be only one thing that they agree on: expect the unexpected. While some basic rules may apply, things will happen on a daily basis that you could not have foreseen. So, they all say in their various ways, you had better develop the skills to adapt when the shit inevitably hits the fan. A few of them appeared to mean it literally.

Although many CMOs consider their marketing departments to be their babies, far from all apply this nugget of undeniable parental wisdom. Instead, some plan ahead for years at a time as if they were able to tell the future in granular detail. Certainly, they are aware of the messy present in which they act but in the idealised future states of their strategies, conveniently, most of it tends to be gone.

Raising a child by the same approach would be a recipe for unmitigated disaster. No offspring in history has acted just as their parents had foretold, required as many diapers as forecast (unless said forecast was ‘all of them’), taken their first steps on a pre-stated date, nor grown to become precisely what was expected, no more, no less.

So why do some marketing leaders run their departments with similar expectations?

Navigating the unnavigable

A company is obviously not a child but the comparison is a lot closer than you may think. Modern science has established organisations are what is called complex adaptive systems, that is, a network of interconnected elements that interact to create an emergent, systemic behaviour different to their individual ones. Think of them, to steal an analogy from Alicia Juarrero, as bramble bushes in a thicket. As any outdoors person will tell you, to determine precisely where a particular bramble bush ends and the rest of the thicket begins is practically impossible.

In complex adaptive systems, we cannot know what is to come. We can guess, sure, but no matter how much data we collect, certainty is impossible. Things will happen that we cannot foresee. They just will.

This complexity has all kinds of crucial implications for strategy in general – a topic for another time – but to the present point, we are all complex adaptive systems by ourselves too. The human brain, for example, is argued by some to be the most complex system known, with billions of neurons and thousands of trillions of synapses (connections) among them.

Put differently, just as your child will do things that you could not plan for, so too will your employees, bosses, competitors, and market.

Anyone who has practical experience knows this to be true, of course. Any plan, regardless of how carefully created, inevitably suffers from what I call the next day problem. That is, something happens the next day that makes the plan at best worse and at worst obsolete. An executive leaves the company, a competitor makes a move… …a pandemic breaks out. Just like that, a floor becomes a ceiling, a poignant objective becomes a pointless endeavor, and the big investment becomes an even bigger waste of time. And so, we have to start over, collect more data, build another plan, and hope it works this time around.

Theory is a starting point, just like a strategic plan. But we should adapt to what we then find to work or, as the case may be, not work. Not to change, but to improve.

Again and again, certain ‘strategists’ do more of the same old, expecting different results in the emergent new. Some would call it insanity, others might call it best practice. Consultants typically call it good business, because we can dip back into our client pool and tell everyone they need an update, which means more work and more money. Either way, the cycle begins anew.

Now, before the planning fundamentalists start sharpening their pitchforks and lighting their torches, no, I am not saying an all-in on agile would work either. Just as we cannot go to the store to buy a diaper every time a toddler attempts to build a log cabin (the fuel costs would become astronomical if naught else), an organization cannot wholly abandon proactivity for reactivity. Speed is not a virtue in itself; what matters is being able to move fast when needed.

Oftentimes, that requires some form of planning ahead – ensuring that there are clean clothes for the baby at hand whenever there suddenly are all kinds of haunted fluids on the ones that she is wearing, for example. But that is not the same thing as expecting the kid to hold it all in while the parents go to their planning offsite, or to follow said plan to the letter once it is finished. For one, they probably cannot yet read.

Theory Vs Reality

In less metaphorical columnist terms, my point is that calls for alignment based on an overly rigid plan can turn into sticking to it no matter what happens along the way. While long-term effects are not made up of a group of short-term effects stacked upon one another, it is as important to be able to identify a long-term effect that will never come to be as it is to know when a short-term effect will not scale. ‘Brand-building’ is not a get-out-of-jail-free card whenever a marketing endeavor fails to provide a financial return, nor is throwing good money after bad anything more than a sunk cost fallacy.

In order to improve our odds of success, we should make a point of understanding underlying theory – to take the courses, the mini-MBAs, read the books and so on – but also be humble enough to acknowledge any limits of application that we subsequently discover. After all, if theory fails to match reality, it makes a hell of a lot more sense to change theory than attempt to change reality.The four growth pillars that connect the UK’s strongest brands

Indeed, theory is a starting point, just like a strategic plan is. But we should adapt to what we then find to work or, as the case may be, not work. Not to change, but to improve.

Most of this is common sense, of course. Parents know that advice from other parents can serve as a starting point, but never expect it to apply to their own children without modification. Yet when it comes to marketing, somehow, that insight occasionally goes out the window, along with the bathwater and, well…

It is time we thought not just about how brands grow, but also about how they grow up – and what that entails for us as strategists and marketers.

And I am not just saying that so that I can use a child analogy in my column in the hope that brands send me free stuff as a result. Promise.

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