How to Create Growth When the Future is Uncertain

April 21st, 2020 Posted by brand marketing, brand messaging, brand strategy, CMO, Content Marketing, Growth, Insight, Marketing Strategy, storytelling 1 comment on “How to Create Growth When the Future is Uncertain”

Keys to address now – preventing paralysis while accelerating engagement

Businesses and brands don’t like uncertainty. The pandemic has delivered a heaping pile of vagueness on what the future looks like. However, a modest number of companies will avoid the creeping advance of paralysis and will position themselves for industry-leading growth when the pandemic begins to subside. Here’s how to recognize the presence of business-defeating thinking and strategies, while making the right investments that will turn the current batch of potential business lemons into lemonade.

“Fear is like a mall cop who thinks he’s a Navy SEAL” – Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic.

This is a challenging time for nearly every business in food, beverage and lifestyle categories. Competing theories exist on where business will go in the next six months, compounded by conflicting forecasts of what business results will look like and what the future holds generally.

In the face of uncertainty many organizations are sorely tempted to retreat, to pause, to pursue a defensive rather than offensive style strategy. The theory at work is to wait out the storm before attempting to map a more progressive future. That said, some studies suggest the defensive approach can infect the business in the wrong way, and inadvertently set a course for handing over leadership to other brands that determined they would not succumb to a holding pattern during these uncertain times.

What’s really happening here anyway?

Fear begins to replace optimism and some businesses subsequently stop working to create a better reality. Elizabeth Gilbert in her book Big Magic, Creative Living Beyond Fear, poignantly describes the condition: uncertainty breeds fear. “Fear is programmed by evolution to be hyper-vigilant and insanely over-protective,” she reports. Fear believes that any uncertain outcome is already foretold to end in failure and disappointment. Fear’s job is to induce in varying degrees, a form of panic whenever an organization is about to embark on a path that is less than certain.

Historical evidence points to the right path

Harvard Business Review (HBR) in 2010 published a comprehensive report following the Great Recession of 2008/09, to help diagnose what conditions contribute to growth and what strategies set an organization up for unsatisfactory outcomes. The study looked backward at previous recessions and found common ground on approaches that either contributed to losing momentum or acquiring it.

Some organizations look at uncertainty and focus on what could be described as a ‘loss minimizing’ or siege mentality that can put the business into survival mode. Prevention strategies are founded mostly on cost cutting. However, the data shows firms that cut costs faster and deeper than rivals don’t necessarily flourish.

In fact, the HBR report revealed those engaged in loss minimizing have the ‘lowest probability’ of pulling ahead of the competition as economic conditions turn around. The prevention mindset is founded primarily on safety, security, avoiding losses and minimizing risks. This defensive approach also tends to trigger a form of pessimism internally that spreads like wildfire as strict controls and rumors of impending cuts put people in the organization into survival-style behaviors.

  • HBR’s study of 4,700 companies found that 56% of prevention-oriented businesses cut their head count, while only 23% of progressive companies laid off staff and in far fewer numbers. This begs the question, what is a progressive company?

A progressive approach is essentially a balanced strategy that focuses cost controls primarily on identifying operational efficiencies (rather than head count), combined with continued investments in marketing and innovation. The report found that 37% of organizations taking this more aggressive approach were more likely to emerge as leaders later.

For executives working to build the optimal plan it’s important to recognize the barriers to progressive thinking. This can include a mélange of challenges if failure isn’t respected in the organization as the ultimate teaching and learning moment. Additionally, when personal self-worth can’t abide any form of failure, the uncertain conditions often leads to retreat.

Why is marketing investment so important?

Gordon Leavitt, the former Dean of Marketing at Harvard Business School wrote a book called The Marketing Imagination, a profound and enlightened view of marketing’s role in how an organization wins in the marketplace. In it he states, “the purpose of business is to get and keep a customer, therefore every department, every executive, every decision is in fact tied to marketing.” Leavitt believed that everyone is involved in marketing whether their job description says so or not. For the very reason that marketing is not a department, it is the organization’s collective behavior to get and keep the customer.

Granted much has changed since he wrote the book and “purpose” is now a much deeper construct than just commerce. However, his point remains essential in looking at why investments here matter even in the presence of uncertainty. Customer-focused thinking and behaviors prove over and over as a viable path to growth in the midst of adversity.

Ideas and inspiration are required to navigate uncertainty

Ultimately it is ideas that will power growth, especially in the face of doubt. What can get in the way of inspiration that informs great ideas? Most often it is drama, anxiety, distractions, insecurities and fear that can draw the horns inward. These characteristics, corporate or individual, are not receptive to inspiration.

In fact, ideas can be banished with a single word: NO.  In some instances, businesses are culturally organized to say no, no, no and no.

Instead businesses should focus on the essential principles that support creativity including:

Courage

Enchantment

Permission

Persistence

Trust

What are the characteristics needed to promote an atmosphere that invites inspiration, creativity and ideas? Executive leadership that is diligently focused on the customer and their journey, and is driven by attitudes founded on faith, belief, courage and devotion to respecting and caring for the health, wellbeing and welfare of the brand’s users.

It is the ultimate expression of putting their needs at the top of the priority ladder and working backwards from there to identify ways to bring that commitment to life. It is a form of fearlessness that manifests in rallying the organization’s focus to the customer rather than myopic devotion to self-preservation.

When fear is eliminated there is an opportunity to cooperate fully, joyfully and humbly with inspiration, entering into a contract of sorts with it that “we are required to fulfill,” says Gilbert.

Purposeful marketing

Translation of ideas and inspiration into world-class marketing solutions is best seen in the creation of deeper meaning and higher purpose in the brand voice.

According to Kantar Research, successful brand marketing focused on building higher purpose for the business, exhibits three principles:

  1. The organization has an established history supporting a purposeful positioning.
  2. The brand partners with credible third parties who are also passionate about that positioning.
  3. The company is committed to providing tangible solutions that help reassure and guide consumers to a better future.

It should be noted here that the ultimate expression of higher purpose is in the storytelling conducted by brands, their customers and stakeholders. Our brains rely on stories to make sense of the world around us. Yet storytelling has been largely missing from marketing for the last 30 years, as businesses have focused primarily on conveying product features and benefits.

A bright future ahead

Now is the time for an improved story based on a higher purpose delivered fearlessly, creatively by a brand devoted entirely to its customers’ welfare. Erasing self-doubt and self-protection behaviors, the brand can get on the path to future leadership, while successfully navigating the challenge of today’s uncertainty.

Brands that invest now will reap the benefits later in improved strength and growth in their respective categories.

Let us know your questions and challenges, we’re happy to help build your strategic plan, create messaging and content to tell your story.

Looking for more food for thought? Subscribe to the Emerging Trends Report.

Bob Wheatley is the CEO of Chicago-based Emergent, The Healthy Living Agency. Traditional brand marketing often sidesteps more human qualities that can help consumers form an emotional bond. Yet brands yearn for authentic engagement, trust and a lasting relationship with their customers. Emergent helps brands erase ineffective self-promotion and replace it with clarity, honesty and deeper meaning in their customer relationships and communication. For more information, contact Bob@Emergent-Comm.com and follow on Twitter @BobWheatley.

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1 comment on “How to Create Growth When the Future is Uncertain”

Joyce Johnson says:

Great, thought-provoking information Bob! We are definitely seeking ways to increase our leadership during this extraordinary time. Stay well!

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