Alas, it was many moons ago that one of my favorite musical artists, Billy Joel, sang those insightful words: “Don’t go changing to try and please me.” No matter how eloquent or visionary he might be, the “Bard of Brooklyn” couldn’t have foreseen that a pandemic would all but mandate change as a means of business survival.
Now we must all go changing, to try and please EVERYONE. Fueled by the ongoing digital revolution, lockdowns, economic turmoil, and a global financial shakeout, we can generally agree that the tried and true has given way to the untried, and new.
I recently engaged in a discussion on this topic with Jamey Boiter, the Principal and COO of Charlotte, N.C.-based BOLTGROUP, a design innovation firm. Jamey recently caught my eye with his paper, “In Times of Crisis, Reputations are Built and Destroyed,” which promotes change and innovation as a mandatory step for emerging from the COVID crisis.
Turns out that Jamey is onto something. A recent McKinsey study found that 90 percent of business executives believe that the COVID-19 crisis will fundamentally change the way they do business, and three of four executives agree that the changes will spur greater growth in their industry.
“This is an opportunity to look inside your business and see what’s broken,” Boiter said. “From that perspective, you can then look at innovation in its global perspective – how it affects everything from product improvement, to your brand, to the way you conduct business.”
Earlier in the pandemic, Jamey and I both saw a lot of panic-driven reaction – “random acts of recovery” – frankly, actions without intelligence. Now, with a second round of paycheck protection funds and a vaccine ushering a hopeful end to the turmoil, we should all work to better understand what strategies will help pull us out of this funky vortex.
To do this effectively, you need to build an innovation sandwich – now, stay with me for a minute. By this, I want you to consider the bottom piece of bread as your insights; the meat and cheese as the empowerment of your brand (critical to strategic execution); and the top piece as the performance metrics that tie it all together.
Let’s deconstruct this hoagie and see how we get there:
1. The bottom piece: The right data and robust insights on the market
Flying blind or trusting your gut has no place in this sandwich. “Research is critical to innovation,” Boiter shared. “You can’t separate the two. Good insights inform innovation.”
He is right – insights are the tea leaves that help us understand what’s going on, and what to do about it.
Jamey employs a combination of data with his clients, using ethnographic information, qualitative and quantitative research, and observational data to formulate a road map. I’d add to that mix company data tracking the long-term (12/12) and short-term (3/12) rates of change for the business. Combining these data pools gives the CEO rich insight into the health of the business and the marketplace.
Without this sort of insight, you’re essentially playing “pin the tail on the donkey.”
2. The meat and cheese: Empowering your brand for strategic execution
Time for the million-dollar question: Why is it that you are in business? I don’t necessarily mean the money, fame, and glory – let’s get to the heart of what and who you are looking to serve with your offering.
“What makes you unique that gives you your edge? Why do you exist? If you can’t answer that question, nothing else is going to matter,” Boiter shared. “You need to tightly align your brand purpose and brand strategies with your business goals – and you must do it in a way that is agile, because if we’ve learned anything in the last nine months, it’s that your business goals are going to change, probably daily!”
Changing goals can create panic. I recently received a call from a business owner who launched a technological offering that was going to change their business – just as COVID hit, and without a strategic plan or brand mission. They spent months trying different marketing agencies and lead generation approaches, to no avail. They called me and desperately asked for a tactical template to jumpstart a quick fix. From the depths of the money pit they’d fallen into, a proverbial easy button was the only light they could hope for.
I had to tell them no such miracles exist. “Guys,” I said, “that’s a mistake – letting tactics take the lead. First, you need to document and analyze the insights that will help you make the proper strategic decisions, and you also need to define your brand purpose—is it driving demand? Then we can build your execution plan. Tactics follow the strategy, not the other way around.”
Unfortunately, they opted for the promise of an easy button, this time with an agency that guaranteed a high volume of qualified leads and closed sales. This is something that, in my experience, can’t be delivered with so little insight or strategy.
And so the money pit will likely get deeper.
Execution cannot be a templated exercise. It must be formulated in a way that provides a clear field of vision, identifies gaps, and gives you a big picture of where the opportunities and threats may lie. What trends are taking place in the markets in which we compete? How are our suppliers affected? What’s the impact on our competitors? Is our business in an accelerated or a slowing growth mode? How does our brand offer the market something uniquely attractive?
The future depends on understanding all this and planning from it, before you ever step into an execution mode!
3. The top slice: Consistent communication
Now you can begin to define your differentiators by establishing the unique factors in your business that no one else embodies or offers – the things that give you your edge.
“In doing so, it’s important to be transparent, authentic, and simplistic in portraying your brand and your value,” Jamey says. “I think of those businesses who are unable to communicate smartly with their audiences as a golfer, with their ball lost in the weeds. They are hacking away all day long, but it turns out they are just digging deeper. Eventually, they find themselves in one of those deep sand traps, like at St. Andrews in Scotland!”
Sounds like a trip to the money pit.
Having ferreted out the compelling truths of your brand, it’s time to present them, without spin, in an omnichannel marketing plan. “Omnichannel” is marketing-speak for a variety of promotional vehicles which might include digital, social media, television, print, podcasts, direct mail, or even radio, among others. The idea isn’t to simply utilize all or even a mix, but to home in on those that will reach and impact your target audience most effectively.
At the end of the day, you can collect the best insights, develop great strategic and tactical execution plans, and formulate an effective (and efficient) communication blueprint – but without measuring the efficacy of what you’ve built, and not having the ability to push and pull the right levers to adjust to the changing landscape, your sandwich will simply fall apart.
But wait…there’s good news! In my conclusion to this blog, I’ll take a closer look at those levers as well as the discipline needed to innovate and grow your brand and your business in this current environment. Stay tuned.