How Marketers Can Thrive, not Strive, during disruptive times

You have to turn on the lights to see it: A FANUC manufacturing plant producing 23,000 computer parts each month for Tesla, Apple and other clients. The plant is fully automated and runs close to 24 hours a day, every day, going for up to 30 days without human supervision. AI is writing copy and even developing creative concepts and the world of media agencies has changed dramatically with digitization which facilitated the deployment of AI.

The future has arrived!

There are hundreds of examples highlighting the change that is already taking place. If you are interested in a full analysis of how the technological revolution will change today’s world you can find it in my book Time to Give a F*ck! The Technological Revolution and You. Here, I will focus on what marketers can do to not just survive, but thrive, when the Technological Revolution starts to disrupt the way we live and work. Jack Welch, who turned GE into a leading global enterprise, allegedly said that even a German Shepherd could have run GE during the long period of growth we experienced before the GFC changed our life. With an even greater disruption on our doorsteps today, it is time to send the dog into retirement.

If you have a dominant brand and a massive marketing budget you should be able to deal with the impending disruption. But what if you don’t find yourself in such a dominant position? The challenge most of us face is this: What can marketers with a limited marketing budget at their disposal do to capitalize on the coming disruption?

Case studies, conference presentations and publications are obsessed with dominant, typically global, brands. You can hear or read all about what Nike, Apple, Coke or any of the leading tech firms are doing but, sadly, these strategies aren’t relevant to most marketers as they don’t have the global brands, market coverage and budgets these firms can bring to bear. What would be far more relevant and useful is to learn about how once local, insignificant brands developed into global brands. Of course, market and competitive conditions are very different today compared to when these brands morphed into leading global brands, but the principles are still the same.

Let me introduce Holt & Cameron, whose work on cultural disruption focuses on the early life of today’s leading brands, exploring what made them successful in the first place. How did Nike, one of dozens of small brands with very limited financial resources, distribution and brand awareness, and no technological advantage, manage to become the number one brand? How did Nike succeed against competitors who had a multiple to spend on marketing, established distribution and brand advantages and sometimes also a technologically superior product?

How did Jack Daniels, one of a multitude of small US distilleries, with a laughable marketing budget, lack of distribution, low level of brand awareness and no financial resources to speak of become the number one US and, subsequently, one of the leading global whiskey brands? How did Ben & Jerry’s, one of hundreds of ambitious ice cream retailers, with no financial backing, a minute marketing budget, and a lack of distribution infrastructure beat some much better funded competitors to become a leading ice cream chain?

What makes Holt & Cameron’s work relevant today is that they demonstrate how a small brand with limited resources, that is aligned with an emerging ideology during a time of cultural disruption, can achieve success against all odds. The thinking underlying the cultural disruption concept is that your strategy is the most powerful and will give your brand a strong, long-term differentiation platform when it capitalizes on a cultural disruption that is already taking place, regardless of what you do with your brand.

Brand strategy typically looks at the market as comprising of individual purchasers or consumers of the goods or services offered. This is not to say that group and social elements are ignored, but they are typically only considered in light of how they impact on the perceptions, attitudes, preferences and decisions of individuals. To develop a cultural strategy, however, you need to take a different approach. The focus needs to be on cultural values, and the objective is to align your brand with these values. These cultural values are determined by a prevailing ideology that allows individuals to make sense of the world and their place in it.

Given that we are now at the beginning of one of the most significant cultural disruptions since the middle of last century, it makes sense for marketers to give serious thought to the emerging ideologies that will undoubtedly arise over the next couple of decades due to the technological disruption.

If you accept that having a brand express the prevailing ideology is likely to lead to success, it immediately becomes obvious that there are opportunities and threats in times of ideological disruption, that is, when a prevailing ideology (life is about growth and stability) loses significance and people are looking for a new, emerging ideology to replace it. When this happens, your focus needs to shift to identifying emerging ideologies and aligning your brand with these ideologies, rather than building your strategy on your understanding of how individual consumers make their purchase decisions.

For anyone who is familiar with Neuromarketing this will not come as a surprise: we are all seeking dopamine hits. When their world order crumbles consumers will find dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitter, elusive and cortisol, the worry neurotransmitter, a more frequent visitor. We are designed to seek dopamine hits and to avoid painful experiences and this will drive consumers to behave in new ways.

Let me briefly refer to a massive, real-world illustration of how offering new and different ways of getting dopamine hits can change behaviour: Today, Iceland tops the European table for the cleanest-living teens. The percentage of 15- and 16-year-olds who had been drunk in the previous month plummeted from 42 percent in 1998 to 5 percent in 2016. The percentage who have ever used cannabis is down from 17 percent to 7 percent. Those smoking cigarettes every day fell from 23 percent to just 3 percent. The secret of Iceland’s success: giving teenagers more wholesome ways of getting their dopamine hits!

Your challenge may not be as difficult as getting teenagers to go off drugs and alcohol, but you will also need to develop dopamine driven strategies to succeed. During a period of growth or at least stability, consumers get dopamine hits from going shopping, buying, planning purchases and consuming brands and products they see as addressing one of their goals, such as being recognized, looking attractive or important and so forth.

Enter the technological revolution with experts typically projecting that somewhere between 20 and 50% of workers will be made redundant, with comparably few jobs replacing the old ones. This will disrupt the marketplace more than the GFC did and it won’t be a temporary blip – the jobs lost will never return! While the impact of the technological revolution does not have to be destructive, it will lead to a change in our relationship with work, shopping and consuming. It will change our values and our priorities. In other words, it will force us to abandon today’s ideologies that allow us to make sense of the world.

Your challenge is to align your brand with an emerging ideology that allows consumers to make sense of the ‘new’ world. The vision of a different future – while challenging – will reduce uncertainty which is one of the most potent triggers of chronic stress. It will also deliver dopamine hits, will address the drive to belong and encourage positive expectations and dreams. During this transition period from a crumbling world to a new – and hopefully better – world there will be a high degree of uncertainty and anxiety. In this environment it will be more important for a brand to be meaningful and aligned with an emerging ideology than to pump hundreds of millions into massive advertising and social media campaigns. You will face a creative challenge that needs to rest on a sound strategic foundation allowing you to benefit from the coming disruption.

Let me say in closing that both – the development of a Cultural Strategy and finding constructive ways to offer consumers a dopamine hit when job losses soar – are clearly more complex that I let on in this brief blog. If you want to delve into details, I recommend Douglas Holt & Douglas Cameron, Cultural Strategy, which offers timeless insights into how to capitalize on a cultural disruption when you have only limited resources at your disposal. If you want to explore the impact of the technological revolution you can find answers in my book ‘Time to Give a F*ck! You and the Technological Revolution.’

I hope we meet again next week! Meanwhile happy reading! 

Dr. Peter Steidl
About The Author

Dr. Peter Steidl

Dr Peter Steidl is the author of ‘Time to Give a F*ck! The Technological Revolution and You’ available from amazon and other leading booksellers. He has carried out assignments in more than twenty countries on five continents and has authored or co-authored a dozen books, including several covering Neuromarketing challenges. He can be reached on LinkedIn or via  peter@neurothinking.com

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