“There is no expert of tomorrow. Only an expert of yesterday.”
Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba once shared this piece of wisdom, and I printed it out and stuck it to a post near my desk.
The statement reassures me that, at the end of the day, we are all guessing at what we should do in the coming days and weeks and months in order to succeed in our jobs and lives. As we maneuver through our careers, trying out new strategies and tactics in an ever-evolving market, we (hopefully) get better at minimizing risk, but I have yet to meet a person who could confidently and consistently predict the future.
Good Strategy, Bad Strategy by Richard Rumelt, a must-read for marketers at any career stage, describes a situation where a client of Rumelt’s expressed frustration when Rumelt explained that the strategy he had just presented was a guess.
“Later, looking back, I realize the group had expected the strategy to be an exercise in crank winding. They had expected that I would give them a ‘logical machine’ that they could use to deduce business plans — a system for generating forecasts and actions.”
Rumelt argues that new and interesting ideas aren’t produced by crank winding exercises. Developing strategy, guessing at what will work for a business, is a creative act, one that has no ‘finished’ state. The actions of competitors, the algorithms of the platforms we use, the market’s demand for our product/service, all these things are constantly changing. And we have to evolve along with them.
If smart people like Richard Rumelt, a UCLA professor and former Harvard Business School faculty member, cannot predict the future, who am I to try? Instead, I would like to tackle 3 “trends” I’ve observed so far in 2019 and suggest how they could be built upon to make the most out of 2020.
Observation One: Curation is Key
It would be easy to throw some incomprehensible numbers at you to represent how much content is produced every hour or include a hockey stick graph showing the amount of information produced each year. Regardless of the measurement approach, there is undoubtedly is too much for a mere mortal to keep up with. Driving this content tsunami is the industry many of us work in or around: Advertising. You need articles to wrap ads in, or videos to interrupt. Thankfully, the market seems to be answering the problem of too much content.
Over the past year, curators have gained significant traction. These are individuals or media companies who take news and analysis from numerous sources and distill it into forms that can fit nicely into busy lives. Sometimes these curators are doing more than distilling, and sometimes they are just vetting articles from other sources and sharing them in lists, but either way, they are eliminating all of the mediocre content so that readers can spend their time with the best and most important articles, videos, shows, etc. Morning Brew, The Daily, The Browser, Redef, Benedict Evans, Brain Pickings, Genius Steals, I would consider all of these curators.
What you can do:
If your content is legitimately strong, curation is good news for you. Curators rely on quality, and the quicker they can build their regular recommendations, the better. Spend some time building connections with curators. Respond to their newsletters with thoughtful analysis or insight that they might find interesting/useful, go to the conferences they host, reference them on social. Over time, these connections are likely to turn into a feature or two. Maybe the curators are industry associations, run largely by volunteers? In these cases, offering to guest curate or write an article for them could be all it takes to be welcomed into the inner circle.
If you operate in an industry that does not already have a plethora of curators who your peers and customers follow, there may be an opportunity for you to take on this role. This decision should be taken seriously; a really great newsletter/podcast/gathering/conference can be hard to consistently deliver. It might make sense to build a partnership with an existing thought-leader/academic/association to help split the work and also increase your credibility.
Observation Two: Design-Focussed Brands can Unseat Established Orgs
My favourite soap opera in 2019 was undoubtedly WeWork. Mismanagement and scandal aside, the co-working giant is an excellent example of how design-centric brands can create (arguably unearned) value using strong branding, attractive interior design, slick user interfaces, fun social posts, etc. Organizations like WeWork might lack meaningful differentiation in product offerings, but that didn’t stop them from manufacturing distinction from their competitors using abstract art, expert typography and inspiring VOs.
Examples of brands positioning themselves as ‘revolutionary’ abound in our D2C world. In many cases, the differentiators these brands introduce are minor but are accompanied by excellent design and branding. Article is mid-century IKEA, Away is Samsonite with a charger, Quip is Oral-B + Star Trek, etc. There are also examples of brands whose marketing mix are a bit more distinct who are leaning on design to drive their growth. Canadian cosmetics upstart Deciem is making its mark on the beauty industry with purposefully minimalist branding and packaging combined with maximalist product information. Slack is taking on Microsoft (and MS also seems to be ripping off Slack’s marketing) with playful flourishes that make it fun to talk about work.
What you can do:
This is not necessarily an argument for a rebrand, but it is an argument for a conscious, intentional, cross-organizational focus on your brand experience. WeWork is selling flexible desk leases and wifi access wrapped in a cult-like belief system. Their focus on ‘community’ permeates most aspects of their operations. Does your organization have something special to you that can be put at the centre of your brand experience? A local example that comes to mind is the ATB Listens credo, which has done incredible things for the bank’s brand and has consistently informed their marketing, customer experience and branch design, positioning them to take on Canada’s national banks.
Observation Three: Conscious Capitalism is Catching On
At a conference in San Francisco this past September, Mozilla CMO Jascha Kaykas-Wolff discussed recent work that his team had completed that focussed on internet behaviour. Kaykas-Wolff described ‘Conscious Choosers’: Internet users who make purchase and behavioural decisions based on a company’s social and environmental impact. Choosers will put their money and influence where their heart is, and are likely to “hold brands responsible on social media.” According to Mozilla’s research in the US, Germany & Brazil, 20-30% of internet users could be considered Conscious Choosers. Extrapolate those numbers to the internet as a whole and the number of Choosers is as high as 1.3 Billion.
Brands who recognize the value that could be unlocked by vocal champions (or the risk created by vocal critics) come in all shapes and sizes. Growing Calgarian apparel brand Local Laundry recognized that manufacturing their clothing internationally didn’t fit with their mission to celebrate Canadian communities. They moved production to Canada, necessitating a significant price bump, but creating a differentiation between their products and those of most competitors. Much larger Canadian apparel company Roots shut down their online store for an hour on Remembrance Day this year in order to honour veterans. In the world of tech, software giant Workday proudly proclaims in their website footer that they are 100% powered by renewable energy.
It is no easy feat to reengineer an organization to appeal to the Conscious Choosers that so often drive the conversation on social media. Changing your entire supply chain is a lot harder than closing a site down for an hour, swapping your logo for a rainbow version during pride, or slapping a Bullfrog Powered logo on your door. Global organizations are stepping in to add legitimacy to efforts by companies to be more conscious. A B Corporation is a firm who is “purpose-driven and creates benefit for all stakeholders, not just shareholders.” Calgary companies like Benevity, Fiasco Gelato and Trico Homes have gone through the certification process and can carry the B-Corp badge, a signal to prospective customers that their money is going to a group of people concerned with their impact on society and the planet.
What you can do:
Societal topics like climate change, gender equity, and income equality are likely to only increase in visibility in the coming years. These movements provide progressive organizations with an opportunity to build brand equity among Conscious Choosers and the market as a whole.
There can be a fine line between sincere environmentalism and greenwashing, for example, and the same could be said for initiatives in any of the areas above. In order to ensure that your organization is authentic in its actions, it is important to empower the right individuals within your organization to lead change. An all-male panel discussing gender equality is not a good look.
Finally, involving your customers is a critical step to take when assessing the changes that may need to be made to your product or services. You should understand the topics that matter most to your customers so that your teams can make decisions accordingly. Simply listening to customers and the public and then responding is a good first step and a positive sign of transparency.
If 2020 is anything like 2019, it is sure to fly by at a breakneck pace. You can help your organization position itself to grow by crafting smart content and building relationships with curators in your space, by improving your brand experience through a design focus, and by adjusting to a world where Conscious Choosers are 20-30% of your target market.
We can’t be experts of tomorrow, but we can be smart, tasteful, authentic humans. And maybe that’s enough to make 2020 a great year.
About the author:
Chad Neufeld is the Senior Marketing Manager at Chaordix, a member of the board at The Grand Theatre, and a Head Elf at Small City Stockings. He bikes to work as long as it’s warmer than -7, listens to everything except polka, and is committed to finishing a CBC sitcom pilot script by the end of 2020.