I’ve been in the strategy business for quite a while—19 years in fact. And I love it.
To me, strategy is like Change and Creativity got married and had a baby named Courage.
However, I’ve also been around long enough to have developed some jaded views—much as an AP teacher might get a little worn after years of catching her high-performing students half-assing their way to a C minus—such waste of potential.
Strategy fails to reach its potential when it becomes little more than this:
Recently, I was asked to facilitate a plenary session on the subject of strategy at the Colorado College Board of Trustees meeting. I was honored. I spent a long time thinking of how to pitch them the vision of what strategy could be at a place like CC—and more importantly, perhaps—what it must be in a time like this.
So, I did what you’re told never to do: I made up a new recipe and tried it out on the invited guests.
I asked them to discard the notion that strategy is a straightforward, mechanistic process in which ideas and plans are cranked through with industrialized precision. Instead, I asked them to think of it as organic, fluid, as a story. I asked them to think of themselves as co-authors of the story and to think of strategy as the parts of the grand narrative they choose to put into motion.
We looked at the personality traits of the story’s characters in the past and how those traits carried forward—or didn’t—into the personality traits of current stakeholders.
We looked at the plot twists that had forced the College authors of the past to make brave choices in the narrative and how the characters had responded to them. For example, did you know that Colorado College’s distinctive block plan was developed in response to the civic unrest of the late 1960s and enacted nearly 100 years AFTER the College was founded? That's courage.
We looked at the plot twists forcing tough choices in higher education now:
What I hoped the new strategy-as-story recipe would inspire was an image of the full potential of strategy—not inching forward with boring language and lame action plans; but rather the call to see, to hear, to respond, and to rise.
What story will you author?
Ah, 2020—you bastard. We’ll euphemistically call you “The Year of Unanswered Questions.” There are the really big questions like: How long will this last? How will it end? How long will it take to get to something resembling stable?
There is also, of course, this question: What impact will this year have on us? Will it change us forever or will we bounce back to where our 2019 selves like some supple young thing a healthy pregnancy? As a marketing strategist, there are several specific impact questions I’ve been watching:
Fast-forward to Q2 2020 where suddenly all in-person meetings—from those between friends to those among disparate strata of authority like bosses and professors—were suddenly thrust into the informal setting of the Zoom, Meetup, WebEx call. Now, rather than being physically ushered through the doorways of structures whose architecture signals a transition to the professional or formal, our personal interactions take place stripped of all the trappings that cue us to the nature of our relationships. We’re all calling in from some thrown-together office space in our house. Suddenly, all our formerly structured relationships are all unavoidably authentic.
How many meetings have you had that have included introductions to your colleagues’ dogs? How many have been temporarily interrupted by a child who doesn’t grasp the concept of a timely problem? How many times have you secretly evaluated your colleague’s homes having gotten an over-their-shoulder glance at their work-from-home space?
Friends joke about how they have stopped skincare and makeup habits. Showers are now reserved for getting clean rather than getting ready. Professional wardrobes are neglected in closets. Hell, we’re not even sure people are wearing pants half the time.
In the meantime, organizations who never before trusted employees to maintain productivity while working from home have realized that employees can not only keep up the good work, they can do it while saving the company overhead. Will it last? When the world returns to something that seems like stable, will we continue to want nearly-all-access into the humanity of the relationships that used to have clearer boundaries? Will we become intolerant of people who rely on staging and costuming props to signal their credibility and authority? Or will we rush gratefully back to the boundaries that keep relationships in their place? I’m not sure, but I’m curious.
Since I specialize in higher education, I wondered how digital delivery would affect the classroom experience. Not that online learning is a new thing. On the contrary, online learning has been a growing field for a long time. There are plenty of resources on and research about the online classroom experience. But bear in mind—that is for students who chose the online experience because of the trade-offs of convenience, flexibility, and cost. What about the students who never made those trade-off decisions but who nonetheless found themselves sitting in front of a screen last April?
Now, in the Fall 2020, we’ve all spent hours and hours consuming experiences via digital delivery. In some States—like Colorado—outbreaks have slowed to the point where leaders are pushing to resume in-person delivery. Churches are getting ready to fully open again; my kids who have been doing online-only school will soon receive in-person options which I believe many people will take…this year. But will 2020 mark an upward trajectory of digital? Will we see a steady rise in the years to come? I’m honestly not sure, I feel like it could go either way. People are either going to be so tired of Zooming it in that they’ll reject digital options even when easily available. Or, they will realize how much less inconvenient it is to have to sit through the whole thing (classes, conferences, church services, etc.) when they only really want parts and can tune in and out, pants optional, personal interaction be damned. Or maybe the digital delivery vehicles themselves will evolve; hard to say.
Before the pandemic, the answer to this question would have included market research that delved into the audience to ascertain the best ways to make content credible, relevant, and emotionally engaging. Sometimes, in pre-pandemic consulting, my higher education colleagues and I would sit with a higher ed client who felt suddenly awakened to new insight because their own child had recently undertaken the college admissions process. We’d hear all about how that 1 kid experienced campus tours or responded to direct mail pieces. And while this was interesting, we would leave the meeting knowing that it was our job to get bigger, representative sample sizes from which to make fully informed decisions.
Now, in the throes of 2020, the audience has shrunk to that 1 kid. The one person in front of the one screen. I have caught both of my kids wandering when they’re supposed to be logged into a school session. When confronted, they shrug and say something like: “Oh, yeah we’re supposed to be doing X, but yeah, I’m not going to do it.” At our house, these situations have been immediately followed by lectures of “This is school,” and, “Yes, you will do it, even if it doesn’t see interesting to you…” But, grown-ups, let’s be fair, shall we? How many boring Zoom meetings have you attended without really attending? I have shopped for and bought at least one pair of shoes while supposedly attending a meeting.
So, I wonder: how much of the unanswered question of content value is really a question of community? Usually, community experiences must have enough content to appeal in some way to everyone at some time. It’s like community transportation—the train goes everywhere everyone might need to go, so I’ll get where I’m going; you’ll get where you’re going, but then again, I have to wait while the train stops long enough for you collect your stuff and “mind the gap” and you’ll have to do the same for me.
Last year, my daughter’s in-classroom experience required her to sit through other students’ questions and the teacher’s explanation even though she didn’t have that question and didn’t need that answer. For her, those moments and that exchange of content would not have been relevant or emotionally engaging—not “valuable,” but the community dynamic of the in-person delivery required her to sit through them. And now? Now she is an audience of 1 and the teachers are teaching to 25 of them 1 at a time…all at once. For some of those students, hearing classmates articulate their questions will be useful if they shared the same question, but for others, it just extends the train stop waiting game and the temptation is to shut it down as soon as progress towards one’s personal destination has slowed.
After this ridiculous year, will the 1-at-a-time, digital delivery change our demands on content value? Will it accelerate and amplify the micro-segmentation trend we’re seeing as a result of the personalizable digital experience? Pre-pandemic, we were already conditioned to crunch through extraordinary amounts of information by swiping up, down, left, right as it suited, engaged, and amused us. Someday, when we can engage communally again, how will we judge content as valuable? Will we emerge from the pandemic willing to tolerate anything that isn’t just right for me right now? Or, is there value in the train stop wait for those who aren’t getting on or off and if so, what is it?
I know I don't have the answers to any of the above. If you do, please don't hesitate to chime in.
I am a privileged white woman.
The first part of that label isn’t an easy one to accept. As I’ve thought about it, I figure there’s at least two ways to avoid owning one’s privilege: 1) It’s all we’ve (usually) ever known, and; 2) It’s super easy to find someone wealthier and less industrious than ourselves. But I think I caught a glimpse of it. I have started to realize the process of my privilege irrespective of the product of my privilege.
Yep, I am privileged. And white. I’m not sure to what extent the white thing always goes hand in hand with the “privileged” part. It has been my privileged experienced not to have to know.
However, I do know this:
Recently, I felt my privileged whiteness as I had not before. I learned about other Americans who see opportunity and want it too. In order to get it, they stayed in school; they did what they needed to do to graduate. But their schools were such that even after graduating, they weren’t prepared. The student did the work; the school did not. Still, these particular Americans are lucky enough to have access to a college that would support them, catch them up with remediation.
I learned that as they are catching up, they take longer to graduate because they are also working at least one other job, and not for beer money. Some of them have to take several buses to get across town to class. Some are homeless. Some pay for college tuition by donating blood.
I realized how easy it would be for privileged folk to look only at the institution’s comparative 5-year graduation rates and casually wonder if there is something wrong with the students.
I am a privileged white woman. It’s not that grief or hard work has never touched my family; life happens to the privileged just like the rest of the world. The difference, I think, is that when it does, when life happens to the privileged—when we wander, when we make mistakes, when we break minor laws, when we plan, when we want something, when we work, when we do whatever it is we do, we— privileged few—are given a wide margin to make assumptions, to consider, to react, to recover. Privilege, in my white American experience, is not only the access to opportunity; it is the wide, graciously gentle and forgiving path on the way to those opportunities.
I share this now because it's clear that we white folk need to get comfortable talking about race and privilege. And then we need to start talking about and planning how to confront the systems and structures that create inequities and exclusion. Pretending is not working anymore; for fellow Americans who aren't white and privileged, it has never worked.
It goes without saying that these last many weeks have been a roller coaster of emotion; so you have to take your laughs where you can. One of ours was occasioned by a recent mayoral press conference in which he spoke of “getting back to as normal as possible,” “the new normal,” and the fact that things will be different. In a roundabout fashion, he captured the crux of the problem ahead of us—we’re stuck hoping to resume normal, while becoming aware that some things—perhaps many things—have shifted and we’ve learned a lot in the meantime.
In the midst of shut-downs and foreboding economic forecasts, we’ve seen incredible resilience and creativity. Corporations who’ve never considered flexible work arrangements have discovered it’s not so bad. Universities have learned how to host virtual admission events. Our corner coffee shop has leveraged its access to vendors to become a corner grocery store. A local minister now offers streaming prayer and happy hour sessions for scared congregants who can’t congregate.
Given these creative adaptations—and the ongoing challenges—it seems that the question of what’s next shouldn’t be limited to achieving an approximated version of “before” as soon as possible, but rather reflecting on all of the creative ideas we’ve implemented, and putting them into context of improved operations. Some organizations are still frankly stuck in the trees of crisis mode. Others are starting to try to see the forest for the trees by considering questions like these:
I won’t be the first to suggest that these health, economic, and social crises represent opportunities—not that we asked for them—but here they are. We’d be foolish not to capitalize on our unwilling creativity. Is there someone in your organization who can ask the questions above? Or, if it would be better to have someone outside, give me a call.
Recently, I’ve been privileged with several culture excavation projects. One of them was for Pikes Peak Community College’s (PPCC) strategic goal to increase its Latino enrollment and ultimately become an official Hispanic Serving Institution. In Colorado, our Latino population is 21%. However, our largest local school district has 30% Latino population and some of the other high schools are as high as 66% Latino.
To prepare PPCC’s Marketing Department for effective outreach to the Latino market, we did secondary research, interviewed community influencers, conducted bilingual focus groups with Latino high school students, and interviews in Spanish with parents. We learned things like this:
PPCC has hired a dedicated bilingual recruiter who is well-connected with community influencers and partners on information sessions for students and families. We translated the viewbook and recommended ways to simplify and translate key financial aid and immigration sections of the website. We also discussed a media channel mix for Spanish-speaking parents as well as the (different) channels better suited to their bilingual students.
If you have an upcoming project that would benefit from an enhanced understanding of a population segment’s cultural lens, please drop me a line.
"To whom much is given, much is required." My mother used to say this to me and my brothers when we were using the powers of our creative brains to bedevil each other rather than "bring out the best in one another" (another of her favorites).
I thought of this life lesson after a recent encounter with brand badness. The situation was this: I bought lipstick from a brand called “Urban Decay.” At the time, the brand name didn’t register in my consciousness. Later, however, I realized that the tube of lipstick is designed to look like a shotgun shell and sold under the line: “What’s your vice?” Suddenly, I could picture how the brand’s product positioning might have been developed: a conference room where people doodled on flip-chart paper listing things that came to mind with the phrase "urban decay;" maybe photos of graffitied concrete street scenes pasted around the room. The result of that process? Urban Decay presents its line as makeup with a wild side for “beauty with an edge.”™ It’s “feminine, dangerous, and fun.” Those who are “addicted” to the makeup can sign up to be “Beauty Junkies, because "Addiction has its perks.” The mascara is called "Perversion;" the lipsticks are shiny bullet casings.
Giving this brand the benefit of the doubt, I looked to see if portions of their proceeds are donated to help high-performing urban students with scholarships, or maybe to build community centers in blighted areas.
I found that Urban Decay supports an initiative claiming to “empower women,” So far, they have given $528,000 to different women's causes ranging from legal care in New York to education in Uganda and Kenya. So that's something,
But is it too little too late? The brand is built on making light of the issues that contribute to the hell recipients of their donations experience every day. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that no one actually experiencing urban decay is buying shotgun lipstick for $17 a tube. Or, that women who have real addictions and might be perceived as “junkies” don’t worry whether their makeup brushes are vegan. I’m guessing that all the brand riffing is for the benefit of privileged people who want to feel edgy and colorful from a well-lit, easily accessible, strip mall in a safe, newly developed part of town. Donations aside, I find the disconnect between the brand and the realities the inspired it to be callously, shamefully indifferent and disrespectful.
If I sound more vitriolic than usual, sorry. In my mind, branding is a lovely combination of strategy and creativity with a hefty dose of psychology and sociology thrown in. To use the work of branding to make light of the real problems, of violence, poverty, human weakness and suffering is an irresponsible use of the practice. Urban Decay, use your powers for good. I will not be buying any more shotgun shells,
What do you think? Am I being too hard on Urban Decay? Do brands owe the world anything other than their ability to create loyalty, make money, etc.?
Kyndra Wilson, KW Brand Translation
It was a lovely summer vacation day and the dulcet sounds of one child yelling to another “You’re not the boss of me!” ring through the house.
As I try to breathe and stay out of the melee, the marketer in me holds out this phrase and examines it. “The boss of me…” Who’s the boss? In this house and of those children, it’s me, of course. I’m the boss; I’m one of those kinds of moms. In the marketplace, however, it’s sometimes less clear.
Who’s the boss? There’s a couple possible answers to this question. One is leadership. I’ve been around the consulting block enough to see different leadership styles. There was that one president who liked his people to jump a little when he walked in the room. Then there was another who made a beeline for his Marketing Director after a board meeting so he could crow, “I win.” But most of the other leaders I’ve seen are more participatory, working to develop a team in which each person can contribute.
Another possible answer to “who’s the boss” is the customer. That answer seems obvious—sort of like reliably saying “Jesus!” when asked a question in Sunday school. Customers and the market need to be taken very seriously; you can’t sell it if they hate it. When I can (i.e., when leadership agrees), I like to start a competitor analysis project not by finding out who the client considers a competitor—because the client is often a little too easy on themselves or too dated in their assessment. I like to ask customers who they see as the client’s peers in order to provide the best sense of where in the competitive set the client organization might live at the moment.
But who’s the boss? If an organization lets itself be entirely swayed by the passing whims and opinions of a (distracted) market, will it ever strike out and try something really visionary? Can the market be reasonably expected to guide leaders into new terrain? Do they always know what they want but can’t yet get? As much I love some great customer insight research (and I do), and as much as we like to celebrate an interesting leader, I’m increasingly convinced that the real boss lives somewhere in the complicated relationship between markets and the intrepid leaders who engage them.
What do you think? Is there a formula? A ratio of leader: market?
Marketing is about change, right? We study and apply the best ways to connect because we want to move people to feel or do something.
Here is a case study of how a local pastor brilliantly applied the tips from a book called “Switch” to subtly influence and motivate behavior.
The situation was this:
In Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, authors Dan and Chip Heath describe 9 “prescriptions for change.” The pastor applied 5 of those 9 presecriptions:
Can you think of an initiative you’d like to move forward by about 250 percent!?
Kyndra Wilson, KW Brand Translation, LLC
In the last post, I posited a sort of back-to-the-village theory about the evolution of marketing. Little did I realize that within a month, I’d be in a Honduran, coffee-growing village talking about marketing.
I was there as a volunteer for a “Business Brigade” hosted by development organization called Global Brigades. The Global Brigade model emphasizes sustainability but recognizes that those in poverty have immediate needs that have to be met before they can plan ahead. So the first steps for working with remote and impoverished communities is to bring in medical and dental teams; then clean water; then latrines, then paved dirt floors, then “eco-stoves” that vent cook fire smoke out of the houses rather than in; then a small community staffed bank capable of micro-loans. The final step is to help the community identify a sustainable business so the community can earn more than the average $2 a day. That’s where the business brigade comes in. Our little brigade team was composed of marketing, merchandising, and process professionals. We met with the members of the El Zuzular community bank and learned about their approach to growing and selling coffee.
At first, if I’m honest, the challenges facing them seemed insurmountable. Imagine the typical difficulties of an agrarian life (e.g., no rain, crop disease, etc.) and then add to it dishonest middlemen, limited access to transportation, a high government tax on the final product, and zero crop insurance. When they’re lucky, the 23 co-op members grow about 6500 pounds of coffee a year and make a little over a dollar a pound. They have to live on—and reinvest—the profit for the rest of the season. Yikes.
As a team, we went back and forth trying to think of what we could offer to help the community. Finally, we went outside. We took a short trip to a popular tourist destination where we learned there is a growing Honduran interest in for fair-trade, locally sourced coffee. Small tourist shops were selling roasted coffee for $10 a bag.
We reported this back to our community members. As coffee growers, they confessed that they had never purchased a bag of coffee (they drink their own). So we shared what we’d learned and showed them how to think about their own brand strategy, do their own market research, and think of creative ways to make their product stand out.
The experience in Honduras was amazing for a hundred reasons, but it was also a good reminder to me as a consumer insights and research person. Marketing might be evolving to a more of a village in terms of the sources we trust as consumers, but as marketing professionals, it’s vital that you occasionally leave your village and see what new market opportunities might await one village over.
I’m cooking up a theory. It’s not fully formed, but I’ll put it out there and see how it evolves.
It goes like this: A long, long time ago, people lived in small, mostly agricultural towns. They spent their lives there. They knew everyone and everyone knew everything about each other. Family honor and personal reputations were all anyone really needed to know when it came to news they could use.
Over time, things changed, but communication was still slow. Marketing was primarily pushed through TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, etc.
Then, right about the time I got out of college, Al Gore invented the internet and things began to change. Quickly. Suddenly, it was all so fast and easy. Marketing people got giddy. We had all these new channels available to us. Email! Banner ads! Pay-per-click! QR codes! Short ad spots in front of YouTube videos! So many options, and oh-so-trackable!
Then, social media came along and we started in on that too. (And here’s where my theory picks up again…) People (especially young people) developed a savvy, cynical eye toward all of this communicatin'. They just assume most of the messaging is “spun.” So while they have access to all of the information they want; they trust very little of it. They regularly tell me that when they’re looking for information that matters, they “don’t trust” anything that comes from official channels unless it’s just the facts.
For example, prospective college students tell me they trust a college to accurately present the statistics about acceptance rates and average test scores, but they do not trust the college to accurately present information about diversity, or the student life experience, or the level of academic challenge. Those kids used to tell me they looked to social media for the real scoop; it was more relational, less formal, and seemingly authentic. Now, they tell me, they don’t even trust the college’s social media because they assume that too is a closely managed channel (and they’re usually right). Now, to get the real scoop, they say they look at the social media feeds from kids who graduated from their own high school and attend the college in question.
So my theory is that over the years, the experience of trust in messaging expanded suddenly and is in the process of contracting again. Our global society is still super global, but our locus of trustworthy sources might be shrinking back down to the village we know.
The question to us marketers will become how to cultivate the village?
Kyndra Wilson, KW Brand Translation
P.S. Since this was posted, Ad Age published this article about the Hilton Brand trying to address the rising interest in community and authenticity. Check it out here: http://adage.com/article/cmo-strategy/hilton-introduces-hotel-brand-millennial-mindset/302310/
Seasoned Marketing Strategist