Should your brand skate where the puck is going to be?

Background

The market or category in which you play tracks GDP growth due to structural or cyclical reasons. On the other hand, market failures and negative externalities are taking their toll on the planet, people and prosperity in general, as a result, social sensitivities are heightened, thus making the environment within which your brand or business franchise plays, volatile. It may well be that your brand is top of the pile in terms of relative performance, however externalities are still rampant. Regardless, you are high up in the food chain within your marketing organization or part of your job description requires you to recommend strategy or tactical changes to your marketing stack.

Question

Your brand or business Review is around the corner and you are “mulling over” whether you should take your brand into “shared value,” “social impact” or “purpose” markets. This seems to be where the puck is going, at least in your estimate. Information pieces also reinforce your thought processes. As an example, Stats SA’s 3rd Quarter, 2020 Labour Force Survey indicates that unemployment is (30.8%), +7.5%pts vs P/P and +1.7% versus Y/A and that 89% these unemployed persons are black, 6.8% coloured, 2.5% white and 1.6% Indian.

In addition to the above, poverty data suggests that 25% of households in South Africa are living below the extreme poverty line of R561 per month and that 55% live below the revised upper bound poverty line (UBPL) of R1227. The COVID-19 Vulnerability Index Technical Report indicates that people who are at risk or vulnerable include those; 1) who are poor or live in deprived conditions which impacts health and sanitation; 2) live in crowded areas which impacts on social distancing or; 3) live in multi-generational households.

Predicament

On the other hand, one of your senior marketing staff members has just completed his/her Masters and Digital Business tells you about the benefits of digital transformation and more specifically, about “platform businesses and brands. Both of these, shared value and platform brands look very compelling and seem to be where the puck is going to be. Should you take your brand or brands, where the action is going to be? If so, how do you allocate resources, time and talent core amongst signature marketing initiatives that account for a lion’s share of your current branded earnings and/or customer lifetime value and future sources of branded earnings and customer lifetime values? Within future sources stream, how do you allocate resources between shared value and digital transformation?

1. Statssa.gov.za. 2020. [online] Available at: <http://www.statssa.gov.za/publications/P0211/P02113rdQuarter2020.pdf> [Accessed 14 December 2020].

2. Businesstech.co.za, 2020. This Is How Much Money The Poorest Are Living On Each Month In South Africa. [online] Businesstech.co.za. Available at: <https://businesstech.co.za/news/finance/332553/this-is-how-much-money-the-poorest-are-living-on-each-month-in-south-africa/> [Accessed 14 December 2020].

What is your strategy for “low touch” markets?

Low touch markets have increased in ubiquity and prevalence across different industry verticals and consumption chains. Their unique identifiers include different intensity of touch or human interaction, from no touch at the extreme end of the continuum to some fair amount of touch at the other end, separated by minimal touch in the middle. At the back end, the differentiator is the level of technology involvement across the three scenarios, technologically driven versus technology informed, with technology assisted right in the middle. The point of departure for strategy in low touch markets is a reminder that strategy is nothing else, but a configuration of logically related ends, ways and means that are applicable in time and space. Net, strategy starts with the end, and then work backwards.

The end goal of business strategy is well documented and has been a subject of discussion amongst market based, resource based and dynamic capability theorists for some time. In essence though the end goal is to deliver free cashflows to the firm and capital providers that exceed the cost of capital. The key drivers for this are, to use one mode of thinking; 1) revenue growth, margins and capital efficiency. In short, growth and ROIC and to be in this position, a firm must win with the customer, win operationally or be operationally efficient and also be capital efficient. In other words, generate a bigger spread on invested capital.

In low touch markets, the above also applies. The only caveat, strategically speaking, is that one must take into account the fact that to win with the customer, one must take the following into account. Firstly, a market is nothing but a combination of people and their jobs to be done in a specific context (Ulwick, 2017). In other words, the context gives rise to a job to be done for a specific set of people. Those with the willingness and ability to pay, take action and hire a tool or set of tools to execute the job. During the pandemic, driven by a confluence of the need to be safe in the face of ravaging COVID-19 and technological advancements, contactless or low touch searching, browsing and choosing brands and sku’s, ordering, payment, delivery, service and repeat purchases, accelerated.

Secondly, as is always the case, context does change and when it changes, the job to be done may either be reinforced or changed. Even if the broader context does not change, which is unlikely, the Windermere and Associates model has shown over time that consumers or people’s circumstances, values and preferences do change. In addition to this, new players with new and fresh ideas, may spring up to fight for the slice of low touch markets. The question in this likely scenario is, will your firm be a able generate a spread, if so, how big a spread will it be and for how long, in the face of changing, context, consumers preferences and the entry of new players?

Net, this piece submits that whilst the focus during this time is largely been on the things or the technologies as it always the case in early stages of new games, do not lose sight of the fact that markets have two sides to them, with the one side pulling the other. Net to win sustainability across contexts and times, the people with the jobs that need to be done, are kings and queens and not the technology. They are the ones whose activities, the frequency with which they perform those activities, the size of the money they leave behind with you each time they perform these jobs or activities, the length of time they stay with you and the proportion of these activities they perform with you or your help, is what creates value.

NB: At the time (06 April, 2021, 15h45 GMT+2) of writing this article, the concept of “low touch markets” was not found on the worldwide web. Other related concepts such as “low touch world, low touch economy, low touch business, low touch business model, low touch sales model, funnel, low touch customer service, low touch customer success” etc., were  Although some of these concepts do aggregate into “low touch market (s),” no direct reference to this concept was found. This is a big gap

References

  1. Avishai, B. and Taylor, W., 1989. Customers Drive a Technology-Driven Company: An Interview with George Fisher. [online] Harvard Business Review. Available at: <https://hbr.org/1989/11/customers-drive-a-technology-driven-company-an-interview-with-george-fisher> [Accessed 6 April 2021].
  2. Bagchi, P., 2020. The pandemic pivot to low-touch business. [online] Business-standard.com. Available at: <https://www.business-standard.com/article/opinion/the-pandemic-pivot-to-low-touch-business-120050500017_1.html> [Accessed 6 April 2021].
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  6. O’Doherty, P., 2021. The Playbook For Low-Touch Customer Success. [online] Keep-grow.com. Available at: <https://www.keep-grow.com/the-playbook-for-low-touch-customer-success> [Accessed 5 April 2021].
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Memo To The Ceo: Do Not Turn Off The Marketing Tap

Find a creative way to maintain flows into your mission critical marketing assets, in the face of exogenous shocks.

Marketing is a discretionary profit and loss statement item, one of the first to go, in tough times in most companies. In most firms and geographic markets, the marketing budget co-varies with economic activity and/or company fortunes. In other words, marketing budgets, generally go up or down, in line with economic activity and/or company performance1.

Unfortunately though, to remain in the game or to retain a winning position, in good or bad times, the business or brand franchise must be strong enough hang onto, grow or bounce back grow pre-exogenous shock Customer Lifetime Values (CLV). Since CLV activity is realized through and facilitated by off balance sheet, intermediate brand related intangible assets such as; prompted or unprompted awareness, confidence, trust and interest etc., and also that all assets, intangible or otherwise, depreciate (not in the accounting sense) over time or are subject to normal wear and tear, these marketing assets need to be maintained or upgraded in good or bad times. Net, some level of re-investment needs to be maintained, regardless.

In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak, its rapid diffusion across the world as well as the almost uniform national policy responses to manage the spread and gear up health systems for the pandemic, most countries instituted social distancing and varying forms of lock-down. As a consequence of this, economic activities in consumer discretionary GCIS industry sectors and categories as well as some categories within the industrials sector, were halted whilst some essential GICS sectors were left either fully or partially open. As a result of this, most firms in most industry groups and categories were caught between a rock and hard place. On the one hand, demand side activity and revenue dried up or reduced, whilst on the other hand, they continued to incur expenses (COGS, operating expenses and financial expenses).

Faced with the above situation, some firms, especially those with high asset betas were left with no choice, but to de-leverage their operational load factors. Since the marketing budget, a part of SG&A, is largely a discretionary item, some firms switched off their marketing activities altogether whilst waiting for some signals to ascertain whether the second wave will materialize and what the policy response will be. There is no guarantee however, that the off balance sheet, and intermediate intangible assets that facilitate customer and consumer activity will stand still during this “wait and see” period. As the saying goes, nature abhors a vacuum and during a business franchise’s absence, something may pop up and fill the space, especially during this time when consumers are dealing with their health, economic and social anxieties, fears and uncertainties.

The reality is that volatility, ambiguity and uncertainty induced by combinations of exogenous factors acting in concert, are now becoming a new normal, as Darwinian patterns of change (stable periods followed by small or incremental variations over long periods resulting in something new) either give way to or live side with punctuated equilibrium (stable periods followed by rapid bursts of change) as well as, technological change at an industry level that follow what Tushman and Rosenkopf referred to as an era of incremental change, followed by and era of ferment and then a dominant design.

Indications from “rapid bursts” of exogenous and industry level shocks as well as firms’ attempts to adapt to these shocks, suggest that most GICS industry sectors, categories and stocks/firms are now in an era of ferment. At some point however, industry sectors and stocks/companies will emerge with a fit for purpose “dominant design,” whether that be in the form of a new business or operating model, with some elements of either being reinforced and others being reoriented.

Net, instead of switching of the tap altogether, marketing should find innovative ways to maintain optimal flows to keep the mission critical “marketing assets” alive and current. This is more so that the lock-downs and the slews of health related pre-cautions temporarily changed customers and consumers’ established habits and practices. Your business franchise absence could reinforce the new habits and practices that consumers picked during the lock down period.

In addition to the above, the business case to find innovative ways to maintain flows into mission critical marketing assets makes sense. Firstly, since many categories and firms would have cut back on their promotional activities and marketing spend, this means that; 1) there is a strong possibility that it would cost less now than pre-COVID to buy the same exposure; 2) since there is reduced promotional clutter, you may need fewer exposures to break through and be seen or heard; 3) empirical evidence shows a strong link between increased marketing spend and increased market added value during recessions than non-recessionary periods.

Notes

  1. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/06/coronavirus-advertising-marketing-covid19-pandemic-business/ (Date accessed, 02 July 2020).

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