Shubhranshu Singh is Global Head, Marketing at Royal Enfield. He writes regularly on brand building, social trends, history, technology and politics. Views expressed are personal
It is natural to emphasise the relevance of business strategy and to question it at the same time, given the turbulent and unpredictable world we live in. Brands soar and fall with a thud. How can their strategies be credited or blamed?
It can be convincingly claimed that there isn’t enough strategy, and that corporate management and managers of capital don’t think sufficiently far ahead and aren’t clear enough about what they are trying to achieve.
We do entertain an unrealistic expectation of what strategy can do. In business, it is seen that circumstances turn out to be quite different from those that we anticipate; Both the market and competitors do things that we do not expect.
General Eisenhower had said that plans are unimportant, but planning is essential.
Why is a marketing strategy relevant?
Strategy development is a way of thinking. The process of thinking through and working out possibilities enables you to cope with situations as they arise and to recognise that things are different. But if you stick rigidly to a plan, you will get into trouble because, inevitably, things will turn out to be unpredictable?
Managers confuse their goal with strategy. It is a common blunder. Plans hope to result into intended objectives but they must be governed by the starting problems. Brand strategy must look at conditions as they exist, not as we perceive them. It sounds so obvious and simple but, believe me, this is the hardest thing to do in real-world situations. We are forever subjective and rarely objective.
What has changed?
The world is a lot more unpredictable today and therefore we need a different approach to strategising. The early attempts at strategic thinking emerged from a “control” mindset. The emphasis was to ensure that goals were met. The presumption was that there could be a workable reliance on core strengths that could be deployed. Today's marketing strategy has to be responsive, fluid, and adaptive.
One of the most important features of implementing strategy in the 'digital era’ is that failure is found out very quickly. Success emerges from failure. Now, a strategy is no guarantor against failure. Instead, strategy is an adaptive process that merely factors in the failure, as it occurs.
There are two seemingly contradictory trends at work. First is the emergence of real-time, always-on, all things-in-type information dashboard. The second is the recognition that strategy is an art and technical advantages flatten out eventually.
How to manage the implications and avoid ‘bad’ strategy?
Richard Rumelt describes bad strategy as something that emerges from specific misconceptions and leadership dysfunctions. He lists four typical signs:
1) Fluff: Gibberish masquerading as strategic concepts or arguments
2) Failure to face the challenge: Fails to recognise or define the challenge
3) Mistaking goals for strategy: Just statements of desire rather than plans for overcoming obstacles
4) Bad strategic objectives: Impracticable or non-specific
A strategy must make it abundantly clear to all in the organisation where to play and how to win. It must make its case based on facts. After all, that which is asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.
Strategy is about priority-based choices between viable competing options. There is an easy test. The opposite of your strategy must be a strategy. Delivering great service is not a strategy. Choosing to operate in the mass segment is. You can’t have a strategy of providing bad service but you could choose to play in the premium segment instead.
Without a lasting, growing, evolving competitive advantage, there can be no winning strategy. Michael Porter entered management history with his treatise on ‘The Five Competitive Forces that Shape Strategy’. His core thinking is true today as well. To base your approach on leveraging competitive advantage is indeed the first principle.
The era of platform-based digital businesses is all about sense, spirit, and style. In cricket, the strategies adopted in T20 vs Test cricket are different. The former is about scoring maximum runs whereas the latter is all about safeguarding your wickets.
Last but not the least, in today’s world, making strategy is not an elitist pursuit done in ivory towers. Strategy requires an appreciation of reality and hence cannot be centered exclusively in the headquarters. The last mile at the customer-facing end is a great place to explore and learn. Companies that do not continue to experiment and those that don’t embrace failure, eventually get in a desperate position.
Traditionally, the creation of strategy was more feted than its execution. The smart ones only made the plans. That is simply not okay anymore. The two must be intertwined in a deliberate process connected by a feedback loop.
Today, speed and urgency are key. Initiative is the catalyst for faster results from the intended strategy whereas wait and watch is a road to oblivion.
Here’s the paradox: Action is most needed in times of rapid change and uncertainty, but that’s when it is most difficult. Beset with faux knowledge, bureaucracy, and theoretical constructs, brand strategy is destroying value and eroding brand capital. This is bad for business.
Let’s hope for a revival of sensible brand strategy.
The writer is Global Head, Marketing at Royal Enfield. He writes regularly on brand building, social trends, history, technology, and politics. Views expressed are personal.