Expanding Strategic Perspective In A Digital World

I’ve spent my career working with corporations on the strategic issues impacting their brands. At the risk of aging myself, when I started, there was no social media and no mobile Internet, no apps and no such thing as real-time data analytics. Paper brochureware still mattered, TV ruled the marketing communications roost, and brands still relied heavily on physical focus groups to gain customer insights. And I’m only 38.

Todays world is rather different. Not only have business models been turned upside down and re-defined for a digital world, but the way in which brands interact with their customers has undergone an unprecedented level of transformation.

As technology has had a greater impact, the speed in which brands must act, respond and act again has increased exponentially. The idea of taking months to carefully craft a strategy is increasingly rare, and unlikely to come back anytime soon.

Along with this speed of change, we’re seeing a change in the way people think about brands. The new focus has become one founded on engagement. Seeking rapid iterations of campaigns and activities designed to engage customers in discreet ways that will hopefully add up to longer-term relationships. In overly simplistic terms, to get followers to like you and then keep liking you. It’s all very exciting.

Within this exciting new world, however, we’ve also seen a fundamental change in perspective related to brands by their agencies. In the digital world, what we see is a compression of strategic perspective. Where in the past the brand mattered more than anything, today there is an awkward tendency to be dismissive of the overarching stance of the brand. The focus instead moving more and more to the specific activities designed to drive engagement. To use a technology metaphor, it appears that digitally oriented agencies tend to see strategy as something that works in the ‘app layer’ of the brand rather than at the ‘operating system’ layer.

Contrary to this way of thinking, I believe there is a need to re-focus strategic thinking to the ‘operating system’ layer. Brands are becoming much more complex beasts to manage as product cycles shrink, communications channels explode and technology expands. Already we’re seeing brands struggling to manage their digital detritus that is building up over time, and all too rarely adds up to something cohesive.

But as the need for overarching strategy will become more important, the ways in which we approach strategy will also have to change. The methods commonly used by strategic brand consultancies and others like them appear to be increasingly slow and ponderous. Instead we need to approach strategy in a much faster moving, more agile and more iterative way. We need to embrace new tools like big data and social analytics that will enhance insight and real-time decision making, and we need to become better at filtering and identifying the things that really matter, as the signal to noise ratio of the Internet increases.

But the opportunities in this are incredible. To fuse a clear strategic direction for a brand with ability to build a set of highly integrated, fast moving and innovative engagements with your customer.

The only question for me is where it will come from first. Will the strategic brand consultancies develop new, faster, more fluid methods that help guide engagement activities? Will the fast moving digital and social agencies develop greater strategic muscle, and start thinking in broader terms about brands than they do today? Or, will they both lose out to large, integrated advertising agencies moving in and attempting to take this ground for themselves?