plan for chaos

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How to Plan for Chaos

Wunderman Thompson CSO on how brands can survive and thrive amidst the current economic crisis

By Sid McGrath

Whatever happened to the roaring twenties?

Remember how we were going to come barrelling out of the Covid lockdowns into a world of soaring economic growth, rampant consumerism, endless parties, and elegant dinner jackets? Tax cuts and Brexit dynamism would ignite a decade of vigour!

Instead, we got a cost-of-living crisis, a financial meltdown, an economy bumping along the bottom, and the return of low-rise jeans.

Unlike the age of The Great Gatsby and the flappers, this decade’s growth forecasts are being lowered, tough times are on the way and the UK economy is predicted to shrink by 0.6% in 2023. 

Far from the starry-eyed optimism of the Jazz Age, this is the era of the permacrisis where rolling disruptive events feed into each other, as disease, war, technological and supply chain disruption, labour shortages, and cybercrime seem to occur everywhere, all at once. 

It’s going to be a very bumpy ride over the decade ahead where the only certainty will be uncertainty itself. And that’s the thing: uncertainty. Over the last 100 years, the average recession has lasted 9 months, followed by around 60 months of sustained growth. As a result, we obsess about this glorious, 60-month end point because we crave certainty. But what if it doesn’t end? With the Bank of England telling us we may be in for the worst recession for 100 years, what if this permanent state of uncertainty is the new normal we were all going on about a couple of years ago? It’s going to require new thinking and new tactics to help brands navigate through the chaos ahead and, if we get it right, it’s just possible, they might even thrive. Here are six suggestions for just that: how to survive and thrive amid the current chaos.

  1. Get comfortable with unpredictability. Don’t base your marketing plans on certainty. Consider instead how to balance short-term pragmatism with longer-term competitiveness and operate several ‘now and next’ horizons. Maybe think more like a retailer and, rather than relying on 12-month annual plans, operate in 3-month bursts to enable you to adapt to whatever happens next.  Embrace scenario planning to plot out what you think might happen based on some PEST analysis to identify warning signs, because, while you may not be able to accurately predict what will happen, you can at least plan for it. 

  2. Make brands genuinely meaningful. With the general confusion we’re all experiencing, people are losing any sense of control over their lives, feelings of compassion from others, and connection to something bigger and better. Brands that recognise this and offer some deeper form of meaning will thrive: giving people control by providing solutions that simplify their lives and empower them; demonstrating compassion through care and consideration, thoughtfulness and appreciation; and creating connection by offering a sense of unity and involvement and a route out of isolation. 

  3. Save the day rather than save the world. It’s really important now that brands focus on the small ‘p’ – what their point is – rather than just the big ‘P’ of brand purpose. Think of it like this: how many brands did you put in your shopping trolley this week based on their purpose alone? Latest figures tell us that those on the lowest income levels – far lower than your salary - have £40 less to spend per month than they did this time last year. Will this increasingly large group of people be buying because of purpose, or will it be because of benefits and usefulness?  Thinking about the small ‘p’ of saving-the-day purpose helps focus on the tangible value brands can bring to people right now. This may well be just as important as big P purpose and the corresponding social and environmental benefits that a brand creates in the long term. 

  4. Double down on integration. Dialing down marketing budgets in too many channels risks casting people adrift when you should be ferrying them to the next stage of their engagement or purchase journey. Ensure the interconnectedness of interactions around the ‘living, buying, using’ phases of your brand. Evidence tells us that people pay more for stronger brands and less for weaker ones, so shifting too much budget into the ‘buying’ phase, whether that’s through performance marketing or promotions, will erode all the hard work and equity built up over the last few years. And don’t overlook the loyalists in the ‘using’ phase, as at some stage they desired you so much they chose your brand above all others. With the cost of new customer acquisition so high, it’s crazy not to find a way to conjure up that latent desire in your loyalists once again. 

  5. Bob and weave like never before. In this age of uncertainty, agility will be essential to help you adapt or die, because your newest competitor is being born right now in a shed, laboratory, or workshop somewhere, and they have none of the bureaucracy, baggage, or restrictive behaviours that you do. Streamline your processes, ask fewer questions that stall progress, and create more action in the marketplace, not the boardroom. 

  6. Attack yourself. If you’re worried about the competition, new or old, then engage in wargaming, role-playing them to attack yourself. This will identify weaknesses and vulnerabilities, allowing you to create pre-emptive strategies. If you only do one thing from this list, this exercise might be the most useful way to measure your fitness for the future.

Brands that manage to successfully pull off any or all six of these remedies may set themselves up for a slightly more comfortable ride through the next few bumpy years. It may be chaos out there, but we can at least plan for it.

Sid McGrath is the CSO at Wunderman Thompson


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