Brand building and warfare

In business, success is more often found in data. tech and how you use resources

Winning is the stuff of great human stories  but, in business, the truth about success is more often found in hard data, superior technology and how resources are deployed, writes strategist Julian Saunders

Metaphors are seductively simple and memorable. We do like to use them as a way of bottling the alchemy of winning

Such as “winning in business is like winning at elite sports.” A combination of character, confidence and skill are keys that unlock victory. Surely, all we need is to be a bit more Djokovic and success will follow.

But, looked at analytically, continual success at elite sports is the exception not the rule. The moody sullen face of Jose Mourinho warns us of the law of “regression to the mean”. He was a winner for a while but then he fell back into the pack and started to perform in an average way. Hope springs eternal in sports and a new manager is appointed who enjoys a bounce and then he too falls back and becomes, well, average.

Neil Woodford, once a star fund manager, has fallen and been revealed to have feet of clay. He has regressed below the mean, in fact. Analytical minds in finance (like Warren Buffet) recommend that we rid ourselves of the illusion of individual skill and bet long term on average market performance in the form of low cost tracker funds. Winning is about ruthlessly cutting unnecessary running costs to deliver the best value and enjoy the benefits of compound interest.

All very dull. All very unheroic.

“Never invade Russia” is one of the iron laws of winning wars says Lawrence Friedman: (Warfare being another of our favourite metaphors). Winning means organising and focusing your resources in a way that plays to your strengths and undermines your competitors. Individual geniuses - like Napoleon - are neutralised when they comes up against a hostile environment (The Russian Winter) and a competitors with seemingly limitless to take punishment and still bounce back (The Russian people).

Churchill famously rejoiced when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour because he knew it would bring the USA into the war. Their superior resources and technological lead would, he thought, be the factor that would eventually grind down the Axis powers. Winning in war is not (mainly) about the individual but correct analysis of environment, resources and undermining the opposition.


But brand building is not the same as warfare

It’s about hearts and minds as well. Which trips us into another of our favourite metaphors - that brand building is like human relationships. This idea (often unconsciously) pervades our thinking in words like “loyalty”, “engagement” and even “brand love.” 

Andrew Enhrenberg punctured that intellectual hot air balloon when he showed that purchasing data in fact showed that “your customers are other people’s customers who occasionally buy you”.  Ouch. So much for having a love-in with your customers.

So what is the clue to winning?

No doubt each of these metaphors have something to teach us but I would not bet my savings on it. So what would you bet your savings on? This is “the pension plan question” – what companies would you buy stock in to live a comfortable retirement, and it forces us to identify a more hard-nosed set of criteria to identify winners.

Here are my top 5 questions:

  • Does the company have a clear direction and or position in its market(s)?
  • Is it well-funded, and thus well-placed to resist and or buy out competitors ?
  • Does it invest in strengthening its position through communication and innovation ?
  • Does it attract and retain the best talent? (employee satisfaction being a good litmus test of company health and dynamism)
  • Is it transparent in its release of data - on financial performance, diversity, equality and social/environmental impact

What are your questions and what would it lead you to invest your hard-earned pension fund in?

This article was taken from issue 2 of Marketing Society members-only publication EMPOWER. Find out more here and see past articles here (please note some articles are open to the public and some are for members only.)