“Everything is different, but the same... things are more moderner than before... bigger, and yet smaller... it's computers... San Dimas High School football rules!”
—Ox, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
One thing you can be fairly certain about when it comes to marketing and digital is that your competition, by and large, relies on the same measurements and near-term goals that you do. These goals predominate because they are simple to understand and commensurate with traditional measurements and goals. But rarely do they reflect the changing fundamentals of marketing, which results in a status quo that feels somewhat disconnected from the best new opportunities, despite the ever increasing speed with which marketers adopt new buzzwords (usually from a “guru”) that talk to changes wrought by digital. It’s become hard enough to keep up, in other words, but the value of thinking differently about digital has increased, not diminished.
Combating the malaise of this status quo and the inertia behind it requires organizational chutzpah — the willingness to question accepted wisdom and behavior, and to entertain unconventional ideas. Startups typically overflow with chutzpah, but it dilutes as they grow. Today’s most competitive businesses embody it through adulthood, however, and Amazon’s Price Check app constitutes a recent and succinct example. The Price Check app rewards users for scanning merchandise prices in retail stores with their phones, allowing Amazon to offer a lower price on the spot while collecting valuable competitive intelligence. This attack on the biggest remaining advantage physical stores possess caused no small amount of outrage. Senator Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) decried Amazon's incentive-driven promotion to encourage use of the app as anticompetitive: “Small businesses are fighting everyday to compete with giant retailers, such as Amazon, and incentivizing consumers to spy on local shops is a bridge too far.” Implementing the future at someone’s expense alway results in backlash, and you have to be particularly fearless to do it to a sacred cow like small business, of course.
As a counterexample, startups are also falling victim to incrementalism and the status quo and now behave much like anyone else. Let’s call this “Grouponitis.” The symptoms include a laser-like focus on maximizing revenue and market share with nary a thought given to the eventual profitability of it all, combined with a lack of a distinct offering to consumers (despite leading the market, there’s little to distinguish Groupon from its competitors in the eyes of consumers, a fact that is diminishing their first-mover advantage rapidly). Many startups now just amount to new forms of advertising, audacious only in trivial ways. This is the same kind of convergence prominent in established industries, but it is taking place in nascent ones faster than before.
Organizational chutzpah requires committing to a vision of the future you want to see. Developing a marketing strategy based upon that constructed future is a delicate balancing act between recognizing and adapting to the inevitable while remaining distinct and uniquely valuable. Furthermore, lots of marketers trip up and actually end up reinforcing the status quo by trying to derive a sense of the inevitable from an examination of the competition: we rarely see a sufficient level of insight about the future arrive from analysis of the immediate competition. A broad and lateral analysis is essential to determining how the cards are going to fall.
Instead of focusing solely on catching up with the competition (although by all means do that too, if you can afford to), think about what distinguishes you in the eyes of the consumer, and how that unique part of your value proposition will be changed by digital and the impending future. It’s not as hard as you’d think for one major reason: unlike Silicon Valley, which places risky bets on early adoption of truly untested ideas, marketers at established firms have a bit more breathing room before the future arrives. William Gibson said it best: “The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.” Maintaining the status quo is no longer an acceptable strategy in a world where you could be on the waning side of an unevenly distributed future. We believe the most successful firms will have a broad view of the future, a narrow view of themselves, and the organizational chutzpah to begin enacting that future as soon as possible.