4 Min ReadBusiness 06 August 2020
From Facebook ad boycotts, alignment with #BlackLivesMatter, to ditching names like Aunt Jemima: social activism is the latest must-have for brands. Should you jump on the bandwagon? And how do you make the shift without getting labeled as inauthentic, especially if your brand has never talked about these issues before?
Now is the time to speak up, but brand activism is a significant strategic shift, not just a one-time change in temporary tactics. You need to address and master that realignment so you're not fast to fail in this emerging space. Even more importantly, by doing brand activism right, we as marketers have a chance at helping achieve lasting change from these times of upheaval.
Agile ways of working have often led to exerting the majority of our planning energies at the moment of maximum ignorance. We create perfect strategy documents that assume nothing will change for months, or even years, as we go about our business and get work done.
That's almost never true in the world of marketing, but it's even less true than usual in 2020.
Now is the time to speak up, but brand activism is a significant strategic shift, not just a one-time change in temporary tactics.
Fortunately the agile mindset, and the frameworks that help us put it into practice, offer an alternative way towards meaningful brand activism that allows us to make a lasting connection with the causes that resonate with both our brands and our customers.
Agile Marketers Still Need a Strategy
I once read an article discussing agile marketing which asked: "Can you plan to be agile? Isn't that cheating?" There's a strangely persistent myth that being agile means you react to what's going on around you in real time, irrespective of any plan or strategy.
That's not only inaccurate, it's a terrible idea for marketers who are expected to be stewards of brand health over the long term. The bottom line is that strategy matters even when you're responding to sudden change. When it comes to brand activism, the most important first step is to know — really know — your brand. Then, as cultural moments emerge, investigate how the two align.
If there's a meaningful reason for your brand to join that conversation, it's time to determine what the acceptable variances are from your existing messaging. How much can you change without totally sacrificing work already in progress (more on this in the next section)?
When it comes to brand activism, the most important first step is to know — really know — your brand.
Once you're comfortable with the degree of change, respond as soon as possible. Embrace the idea of a minimum viable campaign — the smallest amount of work that could still achieve your goals — and get it in front of your audience. Then expand and iterate over time.
Balance Agility and Stability
As you debate the desirable degree of change, remember that work left undone is a form of waste. There's high value in finishing what you've started before jumping to something entirely new.
When possible, complete your current work before pivoting everything to a brand activism campaign. Look for ways to make slight, incremental adjustments to your marketing plans, rather than diving in to take on every imaginable new initiative right away.
Strong organizational values should ideally already underpin much of your marketing work, which means there should be clear intersections between cultural movements that you need to participate in and your current marketing activities.
Rapid response times matter, but we won't help our brands in the long term if our marketing strategy becomes nothing but a series of pivots.
Learn, Iterate, and Improve
If you begin from your core organizational values and go to market with a minimum viable campaign, you can rely on a Feedback loop with your customers and audience to hone your messaging over time. As you start to feed out new messaging, gauge reactions and outcomes. See what's working and what's not. Get better as you go.
This kind of continual iteration can be enormously powerful, but it only works if we begin from the minimum viable starting point. When we draft a complete, fully formed campaign and put it all out simultaneously (an approach known in the agile world as "Big Bang"), we have too much invested to easily adjust.
Once a cake is fully baked we can't add more sugar or less baking powder.
If social justice really matters to your organization and needs to be reflected in your brand perception, the shift to brand activism must be permanent and ongoing.
But if we deliver a cupcake — still tasty and enjoyable, but smaller — we have the opportunity to tweak the recipe so each new offering is a little better.
Commit for the Long Term
Lastly, don't think of brand activism as something to adopt for a quarter and then abandon. If social justice really matters to your organization and needs to be reflected in your brand perception, the shift to brand activism must be permanent and ongoing.
Make it a real commitment, then take the time to consider what this holistic adjustment will mean for the way you go to market. Will it mean abandoning certain advertising channels permanently? Are there aspects of your messaging that could use updating? How can you support education and lasting change with the platform available to your brand?
Be thoughtful and genuine, taking time to consider carefully and listen openly to the reactions you receive. Too often we stop thinking and acting like real people when we have our marketer hats on, but the same respectful intentionality that we should exhibit as individuals should inform our brand marketing efforts.
Find a Meaningful Intersection and Iterate Toward It
If you haven't already, take the time to really consider your organizational and brand values, and how they fit with the current social justice movements. Look for an authentic intersection, and begin a steady, iterative march toward it. Deliver valuable marketing collateral as often as possible, then listen to feedback and adjust as needed.
Once you arrive at the intersection between your brand and activism, sit down and stay a while. Explore the impact you can have through long term strategic change, not just one time opportunistic tactics. This position, not just a one-day use of a particular hashtag, is where brands and their marketers can be part of the solution.
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3 Min Read
"How did you ever get into a business like that?" people ask me. They're confounded to hear that my product is industrial baler wire—a very unfeminine pursuit, especially in 1975 when I founded my company in the midst of a machismo man's world. It's a long story, but I'll try to shorten it.
I'd never been interested to enter the "man's" world of business, but when I discovered a lucrative opportunity to become my own boss, I couldn't pass it up—even if it involved a non-glamorous product. I'd been fired from my previous job working to become a ladies' clothing buyer and was told at my dismissal, "You just aren't management or corporate material." My primary goal then was to find a career in which nobody had the power to fire me and that provided a comfortable living for my two little girls and myself.
Over the years, I've learned quite a few tough lessons about how to successfully run a business. Below are five essential elements to keep in mind, as well as my story on how I learned them.
Find A Need And Fill It
I gradually became successful at selling various products, which unfortunately weren't profitable enough to get me off the ground, so I asked people what they needed that they couldn't seem to get. One man said, "Honey, I need baler wire. Even the farmers can't get it." I saw happy dollar signs as he talked on and dedicated myself to figuring out the baler wire industry.
I'd never been interested to enter the "man's" world of business, but when I discovered a lucrative opportunity to become my own boss, I couldn't pass it up.
Now forty-five years later, I'm proud to be the founder of Vulcan Wire, Inc., an industrial baler wire company with $10 million of annual sales.
Have Working Capital And Credit
There were many pitfalls along the way to my eventual success. My daughters and I were subsisting from my unemployment checks, erratic alimony and child-support payments, and food stamps. I had no money stashed up to start up a business.
I paid for the first wire with a check for which I had no funds, an illegal act, but I thought it wouldn't matter as long as I made a deposit to cover the deficit before the bank received the check. My expectation was that I'd receive payment immediately upon delivery, for which I used a rented truck.
Little did I know that this Fortune 500 company's modus operandi was to pay all bills thirty or more days after receipts. My customer initially refused to pay on the spot. I told him I would consequently have to return the wire, so he reluctantly decided to call corporate headquarters for this unusual request.
My stomach was in knots the whole time he was gone, because he said it was iffy that corporate would come through. Fifty minutes later, however, he emerged with a check in hand, resentful of the time away from his busy schedule. Stressed, he told me to never again expect another C.O.D. and that any future sale must be on credit. Luckily, I made it to the bank with a few minutes to spare.
Know Your Product Thoroughly
I received a disheartening phone call shortly thereafter: my wire was breaking. This horrible news fueled the fire of my fears. Would I have to reimburse my customer? Would my vendor refuse to reimburse me?
My customer told me to come over and take samples of his good wire to see if I might duplicate it. I did that and educated myself on the necessary qualities.
My primary goal then was to find a career in which nobody had the power to fire me and that provided a comfortable living for my two little girls and myself.
Voila! I found another wire supplier that had the right specifications. By then, I was savvy enough to act as though they would naturally give me thirty-day terms. They did!
More good news: My customer merely threw away all the bad wire I'd sold him, and the new wire worked perfectly; he then gave me leads and a good endorsement. I rapidly gained more wire customers.
Anticipate The Dangers Of Exponential Growth
I had made a depressing discovery. My working capital was inadequate. After I purchased the wire, I had to wait ten to thirty days for a fabricator to get it reconfigured, which became a looming problem. It meant that to maintain a good credit standing, I had to pay for the wire ten to thirty days before my customers paid me.
I was successful on paper but was incredibly cash deprived. In other words, my exponentially growing business was about to implode due to too many sales. Eventually, my increasing sales grew at a slower rate, solving my cash flow problem.
Delegate From The Bottom Up
I learned how to delegate and eventually delegated myself out of the top jobs of CEO, President, CFO, and Vice President of Finance. Now, at seventy-eight years old, I've sold all but a third of Vulcan's stock and am semi-retired with my only job currently serving as Vice President of Stock and Consultant.
In the interim, I survived many obstacles and learned many other lessons, but hopefully these five will get you started and help prevent some of you from having the same struggles that I did. And in the end, I figured it all out, just like you will.