Johnson & Johnson, General Mills, Google, Kraft Foods, Hershey, Apple, Kellogg, Home Depot, Clorox, Amazon.com. The Top 10 Brands of 2011 as listed by Forbes. How much bravery can you find here? At one stage these companies must have made some incredibly brave decisions (and I’m not only referring to marketing related decisions). Anyone who knows a bit about the legend of Steve Jobs knows that bravery played a fair amount in the success of the business when it started but how much bravery is there now when compared to the garage days of 1976 or the heyday of 1984? In this millennium, these huge behemoths of industry are just too slow and cumbersome to be able to flex the same amount of bravery as they did when they started out. And honestly, why should they? They’ve all stormed their beaches and won their wars and that’s why they are where they are – maintaining the status quo. We all know that you simply can’t outdo Apple and the rest of the Forbes Top 10 at what they do because it’s simply impossible, pointless and they’ll eat you alive.
Yet how many marketers want to work for or with brands just like these? In advertising there’s a holy grail of accounts that are seen as delivering the best business growth and creative potential: cosmetics, automobiles and technology. Amongst this trinity, the theory goes, you should be able to find an awesome, brave company who wants to push the boundaries of creativity and derring-do, the company who’s got an almost limitless budget and wants to give it all to your business so that you can go out and win awards and tout your success on their dollar. And if there’s time, maybe increase their sales. Unfortunately it’s not going to happen that way. The business and advertising world, by its very nature, is risk averse and no business exists that fits this previously mentioned mould.
Sure, I’d love to get a call from the marketing director of Red Bull or Mini tomorrow morning, telling me he’s impressed with our attitude and he’d like to bump brains and see if there’s a fit, but it’s not going to happen. Why? Because they wont take the risk. Regardless of any specific reason (there may be hundreds, dozens or just one), they see risk and risk and business are like oil and water. The bravery that companies like Red Bull or Mini showed when they launched is long gone and bureaucracy and complacency have replaced it. Problem is, no one can see it, not even those closest to the fire.
In the business arena, bravery works differently than in life. Consider this business example: you’re brave (or stupid, depending on viewpoints) when you leave your nine to five and start your own business, you put in the hard yards and the long hours and become successful. You then make sure that your position in the market is fully entrenched and you hire lawyers and buy out your competitors. No longer brave, are we? No longer looking for competitors to keep us on our toes ‘cos it’s just easier to make it impossible for them to exist in our world than to compete with them. But that’s how business is done.
Now compare that example to this one: in the real world you don’t see Usain Bolt training his entire life to become a champion athlete only so he can start breaking his competitors kneecaps once he gets gold. In the real world, bravery is different: you stand up to the bully and do your best to defeat him, but regardless of whether you defeat him or not, the next day you don’t become a bully yourself.
Whichever way you look at it, brave marketers are more likely to be found in new, maverick businesses and not entrenched ones simply due to the speed at which they operate. The bigger they are the slower they are and as a marketer you have to decide which speed you are comfortable moving at. If you chose a marketing job at Unilever don’t expect your marketing initiatives to be implemented at the drop of the hat. And by the same token, if you find yourself at the sharp end of a new, innovative business start-up, don’t expect your ideas to find fertile soil that will result in them becoming the next big thing. Just like big business has its problems, so does small business. Not enough funding, too much competition, too little knowledge of the market are just a few that pop to mind.
If you want something you often have to make it what you want it to be. Smart marketers should be looking to partner with companies and suppliers that are willing to take the risk to be brave together, after all, two hands make light work. So consider this the next time you’re faced with making a brave decision: must I do this alone or will there be someone who can help share the load? It wasn’t one single marine who stormed the beaches on D-Day, Martin Luther King didn’t march alone for equal rights, Steve Jobs didn’t build Apple by himself and the Tiananmen Square “Tank Man” didn’t stand up to the tanks by himself, he was part of a revolution that empowered him to do it.
So what does this all mean to marketing? Simply put, I think we’re all screwed if we carry on doing things the way they’ve always been done. Seth Godin said that innovation was no longer an option but all that we have left, and he’s right, not just from a marketing perspective but from a life perspective too. We, as marketers, have to be braver than any other segment of business. Bravery means risk, and if you aren’t inherently brave as a marketer, then you need to find a way to become brave. The bad news is that no one can tell you how to be brave. The good news is that you don’t need anyone’s permission to be brave. In fact, we’re all waiting for you to do it. So what are you waiting for?