Are You Ready?
Issue 112, June 8, 2023
Wrong question. Are your customers ready? Is the market ready? Actually, the real question is a fusion of both. Is the customer base in your market ready to adopt what you have considered building and offering as you seek to stabilize, grow, and expand your organization? Put another way, is what you are contemplating developing something nice to have or necessary? Then add a layer of complexity to that: if the customer isn’t ready, how do you develop a need for your innovation? How do you ensure that its promise, benefits, and value are something the customer feels compelled to want? Then how do you ensure the customer believes it is something to adopt? Not to cloud the issue, but organizations can be super prepared, but not necessarily ready for market disruptions and seismic shifts. More on this last point later.
Customer Change, Transition and Transformation
As economic conditions have improved the overall quality of lives and technology continues to offer more and more utility to day-to-day life, a shift, particularly across the younger generations, has occurred where most products and services are considered commodities. We have often written about the dismissal of brand loyalty and the desire to meet utilitarian-defined needs and wants quickly and cheaply. Thriftiness has gained traction in the reuse market, repurposing what we no longer need to make good use of what already exists, as well as to protect the environment.
Products and services waved around like shiny new objects have new criteria to meet in the eyes of most customers. We have entered (real or perceived) a time of economic uncertainty where dollars seem to blow away in the wind. Many customers have had to downsize their expectations, simply meeting simple needs. It seems that everyone is experiencing some level of sticker shock and realigning their priorities to determine what is a necessity and what is a want.
Let’s take a moment to reflect on the Dotcom Era where everything and everyone sought to capitalize on the promise of the “web.” So many startups were born in the stardust; so many companies attempted to run their offerings into the tunnel of light, but only a handful came out of the tunnel bigger, grander, and better. Why?
Strategy is always critical. Strategy needs to be informed by a true understanding of what the market is willing to bear and adopt – as well as if and how the market is willing to change. Individuals across a current or potential market may have to change and transform their attitudes as they consider your new product or offering. You may think it is innovative, something that everyone must have and is truly transformative to day-to-day life. But just as organizations are reluctant to change or move along without understanding how to truly transition and transform, your customers have the same challenges with change and even transforming and transitioning across their day-to-day lives.
A Legendary Tale
Consider a business story so many of us are very familiar with, as the company touches nearly every individual daily. The company is Amazon. It had its birth in a garage early in the Dotcom Era. It launched selling books and a few other categories online. At that time, those online early adopters who were willing to part with their credit card information online and delay their shopping satisfaction while they waited for their packages to arrive were majorly male tech workers. Bezos knew this. He knew what segment of the market was willing to become a customer and he knew that the majority of potential customers simply were not ready nor comfortable to make the leap to shopping online. Instead of attempting to be all things to all people, he took it slowly, staying in the lane he knew would produce benefits. At the same time, he turned his attention to building an infrastructure that would be ready when the mass market was ready.
His business thinking was both slow and fast, at times a committed tortoise staying the course and at times the hare when the need arose in new customer segments and categories. Perhaps he was a bit bi-polar or may have seemed so to those who were watching the company change and grow.
The crux of the story is that we hope you see Bezos seems to be one of those visionary leaders who threw caution to the wind, innovated, and made the market change, transition, and transform and come to him, but that really isn’t what happened.
Society, the mass market, simply wasn’t ready to change. It wasn’t seeing the value gained for the perceived risk of trusting some web page to purchase a product or service, and then trust that one’s credit card information was safe and finally that something was going to get delivered to one’s front door.
Bezos didn’t mistake haste for urgency. He has a great business and human behavior sense based on facts. He understands that humans and the ancient history of business and what worked, simply wasn’t in the cards for transformative times. Patience, awareness and context appeared to have permeated his thinking.
We can all take a lesson from Amazon’s success story. And we can learn from companies that flame out despite what seems like wonderfully transformative innovation. Great ideas can meet a brick wall head on when the mass market isn’t seeing its value, nor are they willing to change and transform to adapt to the innovation.
Of course, if you are a visionary pioneer, you could strike it rich (think the iPhone) or fail miserably (think Google Glass). Risk is ever present, even with the deepest well of objective information, study and critical thinking. Many organizations have blazed the thoughtful strategy trail to success, while many others have imploded and are forgotten the next day.
What makes the difference? A variety of factors, including those we mentioned in the introduction. Let’s consider a few no less important factors that play as influential forces today; many didn’t confront Bezos when he conjured up Amazon 20+ years ago.
All the World Is a Life Stage
Segmentation of customers that might want a new product or service seems all the rage across organizations seeking to change, transform and grow. Marketing organizations, armed with new wells of data believe they have enough information to compel those segments to become paying customers. Despite the hype of segmentation (which if done right and concretely has its merits), it does take ensuring the right market has been identified and is willing to change to adopt a new product or service — and yes, transform an aspect of their day-to-day lives. However, it is important to get more granular before jumping off into spending millions on marketing campaigns and depending on the wiles of market research. You need to understand where the customers you have segmented are in their life stages. Are they at the right stages of their lives with the right life conditions to accept the benefits and value you offer?
As reported by writer Jorden Ben, “marketers need to use key milestones in consumers’ lives to reach them at the right moment with a personalized and relevant offer. While age range or generational marketing has long been the dominant form of segmentation, life-stage marketing has proven to be much more lucrative for the savvy marketer. Targeting life stages enables marketers to deeply segment a generation into specific phases of adulthood and craft a more relevant message and better offers.” Put another way, you need to be ready when your stakeholders are ready.
Alan Draper from Business 2 Community, adds, “When consumers make important life decisions or are in a state of change, milestones tend to define decision making and purchasing priorities.” Life events influence both psychological and emotional states of mind in addition to where customers are chronologically in their lifelines.
It is not enough to identify the potential market in terms of broad age bands without diving deeper to understand their emotional states for change and adoption.
Ben broadly identifies life stages into three main waves. These life stages affect how your products and services relate to your customers.
- Newly Independent: Young consumers are transitioning to fully self-sufficient adults. including finishing higher education, beginning a career, moving out, and for many eventually, marriage.
- New Parents: At this stage, the need for life/work balance is paramount as the pressure is on women (more than men) to manage childcare, running a household and pursuing a career.
- Post-Parenting and Retirement: The focus shifts to personal pursuits and spending more time on fulfilling lifelong bucket lists.
And there is another aspect of life stage relevance. Think of the various life stages of your customers. Are they first-timers? Repeat customers? Random customers? Each stakeholder represents a life stage in terms of how they engage with your brand and purchase goods and services from your organization.
How Innovation Can Fail
It is not uncommon to mistake readiness for an attachment to a new product or service without a foundation for its success. We have written about innovation theater that is defined as an innovative initiative that doesn’t have a significant business impact. These are new ideas that are supported by press releases and website proclamations. But they are more focused on brand image than brand growth and not recognizing the perceived or real value and benefits in the eyes of the prospective customer. Despite the greatness of the innovation, is the customer willing to change and adopt the innovation?
If an innovation is based on a shallow focus (think mistaking haste for urgency to capitalize on the attention of the market — with AI as a good case study that continues to evolve) and has few meaningful improvements (although promising more), it is theater not true R&D-based innovation. Instead of following the crowd with trendy new products and services, narrow the focus and improve or iterate on what is already successful. Plus develop ideas based on what customers want, need and are willing to adopt, not what the management team wants.
Steve Blank, adjunct professor at Stanford University and a senior fellow at Columbia University states, “organizations are facing continuous disruption, and they’ve recognized that their existing strategy and organizational structures aren’t nimble enough to access and mobilize the innovative talent and technology they need to meet these challenges. These organizations know they need to change, but often the result has been a form of organizational whack-a-mole – a futile attempt at trying to swat at problems as they pop-up without understanding their root cause.”
Innovation theater causes setbacks in progress, can confuse a workforce and threaten customer loyalty when they realize they have been played.
As an organization seeks to determine a market’s willingness to change, transition and transform, it is also important to consider those individuals in the market who are also part of the organization’s workforce. In terms of innovation and transformation efforts, there are two major waves occurring among consumers (your workforce and your customers): a significant shift in work/life balance and a new focus on life stage relevance. Both these trends impact how you innovate and transform, and how you go to market.
Meaning and Purpose
Reams have been written about next gens taking the lead in demanding more work/life balance. The underlying principle is seeking meaning and purpose in work. Author Bruce Feiler, The Search: Finding Meaningful Work in a Post-Career World, writes “the dynamic workforce of today—younger, more female, more diverse—is eager to rewrite the American success story in its own image. They are flouting old norms to achieve success on their own terms.” Essentially, we have a shift taking place in redefining the American Dream.
We have written about a dramatic attitudinal change in work in our book, The Truth About Transformation: portfolio careers. April Rinne coined the term to represent a new reality in which we take our careers with us from job to job. We don’t rely on our employers to define our careers. In contrast, we have a skill set and toolbox that we take with us as we move through our professional lives. As she says, “A new vocabulary is emerging. At the heart of it is a shift from pursuing a career path to creating your career portfolio. A career portfolio is different in that it is not a physical entity or system. It’s a new way to think about, talk about, and most importantly, craft your professional future to navigate our ever-changing world of work with purpose, clarity, and flexibility. Whereas a career path tends to be a singular pursuit (climb the ladder in one direction and focus on what is straight ahead), a career portfolio is a never-ending source of discovery and fulfillment. It represents your vast and diverse professional journey, including the various twists and turns, whether made by choice or by circumstance.”
Another attitudinal shift is the need to seek quality of life as well as quality of work. Wellbeing plays a big role in redefining quality, not based on financial success and status, but rather on balance, purpose, meaning and fulfillment. The means justify the end. And both your workforce and customers believe they can be financially and professionally successful as well as fulfilled. A cautionary note: If employers don’t provide the right balance, some employees will have a side gig that promises hope and possibility in making a meaningful difference.
Do you see the correlation to your employees’ life stages (which include and merge with their career/professional choices)?
Lastly, let’s turn our attention to a unique influence of our times which is only going to become more powerful and expansive.
If you think about it, there should be few market failures. With the sophistication of foresight forecasting, market research, R&D, data & analytics, concept testing, and pricing studies, one can make some pretty confident assumptions. Sadly, what can kill a product, service, or even a good idea even after adequate vetting is negative buzz, exacerbated by viral social influencers. TikTok has made millionaires and destroyed entrepreneurs.
We live in strange times in a digital marketplace when nearly real-time communications throw an additional wrench into the best innovation teams’ plans. And then customer whims mixed with splinter vocal activists present unanticipated challenges. For example, Target recently had a rude wake-up surprise when its Pride Month merchandise in selected markets was ransacked and criticized. Who lost in the process? The customer. In this case, based on the polarization we are experiencing in this country, you might think the team at Target would have had the foresight to anticipate an event like this.
Readiness and Speed
In last week’s newsletter we talked about the necessity to leverage slow thinking. We suggested that thoughtful, mindful time spent on decision-making provides organizations and their leaders with the opportunity to recognize not just organizational change and transformation but also the importance of knowing if and when a market and the individuals that comprise that market are willing to change, transition and transform their day-to-day lives and adopt what they are peddling.
At 2040, we work with clients to rethink their traditional ways of viewing their products, services and customers. We know that market disruptions are unnerving, and we understand how difficult it is to adapt to change. Being ready is being prepared. And being prepared requires discipline and the will to think differently with the customer as the chief marketing officer and single point of sale for your organization.
Get “The Truth about Transformation”
The 2040 construct to change and transformation. What’s the biggest reason organizations fail? They don’t honor, respect, and acknowledge the human factor. We have compiled a playbook for organizations of all sizes to consider all the elements that comprise change and we have included some provocative case studies that illustrate how transformation can quickly derail.