Every generation tends to think that their own era is special. The “not invented here” mindset applied to a time span… Perhaps it should read: “not invented now” or “never seen before.” Certainly, every period has its differences; but, it is hard to retain objectivity — especially when you are in the heat of the moment — and to know whether or not one or other period is more difficult than another. Each period is beset with its own context and challenges and, in a case of obscured objectivity, we tend to believe we have it tougher now.
There are two areas that are systematically brought up as being “more” than before: a never-seen-before overabundance of information and the acceleration of time. We are facing a geometric rise in information and an equally rapid ascent in processor speeds and memory capacity. Except for the disappearance of the supersonic Concorde and the impact of higher airport security controls slowing down the check-in process, everything else seems to be moving faster and communication is evermore time-sensitive.
In today’s increasingly noisy (read: polluted) consumer world, brand marketers are faced with some incontestable obstacles. Media options have mushroomed. Distribution channels have multiplied. Brand names are harder to find (especially since they must also be attached to a URL). And, consumer behavior is changing. Consumer appetite for consumption is bound to slow down in order to absorb the mountains of personal debt, to deal with the tough economic times and to reflect the growing attention to “green” issues and excess waste (packaging & plastics, growing landfills, etc.). Consumers are, in fact, looking for a wholly new relationship with the brands they consume. They want attention, meaning and pleasure. They want interaction, value and performance. And they want it yesterday.
As marketers vie for the limited consumer mindspace and even more limited purse strings, one of the skills that needs (at worst) to be dusted off, if not resharpened, is the ability to hold a singular vision and immutable values. As much as marketers need the humility to listen and adjust to consumer feedback, there is also a place for holding firm and taking tough decisions. To the extent that brands must make decisions with their limited resources — and in this, marketers have always had to be creative in the way they use their funds — I believe that brand managers must be laser-like in knowing (and sharing) what are the core priorities, not to overlook the need to decide what NOT to do, to define and broadcast what are the core values which cannot be transgressed and what are the boundaries of a brand territory which cannot be overstepped (in terms of brand extensions). Following a conversation I had with Jonathan Salem Baskin, we came up with the term of the benevolent despot or the benevolent [brand] dictator. Brand management must know how to listen and adapt with the times. Yet, brands must also take responsibility for their vision and mission and this requires a sense of purpose and singleness of mind, which will inevitably mean taking some tough decisions and not pleasing everyone. As Jonathan mentioned in our recorded conversation, Steve Jobs is the reigning champion (of a benevolent despot), but I believe marketers are going to need to refine their own form of dictatorship to help them prioritize their actions, refine their budget allocations and to rally the organization behind their vision. As much as brands must listen to their customers, they must also know when to draw the line. Clearly, this is a difficult balancing trick.
What do you think? Should brand marketers develop more of a style of benevolent dictator? What checks and balances need to be put in place to enable such a management style?