How an ‘Outperformer’ Mindset Will See Brands Through Turbulent Times

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During this period of political and economic uncertainty, Cheil Connec+ CEO, Ian Millner urges brands to think beyond recessionary tactics by learning from the behaviours and strategies of high growth companies.

By Ian Millner, CEO, Cheil Connect+

Towards the end of 2008, Harvard Business Review began a yearlong study to analyse corporate strategy and business performance before, during and after the global recessions of the Eighties, the early Nineties and the turn of the millennium.

After examining 4,700 public companies, it discovered that those which cut costs faster and deeper than their rivals only had a 21% success rate of pulling ahead of their competition when the economic situation improved. Albeit businesses that boldly invested more than their rivals during a recession only had a marginal better chance (26%) of emerging unscathed.

It transpired that the best antidote (37% success rate) to historic recessions had been a dual strategy of managing costs and operational efficiency, combined with planning for the future by spending on marketing, R&D and new technologies.

That may have worked for those companies which began life in a recession, such as CNN in the Eighties, Salesforce and Google during the Dotcom crash of the Nineties, or Uber and airbnb in 2008.

During the past decade however, the landscape in which all businesses now operate, has grown increasingly complex and so too has the formula behind successful growth strategies in good times and bad.

Accelerated digital evolution has ushered in vast opportunities for economies of scale, while years of low interest rates saw a flood of startup investments, opening-up new markets and expanding old ones at dizzying speed.

Tech companies were among the first to exploit these conditions to achieve growth at a scale never seen before in any sector. Amazon, for instance, now accounts for more than half (56.7%) of all online purchases in the US, while Tesla’s market capitalisation at one point grew larger than that of its next nine biggest automotive competitors combined.

If companies are to thrive through today’s economic and political turmoil, they need to look beyond the old-school recessionary playbook for marketers and understand the full gamut of behavioural drivers of growth and outperformance, which have seen stratospheric success for many of today’s best known disruptor brands.

You see, it’s not just technology and scale that have created behemoths across a broad spectrum of sectors. Hyper-competitiveness, creative innovation with intensity, plus the expansion of marketing to include anything that may drive growth, are all interwoven traits of today’s ‘outperformers’ and can be both adopted and learned from.

Take Oatly as a prime brand example. The company helped change the public’s perception of oat milk, turning a product for the lactose intolerant into a sustainability-driven lifestyle choice.

Oatly achieved this by replacing its marketing function with ‘a department of mind control’ that sits in meetings with every team to create its own briefs. The impact saw a more holistic approach to marketing, with dynamic creative integral to both the brand’s products and its everyday business challenges.

As a result, Oatly’s revenue increased from $29 million in 2012 to $643.2 million in 2021, climbing so fast that at one point an executive referred to its stock as ‘plant-based bitcoin’.

Hyper-competitiveness and ambitious intensity are perhaps more easily fostered within start-up business cultures. However, here at Cheil Connec+, we’ve seen it in full effect from an ‘outperformer’ client with more than 50 years of heritage, currently leading the market in what is arguably the most competitive and fast-moving sector of the 21st century – smartphones.

Samsung sold 272 million smartphones in 2021, according to the International Data Corporation, enough to give one to everyone in Brazil – with enough left over to then give one to everyone in South Africa.

Janet Lee, the senior vice president and CMO of mobile experience at Samsung describes the passion and drive that permeates every level of the organisation. “It’s part of Korean culture,” she says. “We don’t want to be mediocre. Yes, in a sense, you compete with your competitors, but it’s beyond that, it’s about pushing yourself, so that you’re never stagnant. You’re always improving.”

Outperformers everywhere operate with the same ambitious intensity and demand the same from their agency partners (we should know!). But they’re also agile, disruptive and have a clearly defined purpose at the heart of everything they do.

They understand the importance of data by ensuring everyone within their organisation has access to it and knows how to interpret it. Plus, they have a workforce with broad and adaptable skillsets – hired for their enthusiasm and desire to learn, as much as for qualifications and experience.

This ensures diverse teams of T-shaped people (those with a broad range of skills and at least one specialism), capable of being quickly rearranged into bespoke organisational structures to fit the changing needs of different market conditions.

During this period of political and economic uncertainty, the next few years may not be plain sailing for anyone running a company and trying to grow a brand. But those leaders who shift their focus away from solely traditional recessionary tactics and learn instead from the ‘outperformers’ of today’s digitised, consumer-centric world will be better placed to spot opportunities, bring new initiatives and ideas to life, and retain that all-important competitive edge.