A letter to the companies that are lost

Dear companies,

By nature a true positive spirit, I’m also a realist. That’s why I came up with what might read as a somewhat depressing title of this letter. Although the purpose of this letter is really to inspire you, I have to be brutally honest: if you don’t wake up really quickly, I’m afraid we have to say goodbye to quite a few of you in the coming years.

The reason is simple and very existential. Change. Or better: struggling to being adaptive to change. I believe most of you by now know massive change is there on major themes: technology, sustainability, health, diversity, you name it. Unfortunately, I also believe that many of you don’t see through these changes to transform effectively. Probably, because change is coming from all directions. In the Netherlands we say: “Through the trees you don’t see the forest anymore”. You feel lost.

Fighting symptoms

Maybe you’re taking action because everybody’s doing it and because you read about it every day: you appoint Chief Digital Officers, launch mobile platforms, introduce new green products, hire female board members, fire CEOs, get rid of your physical retail shops, and so on. I’ve seen many of these measures at most of the startups, mid- and big corporates I have worked with over the past decade. Definitely, some or all of these measures need to be implemented, but it’s very much fighting symptoms. Measures will never result into transformation if you don’t act on what it’s really about. And many of you are skipping that fundamental thing: the true cause.

And that true cause of all change is the consumer. Of course, technology brings endless opportunities and of course you need to comply with sustainability regulations and diversity quotas, but it’s rapidly changing consumer behavior that’s at the core of the real change. If you don’t act on it, you’re quickly losing consumer trust and loyalty and you’re the next Kodak or retail chain anywhere in the world. Especially, because change is coming quicker than ever before.

At East, we decided to call this new consumer, the ‘Awakening Consumer’. No matter if you’re a B2B or B2C company, you better fasten your seatbelts. The Awakening Consumer is, among others, conscious about its own needs and the world around them, taking nothing for granted, outspoken, knowledgeable and globally connected. Being aware of this, is only the beginning.

Companies have become followers

19 August 2019 was historical and hopefully a turning point for companies to become more aware. It was the day that 200 CEOs of the big American companies issued a statement that from now on they would focus on all stakeholders, such as employees and customers, not just shareholders. “Seriously??”, I thought. Customers are the very reason the company was started and exists in the first place, right? Who do you think are buying your products and services…?! Who are paying your bills in the end?

After I had recovered from this attack of astonishment, I had to admit to myself I actually wasn’t that surprised. Again, I worked with and for many different companies, small to big, and know how most (not all) of them think and operate. But still, to hear such a statement from 200 of the biggest US companies confirmed how big the issue is. But that on itself, was not the big news.

The Awakening Consumer makes bold choices

It was an historical moment, because — assuming they mean what they stated, otherwise they have an even bigger problem — this statement proved that these 200 CEOs acknowledged they are not in control anymore. They acknowledged they are forced to review their strategies. They acknowledged to have become followers. They are not the center of the universe anymore. In other words: they are lost.

The good news is, these companies — and hopefully you, too — are becoming conscious. But what’s next? You first have to get to know the Awakening Consumer, who is moving fast. Really fast. Empowered by social media and tech platforms, these consumers have all the information at their fingertips, a voice and a large audience of like-minded spirits. This has accelerated global consciousness considerably. On all major themes: health, sustainability, AI, etcetera. Consumers are taking back control and turning companies, B2B and B2C, to followers.

Last, but not least: the Awakening Consumer makes bold choices. Loyalty is out of fashion, unless you fulfill their high standards on important values, such as trust, authenticity and transparency. Comply or die.

What to do?

Not doing anything will lead to many more Kodak-moments. And this is definitely not limited to retail; it will hit many sectors and is already doing so. So, what to do? I can spend many articles, workshops and presentations on that, but let’s give you some direction:

1. Define your company’s purpose. What’s the added value you bring to the world and to people’s lives? What does the world we operate in look like? What does this consumer want? Without having a clear purpose, the Awakening Consumer will never give you their trust and loyalty.

2. Start thinking AND acting outside-in. Your company is not the center of the universe. The consumer (some would argue: the world) is and has always been. It’s just that they don’t take anything for granted anymore. Now it’s YOUR turn to learn and adapt.

3. Do you have the leadership and culture to adapt and develop the right market approach? Are you a thought leader? Are you trustworthy and authentic? Do your leaders inspire people in and beyond your industry? Can your employees think and feel outside-in? Do they dare to fail and adapt and take smart and creative action? This is what the Awakening Consumer expects from companies now and in the coming years.

4. Communications is more important than ever. Internally and externally. Make sure your company has an appealing brand, positioning and narrative that build trust. Make sure your corporate story is authentic, transparent and relevant. You can’t fool the Awakening Consumer.

Only if you have these in place, start working on this:

5. What strategy helps you best to engage with your target groups? What mix of media and channels brings you closest to consumers? What content strategy do you need to develop? Where are your (potential) customers and clients and where do you need to be? Be aware: the Awakening Consumer has high standards. Strategies of 10 or even 5 years ago don’t work anymore.

It will take sweat to take these steps. It’s a process. But it might just save your company’s life. Isn’t that a positive note to end this piece with at the end of an historical year?

I wish you all a healthy, inspiring and moving 2020!!

Ps. If you’re interested to read more about the Awakening Consumer and how you can act, send me a message or check out the teaser version of our extended presentation on SlideShare: https://www.slideshare.net/DiederikHeinink/east-trends-marketing-vision-dec19-teaser-version

More at www.diederikheinink.com

Founder East | Business Strategist | Leadership Coach | Author ‘The Era of the Who’ — Leadership in a revolutionary era | Speaker | Columnist Business Insider.