We are regularly told nowadays we live in uncertain times. This is the age of VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, in case you need reminding), where turbulence is the new normal. The former derivatives trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb has made a new career telling the business community, and anyone else who’ll listen, that we can’t predict the future by looking at the past. And there is an elegant simplicity to the stories he uses to illustrate his central thesis, such as the experience of the Thanksgiving turkey. This bird spends 1,000 days being fed and watered, only to be slaughtered for the dinner table on the 1,001st. No turkey could predict this fate, based on everything that has gone before. And for Taleb, we too are Thanksgiving turkeys, if we fail to engage our imaginations and adapt to changing realities.
Or we were. For most people whose jobs relate in some way to figuring out where society is heading, six years of VUCA talk has sensitised us to taking nothing for granted. And yet, it seems a bit extraordinary that anyone might ever have thought of the world we live in as stable, certain, simple and unambiguous. This would sound an awful lot like wishful thinking, and possibly an attempt to impose a reductive, idealised, over-simplified worldview on a world that was rarely so obedient.
Well, it strikes me many of the central assumptions of strategic planning, or at least the version born in European- and American-headquartered advertising agency networks and global multinationals, might have been built on this kind of idealised thinking. Think of the primacy of the one-page brand positioning document—whether it’s a wheel, or a key, or, as one client of mine called it, the ‘Kenny’ (because its oddly asymmetric shape resembled Kenny from South Park!). Consider the obsessive honing and crafting, the ‘wordsmithing’, to get to a tight distillation of the essence of the brand all stakeholders can sign up to. This devotion to the Platonic ideal of the brief betrays a commitment to Judaeo-Christian abstraction, which feels particularly problematic in today’s world.
Speak to people in India, or Nigeria, or Brazil, or Indonesia, or China, and you’ll hear a refrain of ‘What you call VUCA, we call life’. And among the planning communities in most of the non-western world, many are mystified at the inflexibility (or even naivety) of the western marketing models and plans they are required to activate unchanged on the ground.
The cultural roots of this thing we call ‘strategy’ are not universal.
In India, the closest Hindi translation of the word ‘strategy’ is kapet vidya, which literally means ‘manipulation knowledge’. This hints at the founding ethos of Hinduism, which teaches that in life you do what you have to do to get things done. There is no good or evil, hero or villain—all is context. And it’s said that the gods of the Hindu pantheon would make Machiavelli look like a kindergarten child. This thinking is the foundation of entrepreneurialism in India, enshrined in the concept of jugaad: an agility and resourcefulness to respond to situations pragmatically to get what you want out of them.
Where many western brands and businesses have prided themselves on being ‘true to their DNA’, the ability of the likes of a Tata or a Samsung to constantly evolve the very sectors they are in is something to behold. (The case of Tata is particularly interesting. A family company with a deep conviction about doing good in the world has provided a foundation for many Tata businesses today to embody some of the most socially progressive values in their categories: take FastTrack in fashion, or Tanishq in jewellery.)
Similarly the Brazilian notion of jeitinho makes rather a mockery of idealism and abstraction. You learn by trying things out, by extracting lessons from failure until you succeed. A great local example is the success of Brownie do Luiz (Luiz’s Brownies). A Rio student, Luiz, discovered there was a great appetite for the slightly burnt edges of his brownies, which would usually be thrown away. So he decided to collect them and sell them in special tins as a highly prized variant to the main brownie range. His company is now a Carioca sensation.
In China, the guiding Confucian ideal of flexibility can be seen everywhere—bending according to the context to get things done. Haier famously reinforced its washing machines to make them more efficient at cleaning potatoes, in response to consumers who had already incorporated this dual purpose into how they were using their machines.
And across the emerging world, it’s becoming impossible to ignore the challenge of the unbranded market to established brands and businesses. Most tech companies work on a built-in obsolescence model for their hardware (for example, for a mobile phone it’s roughly two to three years). But the ecosystem of repair shops, second-hand resale and recycling avenues that has grown up around the shiny new city-centre device emporia messes with this model somewhat.
I don’t want to suggest that global marketeers are all still doggedly exporting their unchanging Platonic view of the world—of course it’s not that simple. Look at all the brand websites proudly proclaiming that they’re ‘in Beta’. But global brand teams and agency planners need to spend more time looking to the contextual realities of where their brands and products actually live if they want to ensure their strategies really make sense.
I’m also not advocating that we trash the brand positioning one-pager, necessarily. Of course we need to agree why our business exists and how we intend to grow it. But whether it’s crystallising the wording of a brand purpose, interpreting the results of a proprietary research model to predict the impact of a new ad, or rethinking the very business we’re in, we would all do well to remember the words of Confucius, surely a very 21st-century kind of strategist, who said that ‘the green reed which bends in the wind is stronger than the mighty oak which breaks in a storm’.
David Burrows is Flamingo Mumbai co-CEO and Flamingo Group board director