Cider with Nietzsche

 The Artful Strategist learns the hard way that there are no facts about the future

My mind has been under the influence of cider today.

Now just to be clear, cider won’t supplant Shotover Trinity in my long drink affections, nor threaten the hegemony of rosé in my everyday drinking repertoire – just as well given the number of cases of the pink stuff we recently shipped from the Var to our cave in Cannes – but cider more than any other product is the one which helped make my name, and especially on mellow Autumn mornings when our apple tree seems magically be-decked with red fairy lights, my attention shifts to the world of cider and an important business lesson which I learned there.

You never forget your first client, and in 1978, as a strutting young adman I found myself stuck behind tractors at harvest time on narrow country lanes on the borders of Gloucestershire and Herefordshire. I was on my way to an important client meeting. The client in question was Bulmer’s cider, and the tractors were transporting loads of Ladies Fingers and Kingston Blacks to the Cider Mills in Plough Lane, Hereford.

Bulmer’s, more than any other client, has been the big red thread of my marketing career, and I always found it a rather civilised and bucolic English family business.

My first job on the account was to work on the launch of a new upmarket cider called Bulmer’s Special Reserve. The launch campaign had a TV ad with Babs Windsor extolling its virtues and proposing in her best cockney that Special Reserve was Posher than y’er average cider. To be frank, this was also the moment that I discovered that creating brands far more interesting than making very average ads.

Six years later, I went on to launch my own brand. With Elaine and Graham, we created The Value Engineers, and Bulmer’s was one of our four founder clients. But these were challenging times for the cider business: after a glorious run of Hereford Lightning summers which saw cider sales boom and the company go public, a combination of awful weather and an aggressive tax hike put the market into sharp reverse, and Bulmer’s just recently the darlings of the London Stock Exchange, saw its share price collapse and was making people redundant.

Laying people off is never easy, but it was especially hard for a paternalistic culture like Bulmer’s, a big employer in a small city.

The Value Engineers had been appointed to find ways of kick-starting market growth and to create a portfolio of exciting product ideas that would bring vitality to the whole category. We began -predictably- with a detailed forensic analysis of the business and the marketplace. This immediately highlighted far more problems than opportunities. We discovered serious demographic challenges, product palatability issues, un-motivating brand imagery and menacing low-price competitors taking share and feeding on the company’s margin. The case to invest in marketing seemed at best problematic, and to make matters worse research showed that a whole battery of new product concepts had failed to excite the consumer.

Asked to provide a 3-5 year forecast for the board, I put on the gloomiest face I could find, and intoned that that given the precipitant nature of market decline and the prevailing competitive pressure on margins, marketing based growth would be unlikely. After a fantastic run over the previous five years, I ventured that the cider market would be unlikely to exceed 3.5m hectolitres ever again.

This turned out to be an appallingly bad forecast, and is probably the biggest single marketing goof I can admit to. (For the purposes of my own morale, I should point out that I belong to a distinguished society of lousy forecasters that includes as members Thomas Edison, Thomas Watson and Bill Gates)

Not only was the UK cider market growing again within two years, but by 1995, the market had doubled to 6m and by 2010 had trebled in size to over 10m hectolitres. Today the UK cider market is a £3bn business that accounts for 9% of all alcohol drunk, and is one of few alcoholic drink categories in the world that seems to be in rude health.

In mitigation, I did learn an important lesson from this fiasco.

The problem with our forecast – so obvious with hindsight- was that I had made one massive and erroneous assumption: that the cider market would continue pretty much as it always had, and that cider would look and taste like it had always looked and tasted. What we had not considered were the possibility and potential for new liquids and/or new marketing concepts to disrupt the world of cider as we understood it, and which would give new consumers, new reasons to drink it on new occasions.

As the white cider rocket-juice sector pioneered by Diamond White took off rapidly alongside more traditional amber ciders, the whole market dynamic changed, and the episodic long-term upward trend resumed. A few years later Magners’ were able to create a similar growth effect with another simple innovation that drinkers loved: serving cider in long glasses over ice.

In 1986, we had come to believe that the category was in a box: the cider box.  But it was a box of our own making, and we had put ourselves into it as a result of our own deterministic analysis that was long on detail but short on marketing imagination which after all, is the real rocket fuel of growth.

Forty years later and back in my garden today, my glass of cider seems a little cloudy. Is that because it’s off or could cloudy cider be the new big thing?

Precept: When faced with the challenge of looking into the future to find growth, consider all the assumptions you are making very carefully.

If in doubt, artful strategists follow my mentor David Bernstein’s rule: Never assume!

Strategic breakthroughs and the art of beating time

The Artful Strategist has a lesson from the Maestro.

In June 2011, after thirty years of monthly profit and loss, I left the boardroom for the final time and facing a long year in the cold storage of a non-compete, decided to go back to college. It was time to learn how to write.

Not you understand that I had spent the previous thirty years of my career in branding being completely incapable of wielding a pen, but apart from the occasional short story and the random urge to add to the EU poetry mountain, I hadn’t yet written anything over two thousand words. So I decided to find out if I could write long – Amazon.com long, in a year of learning to write dangerously.

They say that we all have a novel inside of us, and I decided it was time to discover where mine was located and whether it could be extracted without too much pain to me or my nearest and dearest.

So off I went, back to University for a whacky year in the utterly misnamed faculty of creative writing. Here I met a fascinating gallery of characters that included smug dysfunctional poets, sociopathic novelists and semi-sozzled journalists, but at least my fellow students turned out to be always generous, often clever and sometimes very, very funny.

This was to be the year of contending with the Big Deadline. Not the usual daily deadline of which I was the past-master, that is winging-it in the world of advertising, but squaring up to the mother of all big, fat hairy monsters of a deadline that was terrifying both quantitatively (the word-count) but also qualitatively (spelling, grammar, punctuation and layout).

To make matters worse, I was also required to submit a critical commentary with my novella that was the equivalent of making public a journey into the disturbing privacy of the authorial mind. James, my tutor, told me he had every confidence in my ability to deal with this challenge, but I remained anxiously unconvinced.

My first, and so far unfinished novel, if you’ll forgive the Schubertian parallel, is called Historyland and it is a dark comedy set in a distant and dystopian future. As a structuralist par excellence, I had prepared a detailed synopsis and plot outline that I enjoyed reviewing and editing with pride and affection. To my opinion, it had an engaging protagonist, great set pieces, a wonderful narrative arc, in fact everything, apart from the 30,000 words I now needed to write.

I drew up a week-by-week action plan – over the summer I would need to write a Conrad a day. A Conrad is the standard unit of creative writing inspired by Joseph Conrad that consists of a daily target of 750 words. It was, however, depressing to learn from visiting writers whose job it was to inspire us that these 750 have to be a good 750 words. Some of the biggest names in the business went on to depress me even more by telling us that they considered it was a good day if they were able to add a net 250 words to their magnum opus. All good writers we were told must learn to love the Delete Key.

My plan had also not taken into account the summer heat. The sun followed me back from the South of France to a South-facing Oxfordshire writing room that made long distance writing difficult. There were also a gazillion reasons I became adept at finding to procrastinate. Before long, I was dozing at my keyboard or found myself typing on autopilot. As the September deadline approached, my anxiety increased and little ripples of self-doubt even began to raise concerns about the first few thousand words I had committed to the Dropbox

But then something wonderful happened. As the countdown entered the final days, all sorts of collisions and creative leaps started to happen and disrupt my story for the good.

As I ate, wrote and slept Historyland, my subconscious explorations became richer and the outcomes more interesting. As vignettes from my life randomly resurfaced into the narrative, I was, as they say, now totally in the flow and qualitative and quantitative milestones seemed to be within my reach. What I realised was that whilst it’s great to have a plan – a Germanically disciplined and logically structured outline of a plan – it’s even better to have the pressure that comes from Time’s winged charioteer hurtling towards you at full pelt.

Leonard Bernstein, the maestro and great champion of Artful Learning knew all about this phenomenon. “If you want achieve great things,” he observed, “you have to have a plan, and not quite enough time.

Precept: Do not luxuriate either in the preparation or execution your plan. A fast ticking clock is a wonderful instrument for triggering a strategic breakthrough.

How Wellington fought the battle of Waterloo before Napoleon had even left Elba

The Artful Strategist has a lesson in the geography of anticipation.

Exactly two hundred years ago this week, a score of British infantry battalions, formed up in squares and scattered across a ridge south of Brussels, were under relentless attack from ten thousand French Cavalry who were hurling themselves and their mounts against the battered rows of red jackets and steel bayonets. This was the afternoon of June 18th, and one of the most famous battles in history had reached its most precarious moment when individual bravery counted far more than grand strategy.

Just one hundred days before, Napoleon gave his captors the slip from Elba and landed at Golfe Juan with a handful of his personal troops. Soon the Emperor was marching over the Alps on his way back towards Paris and the alarums of another European war.

Napoleon was Europe’s favourite bogeyman and its other crowned heads were anxiously mustering armies intent on ending once and for all his pursuit of la gloire. In what today we might recognise as a classic challenger brand manoeuvre, Napoleon decided that his best strategy was to defeat in quick succession the two still separated British and Prussian armies gathering on his borders in the north so that he could broker a truce and/or turn his attention to the three other armies forming more tardily in the east.

Napoleon moved quickly and his army crossed the frontier at dawn on the 15th June 1815. Word soon reached the commander of the Anglo-Dutch army, Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, who with an appropriate sense of a good story was just preparing to go to a dance and famously quipped that Napoleon had ‘humbugged’ him.

Nonetheless Wellington determined that in what was to be their first (and indeed, last) battlefield encounter, he would now return the compliment in his own strategic terms.

He would achieve this by choosing where he was going to give battle, somewhere he had studied and already knew well: It was a place the Duke had discovered while Napoleon was still contemplating an escape from Elba.

Throughout history, the ability to choose good ground has been one of the most important attributes of successful generals. Knowing the right battlefield geography was key to the success of Hannibal at Cannae, Robert Bruce at Bannockburn and the Union cavalry commander Buford, who though massively outnumbered, was able to hold the high ground at Gettysburg against General Lee’s Virginians till the Iron Brigade came to his relief and probably saved the Union.

As a general, Wellington had a marvellously instinctive sense of terrain and collected potential battlefields like some painters collect landscapes. In the summer of 1814, when Europe had been restored to peace, he was travelling on diplomatic duties through what was then the Kingdom of Netherlands when he saw a number of places which he noted were ‘good positions for an army’.

One of these was a wide valley between two ridges situated on the main road from France to Brussels. So if war were to break out again, this would be a possible invasion route. The location went into his commonplace book.

A year later, with panic breaking out in the streets of Brussels but with the British officer class nonchalantly getting togged-up for the Duchess of Richmond’s ball, Wellington was able to show his staff exactly where he was going to stop the Napoleonic double whammy.

It was on the northern ridge known as Mont St Jean. We know it today as Waterloo.

Precept: It’s good to maintain a state of healthy paranoia and to develop a heightened appreciation of what may be good ground to compete on. As the ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu puts it: ‘In time of peace, prepare for war; in time of war, prepare for peace.’

‘Time for some new strategic clichés?’

The Artful Strategist goes to the movies.

Those like me who are addicted to combing through the sound-bite flotsam and jetsam of the famous, hold a special place for Samuel Goldwyn, the Hollywood producer who seems to have come straight from Central Casting.

So prolific was his cannonade of quips, epigrams and one-liners that compilers had to invent a term to describe them: they became Goldwynisms. They might have been called something else, but the young Warsaw run-a-way had already displayed instinctive marketing flair by changing his name from Szmuel Gelbfisz. In show business, he knew branding mattered.

Contracts mattered too, and today many of the most famous Goldwynisms shine a spotlight on the legal rough and tumble of the early years of the movie business as these examples show:

“Include me – out.’’

“I’ll give you a definite maybe.”

Of course, there were many who just assumed that Sam was a poorly educated immigrant with a limited understanding of language and the rules of grammar. But those who gave him the label Mister Malaprop massively underestimated his intelligence, business judgement and natural flair for a particular kind of rhetorical device, the oxymoron.

An oxymoron is a phrase constructed to produce a seemingly self-contradictory effect like Juliet explaining to Romeo that ‘parting is such sweet sorrow.’ Tricky both to formulate and to deliver, an oxymoron can be challenging, especially when it’s being improvised on the hoof. But then Sam Goldwyn was a master of oxymora:

“Our comedies are not to be laughed at.”

 

“We’re overpaying him, but he’s worth it.”

 

“I read part of it all the way through.”

Oxymoron comes from the attractively ugly combination of two words from Ancient Greek: oxys (sharp) and moros (dull); and so suggesting a somewhat curious state of sharp foolishness, the word itself is fascinatingly paradoxical.

But sharp foolishness is probably the perfect mind-set for a strategist when embarking upon the fundamental reappraisal of a business, brand or institution. Cutely naïve questioning is a very good technique for uncovering compelling truths. Fresh eyes can cure marketing myopia.

Goldwynisms can also be deployed as effective and inspiring challenges. Reading some dialogue in what he thought was a poor script, Sam said, “Let’s have some new clichés”.

As a serial entrepreneur, Goldwyn knew well the audience pleasing power of safe–adventure in a product that offered the punter simultaneously something mainstream, commonplace and easily understood but yet was fresh and original in its form and impact. In his call for some new clichés, Goldwyn is goading us to delete the tired old stuff and inspiring us to find the al dente twist on the familiar. He knew this was the secret of great Box Office, and the best way of making big stars even bigger.

Precept: As an alternative to intelligently predictable standard methods, try a little Goldwyn sharp foolishness to pep up your planning and get yourself out and about discovering the freshest from the market new season clichés.

Why keeping it real can be a big strategic mistake.  

The Artful Strategist has a painting lesson.

One of my most profound realisations about strategic planning came courtesy of my art teacher, Keiran who had cheerfully picked up the challenge of showing me, an enthusiastic but quite hopeless would-be water-colourist, some of the basic techniques of painting landscapes.

“Bring me some of your paintings and photographs of scenes you would like to paint,” he told me on the ‘phone when I made the appointment for my first lesson.

A week later, we were sitting hugger-muger in his studio at his paint-splattered trestle table in blue aprons drinking mugs of tea, looking at some of my untutored first attempts.

“Hmm,” he said, unpromisingly, “it seems to me you’re trying too hard to paint exactly what you see.” I nodded in agreement nervously. “But it’s resulting in bland pictures that lack drama.” I was still nodding, though now a little less enthusiastically.

“What you have to understand is that a painting is not and should not try to be, a photograph. It’s your painting and it’s a selective expression of what you’ve chosen to see. So one of the most important decisions you have to make as a painter is how to compose your picture.”

At this point, he took my chosen photographic subject, a moody coastal mountain scene, and using a 4” x 6″ mount as a framing tool showed me a series of the possible paintings that could be executed from this single photograph. Each he explained had a different point of focus, but all he showed me had the capacity to catch the viewer’s eye.

Keiran’s lesson is directly transferable to the business of strategic planning where a common error is for the team to put enormous descriptive effort into attempting to replicate the world in complex high-resolution. So often this leads to the kind of highly detailed picture that fails to engage, inspire or persuade.

On the other hand, planners will find more inspiration by experimenting with qualitatively different perspectives. This might involve emphasising one key trend or observed phenomenon in the marketplace. For example a mainstream food brand or Quick Service Restaurant might gain much from foregrounding consumer interest in street food, especially the locations where hawkers and mobile restauranteurs are concentrated such as Maltby Street in South London and Smörgasburg in Brooklyn. Alternatively, a planner’s eye could choose to zoom-in on an important target group or explore an influential belief that is shaping consumer choice. A cleverly chosen point of view can illuminate the status quo in a powerful way and also reveal what may be just beyond the horizon.

Grayson Perry’s marvellous collection of vignettes called The Vanity of Small Differences is a marvellous example to enjoy, both as a work of art and a superbly observed satirical summary audit of the 2010s.

http://visualarts.britishcouncil.org/exhibitions/touring/grayson-perry-the-vanity-of-small-differences

Strategists can learn much from painters both in learning to be selective in their points of view, and by experimenting with composition with the aim of creating strategic drama.

Precept: As you summarise all the work that has gone into your situational analysis, experiment with multiple points of focus and look for the possibilities for drama that can unleash creative thinking. Do not fret about discarding the detail that is probably irrelevant to your future.

Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful – Rita Dove

What strategists have to learn from poets…

Outside of the classrooms where ambitious MBA students practice with matrices and models garnered from seemingly ever thicker textbooks of strategy, you’ll find in workplaces everywhere, the mayhem of business as usual, where long suffering teams find themselves suddenly involved in yet another strategic review. Here, you’ll see rolls of flip charts, decks of semi-digested analysis and extended but partial summaries of the status quo. Attracted to SWOT charts like moths to a flame, strategy groups often show great enthusiasm for the format but fail to appreciate its proper function, as the unfortunate reader’s energy is slowly but steadily punctured by a relentless attack of bullet points.

Rita Frances Dove is a Pulitzer Prize winning poet, a US Poet Laureate and Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, and her insight on the language of poetry is also a marvelous coaching tip on the art of strategy. Distillation is one of the essential thought processing skills required by the poet; it also the most important challenge facing a strategic planner.

If you had to define the essence of strategic thinking in just two words, you could do a lot worse than choose Diagnosis and Manifesto. This is because the planner not only has to take a wide angled view of the world, absorb its stimulus and abstract the key issues facing our ‘brand’, but also propose a manifesto that persuades and mobilises. Like a poet, the strategist must focus on both the quality and quantity of the language he employs. Twitter, the popular social media micro-blogging site provide us with a helpful framework that limits posts to 140 characters. Acting like a beautiful constraint, the Tweet is now the perfect thought processor for crafting strategic intent.

The second half of Professor Dove’s quotation provokes us to consider the tremendous value of language leveraged to inspire and bring strategy to action. The well-armoured poet will deploy a stock of rhetorical devices and imagery, the music of rhythm and the force of repetition, not to mention the shocking disrespect for the rules of grammar.

Consider this famous extract from John Milton’s Paradise Lost in which power language has been brilliantly used to communicate strategic intent. It features one of the great challenger brands of literature, The Devil.

In Book One of Paradise Lost, Satan and his cohort of angels have been cast down and banished from heaven and morale is understandably low. At some sort of Miltonic imagined away-day, the fallen angels each get to present their thoughts and analysis, but it is this strategically distilled and powerful speech of Satan’s that carries the day:

The mind is its own place, and in it
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.’

Precept: For poets and strategists, power comes from distillation in content and in delivery, in diagnosis and manifesto

To have a bloody good time filling the gap between being born and dying – Felix Dennis

It is a personal sadness that I never did get to have a glass of wine with Felix Dennis or even listen to him reading his poetry, because he died in June, 2014.

It was not that I was personally acquainted with Felix you understand, even if he did write to me surprisingly often to offer me the opportunity of subscribing or re-subscribing to one of the many magazines from which he made his fortune. But Felix was a fantastic example of an Artful Strategist who combined a left brain highly disciplined approach to making money with a restless right brain capacity for spotting new opportunity and bringing colour and a ribald sense of humour to the grey world of publishing.

Whilst he is remembered for being one of the Oz Three, and the least intelligent one according to the trial judge, his greatest gift was an instinctual publishing nous that came from spotting emerging consumer enthusiasms like martial arts, home computers, lads-mags or highly distilled digests of weekly news.

Felix was not the typical MBA storm-trooper, but he knew how to draft a good mission statement, and what’s more, having spent £100m on drugs and women, he was even better at fulfilling one.