Knowledge Bank Blog, Category Strategy, Range & Portfolio, Shopper Communication

Walking the Tightrope

Are you performing a high or low wire act?

How many of you have heard of Philippe Petit?

You might not have heard of him, but you probably have heard of the thing that made him famous.

On the night of Tuesday 6th August 1974, Petit and his crew managed to get a ride in a freight elevator to the 110th floor of one the World Trade Centre towers in New York. Once there, they started setting up their equipment. They shot a fishing line from one tower to the other. The fishing line was then attached to some larger ropes. Then, finally, to a 450 pound steel cable that had to be stabilised to keep swaying to a minimum.

Shortly after 7am the following morning, Petit stepped out on the wire with his 8m long balancing pole. He was 411 metres above ground. He performed for 45 minutes. He made 8 passes along the wire. He walked, danced, lay down and knelt to salute the crowd that had gathered below.

When the NYPD heard about the stunt, they came to the roof of the Twin Towers to try to persuade him to get off the wire. They even threatened to pluck him off the wire using a helicopter. Petit only got off the wire when it started to rain.

Performing a high wire act is all about risk – a pretty serious risk that you will fall. The higher up you are, the greater the risk. But, the higher up you are, the greater the reward. The Oscar winning film ‘Man on Wire’ was about Petits’ Twin Towers walk not about someone doing a 10 metre high walk above a safety net in Milton Keynes.

So, why are we talking about this? Well, we think that a lot of time and energy in our industry is spent trying to reduce risk. We start with projects or activities that are bold – like the high wire act. Then slowly these activities get de-risked.  Each innovation stage gate de-risks. Each piece of research feedback de-risks. Each design meeting de-risks. The projects get turned into low wire acts.

Things are now safer. The project or activity is not going to spectacularly fail – you are not going to fall off the wire. But it is also unlikely to spectacularly succeed – you are not going to stop the traffic in New York or shoppers in a store.

So, how can you retain (the right amount of) risk in activities?

Strategy. Often the purpose of strategy documents seems to be to keep everyone happy. They use language that everyone is comfortable with. They keep alignment with things that you are currently doing or are already in the plan. But a good strategy should be about making choices. Deciding what you will do and what you won’t do. It should make people a bit uncomfortable. If it doesn’t, little will change as a result.

E-Commerce is a good example of this at the moment. A lot of companies recognise it is important. They see the potential opportunity. But they are taking more of a watching brief – let’s see how things develop. In contrast some companies are taking a very active position. For instance, Unilever bought Dollar Shave Club a couple of years ago. They are running a blitz of TV ads at the moment. They are placing a (informed) bet that the battle in a category like shaving will be won or lost online. They are taking a risk now in order to build a winning position in the longer term.

Brand Positioning. A lot of brands try to appeal to the maximum number of shoppers, need states and occasions. They don’t want to alienate anyone. But this is how propositions become confused. The more bases you try to cover, the less clarity you have. To get shoppers to buy you, you have to be prepared for a group of shoppers to not buy you.

Marmite is the classic example of this. Lynx (Axe) is another good example. In order to keep focused on the young male target audience you have to be prepared for older males not to buy you. That is a lot of men you are not reaching. But it maximises the chances of you cutting through with the people you most want to buy.

Design. We see a lot of de-risking in design. For instance, the new pack design starts out as a stripped back design with real cut through. Then the de-risking kicks in. Person 1 says “what about if we just add X”. Person 2 says “what about if we just do Y”. You get to a design that everyone feels comfortable with – nothing is missing. But the one that people are most comfortable with, is likely to be the one that has the least stand out.

We saw a great example recently where this hasn’t happened. It was a Cadbury’s 6 sheet linked to Valentines Day. It didn’t have the name Cadbury’s on it. It didn’t have any product shot on it. Yet, it was immediately recognisable as Cadbury’s. Brave communication. Better communication.

Risk brings discomfort. It should do, otherwise it’s not a risk. The higher the wire, the more you have to lose. But the more you have to gain.

How high is your wire?

On a separate note, our monthly article in The Grocer goes out in tomorrow’s edition .  There is a link to it on our website…

Feel free to forward.  Have a great weekend and speak to you next week.