How brands in the consumer goods industry strive in hostile environments.

Why bullshitting ourselves and the others don’t work anymore?

On a Monday evening last September, I returned home to a quiet and lonely place. Early morning, my youngest son had left to start his studies in a small city 500 km away from Nuremberg. Three years earlier, my eldest son had moved out for the same reason. Going through the deserted rooms that evening, I had mixed feelings of emptiness and loss. My wife came home later that day and couldn’t hold back her tears. Our kids are out in the world now. Whatever happens to them, whether positive or negative, would affect us accordingly and there isn’t much we could do about it. We could henceforth only give them our support and love while hoping to stay connected in return.

As children grow and gain their independence, they move out of our Control Zone and land somewhere in our Influence Zone or Concern Zone. Trying to keep them in our Control Zone might satisfy our short-term protective instincts but at the cost of their potential as individuals. The Zone of Concern, as its name describes it, is the source of countless worries. To many of us, the Zone of Concern seems to increase day by day. It includes the growing number of inflammatory and corrupt politicians, raging wars, economic crisis, our career development, our false expectations, our waist size… to mention a few.

Many of these worries are the products of our modern times. To the nostalgic of us, long gone are the “good old days” when several generations lived in the same house, jobs were secure, winters were winters, and summers were summers. We might disagree with this pessimistic view of today’s world, but what is certain is that modernity brought accelerated developments in technology, the environment, societies, geopolitics, and economies. Countries around the globe, societies, businesses, as well as individuals are all faced with constant changes and challenges. Boundaries among our Zones of Control, of Influence and of Concern are constantly changing.

Whoever is involved in international business has seen that, since the financial crisis of 2008, only a handful of economies have managed to grow steadily. Many are in recession and the rest is in crisis. On the other hand, consumer behavior is changing steadily. In a well-connected world, consumers nowadays are more informed and have more choices, hence are elusive. They trust internet reviews made by strangers more than what renowned brands officially communicate. Maybe decades of false promises made by inflated advertising is the cause. The culprit could be all forms of abusive power use such as governments, the elites, big corporations and other establishments.

Faced with this new reality, many companies in the consumer goods industry are struggling to reposition themselves to remain competitive in the future. They want their brands to stay appealing to new customers. They pay business consultants to develop big strategies for them that embrace change. Some dare to change; many resort back to the old ways of doing business, armed this time with new business jargon, often used to bullshit one another. As a result, the business world is filled with buzzwords that often don’t survive a PowerPoint presentation. Big Data, Customer Centricity, V.U.C.A. – which stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity – Digital Disruption, Digital Innovation, Growth Hacking, etc. are all buzzwords reflecting the uncertainty in today’s business world.

However, real change happens by taking actions. It happens in trying, failing, correcting, and redoing it every time a bit better than the last. We often avoid it because it is unconformable and puts us in the accused seat when we fail to reach the expected results. Change is about letting go of our ego. It happens by accepting that we don’t have competence in certain areas vital for our organization and our career, and that we need to work on acquiring these competences by failing and learning from our mistakes. Embracing change by bringing in new people and creating new and trendy positions is not enough.

The question is, what do we do in these turbulent markets? What are the areas of our business that we should improve in order to keep our brand(s) attractive? How can we move out of our dual thinking stipulating that if the results are positive, we congratulate ourselves, and in the event these are bad, we blame the Economy?

The answer to these challenges lies in our willingness and ability to connect. Connecting first with ourselves, then with our colleagues and customers, is the key to success in this new economy. The problem is Bullshitting. Bullshitting is unfortunately a widespread habit not only in politics but in business, society as well as with our own self. Connecting and Bullshitting are simply not compatible. It is one or the other. We can no longer bullshit ourselves and deny reality at no cost. Fathers can no longer bullshit their well-informed children and expect unquestioned authority. The same applies for managers and their teams, brands and their consumers, or politicians and their constituents. It could still work you might say; look at the big politician charlatans we have today! The question is for how long and at what cost for the country and society can this be sustained?

The times of the ego-inflated know-it-all manager are gone. Managers need to listen, understand, and connect. In doing so, they help their teams being empathetic towards each other and their customers. In this process, the organization develops to a new level of creativity and is able to identify the needed change and risks ahead. Such a creative and empathetic organization is able to properly communicate the value-added proposition of its brand – unfortunately, too many I know don’t, or simply can’t. This organization can optimize the sales and communication channels for its brand and there has been no better time to do so than right now. Why? Because all sales channels, Bricks-and-Mortar as well as Online shops, are struggling to keep their customers, defend their market share or improve their profitability. A brand that connects with its customers has a competitive edge over the others. It can offer attractive visibility in-store or relevant content online.

Moreover, there has been no better and easier time for a brand to communicate. The Internet connected almost everybody worldwide. With some clicks and a minimal budget, we are able to reach hundreds of thousands if not millions of our target group. Everybody can do this. Not many though can listen, connect, and affect consumers in the long run. Only organizations that have learned to connect can achieve this.

In the connection economy, many advantages of the previous eras – the industrial and information economies – are eroding. The Zone of Control is getting smaller. New opportunities are there in the Zone of Concern or of Influence. They are there for companies that dare to challenge the status-quo and embrace the change. And that’s exactly the big difficulty. To the Stoics, Ego is the enemy. This can’t be truer than in the business world in need of change. Ego loves control. It wants to hide behind difficulties. It cannot live with failure. It always wants to be right. It won’t let go easily. But if we try and succeed, new opportunities of growth are there, probably more rewarding than in the past.

Who among us would like to work again in the rigid structures of yesterday, when only the ones sitting at the top held the answers to all the problems of the world? Who would like to work with people hiding behind their formal career masks, when what counted was who you knew, maybe what you knew, and the least how you interacted with others? Some would. That’s the minority, guardians of the status-quo, profiting from the ailing old system. The majority wouldn’t.

Embracing change is vital in societies, businesses and on a personal level. I might not have my kids living with me under the same roof anymore, or in the same city; it is up to me to accept that fact and respect their choices in life, to be able to connect with them and hopefully seeing them grow to be responsible adults.

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