Gradually, then suddenly

“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.

“Two ways” Mike said. “Gradually, then suddenly.”

Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises.

There was a time when marketing plans were built on an annual cycle, when potential tactics to counter-act an emerging competitor could be studied at length, when customer loyalty was built deliberately, over-time, brick by brick.

Suddenly it seems like so much is different.

Suddenly it seems as if our marketing programs must change dynamically, that a competitor can come out of nowhere to obliterate a once winning value proposition and that hard-earned customer loyalty can evaporate over night.

It’s certainly true that we operate in a much faster-paced world. And it’s increasingly obvious that digital technology and a constantly connected consumer radically alter the way just about any business needs to operate.

But for every Facebook, Twitter or Netflix that seem to come out of nowhere,  there are far more situations where once strong brands gradually lost their edge.

Folger’s didn’t just become a crappy business because Starbucks suddenly opened thousands of stores.

Luxury retail did not fall off a cliff during the recession simply because of the economic downturn. For years, many leading brands had been narrowing their customer base and driving top line growth primarily by raising prices. The sudden slowdown laid bare the limitations of a weak long-term strategy.

And it’s easy to blame Eddie Lampert and Ron Johnson for the imminent crises that Sears and JC Penney face today–and to be sure they’ve both done some colossally dumb things. But the reality is that these once leading retailers are where they are today through actions taken (and not taken) by management over decades.

Sudden, unanticipated events will happen.  And you don’t have to be a Zen master to realize that time spent worrying about things out of our control is time wasted.

Yet right now I’m willing to bet there is a critical customer dynamic you must understand better, a competitor who is gaining traction in unexpected ways or a seemingly too risky decision you should pull the trigger on.

None of these actions feel urgent. Until it’s too late.





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