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.





Author: stevenpdennis

Steven Dennis is a trusted advisor and thought-leader on customer-centric strategic growth and innovation. As President of SageBerry Consulting, he applies his C-level executive experience to drive growth and marketing strategy for multi-channel retail, e-commerce and luxury industry clients. He shares his ideas and wisdom regularly in the press, as an industry speaker and through his popular blog "Zen and the Art & Science of Customer-Centricity"( Prior to founding SageBerry, Steven was Senior Vice President of Strategy, Business Development and Marketing for the Neiman Marcus Group. As a member of the Executive Committee he drove the company's major growth initiatives, multi-channel marketing programs and customer insight agenda. Before joining Neiman Marcus, Steven held leadership positions with Sears, including Acting Chief Strategy Officer, Lands' End acquisition integration team leader, Vice President-Multichannel Integration and General Manager-Commercial Sales. Earlier in his career he was with NutraSweet and the global management strategy consulting firm, Booz & Co. Steven received his MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BA from Tufts University. In addition to his consulting work, Steven is an executive-in-residence at the JC Penney Center for Retail Excellence at SMU’s Cox School of Business, President of the DFW Retail Executives Association and serves on the Advisory Boards of Invodo Inc. and Nectar Online Media. He is also active in the social innovation and education reform arena as a Partner and member of the Board of Directors of Dallas Social Venture Partners. He is currently co-leader of DSVP's investment and engagement with SMU's Center on Communities and Education "School Zone" initiative in West Dallas.

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