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How Brands Can Find Direction in Taking Risk

How can designers and their clients break through the barrier of limiting beliefs when it comes to rapid change?

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THERE IS ONLY one certainty for what the future holds – things will happen that nobody saw coming. Though that may seem obvious in a post-Covid world, what matters is what brands do now with that unpredictability. The crucial insight here is that every obstacle presents businesses with an opportunity.

In order to come to terms with the unprecedented rate at which the world around us is changing, and how it impacts businesses and consumers, the team at ChangeUp has defined this new reality as the Zero Horizon World.

The Zero Horizon World acknowledges that change is happening faster than we can keep up —what is considered new can become old in the blink of an eye, and most notably, consumers and the brands they love can drift apart in these uncharted waters. (Read more about this in Bill’s previous blog.)

Perhaps the biggest challenge in this Zero Horizon World is the need to continuously assess what is normal and what is novel. Humans are the most adaptable species, but we still seek order and stability, otherwise our brains simply get exhausted. The same holds true for those of us who create and manage brand experiences and how these experiences need to double-down or pivot based on an ever-changing marketplace with evolving technologies.

 When things are working, how do we push ourselves to get uncomfortable, make changes and take risks? How should brands orient themselves to the world of new possibilities unfolding before us daily? While change makes everything a risk, every risk in turn presents us with a choice. Our humanity makes us risk-assessment machines – our senses are fine-tuned, and our brains are wired for self-preservation. But we don’t grow unless we push against the boundaries of what is known and familiar to find something potentially better.

And those that find themselves thriving can often get too comfortable and be averse to change. Thriving can eventually dull the senses, as it doesn’t push us to take necessary risks to grow. It’s a natural response – when our environment changes, we may feel anxiety, often, vague feelings of uneasiness, especially when things change too fast. So, we avoid changing course and the longer we avoid, the fewer choices we actually have.

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This is exactly what keeps businesses paralyzed in this rapidly changing environment. Instead of our senses, we have the KPIs, metrics and analytics that we’re most familiar with. We seek to protect what has always worked and look to dubious sources to tell us what rabbit its important to chase. Meanwhile we may miss real risks and over-emphasize others. We encourage our clients to work hard to differentiate between rapidly changing consumer expectations that redefine table-stakes, and what are opportunities to truly differentiate and add value. This fundamental exercise leads to making better choices, versus trying solve everything at once or mislabeling as innovation what’s merely required to keep up.

Disrupting technologies take whole industries with them, and it can require as much energy and resources to keep up digitally as it used to take to innovate physically. Sometimes the best approach can be to take a different tack, and buck the trend to uncover a way to be different.

Take the growing Bloomies concept, the smaller footprint offshoot of Bloomingdale’s. Where conventional thinking may be used to remove friction, automate everything and dazzle with technology, instead the concept emphasizes person-to-person service. It is the contrary approach to brick-and-mortar, Amazon Style, foray into fashion. When designing stores for an uncertain future it’s important to remember that one brand, on its own, can rarely shift established consumer patterns and expectations. But one brand can fill a need that opens up because of the changing landscape.

It is easy to overreact to change and see everything as exposing a new vulnerability. One tactic I use with clients is the “so-what” approach to looking at trends to reduce the chances of a knee-jerk response. If this happens, so what? Is it actually a threat or is it an opportunity for a game-changing innovation? It’s this approach that led to our innovative work helping create the new Pit Pass tire retail experience for Discount Tire. The initial motivation was to remove the showroom from the sales experience and move the entire buying experience online. In this case the “so what” led to a solution that not only enables smaller sites, but saves the customer hours of time and almost guarantees loyalty.

It’s critical that we don’t reframe or reduce brand and business challenges to fit what is in our wheelhouse. When we address fresh challenges, we should start with a ruthless pursuit of facts and a bias toward what is real versus what is protecting the status quo or following the crowd. We then should seek new lenses through which to look at the challenge.

Getting your brand’s gears to mesh perfectly with your shopper or guest is a constant work in progress.

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Finding direction in the Zero Horizon World requires brands to be willing to take risks that may have been off-limits a decade ago. The unpredicatability requires a comfort level with adjusting our instruments as we go and that the maps we have used may now be inaccurate. It is a combination of acting on accurate information, sizing up the true threat of change, a being open to try new things, and committing to test and learn.

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