Why ‘wargaming’ is essential to future-proof marketing

Being able to take advantage of opportunities and overcome challenges starts with having a solid marketing strategy in place, which Boots CMO Pete Markey says might sound basic, but without the right foundation it’s easy to get blown off course.

wargamingAgility, flexibility and adaptability are all words that have been used frequently over the past year, as businesses were forced to change tack and solve problems at speed in response to the pandemic.

And while no one could have predicted the devastating impact Covid has had, it has taught many businesses the need to respond quickly, which comes from planning for the unexpected.

But in order to have the ability to flex, brands must start with a watertight marketing strategy, which Boots’ CMO Pete Markey said might sound obvious, but without a solid foundation it becomes very easy to lose your way, meaning challenges can’t be overcome and opportunities will be missed.

“There are some businesses that fall into stuff – no. Have a clear marketing plan and strategy that links very clearly to what your business is trying to do,” he said, talking on a panel at the Festival of Marketing: Fast Forward this morning (8 June).

“But within that you need to build flexibility…Brands are living, breathing entities. You can’t lock them in a PowerPoint presentation and say ‘that’s the brand plan done’ because the world moves around you.”

Strategy is as much what you won’t do as what you will do.

Emily Ketchen, Lenovo

Once the plan is in place, Markey advises brands to “do a bit of what I call wargaming”. He refers to “old school” frameworks like a SWOT analysis to measure the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, and the PESTLE model to look at key political, economic, sociological, technological, legal and environmental factors.

“Actually not much has changed in the world to ignore tools like that,” he added. “What’s happening in the wider macro and micro economic environments? What things do we need to take into account as a brand? What things might knock us off course? What might competitors do? And importantly, which customers are we for, which customer groups do we want to grow in? What segments, what products?

“That all sounds really basic, but you’ve got to start there. What are you actually setting out to do as a business and what flexibility can you build into that? If [x, y or z] happens what are you going to do? Have you got enough flexibility in your marketing plans to accommodate and move things around? Because if you can’t then you will get easily blown off course,” he warned.

Squad mentality

It’s then about empowering the marketing team and people on the ground to be able to make the right decisions and choices “in the moment” when opportunities arise or threats are posed.

In order to facilitate this, Boots has moved to an agile model, with squads in areas such as beauty, wellness and gifting, and around particular events such as Christmas.

“We’re organised in a way where the squad has the ability to move money and flex activity to move in the direction where we’re going to get the best results,” Markey explained.

“We’re deliberately set up to think and act differently, to act like a small, entrepreneurial business within a big business.”

Despite the company being more than a hundred years old, with thousands of employees and stores to manage, Markey said the squad set-up, which extends to how it works with agencies, allows it to prepare and respond to incoming challenges and opportunities.

“The markets we’re in are very fast moving. If we’re going to remain competitive and stay ahead, we have to think and act smartly and quickly. That’s at the heart of the move to agile at Boots,” he added.

‘Faster, slicker, smarter’: Meet the marketers rethinking agility

Democratise customer research

For Emily Ketchen, who is CMO and vice-president of PC and smart devices at Lenovo, ensuring the brand is future fit comes from putting customers at the centre of every conversation across the business.

“Strategy is as much what you won’t do as what you will do,” she said, talking alongside Markey on the panel.

“At Lenovo we really believe that the whole company is in the business of the customer and so, we’ve done things like democratise our customer insights and research. All of our employees have access to that information so we really want and hope that everybody will be in on conversations about how we plan for our future.”

She said the brand’s entrepreneurial culture helps it think and act swiftly too.

“We think about ourselves a little bit as a company of owners. So it’s super important for us to be thoughtful about what they think is the right thing to do in terms of our strategy as an organisation, but also that they’re empowered to deliver on that strategy,” Ketchen added.

The markets we’re in are very fast moving. If we’re going to remain competitive and stay ahead, we have to think and act smartly and quickly.

Pete Markey, Boots

Likewise, at digital mortgage broker Habito, which is a five-year-old startup so entrepreneurial by nature, being able to flex its strategy is core to ensuring it can grow as a business.

Habito CMO Abba Newbery said in one month she made 100 changes to the budget, for example.

The mortgage firm also had to act swiftly when the pandemic first hit and Boris Johnson told the nation to “prepare to lose your loved ones” as its marketing activity featured “people dying of mortgage stress”.

Risk vs reward: Why now is the time for marketers to be brave

As a result Habito paused its marketing and Newbery had to rethink everything, but in hindsight she said this actually gave her an opportunity to take risks and look further ahead.

“Our market completely ground to a halt, which in retrospect was a great benefit to me because all I could worry about was the future,” she explained.

“What does the new creative strategy look like, what are we going to do the minute the market opens up again? It allowed me to research my ads, which told me that people were finding them funnier because they were even more extreme and even more appealing to people,” she explained.

As a result, Habito launched a new customer experience and website, which retained its fundamental brand assets, including angel wings.

“The last 12 months has thrown everything at me. I’ve learnt we are agile and I do have a fantastic team who are liberated to think in interesting ways. I hope we’ll go into the next 12 months being even braver and more confident in our decision making and even more interested in taking risks and trying new things as we’ve spent the past year learning that again,” she added.

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