The Permanence of Change – Making the Case for More Planners
A misconception that haunts aspiring planners is that since most brand identities are already established, planning is a career in decline. By definition, “established” is something “having existed or done for a long time and therefore recognized and generally accepted” (Oxford Dictionary). If that’s true, we might as well say that GAP is established to the point that we generally accept its failure.
In reality, nothing is established, but everything is in constant change.
The Dual Nature Of Reality
The first debate over the nature of reality dates back to 500 BCE, when pre-Socratic Greek philosophers Heraclitus and Parmenides agreed that the universe is controlled by a rational structure, but fundamentally diverged on what that structure is.
Heraclitus believed in change and flux: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” The concept of cyclic experiences was starting to emerge, and so was the notion of cosmic evolution, for which “nothing is permanent” and “everything flows” (the expression panta rhei has been attributed to him).
Parmenides, on the other hand, firmly believed that reality is permanent, ungenerated, indestructible, and unchanging, and that change is but a mere appearance. If something exists, it can’t not exist, because it would change into something that is not.
What’s interesting about being Heraclitians or Parmenidians in our approach to life, is that change is always a variable. Denying its influence on human and social dynamics is simply lying to ourselves.
But what role does planning play in this metaphysical controversy?
In less than one year, we have seen major brands of the calibre of Mexx surprisingly filing for bankruptcy, a struggling Indigo turning its book business into a cultural department store, and an “established” brand like GAP failing its authenticity positioning with their “Dress Normal” campaign.
Whether a change is imposed by force majeure, triggered by a costly miscalculation or unreservedly chosen as the last resort for a brand in deep water, it only proves there is no way to avoid it – but there are ways to embrace it and steer it in the right direction.
The Rising Challenges of 2015
Given that no brand is immune to advancing technology, evolution of tastes, and cultural shifts, planners, with their acute sensitivity, are in the privileged position to foresee such waves of transformation based on their cyclic recurrence.
Last year, Indigo founder, Heather Reisman, took on the challenge to compete at an international level, but she did it with Howard Schultz’s book Onward in her hand, knowing that just like for Starbucks, success is not casual nor is it unpredictable.
The only way for Indigo to overcome a change imposed by the digitalization of the book industry was to become competitive online while concurrently push in-store innovation – an approach that we all dismissed but that, in retrospect, managed to re-position the brand differently against the internet giant Amazon.
With books still at the core of the Canadian chain, Indigo is moving where consumers are, even anticipating what they need, and if that means that home décor and gift ideas is what drags people in store – let alone dolls for little girls – that’s the niche Indigo wants to play in.
Identifying a niche when times change and mass consumption threatens your “established” brand can be a life-saver, but Mexx evidently missed to do just that. Too focused on replicating flash fashion trends set by European counterparts in each and every US mall, they lost sight of their unique flair, leaving consumers confused about what the Mexx brand stands for.
A disastrous re-branding in 2007 under Liz Claiborne was the first misstep in chasing a volatile fashion without envisioning the ripple effects this would have on a brand commonly known and preferred for style first. If we add the lack of a solid online presence, we get a strategy that fails to understand the impact of changed media habits on the consumer journey.
At a different level, GAP has proved, on countless occasions, to react to change with systematically wrong strategies by virtue of an established brand that, ironically, has never been stable.
Grounded in a positioning that falls in the grey area of consumers seeking a compromise between authentic style and uncomplicated fashion, their latest “Dress Normal” campaign is more than a communication issue (who wants to be normal?). It’s the presumptuous assumption that GAP doesn’t need to change.
Perhaps hurting for how the Baby GAP shout “moms-to-be” to its teenage customer base in the 90s, this is a legitimate attempt to avoid change for fear of losing consumers they know very little about.
The Cyclic Recurrence of Change
Heraclitus introduced the idea of birth, death and re-birth – fire turns into air which turns into water — to explain the cosmic cycle and support his theory that change moves things like a river.
In business as in nature, change is an inevitable phase, a critical moment that prompts us to make decisions (after all, the word “crisis” itself comes from the Ancient Greek crino, “to decide”). A decision that has not been thoroughly planned, is destined to be a bad decision, no matter how established is a brand.
Throughout the years, Indigo, Mexx and GAP have been challenged with situations that mined their security, forced them to undertake unconventional paths and backfired with unexpected discontent and sales drops.
If one brand succeeds where others fail it’s because planning, a purely Heraclitian discipline, is not about solving a short-term problem, but finding solutions that will cyclically prove to be right during the next wave of change and the next one, and the next one again. That planning is a career in decline, is not factual information, but a deliberate Parmenidian choice to think reality is static.
It won’t take long before more planners will be called to rescue.