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Stay Flexible

By Peter Lowy

Former war correspondent Kate Webb achieved renown when she was captured by North Vietnamese forces in 1971, given up for dead, and subsequently released. She later covered conflicts in the Philippines, Afghanistan, Cambodia, and East Timor. Along the way, she was beaten up by various militia and also survived a bad motorcycle accident. Reflecting on her life, she said, “People always think I must be so tough to survive all this. But I’m a real softie. But maybe that’s what it takes—you have to be soft to survive. Hard people shatter.”

Hard companies—those that adhere to a fixed worldview—also tend to shatter. Polaroid, TWA, Wang Computer, the New York Central Railroad, Drexel Burnham Lambert, and Westinghouse Broadcasting, to name a few, come to mind.

The challenge many organizations face is essentially a marketing challenge. Successful companies understand who their customers are, why they buy, and then deliver relentlessly. While this approach takes care of business today, it tends to ignore emerging customers who may represent the next wave.

It’s why marketing operations need to look at new, seemingly unpromising markets that are too small to be called market segments. This poses a conundrum: Most organizations must focus sharply on existing markets, lest they slip away. But if they don’t look beyond today’s customers, those markets may likely slip away to emerging competitors. What should they do?

First, recognize that everyone in your marketing organization, including sales people, support staff, shipping and service centers—in short, everyone—forms your market research team. They collect lots of information every day. Be sure you get it and log it. Then correlate it logically and in unconventional ways.

Second, analyze your market information. Enlist your team

Third, test new markets. Some of the best market research is done ad hoc. Example: define a product or service that you can put together quickly, but instead of investing in development, announce its availability. Your market, will signal its interest. If yes, go into development. If no, test the next idea.

Above all, remain flexible. It’s easy to get comfortable doing what has worked, but that can lead to rigidity, which can shatter you.

© Peter Lowy