North Star or Bright Shiny Object?

How great brands lose their way chasing the next new thing.

Once upon a time, just about every brand or businesses had an explicit vision for the future. Best practice dictated that it wasn't enough to merely be in business; you also needed to know where the business was going and what the right choices were to keep you moving in the right direction. With this being core to corporate cultures, many great brands were built over time with a clear and consistent sense of purpose. Said another way, these brands identified their true north and navigated by their north star. Growth persisted even in times of turmoil and turnover because these brands stayed the charted course and resisted the temptation of deviation for short-term gain.

My how things have changed. With success now measured in weeks not years, purposeful fixation on north stars is giving way to fascination with bright shiny objects. Great brands are losing their way because they're being seduced by the allure of the next new thing that promises to deliver short-term results.

How could something as critical as brand vision now be relegated to "feel-good" plaques on conference room walls? Here are the five reasons why many of today's brands and businesses are distracted by the glare of bright shiny objects:

1. The "get it done" mentality.
Expectations have changed. While Wall Street once insisted on sustained, predictable growth over time, the new imperative is fast growth, measured quarterly. Everything's got to be bigger, faster and better in a world where the bar gets higher every day. It's up or out, and since out isn't a popular choice, most decision makers choose to do what they've got to do. The horizon has moved, and it's pretty hard to navigate by the north star if you can't see it anymore.

2. Innovation and the invasion of BSO's.

So much for UFO's, now we have BSO's (Bright Shiny Objects). Innovation is reshaping our landscape overnight, and each day brings new sightings of technology that is alien to our established ways of doing business. It's hard to ignore the next new thing when embracing it is seen as a means to the end of staying current and on-trend. Buyer beware: that which is new also has a power of seduction that can cause smart people to do unreasonable things. The best way to avoid being abducted by BSO's is to look beyond the shine and to focus on the substance. Technology is a temptress - don't fall in love for all the wrong reasons.

3. The allure of Millennials.

The largest generation in history is its own bright shiny object. Marketers can't resist the staggering potential of this cohort, and in their zeal to seize the prize, many aren't sizing it. Research that we recently conducted with the Natural Marketing Institute revealed that 75% of Millennials can only afford to buy what they need, not what they want. Many will not enter their prime earning and spending years until 2020 and most not until 2030. Brands that once thought they were recruiting the consumers of the future are now discovering that the future isn't here yet. With Baby Boomers controlling 70% of the country's disposable income, it's time for a new generational strategy.

4. An inverted media dynamic.

Technological progress has given way to a proliferation of media options for connecting content with customers. Historically, brands created ideas first and then sought out the best media choices for reaching the customer when and where they would be most receptive to the idea. But somewhere along the way, the abundance of intriguing new media options hit a tipping point that reversed the relationship between ideas and media. With so many attractive media tools (toys?) to play with, Madison Avenue has becoming entranced with the newest of the new media applications. They've fallen in love with tactics at the expense of great ideas that build brands. Creativity has gone rogue.

5. The subordination of salesmanship.

Long before there was digital media, the definition of what Madison Avenue did for a living was "salesmanship in print." Now they create "content". While the terminology and the tools that define the trade have changed, its core purpose has not; brands still invest in marketing for one reason alone - to prompt a reaction and a transaction. But at a point in time when most major businesses are under more pressure than ever to grow sales, the idea makers seem to be more distracted than ever. The tantalizing array of new media has given them permission to produce a new type of creativity that favors entertainment over salesmanship. While this "new-age" content is still created to compel action, the desired reaction is now metrics like views, likes and shares. Theoretically, this "engagement" with the content somehow persuades and leads to preference and purchase, but one has to wonder if this isn't a bit like walking around the block to cross the street.

So, are great brands losing their way or just doing things in a new way? Only time will tell. What is clear today is that the short-term demands of business and the omnipresence of tantalizing tactics are undermining a balanced approach to brand growth. That's right - balance, aka seeking the right mix of short and long term choices to ensure that brands are built on solid foundations. Alas, somewhere along the way balance must have lost the popularity contest to bright shiny concepts like disruption and transformation. But remember that the more the world changes, the more it stays the same. The core tenets of business are still core and always will be. So, if you want your brand to have a bright future, you might want to re-prioritize the basics. You're going to need a clear vision, and a steadfast commitment to getting there. From there, all you need to do is to faithfully follow your north star to stay true to your course. The closer you get, the brighter it's going to shine and when that happens, you'll have no problem differentiating between the north star and the bright shiny objects that mark detours.