Magazine article Marketing

Future Imperfect

Magazine article Marketing

Future Imperfect

Article excerpt

Are you excited by the new world of multimedia that's just around the corner? I can't wait. But as companies rush to grab a slice of this future bonanza, it's difficult to avoid the conclusion that many, if not most, will come a cropper.

Betting on the future has never been easy. Back in 1964, the US telecoms giant AT&T launched the world's first ever "picture phone" amid a welter of press predictions that this forerunner of today's videophone would transform work, life and society. AT&T poured millions into the project: by 1985, it predicted, it would be king of the $5bn castle.

It never happened. Instead, AT&T got broken up. It misread one future, based on technology. And it totally failed to see another, based on politically-inspired trust-busting.

Pick up this issue of Marketing again. How many of the initiatives it reveals are based on projections of a future that won't happen? And, equally, how many companies are staring an opportunity in the face and failing to see it? When Xerox first invented the photocopier, experts evaluating its potential told it the maximum number of machines that could be sold across the world each year was 1000. Luckily for Xerox, it ignored the experts.

Both these examples are from a fascinating and sobering book called Megamistakes by Steven Schnaars(*). You don't need to look far in the UK to find recent, similar examples: financial services companies which invested millions on the assumption that the housing market would continue to grow at 30% a year; consumer goods companies that dismissed environmentalism as the rantings of deranged fringe faddists. Yet it is the marketer's perennial dilemma that a core part of his or her job is to peer into the future, to identify opportunities and threats that could transform the business. And far from getting any better at it, we may be getting worse.

Intense focus on the consumer is fine, but the closer the focus the harder it is to put things into perspective. Faster "time to market" may be riding up the corporate agenda, but all too often it leaves marketers with less time to sit back and think. "Delayering" may be better for internal communications and costs. But companies that are strapped for human resources find reacting soon takes precedence over proacting.

Business people nowadays rush from one box (their home), to another box (their office), to be swamped by another box (their in-box), warns US futurologist Faith Popcorn. They rarely have time to read a magazine or watch a TV programme to allow for influences that may help them think outside their narrow little boxes. "This cultural autism is numbing corporate America," she writes.

UK marketing advisers agree. Richard Zambuni, managing director of consultants Craton Lodge & Knight, says most marketers are not thinking enough about future possibilities, hypotheses like "if, if, then. . . They are too busy reacting". And, agrees Dorothy Mackenzie at Dragon International, most marketers focus too much on mainstream reports and assumptions, ignoring new ideas and trends that could brush today's mainstream aside. "We often talk to people who would be dismissed by our clients as cranky eccentrics," she admits.

So what is the advice from those whose job it is to help clients in this difficult task? It comes down to three things: try to think a little deeper and harder about existing, identifiable, trends; think broader, especially when it comes to new technologies (the real innovation may come from a totally different industry); and look for early warning signs for new cultural trends. …

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