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Marketing evolution versus marketing revolution

Marketing evolution - revolution model - spectrum showing mouse problem in middle and evolution answer - better mousetrap - and revolution answer - a cat

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Why read this? : We explore a common marketing innovation dilemma. Do you follow a marketing evolution approach for safer but slower and smaller ideas? Or a marketing revolution approach for bigger, bolder but riskier ideas? Read this to explore the innovator’s dilemma between marketing evolution and revolution. 

Great marketing means spending time thinking about what makes people tick. What drives them.

To do marketing well, you have to try to make sense of how your customers see the world.

How and why they make decisions. And what that means for what you need to do.

It’s especially important in marketing innovation to figure out how to engage customers with new offers. 

man in a blue T-shirt looking at the ceiling

A helpful tool for this is the marketing evolution – revolution model. It pulls from psychology (including the Kirton Adaptive Innovation model – see our creativity for everyone article), brand strategy and innovation.

It suggests new ideas exist on a spectrum. On one side, evolutionary ideas. Ideas built from existing ideas. And on the other, revolutionary ideas. Radically new and different ideas. 

Marketing evolution ideas

Marketing evolutionary ideas drive many small, incremental improvements to your existing marketing plan. Think of it as the build a better mousetrap approach. 

These are relatively quick and easy to do, as they build on what already exists. They evolve over time and drive steady growth.

They include operational efficiency improvements, design tweaks, and stand-alone activities like PR events and social media posts. 

Marketing evolution - revolution model - spectrum showing mouse problem in middle and evolution answer - better mousetrap - and revolution answer - a cat

On their own, these don’t have a big impact. But, because they’re small and easy to do, you can do a lot of them. And the cumulative impact can result in much-improved performance. 

Pragmatic marketers like this approach. It creates a sense of momentum. You feel like you’re making progress. Creating new ideas like this becomes a habit. New ideas come in short regular bursts. 

Routine and predictability have their place

However, more disruptive marketers argue against this approach. They argue routine and predictability lead to complacency or uninspiring ideas. That can happen. But it doesn’t mean there’s no place for routine and predictability. In fact, many customers like routine and predictability, and dislike change. 

Trying to change how people do things is hard. Most of us are hard-wired to look for routine and predictability. Every day, you get up at the same time. You eat a similar breakfast. You leave the house at the same time. And when you get to work, you usually follow a fairly set routine. Regular meetings you have. People you speak to. Work clothes you wear. Times when you’re busy.

Routine. And predictable.

Managing your mental energy

For some people, this “routine” sounds boring. But, it’s actually necessary for our survival. 

When there’s only constant change and uncertainty, our brains feel on alert all the time. Under pressure.

We’re more switched “on” when there’s no routine, but being “on” drains our mental energy. We can’t be “on’ all the time. 

So routine gives us a mental break from managing unpredictability. It gives our brains a chance to store energy for when we do need to manage disruption.

Woman in exercise gear sitting cross legged on a yoga mat and twisting to one side

There’s a well-known story about why Steve Jobs always wore the same style of clothes. Instead of wasting mental energy deciding what to wear, he just wore the same thing every day. So he could use the energy on something more important.

So try to work out what routines your customers have, and what they like about them. That’s where the marketing evolution opportunities lie.

Where to use marketing evolution

Examples of areas where marketing evolution works well include website building, customer experience and smaller innovations, done by agile teams. 

You look at customer routineshow they use products or services – and work out small, easy ways to make that routine better. Easier to open packaging. Fewer clicks to buy on an e-Commerce website. Auto-completing online forms. Activities where small teams can focus on specific problems and create quick, effective solutions.

You need comparatively little resource and effort to deliver these. And they meet a customer’s need by improving the experience. 

The problem with evolutionary ideas

This all sounds like common sense. So, why wouldn’t you do this ALL the time?

Well, here’s the thing. 

In his book, The Innovators Dilemma, Clayton Christensen looks at innovation trends in categories like disk drives and farming equipment.

He shows the evolutionary approach has short-term benefits. But, it often leads companies to fear risking more disruptive innovation. This means they’re unprepared when new competitors come in and disrupt the category. And so, companies who always play it safe can lose out long term. 

The new entrants have less to lose. They’re not invested in protecting the current experience. 

If their disruptive new experience is better than what’s currently on offer, customers will rapidly switch to the newer players. And that leaves the existing players in a lot of long-term trouble.

Their evolving existing solutions now look out of date. And they’re not well set up to change to the radical new way of meeting customer needs. 

There are plenty of examples of companies who were market leaders at one point. And then got blown out of the water by something revolutionary. 

Lots of mobile phones from the end of the 1990s and early 2000s

Think Nokia losing out to the iPhone. Think Blockbuster losing out to Netflix.

This on-going competitor threat means you can’t just rely on evolutionary ideas. 

Yes, evolutionary ideas are great for keeping momentum going and keeping  your customers happy short-term. Many companies get by on evolutionary ideas. 

But they run the risk of someone entering the market with something revolutionary. 

Mobile phone on a table wth Netflix logo showing

They need to be prepared for that. For example, it’s no surprise so many car companies have launched electronic and hybrid cars since Tesla arrived on the scene. Or, that so many traditional media channels have jumped on the streaming bandwagon, since the success of Netflix.  

Marketing revolutionary ideas

So, revolutionary ideas are a better choice, then? This isn’t building a better mousetrap. It’s buying a cat. Brilliant, eh? After all, who doesn’t like a good revolutionary idea? Just look at the words which attach themselves to revolutionary ideas.

Bold. Brave. Breakthrough.

Revolutionary ideas seem to have more energy and excitement. They’re sexy. They’re clever. And don’t people love to talk about revolutionary ideas? Revolutionary ideas generate water cooler conversations. They create bandwagons for people to jump on.

Done well, they give companies the competitive advantage of being the first mover in the market. Customers associate you with that change. It’s hard for competitors to catch up.

Sounds great, doesn’t it?

The problem with revolutionary ideas

But just hold on a minute there, Che Guevara.

Because here’s the big challenge with revolutionary ideas. Talking about them is easy. Doing them isn’t.

Revolutionary ideas are hard work. And they don’t always succeed.

A couple of reasons drive this.

First, as we already said about evolutionary ideas, people like routine and predictability. 

Triangular warning sticker with large exclamation mark on a wall. Sticker has many rips and tears in it.

And obviously, the flip side of that is they hate disruption and unpredictability.

Routine and predictability are easy to deal with. Disruption and unpredictability aren’t. When you have to learn to do something new, you have to devote mental energy to that task. That’s tiring. And annoying. 

Roadworks which change your normal route to work. The supermarket running out of stock of your usual breakfast cereal. Your favourite TV program moved to another time as some sports event over-ran.

All, annoying. 

And that applies to changes at work. Or changes in what you do for customers. 

People like to argue against change

Back to our mice problem, the cat idea’s clever. But who’s going to look after the cat that’s going to catch all those mice?

And what about our teams who make mousetraps? What’s going to happen to them?

So, if you’re the bright spark who’s come up with a revolutionary idea, be prepared to face lots of people who won’t like it. Who’ll argue against change.

Running track with hurdles set up for a sprint race

For example, when we launched our first online store we had many barriers to overcome. People were afraid it wouldn’t work. We’ve run into plenty of marketing barriers in our time too. 

This leads us to the second challenge of revolutionary ideas.

By definition, they’re much riskier than evolutionary ideas. You only hear about and remember the revolutionary ideas that work. But, in reality, ideas which break new ground have a high failure rate. Only businesses with a strong creative culture accept this as part of the process.

Because in most businesses, nobody likes failure, right? Nobody wants to be associated with failure in case it impacts their career. People have mortgages, car payments and Netflix to pay for, after all.

So, much safer to back the ideas which guarantee the business a few percent growth every year. And kill off the ones which could boom or bust the business.

This leads to more critics rather than creators in your business. People who want to preserve the status quo and protect the interests of the current business. 

The innovator's dilemma

This brings us to the Innovator’s dilemma, as Christensen called it.

Option 1. Play it safe. Stick with evolutionary “safe” ideas. And cross your fingers nobody comes up with an idea that destroys your safe position.

Or option 2. Take the “risk” of revolutionary ideas. Accept some will fail. But, take the chance some will work and those will put you ahead of the competition.

Here’s the thing though. There’s an option 3. You can do both. 

A balanced innovation portfolio

Yep, the answer to the innovation dilemma lies somewhere between the 2 ends of the spectrum.

You can choose both marketing evolution and marketing revolution.

On the marketing evolution and revolution spectrum, we never said you have to choose to be at one end or the other. In fact, you can move along it any time you want. And can even be at multiple points on it if that suits you better.

Small metal statue of lady of justice holding scales

Context drives marketing evolution and revolution

Where you sit on the spectrum depends on your business context.

Doing marketing evolution projects drives small, incremental improvements. This keeps your customers happy. Keeps you competitive. They create momentum.

Those are all good for your profit and lossright now.

But, you need some marketing revolution projects too. Otherwise, you run the risk of a competitor surprising you and launching a better product.

So, have a small team focus on being revolutionary. Or, let your team allocate specific time every month to create something radical and different.

Serious marketing innovation players know they need both approaches. 

The rock, the cowboy or the player?

The 3 options of evolution, revolution or both, remind us of the 3 main playing styles in poker.

In poker, you can be a “rock”. This type of player only ever plays the safest hands. They only bet when there’s a high chance of winning. Otherwise, they fold. And over time, they grind out small wins playing safe hands.

But, these players are easy to spot and play against. They’re predictable. And whether it’s poker or innovation, being predictable isn’t good. Rocks never bluff. So, you fold against them when they play strong. You never lose much to them. But when you’ve only got a middling hand, you’ll beat them every time. Because you know they only play good hands.

At the other end of the poker spectrum are the “cowboys”. They play everything. Cowboys take massive risks because they’re OK with losing some hands. They always believe they’ll win more than they lose. They’re reckless and rely on luck and bravado to win.

The best poker players are ...

However, the ones who actually win the most money in poker are the “players”. They know when and how to switch between being a rock and being a cowboy. 

They rely on the statistical certainty of playing strong hands, like rocks.

But, they also know they sometimes have to take risks, when the situation’s right. 

When they see an opportunity, they’ll go all in on something they’re not 100% on. Because they know doing nothing, could mean losing more.

And of course, by switching between modes, they make it hard for others to predict what they’ll do. 

Think about your marketing innovation plans in the same way as good poker players play their hands. 

Play the marketing evolution strong hands. That’s just sensible. Make small, incremental improvements to keep yourself in the game. 

But, have a few wildcard options up your sleeve. You know, the ones that if they pay off, they pay off big. And even if they don’t, you’ll still have enough in reserve to stay in the game. 

Because when it comes to marketing evolution and marketing revolution, that’s what the smartest players in the marketing innovation game do. 

Example business context for marketing evolution

For example, we once worked on a brand that was #3 in its market. The #1 and #2 brands had been around for longer. But they spent most of their time fighting for share with each other. 

As #3 brand, we created a distinctive market positioning to set it apart from the #1 and #2. And that worked brilliantly. Year after year, the brand gained about 3 or 4 market share points from its rivals. Eventually, it overtook them and became the market leader.

Marketing evolution was the way to go in this case. The distinctive market position wasn’t easy for the #1 and #2 brands to copy. And it clearly worked well with customers, as more and more chose the brand. 

Do it better

There were core marketing activities which drove the growth. We focused on evolving these to increase their impact. No major disruptive changes.

Just a recognition we had a winning formula, and were going to milk it as much as we could. 

We knew our TV advertising worked. So, we spent more money there. 

We knew CRM was a big driver of choice. So we improved our service offer there. 

Close up of a hand with thumb up

And we knew influencers played a big role. So, we focussed on building strong B2B relationships with them.

These 3 focus areas which evolved over 5 years led us to triple the size of the business. The key message for marketing evolution is if it’s working, keep going. 

Example business context for marketing revolution

Marketing revolution can be anything and everything. It’s only limited by your imagination. And our favourite one we’ve mentioned many times before, is when brands launch online stores. That’s a revolutionary way of thinking about the “place” part of your marketing mix

Most manufacturers are beholden to retailers, who control their distribution. For example, listen to the horror stories of account managers who sell into grocery. Friday afternoon meetings and demands to deliberately spoil your weekend. Impossible pricing requests. Physical and mental intimidation as a negotiation tactic. Retailers aren’t fun to work with when you’re a supplier. 

Some of these drove our decision to launch that first online store. The retailer relationships weren’t in a good place. There had been issues in the past. It was hard work to get anything e-Commerce related away with them. They charged a lot for everything. They went slowly. And the conversation was never fun. 

Do it differently

So, the idea to sell direct online was a way to do things differently. It was completely new. No one else in the category was doing it. It was marketing revolution. If you can set up your own “place” to sell online, you remove all that retailer arguing from how you work. 

You have a direct connection to the customer. You control the selling operation. And as we cover elsewhere, there are big commercial benefits.

There was always a risk it wouldn’t work. In our first month, orders were in single digits. That wasn’t great. But by month 6, we were ahead of forecast. And by month 12, we knew our revolutionary idea was a winner. 

Conclusion - marketing evolution vs marketing revolution

Context makes a big impact on how much marketing evolution or revolution you choose to do.

For example, if our #3 brand marketing evolution plan hadn’t worked, we’d have had to look more at marketing revolution to grow.

And if our relationship with retailers was much better on our D2C brand, we’d have done more marketing evolution work with them, rather than the revolutionary D2C approach. 

Your innovation dilemma is to work out which way to play, and when you need to mix up your approach. 

Check out our marketing innovation and creative thinking guides for more on this. Or get in touch, if there are marketing evolution and revolution decisions you need help with. 

Photo Credits

Man looking at ceiling (adapted) : Photo by Anton Danilov on Unsplash

Yoga : Photo by Dane Wetton on Unsplash

Attention sign : Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Hurdles : Photo by Jeremy Chen on Unsplash

Mobile phones : Photo by Eirik Solheim on Unsplash

Netflix : Photo by Kon Karampelas on Unsplash

Law : Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash

Thumb up (edited) : Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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