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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Snapshot : This week, we dive into the differences between marketing evolution and marketing revolution. Do you safely and steadily evolve your marketing with incremental changes to build up long-term consistent growth? Or, do you boldly and brazenly revolutionise your marketing to drive disruptive but risky breakthroughs? That’s the innovator’s dilemma. 

One of the great things about working in marketing is you get to spend time thinking about what makes people tick. 

We’re all different, after all. 

But marketing forces you to make sense of how people, your customers, see the world for example. You have to work out how and why customers make decisions. And, of course what that means for your marketing activity.

Well, those challenges are what gets us out of bed every morning. We love stretching our brains to figure that stuff out. 

And one of our favourite models to explain what makes people tick is the marketing evolution – revolution model.

It’s an adaptation of models from organisational psychology (including the Kirton Adaptive Innovation model we cover in our article on creativity for everyone), brand strategy and the world of marketing innovation.

In very simple terms, this model states that new ideas sit on a spectrum of how different they are from existing ideas. On one side of the spectrum, you find evolutionary ideas. And on the other side you find revolutionary ideas.

Marketing evolution ideas

So, evolutionary ideas, from a marketing point of view are where you make many small, incremental improvements to your existing marketing plan.

These changes are relatively quick and easy to do, because they build on what already exists. They include operational improvements, tweaks in design, and easy to implement activity like social media posts. 

Like in our main image, if your problem is “mice”, then the evolutionary answer is build a better mousetrap. 

On their own, these don’t have massive impact. But, because they’re small and easy to do, you can do a lot of them.

And when you do a lot of them, the cumulative impact of all these small ideas, leads to overall improvements in performance. 

Marketers who are pragmatic like this approach. 

It creates a sense of momentum that you’re making progress. Creating new ideas like this becomes a habit, because you’re able to do them on a regular basis and in a relatively short amount of time. 

Routine and predictability have their place

You’ll find more disruptive marketers who argue against routine and predictability.

They’ll argue that it leads to complacency or uninspiring ideas. But, we’d argue that routine and predictability do have their place. 

In fact, if you’re a true marketer who really understands customers, you’ll understand the role that routine and predictability have for most people.

Because, most of us like routine and predictability, and dislike change. 

Let’s face it, trying to change how people do things is hard. It’s one of the hardest things you can do in any business. Most of us are hard-wired to look for predictability and routine. 

Every day, we get up at roughly the same time every day. We eat a similar breakfast. We leave the house at roughly the same time. 

And when we get to work, there’ll be a core routine of things that happen. Times of day when it’s busy. Regular meetings that you have. People that you regularly speak to. Work clothes that you wear. 


And predictable. 

Managing your mental energy

Now, for some people, this “routine” might sound boring. But, it’s actually very necessary for our survival. 

Because when there’s no routine, no predictability, and there’s constant change and uncertainty, that puts our brains under a lot of pressure.

We’re more switched “on” when there’s no routine, but being “on” drains our mental energy. 

Routine gives us a mental break from managing unpredictability. It gives our brains a chance to conserve energy for those times when we do need to manage disruption. 

There’s a well-known story about why Steve Jobs always wore the same style of black clothes. Instead of wasting some mental energy deciding what to wear each day, he saved that energy by wearing the same thing every day, so he could use it on something more important.

It’s important to bear in mind, that your customers usually like routines. That’s where a marketing evolution approach can help. 

Where this marketing evolution approach works well

You find this sort of approach works well in marketing areas like website planning, customer experience and smaller innovations, done by agile teams. 

You look at customer routines – how they use products or services – and work out small, easy ways to make that routine better.

Easier to open packaging. Less clicks on a website to buy. Auto-completion of forms online. 

These are marketing activities where small teams, can focus on specific issues and create quick, effective solutions.

You need comparatively little resource and effort to make small improvements. And there’s a customer need to keep improving the experience. 

The problem with evolutionary ideas

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

Well, here’s the thing. 

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

He shows that the evolutionary approach only works in short-term bursts. But, it often ends up with companies fearing to risk more disruptive innovation. They take their eye off the competitive ball, and new entrants to the marketing come along with radical new innovations.

These new entrants have less to lose, because they’re not hooked into protecting the current experience. 

And when the experience these new entrants offer beats the existing experience, that’s when the existing players suddenly find themselves in long-term trouble.

Because, they’ve got into the habit of evolving existing solutions that now look out of date. 

We can all think of companies who were at the top of their game at one point, and then got blown out of the water by something new and radical.

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

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

It’s these types of situations that mean you can’t just rely on evolutionary ideas. 

Yes, evolutionary ideas are great for keeping momentum going and keeping  your customers happy in the short-term. There are companies, who survive quite happily on evolutionary ideas. 

But then, you always run the risk that someone somewhere is working on something radically different. Something revolutionary. 

Mobile phone on a table wth Netflix logo showing

It’s no surprise for example, that so many car companies are launching electronic and hybrid cars since Tesla popped 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?

If your problem is “mice”, then be revolutionary, and buy a cat. Brilliant, eh? 

After all, who doesn’t like a good revolutionary idea? Just look at the words that attach themselves to revolutionary ideas. 

Bold. Brave. Breakthrough.

Revolutionary ideas just seem to have a more energy and excitement about them. They’re sexy. They’re clever. 

And don’t people love to talk about revolutionary ideas? 

Revolutionary idea are what generates water cooler conversations. They are what creates bandwagons that people can jump on. 

When revolutionary ideas work well, they give companies significant competitive advantage, by being the first mover in the market. Customers associate you with that change, and it’s harder for competitors to catch up with you.

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’s easy. Actually doing them, is not easy. Not easy at all. Revolutionary ideas are incredibly hard to do. And they don’t always work. 

There’s a couple of reasons behind this.

Firstly, as we already said about evolutionary ideas, people like routine and predictability. And obvious, the flip side of that is they hate disruption and unpredictability. 

Routine and predictability is easy to deal with. Disruption and unpredictability isn’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 that change your normal route to work. The supermarket being out of stock of your usual breakfast cereal. Your favourite TV program moved to another time slot, because 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.

When we launched our first online store for example, we had a huge number of barriers to overcome. People were afraid it wouldn’t work.

Which leads us on to the second challenge of revolutionary ideas.

They are inherently much riskier than evolutionary ideas. You only tend to hear about and remember the revolutionary ideas that work. But, do your research. You’ll soon find the ideas that break new territory have a high failure rate.

And nobody likes failure, right?

Nobody wants to be associated with failure in case it impacts their career. People have mortgages, car payments and Netflix fees to pay, after all.

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

These types of people become the critics rather than the creators in your business. They want to preserve the status quo, and protect the interests of the current business. 

The innovator’s dilemma

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

Play it safe, stick with evolutionary “safe” ideas and cross your fingers nobody comes up with an idea that destroys your safe position?

Or take the “risk” of revolutionary ideas? Accept that some will fail. But, bank on the chance that enough will work to put you leagues ahead of the competition.

Well, the answer is actually not either / or. It’s “yes” to both options.

A balanced innovation portfolio

Yep, the best answer to the innovation dilemma lies somewhere in between the two ends of the spectrum.

It’s not as black and white a question as it appears, to choose between marketing evolution and marketing revolution.

You can, and should, do both.

If you remember back to our “spectrum” of newness model for marketing evolution and revolution, we never said you have to choose one end of the spectrum or the other.

Small metal statue of lady of justice holding scales

Because, you don’t.

You can play at any part of the spectrum you want. And you can change where you play at different times.

That’s important to know.

Context and business need drives marketing evolution and revolution

Now, how you choose to play, really depends on context and business need.

You need to play at lot at the marketing evolution side of the model, because those small, incremental improvements keep your customers happy. They keep you competitive. And, they create momentum.

All of these things drive sales and cash flow in your business, right now.

But, you also need to have some resources in play on the marketing revolution side too. Otherwise, you run the risk of a competitor surprising you and launching a better product.

This might mean you pull out a small team to focus on coming up with something revolutionary. Or, you let your team allocate specific time every month to go create something radical and different.

But you need eggs in both basket if you want to be a serious player when it comes to marketing innovation.

The rock, the cowboy or the player?

So, the three options of focussing only on evolution, focussing on revolutionary or doing both, reminds us the three main playing styles in poker.

In poker, you can be a “rock”. This is the type of player who only ever plays the safest hands. They’ll only bet when they know they have a high chance of winning, otherwise, they fold. And over time, yes, they’ll grind out some money, because they never take risks.

But, these players when you spot them are easy to play against. They’re predictable. And in any game, whether it’s poker or innovation, being predictable is a dead loss.

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 they only play the best hands.

At the other end of the poker spectrum are the “cowboys”.

They play everything. They take massive risks, because they’re OK with losing some hands. Their belief is what they’ll win bigger than they lose.

They’re reckless, and rely on a mixture of luck and bravado to win.

The best poker players are ..

However, the ones who actually win the most money in poker are the “players”, who know 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 recognise, they sometimes need to take risks, when the situation’s right. 

When they recognise 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 much harder for others to predict what they’ll do. 

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

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 got enough in reserve to still be 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. 

Let’s look at two quick examples.

Example business context for marketing evolution

So, 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 spent most of their time fighting for share with each other. 

As #3 brand, we created a very distinctive market positioning that pulled it apart from the #1 and #2 brands. And that distinctive market position worked. Year after year, this #brand gained about 3 or 4 market share points on the #1 and # brands. 

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

Do it better

So, we identified the core marketing activities that drove the growth and focussed on evolving them to make them even more impactful. No major disruptive changes. Just a recognition that we had a winning formula, and were going to milk that as much as we could. 

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

We recognised CRM was a big driver of choice, so we improved our service offer there. 

And we recognised that influencers had a big role to play, So, we we focussed on building strong relationships with them.

That was three main areas of focus for the brand, that over five years led us to triple the size of the business, and become market leader. 

So, the key message for marketing evolution is if it’s working, keep going. 


Example business context for marketing revolution 

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

Most manufacturers are at the beck and call of retailers, who control their distribution. Speak to account managers who work with big groceries for example, and you hear some horrific tales of working with them. 

Friday afternoon meetings and demands to deliberately spoil supplier’s weekends. Impossible pricing requests. Physical and mental intimidation as a tactic in negotiation meetings. Retailers are not fun to work with when you are a supplier. 

Now, we’re not saying all of these things were in play when we launched that first online store. But, the relationship between the manufacturer and retailers in this case, was not in a great place. 

There had been issues in the past, and it was damn hard work to get anything relating to e-Commerce away with them. It cost a lot of money, it took a lot of time, and it wasn’t a fun conversation. 

Do it differently

So, the idea to sell direct online was a way to do things differently. It was a completely new idea, no one else in the category was doing that. 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’s some huge commercial benefits to be had.

Now, there was always the risk it wasn’t going to work. When our first month’s sales didn’t even reach into double digits in terms of number of orders for example, that wasn’t great. 

But slowly, as sales started to pick up in month 3, and then from month 6 to month 12, we doubled sales month on month, that’s when we knew our revolutionary idea was a winner. 

Conclusion – marketing evolution vs marketing revolution

As we’ve said, it’s important to understand context before you decide which way to play – marketing evolution or revolution.

If our brand hadn’t been growing the way it had, we’d have had to look more at marketing revolution to find a way of changing the dynamic. If our relationship with retailers was much better, we’d have done more e-Commerce work with them, and not needed to go down the marketing revolution approach. 

We’ve got lots of experience in marketing innovation and creative thinking. If you’d like to know more about these topics, check out our guides, or contact us, if there’s marketing evolution and revolution decisions we can help you with. 

Photo Credits

Mobile phones : Photo by Eirik Solheim on Unsplash

Netflix : Photo by Kon Karampelas on Unsplash

Law : Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash

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