Ecosystem thinking: How to build resilient brands amid constant flux
Simon Martin, founder and chief exec of in-housing agency group Oliver, shares his vision for brands as ecosystems – and marketers as the gardeners helping them grow.
If a brand is an ecosystem, how can marketers be good stewards? / Emma Gossett via Unsplash
Marketers are adept at managing complex relationships and campaigns, marrying messaging and mediums, and making it all land in synchronicity. But the modern-day landscape demands more; as complexities multiply, we’re constantly building and managing whole omnichannel ecosystems to navigate a constant state of flux.
The challenge is that marketing ecosystems behave much as natural ecosystems do: if they’re robust and diverse, they can withstand a tremendous amount of environmental change. But introduce signs of fragility, or one foundational element that’s weaker than the rest, and the ecosystem is prone to decline.
What’s crucial is the balance between internal and external elements of the ecosystem. Business is difficult and internal work can do so much, which is why we complement it with external work to create a richer, optimized ecosystem that manages supply and demand when around expertise and capacity. So, what makes for a future-fit, agile marketing ecosystem?
What is a marketing ecosystem?
Marketing ecosystems are the interconnected environments of marketing functions when it comes to the operation of businesses. In its simplest form, a marketing ecosystem’s purpose is to ensure that businesses remain market-orientated and focused on the target audience (be that customer, consumer, or sometimes both).
In the context of the familiar supply-and-demand equation, the demand side of this relationship comprises the brand’s ambition, mission, starting place, and competitive proposition.
The supply side is a blend of internal and external factors, such as employees, reputation, how you go to market, data, channels, and, crucially, the ability to leverage all those assets.
When strong and balanced, a marketing ecosystem built on these pillars can survive external pressure. When weak, it can crumble even under internal strain.
What does a thriving marketing ecosystem look like?
As with natural ecosystems, there are observable conditions in which marketing ecosystems thrive. In the natural environment, these are species domination, food chain reliability, and species differentiation. Marketing ecosystems follow a strikingly similar set of defining principles: competitor differentiation, operational capability, and audience relevance.
Get these foundational elements right, and the ecosystem’s chances of survival against the business equivalents of fire, flood and famine are strong.
A misstep, especially when it comes to audience relevance, and system stress isn’t far.
Nokia is a classic case in point, from dominance in the early 2000s to where it is today. The Finnish telecoms company made a strategic decision to prioritize a software application that preserved battery life over functionality. This missed the mark with consumers, and though Nokia’s fundamental business was strong enough to survive, it’s no longer a dominant force. A failure of its internal and external marketing ecosystem led to a collapse in audience relevance (and the inability to correct course).
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Making your ecosystem resilient
The crucial throughline for a marketing ecosystem is its flexibility. With solid foundational pillars, marketing ecosystems can shift, scale, and adapt to almost any environmental factor. Disruption isn’t always disastrous.
Let’s be clear: this doesn’t mean change for its own sake. Rather, it’s about observing the landscape, learning from observations, and implementing change. The caveat is that going in the right direction is more important than moving first; the pace of change is crucial.
Nor does agility mean the absence of stability. The key enemies of a stable ecosystem are complexity and bureaucracy; if the ecosystem is too complex, with too many interdependent elements, then the most minor issue can cause a rapid decline. Bureaucracy slows the pace of change, so that even when there is a positive adaptation, the extinction event is too close by the time it happens.
The external ecosystem
Just as external factors can break marketing ecosystems, so too can they help build and sustain one. If the internal ecosystem is the ball bearing in the flywheel that keeps the machine running, then suppliers and agency partners can be the oil that keeps that ball bearing moving.
Understanding marketing through the lens of an ecosystem isn’t a list of checkboxes; it’s an ethos. If the environment in which your business operates is bound by conditions that restrict adaptability and flexibility, then a partner unbound by those conditions could hold the key to a healthier ecosystem.
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