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The Obsession with Hacking

Having a career in research is mentally rewarding. I get to satisfy my intellectual curiosity and have my brain exercised on a regular basis. Having said that, it creates a craving to produce tangible things. I’ve never been the handy type beyond following IKEA instructions, so along with gardening – baking becomes my therapy. On a regular basis, I would come across recipes I would be confident to attempt – along with clever posts on social media for baking shortcuts.

Shortcuts and hacks are rampant in social media. We seem to have diminishing patience and motivation to actually do the tedious work required to produce quality results. Unfortunately, this obsession has also crept into business, marketing, and brand building. I get asked regularly whether the principles of brand growth still apply in the age of disruptor brands, online channels, and digital media – in the hope that brand growth could also be hacked.

Twitter and LinkedIn are peppered with consultants promising growth hacks – including those who would dismiss established wisdom, and brush aside formal business and marketing qualifications in favour of informal seminars and workshops.

Let’s explore this.

There is no bypass around building mental and physical availability

The law-like principles of brand growth still apply even as new media and new delivery channels emerge. Launching, growing, and cultivating brands still require the same strategic thinking and hard work – of ensuring that consumers easily think about the brands in context of category purchase, and then subsequently find the brands when they are ready to buy.

Let’s look at the commonly mentioned examples of disruptor brands like Uber, Tesla, Netflix, or Airbnb. These brands may have entered the market differently to their predecessors. However, as the ‘disruption’ settles, these brands still need to do the hard work of jostling against their competitors. Brands like Uber and Airbnb now actively advertise across various media – just like any other brands. After losing many subscribers in Q1-2022, Netflix is considering new revenue streams through ads, as it competes with similar offerings from large media companies like Disney+ or Paramount+. As more automotive companies focus on producing electric cars, Tesla also needs to compete in earnest – and perhaps revisit their stance on refusing to advertise. Some of the darlings of the disruptor brands have been gobbled up by large organisations, such as the case of Unilever’s acquisition of the Dollar Shave Club in 2016 and large multinational companies now owning microbreweries.

Getting more buyers is still the key for these disruptor brands. The focus on reach and penetration is still vital for brand growth. Just like any other brands.

It’s just like nature – when a breakaway stream discovers a new path of least resistance, more volume of water would be directed towards it as it becomes the new normal. However, the law governing how liquid flows and behaves would still set the boundary.

The delivery evolves, but the principles remain

Of course, things change in market competition and business practice. The arrival of social media and online channels now provide alternative new ways of doing business. It doesn’t mean that brands should refuse to consider these new avenues – or on the flip side, abandon all established principles and adopt the alternative mechanism wholesale.

Prior to joining academia, I would go googly eyed when I heard charismatic consultants or presenters sharing novel methods to solve existing challenges. I was less interested in those giving evidence and richer nuances to established wisdom. Well, I’m now part of the presenters and researchers of the latter group. There’s a reason why these principles have stood the test of time, markets, and environments. It’s reassuring to know that what’s considered to be ‘common sense’ can be explained through evidence and established principles – rather than blindly following uncommon nonsense.

So, we need to put clear boundaries to hacks and shortcuts on marketing and business practices. Whilst some allow you to do things efficiently and effectively, they don’t preclude you from the necessary hard work if you want to win against your competitors. It’d be better to consider how the principles can be applied on new developments and challenges, rather than pondering on how to hack the system.

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