minimal landscape

My previous article of “The New Normality of Marketing and Business” is a general outline on how businesses are transforming during the time of crisis such as Covid19, surviving and thriving in the new era. The article was initially published on my content hub Minimal Marketing and then reposted on the foreign magazine Vietnam Insider and Brands Vietnam – the most reputable information portal of branding and marketing in Viet Nam. In short, it presented the three-stage transformation procedure for businesses to cope with the difficulties of an arising pandemic.  A new concept of “Amphibious Company”, which was defined as a business entity that could survive and thrive on both physical and virtual working environments, was introduced in this article.

Since its publication, the procedure and concept were asked on how these ideas could be applied to their own situations and companies. I recently presented thoughts and applications of these ideas in a webinar hosted by the Start-up Vietnam Foundation (SVF) and Momo e-wallet and received requests to clarify it further. Thereby, I decided to work on Part 2 and Part 3 of this series to elaborate on this subject so that everyone could have a clearer understanding of what I meant.

Part 1 of the series looked at the similarities and overlapping domains between the natural world and the business world as well as how some species adapted to new living conditions. From that, we could learn to adjust our businesses in time of crisis and, correspondingly, resource scarcity. With a short recall, the three-step procedure is:

  • Short term: Change of Tactics to cope with the sudden change of condition when the pandemic first hits and has an impact on the normal condition
  • Mid-term: Changes of Strategy to familiarise with the new environment and reinforce the foundation, resource to be ready for future growth
  • Long term: Change of Grand Strategy to accelerate growth and occupy the leading position in the new market

Let us assume the procedure is correct, we then shall need to pinpoint where we are in this procedure to build the adaptations accordingly.

What Is the Stage We Are in Now?

Evaluating the situation of Vietnam, I assume that some of us could utter that we are now settled in the “new normality” informed by the government. I do not reject their effort and success in dealing with the coronavirus. In fact, the situation has gotten much better in Vietnam with the lockdown being lifted, and, until the time I pen this article, there have been no new infected cases in the community over the last 25 days. It seemed that Vietnam had settled in the new normality, but around the world, the Covid-19 situation is still the utmost challenge to the governments, especially those of leading developed countries like the United States and United Kingdom. Considering the interconnected relationships between Vietnam and these trading partners, I think we are not settled in the new normality yet but very much is still in the second stage of the procedure. At this stage, what companies should do, in general, are reinforcing the human capital, improving the internal processes, and accumulating the finance to be ready for the race in the upcoming normality.

What We Should Do During This Second Stage?

In Part 1, I illustrated the changes that would happen to business was like the changes of the adapting animals in the new environments. These species spent most of their time in their second stage building their muscles and changing their physiques. Similarly, companies need to spend time strengthening their internal resources, processes, and capital during this stage.

To illustrate the changes and improvements, we look at different components of a company in the Balanced Scorecard Model (BSC)

The Balanced Scorecards

From my experience of managing services companies, BSC is a great way to organise and manage businesses because it allows different components of the business to be connected and thus to contribute towards common objectives. Five components of BCS that we will thoroughly examine as follows are:

  • Vision and Strategy
  • Financial
  • Internal Business Process
  • Customer
  • Learning and Growth
Balanced Scorecard Development - Catalyst Consulting

Figure 1: Balanced Scorecard

Vision and Strategy

Although vision is set for long-term growth and usually not affected by the daily operation, during this time of crisis, to some extent companies should re-examine if their visions need some modification to better reflect the altered reality. The changes in customer behaviour and future needs are the root causes of change. For example, Covid19 disrupted the oil and gas industries resulting in their negative oil price, forcing oil companies to accelerate their plans of “going green” instead of the vision that only focused on something like fuelling economies.

Other underdog industries, on the other hand, received unprecedented attention and investments for future needs. The company “Beyond Meat” is an example. Before the pandemic, their vegan meat (plant-based meat) was very much considered a hobby or occasional consumption for the highly health-aware community. However, recently it has been considered as a healthy food choice for a much wider community because the pandemic has raised the awareness of healthy solutions more than ever. Their stock, which is now trading at $136.8 per share, has enjoyed great lifts by the visionary investors compared to the $77.28 per share in Nov 2019. Across different industries, many examples can be found such as companies in pharmaceuticals, teleconferencing (Zoom) to name but a few.

Beyond Meat Beyond Burger Plant Based Burger - Tesco Groceries

Image 1: Beyond Burger – a product of Beyond Meat

It is to say that companies should reconsider their visions if the prospects of their industries are likely to be altered in the long run, for better or worse. Next, companies should review their strategies to ensure that it underpins the revised vision. The fact is we have been 4 months into this pandemic together and if there is one positive thing that it teaches us it is our attitude toward the Mother Earth. If companies learn how to nurture instead of exploiting their own working environment, their business would be much more sustainable and resilient through change. From my longitudinal study, here are some key concepts that can be applied on strategy during this second-stage period based on the overlapping domains of natural and business worlds.

The Rise of Minimalism

History of evolution has proven that simplicity is always the best. From the simple structure of diamond making it’s the hardest material on Earth, to the simple life of tardigrade aka. water bear making it the invincible creature on Earth. In fact, the water bear is so resilient that it is the only species that can even survive in the outer space.

ArtStation - Tardigrade (Water Bear), Engin Aytekin

Image 2: The Tardigrade aka. water bear

In business, the simplicity of management is exemplified by the case of Apple, usually referred to as the world’s biggest start-up. Its philosophy of design also amplifies the elegance of simplicity and the principle of less is more.

Minimalism which originated as an art movement in 1960s in New York, focusing on extreme aesthetic austerity. Until now, the influence of minimalism has now extended far beyond the severe geometric artwork of the late 20th century; its values of simplicity and reduction have more recently been applied to lifestyle, marketing and business.

A picture containing curtain, furniture, water, large
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Image 3: Colin Cina, National Galleries of Scotland

In marketing, the idea of minimalism in marketing or so-called minimal marketing is to optimise the viable resources for the maximal result. The philosophy of minimal marketing encompasses a series of viable product – test – revise – and re-launching. This approach to marketing abandons the idea of rigorous planning and brainstorming of traditional marketing which is somehow inapplicable in today’s landscape of market. Applicability of minimalism in business could be referred to a business with less staff, less office but still can operate effectively by simplified processes and optimal capital investment. Contrary to the notion that businesses need to inhouse marketing functions to be effective, minimal business operation encourages outsourcing to reduce fixed costs and increase flexibility of the business.

Partnership – The new P in The Marketing Mix

My longitudinal observation on the natural worlds brought new insights on some principles of the natural worlds that could be applied in business. Take a look at these two magnificent species:

#1: The Geese

Geese are a migratory species, so each year they migrate long distance in search of warm climate and food source. The Canadian Geese for example, they usually fly south in winter and north in summer covering a distance of up to 3,000 miles. When flying such exhausting journey, their flying formation is always in V-shaped flock.

Birds fly in 'V' formation to save energy | CBC News

Image 4: Geese fly in the V-shaped flock

Scientists have determined that the V-shaped formation that geese use when migrating serves two important purposes. First, it conserves their energy. Each bird flies slightly above the bird in front of him, resulting in a reduction of wind resistance. To utilise the wind whirl made by the bird in front, the bird right next after him has to flap his wings at the right moment of receiving, creating a harmonious motion in the flock. Then, the birds take turns being in the front, falling back when they get tired. In this way, the geese can fly for a long time before they must stop for rest. The second benefit to the V formation is that it is easy to keep track of every bird in the group. Flying in formation may assist with the communication and coordination within the group. Fighter pilots often use this formation for the same reason.

Air Force Thunderbirds join Red Arrows for aerial parade in New ...

Image 5: Fighter plane in V-shaped formation

#2: The Penguins

Penguins, or emperor penguins in particular, are the only vertebrate species that breed during the Antarctic winter, and they face freezing winds that blow as fast as 200km/h in an icy landscape that can be as cold as 50 degrees Celsius below zero. To prevent themselves from freezing to death, they huddle together in tightly packed groups to conserve heat and shelter themselves from the intense winds. In a huddle, the chicks always stay in the centre while the periphery is the place for the adults.

Not only that, in the time-lapse motion, you can see that the penguin huddles constantly rotate. At first glance, the penguins may not appear to move much. If you look at a penguin huddle in real time, you hardly see any movement at all – they are all standing very still, but watching this huddle of shuffling penguins long enough,  there emerge distinct waves of motion through the feathered masses as one penguin takes a step and the rest follow. Similar to the geese taking turns to share the burden of flying in the front, this practice of penguins also ensure that every penguin has a chance to be covered in the centre of the mass.

Image 6: Penguins gather in crowds

In the end, what I am trying to say here is that surviving in harsh condition is – of course – hard, and that is why it requires teamwork and partnership co-exist. Similarly, if companies of the same industries or vertical could find a way to work together, it would be a great way to utilise the scarce resource in the transitional time of crisis like this.

Lately, Google and Apple have unveiled a rare partnership to add the technology, known as contact-tracing, into smartphone platforms that will alert users about potential exposure to COVID-19 patients. The app has the potential to monitor about a third of the world’s population. In the coming time, I also anticipate that unions and associations of multiple industries will play a crucial role in stabilising their business environment during this period, and more to be established.

Next, we will look into how the change of vision and strategy could influence the four components of the BSC. We do not need to follow any specific order of BSC but depending on the industry or situation of each business model, we can prioritise one over the others. As for me, I always start first with customers.

1. Customer and Value Proposition

Over six years of being a Member of Chartered Institute of Marketing (MCIM) has taught me one thing which is the application of customer-centric marketing. It places customer’s need in the centre of business model and designs the corresponding solutions to satisfy just that.

Having said that, I do acknowledge the urgency of business for the time being to at least survive by maintaining a minimum influx of revenue to keep the companies afloat. Many people are talking about “go digital” as the single solution that can help bypass the lockdown situation and acquire that minimal revenue. It is true that digitalisation is the way to go for most of businesses, but it may not be that easy at first impression. For retail, the task is easy as all the platforms and tools such as Tiki or Lazada are in place, but for the others it might not. How about pharmaceuticals, agriculture or hospitality? Can a five-star restaurant deliver its service online? Nowadays, if you are a retailer and you need to shift your entire operations online because of Covid19, the task can be quickly completed within a week. Platforms are there and tools are widely available. Having said that, the situation is not the same for other tricky industry. Let say agriculture, or pharmaceuticals. In some cases, the haste of shifting too fast costs more than the Covid19 itself.

Going digital and selling stuff online is good, but online distribution is just one part of the whole marketing mix. Reconsidering the value proposition that is brought to customers during this time of need is much more a profound procedure to be completed first. Some of the new need states that I discovered during this time is:

  • The need to be safe – masks, disinfectants, hand sanitisers etc.
  • The need to be entertained at home – Netflix, Spotify, Soundcloud, YouTube livestreaming
  • The need of indulgence – snack food
  • The need for healthier food choice – vegan, vegetarian options
  • The need for mental health care – medical services, doctors at home
  • The need for fitness equipment
  • And more …

A great example is LVMH, the parent company of Christian Dior, Guerlain and Givenchy, who wants to help French health authorities by manufacturing hand sanitizer and providing it to them for free. LVMH said it will use all the production facilities of its perfumes and cosmetics brands to produce large quantities of hydroalcoholic gel, or hand sanitizer, starting Monday. And many great companies who have gone a long way to modify its offerings during this time.

Viện Kỷ Lục Châu Âu (EURI) - Đề Cử - P.101] - LVMH (Pháp): Tập ...

Figure 2: Brand architecture of LVMH

A recent statistic has shown that 70% of companies who committed to go digital failed (Forbes, 2019). Therefore, my advice to you at this stage is always to take a step back, think, plan, and then do. Do not just hasten to do it because digitalisation is not an easy task. Instead of thinking digitalisation, businesses need to define a new value proposition which incorporates digital elements into it to enhance the customer experience at all touch points. Without thorough planning, the risks of damage customer relationship or running into operational hassles are inevitable.

2. Process and Infrastructure

Processes and company’s infrastructure should be modified to support the new value proposition. To be well versed and adaptive to both environments of the physical and virtual worlds, the processes of an amphibious company have to be flexible enough to do so.

In project management, agile methodology has been well-known for facilitating such requirement. The agile approach defines the business goals and success criteria in smaller increments, taking a project through several rounds of development, testing and deployment. This differs from what we call the waterfall method, which took a project from design to deployment in one steady stream. In time of uncertainty and transition like this, the agile approach seems to be more appropriate. Still, the right process for project management and business administration in an amphibious should could be a hybrid one that could allow the necessary flexibility (agile) but still in maintain a certain level of documentation and rigid processes to enable scalability, the level of which should be determined case by case.

Figure 3: Agile vs. waterfall methodologies

My own learning during this time is that, as a service company, we do not need much of the physical space as we used to have. Everything could be online, and the team collaborate just fine. The only setback is the brainstorming process which still needs a certain level of stimulus and emotional connection to be effective. It is true that the new cannot totally offset the old ones, but this pandemic is a great chance to ask ourselves a question whether we still need that much complexity of processes, management layers and physical space to be operate smoothly. If the answer is no, then this is a good time for us to go minimal and be amphibious.

3. People Development and Growth

In Part 1 of this serious, I have mentioned about the need to execute some lay-offs in the first stage of the new normality, but in the second stage when the situation has stabilized, it is time for investment in human capital to be ready for next stage. There are two reasons to be it. First, it is because the new value proposition and processes require new knowledge and skills. For this reason, the training for staff could be internal along the way of the transformation process. Second, people development during this period means preparing for the coming brighter future.

That is why, after the pandemic in Vietnam is under control, we have seen a lot of webinars going on with experts and specialists having their chances to express their view on the situation. Each may have a rather skewed point of view for their own but acquiring their opinions as reference sources to build your own shortlist of knowledge and skills for the new normality. Just like the adapting animal species training their physique to get used to the new environment, this is the time to prepare. Companies should set a realistic, yet ambitious goals and KPIs for personal development to their staff. It then should be monitored and reminded regularly to keep everyone on track. If this preparation period is performed properly, the company shall be ready to take full advantage of the coming future.

As an example, Wisdom Agency has been on hype of training ourselves. I personally studied the academies of HubSpot and Google, finished my CIM Chartered CPD submission ahead of time and spent most of my free time writing new materials for my content hub.

4. Financial

The component of revenue and costs is usually examined first as a leading component when building BSC model. However, in the face of uncertainty, I believe it is best to leave it to the very end. With financial related matters, I a little bit disagree to the belief that the new normality is set in and we should invest to roll out. It is the strategy of third stage. While we are still in second stage, I think it is still best to conserve financial capital and keep reinforce the human capital and processes to wait for the real normality to come. However, it is not the time for frugal policies like the first stage. If there is a chance to test the market and invest on something small, it is also good to go ahead.

History of evolution has shown us that agile and fast animal species are the ones that often die young such as hummingbirds and squirrels. On the other hand, those that are slow seems to enjoy greater life spans such as turtles, tortoises and in this particular case – the Greenland sharks.

Oldest Shark in the World - 512 Year Old Greenland Shark - YouTube

Image 6: The 500 Years Old Shark

This species of shark lives in the extreme cold condition 2,000 meters down in the ocean, where the water temperature is around 29 degrees Fahrenheit. Extreme cold is associated with slow metabolism and maturation, which is the reason why they can live for centuries with the oldest one recorded to be over 500 years old – the longest-lived vertebrate ever roams the Earth. The shark is also known as the sleeper shark for its sluggish pace, the Greenland shark is one of the slowest swimming sharks in the world. They average a cruising speed of 0.3 m/s (0.76 mph) but are capable of short bursts of speed when hunting.

Applied in the case of business, I believe companies that are slow and cautious during this time have better chance of survival and growth when everything returns to normal. Then, it will be the time for the short bursts of speed.

When Will We Enter the Last Phase?

The last question in this article that I would like to mention is the time of the real normality for the economy. For businesses, I think that the right time settle in the new normality is when the situation has settled in all countries across the world, or at least near it. It can be marked by perfect isolation of new inflected cases or the invention of Covid-19 vaccines with its wide application in population across the world.

Some economists and reliable sources of reference have indicated that it would take several years to invent, test and apply the new vaccine and it would therefore take the equivalent amount of time for the international trade to get back to normal. Thereby, I think it will not be soon for companies to adapt a new grand strategy in the third stage. Having said that, the right moment still varies across industry since each industry has different level of dependence on the international trade with some even benefited from the lockdown. Take consulting service as an example. I strongly believe this is a golden chance for local consultancies considering the facts that almost all foreign experts are locked out of our country. A quality local consulting is more than ever needed to support businesses and Vietnam’s economy as a whole for a speedy recovery and perhaps acceleration by this game changer – the Covid19.