About 2,500 year ago, Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu observed that "tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat". I often wonder what he'd think of modern marketing.
Consider—Facebook's newly announced virtual reality browser for Oculus has marketers buzzing. The notion that a brand might reach VR users through a website instead of a standalone app is undeniably fresh and compelling.
But let's put things in perspective. Sources have estimated Facebook's 2016 Oculus sales goals at around 400,000 units globally. This is a niche product with a small audience—years away from mass relevance.
Meanwhile, at a recent industry conference I visited the booth of a thriving consulting firm with a steep growth curve. When I asked where they specialized, their answer was simple: "Lots of brands are buying enterprise marketing systems they don't have the capabilities to use, so they hire us to do it for them."
Why would so many brands spend so much on software they aren't capable of using? Why do so many marketers care about bleeding edge tech with a small audience of early adopters?
The answer is simple—our industry is obsessed with shiny new technology. We can't get enough of it. According to a recent Gartner study, we're now spending 28% of our budgets on it.
Many different forces are driving this obsession. Some of them quite sensible. Marc Andreessen tells us that software is eating the world—so we need to figure out how we should adapt. And, of course, increasing efficiency and effectiveness is always worth pursuing.
But there's more going on here. Much more. For example, I believe many modern marketers are increasingly plagued by a nagging fear of missing out and losing relevance. I call it "marketing FOMO". It's a powerful driver—re-enforced by a daily avalanche of hype about new trends and tech.
Many of us are also tempted by the lure of the easy win—the quest for a silver bullet. Others long to absorb the sex appeal of the tech world tech by osmosis. Or emulate the savvy opportunism that turns startup founders into billionaires. Still others are simply looking to win attention by being the first to try something new—a tried and true advertising tactic.
Whatever the cause, our collective obsession is undeniably real. The real question is—is it hurting or helping us?
The honest answer has to be "both". Some technology is very powerful—provided you're capable of using it. But as marketers put more and more focus on shiny new tech, they're inevitably putting less focus elsewhere. And this downside isn't being talked about nearly enough.
So where exactly are things falling down as technology takes center stage? When I look around, it's not hard to find the answer.
First, I see many of yesterday's bright shiny objects being left behind when the next thing comes along. The app store is littered with abandoned mobile apps that haven't seen an update since iOS7. Lonely emoji keyboards wait in vain for someone to type something. Dormant Vine accounts count out their few remaining days in silence.
I also see brands innovating in all the wrong places. Spending money on token gestures and superficial initiatives that are more about PR and optics than solving real problems for real users.
I see greed overcoming sense, especially in the world of online advertising. Brands using data to stalk customers, not to serve them. Privacy standards dropping (witness Google's recent decision to remove anonymity from online tracking) as our hunger for targeting data grows. Ad blocker use rising as consumers grow more uneasy with their side of the data bargain.
And finally, I see strategy falling out of fashion. Dismissed as old fashioned. Written off as too slow for in this fast-moving age—the opposite of the opportunistic ideal. In this final dark cloud, though, I see a glimpse of a silver lining. A potential antidote to our collective obsession with shiny new tactics and tech. Here it is:
Strategy has the power to save us from ourselves.
Far from being obsolete, strategy is now more necessary than ever. As Harvard's Michael Porter has so eloquently put it, "the essence of strategy is choosing what not to do". And with so much shiny new tech to choose from—and so many forces conspiring to make it all so attractive—we all need to get better at choosing not to do things.
Strategy can help us overcome our obsession with technology. It can immunize us from hype and cure our marketing FOMO. I can help us refocus on our customers and engage them as human beings instead of just targets.
Ultimately, strategy can help us reduce waste and rebuild our damaged credibility in the organization. Mondelez CMO Dana Anderson makes this point succinctly: "Strategy is important. Otherwise, brands will just buy everything and waste money." Sun Tzu couldn't have said it better.