Keeping the digital revolution in perspective

By Clare Hart, chief client officer of Havas Media Group UK

From finance to FMCG and telecoms to travel, business leaders are facing the same great challenge — to embed digital thinking into their organisations.

In an age of smartphones, social media, messaging and apps, consumers are becoming better informed and more demanding. They are ever-more ready to research products online, compare good with bad and express their thoughts and feelings about brands in reviews, social media and blogs. Business success depends on keeping up with consumers’ digital activities, understanding their online journeys and finding ways to satisfy their fast-flowing demands.

Translating this consumer behaviour into corporate strategies is a huge challenge. Executives in many large companies are nervous about the changes required by digitisation and worry that the disruption to their existing processes could damage their relationships with customers.

But there is no denying that consumers have become nimble, smart and very picky. Their technology allows them to outwit large, slow-moving businesses, to find the best deals, demand high quality customer service at speed and to share information on how well companies meet their demands.

Despite this, some marketers are understandably hesitant to put all their eggs in the digital basket. If you’re selling cheese, breakfast cereals, bicycles, cars, personal care — or even eggs and baskets — digital can look like just another channel for getting your message across, rather than a radical disruption to your business model. Marketers may recognise the importance of the latest technology, but many are still wedded to TV advertising as a way of boosting reach for their brand messages. They may still sell the majority of their goods in physical stores. TV will represent the lions’ share of their marketing budgets for years to come. For a lot of marketers, mobile and online will take their place alongside other crucial business issues, such as developing new products, finding new audiences and creating powerful TV ad campaigns.

It is true that there is a risk of over-reacting to digital. That is why digitisation needs to be kept in perspective. Few areas of life are being left untouched by the technological revolution. But digital transformation for many companies will mean both change and permanence, keeping in touch with traditional forms of communication while also developing new channels for engagement. Cheese may seem immune to the digitisation, but it too is being sold online, while the cheese making companies are being changed by business technology. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

There is no shortage of business gurus, consultants and change agents offering their wisdom on how to implant digital thinking in corporations. We think the advice on going digital can be boiled down to a few simple pointers that can help keep the need for change in perspective.

  1. Customer-driven thinking. Think and act like the consumers you are selling to. How they access the brand, whether digital or offline, drives corporate activity. The customer-led approach affects every area of the company from marketing and customer service to product development and operations.

2. Data-driven strategies. Data is becoming the motor of every corporate strategy — digital or otherwise — and everyone in the organisation will be aware of the potential value locked up in data. Make sure the data is accurate and dependable. Use creativity to uncover smart insights.

3. Innovation. Businesses are experimenting with new ways of unleashing innovation. To avoid getting caught out by disruptive market entrants, companies are putting in place rolling innovation processes. Forward-thinking businesses are creating “autonomous tribes” — cross-disciplinary teams that dedicate a portion of their time to working together to hack new products and approaches.

4. Working with start-ups. Beyond autonomous tribes and innovation strategies, organisations are embedding start-up thinking by identifying relevant technology start-ups they can work with to help them solve specific business challenges.

5. Going digital is a journey, not a destination. There is no end-point to digital transformation, no place where you have to arrive. Some businesses are one or two steps along the path. The organisation evolves as it implants digital thinking. At the early stages, a company might appoint a head of digital. Further along the road, digital will stop being a separate job title or department when it is firmly embedded in the organisation.

A sophisticated digital strategy will recognise both the limitations and transformative potential of emerging technologies. Certain categories require more digitisation than others — insurance, banking and retail are undergoing huge transformation through technology. Other areas are still adjusting to the new forms of consumer behaviour, from cars to home furnishings and footwear.

And there are categories where the effects of digitisation are likely to be more muted, such as food and drink. But make no mistake, every business needs a clear vision of their digital future.