The Role of Antifragility in Marketing
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The Role of Antifragility in Marketing

The world is a fragile place. Incredibly fragile, it turns out. In the eight years since Nassim Nicholas Taleb published Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder, the extent of our fragility has been brought to the forefront. Chaos reigns in politics, public health, the economy and perhaps most importantly, the environment.

These fragilities are inseparably connected and they accrue to create a climate of uncertainty for consumers and marketers. That doesn’t mean consumers always buy less in times of uncertainty, but no relationships can be assumed to be stable and secure. Brand allegiances, forged over decades of careful curation by marketers, are up for grabs. Smart marketers know that we are in a period of fierce competition as old orders are questioned. Some brands are bound to lose customers while others will gain them.

The question for every brand is:

How do you get to the winning side?
How to lose less and gain more?

Antifragility means that your product, your business model, your marketing, your connection with your customer actually grows stronger in the face of disorder. This is not a theory of resilience or weathering the storm. Antifragile systems actually draw strength from chaos. A common example is a carbon material that is able to support more weight when under stress. What are the business model corollaries to this carbon material? How can marketers organize their businesses practices and customer experiences to not only subsist though chaotic periods, but to thrive?

  • Chaos makes practice more realistic:
    A natural response to a chaotic period is to duck and cover. Are you sure your competitors will take the same approach? Or will they come after your customers with enthusiasm and discounts? Either way, antifragile companies will instill in their workers a share acquisition mindset. One way to do this will be to make a point of practicing drills to develop operational experience in swiftly executing competitive marketing campaigns in a simulated crisis context. Like Gene Hackman’s performance as the submarine captain in the 1995 film Crimson Tide, business unit leaders will need to hold their teams responsible to conduct these drills. Given the extra work and stress they entail, staff members tend to not pursue operational drills of their own accord.
  • Diversify intelligence sources:
    A business that receives information from a limited number of static sources is fragile to a myopic view of reality. Business units that aim to understand and cater to customer needs should take care to gather information from quantitative sources (transaction logs, clickstream data, loyalty program participation) as well as qualitative sources (surveys, in depth interviews). An eagerness to understand, though not obsess over, competitors and market landscape situations can also strengthen your grip on reality. And if your team only brings you data you agree with, or if you find yourself ignoring data you don’t agree with, be careful. You may be lulling yourself into a world you alone inhabit.
  • Post-mortem on failures:
    As Scott Fenstermaker shared in his post on antifragility in marketing, lost-client post-mortems are “excruciating” but they are critical. These discussions help leaders “diagnose the source of any underlying issues and build better processes to keep the same problem from recurring.” These exercises provide leaders and teams with stressors that build intellectual muscle, reducing the likelihood of strategic fragility.
  • Amplify outreach to top customers:
    If your business has a relatively small number of customers, this will seem intuitive. If your customer base is comprised of millions, what difference will reaching out to a small number of customers make? The idea is that understanding the needs of these demanding customers may reveal additional channel, product or partnership opportunities. Maybe your top customers are buying so much because they are reselling your product overseas. You could fight this but perhaps it makes sense to embrace it. Be on the lookout for ways to benefit from the stressors these demanding customers introduce to your business.
  • Scenario planning:
    As I wrote in July, scenario planning involves considering a variety of ‘what if’ possibilities to expand your view of what might happen in the future and how to prepare for it. Huddle around a virtual whiteboard with a few of your co-workers and team members to open your eyes to situations you had not considered possible. Imagine what you might have done differently in September 2019 if you had conducted a scenario planning exercise where you considered a global pandemic as a potential scenario. What might you do differently next month if your scenario planning reveals your business is fragile to climate change?

The COVID-19 pandemic, massive social and political unrest in the US and other parts of the world and various climate-related events have presented most businesses and marketing leaders with more stress then they would wish on their worst enemies. The leaders that are best prepared to thrive in the midst of this chaos are those that cultivate an antifragility mindset. This applies to the current situation as well as to a future day when we emerge from our current chaos and prepare for future chaotic periods. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb says,

Antifragility has a singular property of allowing us to deal with the unknown, to do things without understanding them—and do them well.

One of the foundational principles of our digital transformation solutions at Course5 Intelligence has been to help businesses build the ability to anticipate, adapt to and gain strength in the face of changes. We have helped numerous Fortune 500 enterprises acquire market share, diversify their intelligence sources and personalize their outreach to all manner of customer segments, on a dynamic, real-time or near real-time basis. We would welcome the opportunity to do the same for you.


David McBride
David McBride
David McBride is a 13-year veteran of the analytics industry, having held analytics leadership roles in media, retail, technology settings. David is passionate about helping...
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