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Developing agile marketing in a VUCA environment

Technology and innovation have touched all aspects of business and we are operating in a rapidly changing and complex world; a VUCA environment. The term VUCA, which stands for “volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity”, originated in the US Army War College in the late 1990s, but spread to the business world as there are striking similarities in terms of rapid change and uncertainty. The digital age has helped accelerate the evolution of business and has helped disrupt basic commercial principles we took for granted, like the idea that the world’s largest taxi service (Über) should own taxis and the world’s largest accommodation provider (Air BnB) should own real estate.

Marketing is not immune to disruption in today’s VUCA world. The way we serve, promote and communicate with both prospects and customers has radically changed over the past few years. More importantly, it will continue to evolve and the pace of change will continue to accelerate. Hence, the VUCA paradigm exists in marketing too. How do marketers remain agile in a world of uncertainty and ambiguity?

Foster the Correct Values

Ultimately fostering the values of “what if” and “why not” will ensure the right kind of culture in a marketing department. It is imperative to promote a culture that rewards the correct behaviours and also rewards agility. However, developing these values begins with senior management as they will set the tone for the department and they will be the ones who will have to sell new ideas to other parts of the business.

Although it starts at the top, a company must be sure that these values run throughout all levels of the workforce. This starts with hiring agile and creative thinkers in the first place. It also means investing in the current workforce and retaining them through recognition and empowerment. For example, the sign-off process for posting social content at Innocent Drinks is, “A very quick, almost non-existent one.” According to Joe McEwan, Head Of Digital & Communities. Once vetted as capable, content marketers are empowered to develop and share content under the Innocent Drinks brand.

The Adaptive Advantage

Thriving in a world of uncertainty and complexity means being adaptive and having the clarity of vision to discern between a true paradigm shift and market noise. This is easiest done by collaborating with industry partners, agencies and start-ups to trial new technologies and new ways of marketing. After all, creativity is just the convergence of two ideas in a new way.

Take Pepsi Max’s Unbelievable campaign as an example. One experiential marketing idea they pursued was making an interactive bus shelter where aliens attacked and a giant octopus grabbed pedestrians off the streets of London. This required bold thinking, innovative technology and effective press coverage and all this wouldn’t have been possible without the courage to trial something new and work with great partners to deliver the impossible.

Having an adaptive advantage also requires open-mindedness in new reward, commerce and payment models. A great example of this is Net-A-Porter’s shoppable print magazine. Customers who like a product within their glossy print magazine can scan the item and buy it online.

The affiliate marketing industry is also a great place for brands to trial new ideas and pay for them on a performance basis. Many great ideas have begun in the affiliate channel because fees charged are normally a percentage of sale, meaning there are low barriers to entry for both affiliates with good ideas and brands that want to trial them.

Ultimately successful marketing derives from a brand’s ability be confident, flexible and bold. It’s about absorbing new ideas that may come from employees, partners or agencies and being brave in trying them out. Brands that foster these values will thrive in volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.

Greta Paa-Kerner (@gretapk) is a tutor at the IDM. She is also an independent marketing consultant and a senior lecturer at Bucks Business School, which is part of Bucks New University. Visit her website at

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