Strategic confidence: this is everything

It’s not every day that I come across a new idea in this field which stops me in my tracks, but I heard something recently that did just that.  I’m paraphrasing but it was along the lines of:

Marketing is the barrier you put up between yourself and the world.

This is epic, so let me break it down a bit.

Generally we consider marketing (meaning the modern comms-oriented version of it) to be something like the “best presentation of ourselves”.  This is the version of us and of our brands which is the most vivid, interesting, and attractive.  Almost like an enhanced image of what we are, and what we’re selling.

However the above idea totally upends that notion.

What it suggests instead is that our marketing – the external image of ourselves that we send out into the world – is in fact more of a “shield” than an amplification; something we “hide behind” rather than expose ourselves with.  It’s a safe and timid representation of our true nature, that we think (or hope) will be acceptable to other people.  Rather than being bold and confident it’s fundamentally insecure – a deeply compromised shadow which is built by our deepest desires to play it safe, avoid risks, and deflect criticism.

This strikes me as staggeringly insightful.

As with most of the things we discuss here it can be applied to both an individual and a brand.  The idea is that the common disease often shared by both is a crippling lack of confidence in who they are and what they’re doing which leads to:

  1. Copying others (safety in numbers and all that)
  2. Hedging your bets (trying to play all sides rather than committing to one)
  3. A subconscious shrinking from attention (even in something like marketing which is all about getting attention)
  4. Ultimately blending in (sheltering you from criticism, yes, but also from any form of extraordinary achievement)

By contrast we might say that a truly confident brand (or person), rather than having “good marketing presentation” actually has no marketing presentation.  It has no barrier, no filter, between itself and the market.  No propaganda department.  It is what it is: unequivocally, and unmistakably.

Indeed I’m prepared to go out on a limb here and say that the defining difference between the great brands everyone loves, and the vast morass nobody gives a shit about, is simply this.  Confidence.  Confidence in who they are, and zero hesitation in expressing it to its fullest extent.

This advantage doesn’t only accrue because confidence and authenticity are “attractive” in and of themselves (although that is true).  No, on a more strategic level what happens is that brands with total confidence push harder in one direction, and don’t temper their execution, or hedge their bets.  This in turn generates difference; growing the gap between them and their competition and opening up market space.

Now, to an extent this might sound a bit like common sense.  “Yeah, OK, brands need a tight strategy, so what else is new?”.  But actually I think there’s something more profound going on here.

You see traditionally the main focus in the field of strategy has been “smartness”, or “rightness”.  You have smart strategies which succeed, and you have stupid strategies which don’t.  The way we judge a strategy is by how “clever” it is, and the extent to which it “works” on a technical level – almost like a formula.

By contrast what this alternative interpretation suggests is that the primary deliverable of a strategy shouldn’t be smartness, or rightness, but in fact confidence.

To put it bluntly:

The main job of a strategy is to instil confidence in an organisation.

Yes, naturally the strategy should be reasonably smart – or at the very least not actively stupid.  But if the confidence it instils is strong enough, the thinking doesn’t need to be especially dazzling, since the true value ultimately comes from a fearless authenticity, and aggressive execution.

I believe that the strategy industry’s misplaced focus on smartness rather than confidence is to blame for why people in general don’t understand, like, or buy it; and why most brands operate completely without it.

Just think about what strategy looks like if you have smartness as the core value:

  • It becomes overly detailed and technical, as it seeks to cram more and more information and variables into its hypotheses
  • It becomes elitist and inaccessible as it starts to require a level of analytic sophistication that only a PHD can handle
  • It becomes vague and cautious in and of itself, as its commitment to cramming in multiple considerations begins to cut off options (you can always find a good reason not to do something)
  • It becomes boring and gutless because in a misplaced drive to behave “scientifically” it removes crucial subjective ingredients such as taste, intuition, and humour

In short it becomes exactly what most of us understand as strategy today.

By contrast when you place confidence as strategy’s primary deliverable, the nature of the craft changes drastically:

  • It necessarily becomes far more simple and direct, since the strategy must be something which everyone can internalise and act upon without thinking about it, or having to consult some 200 slide deck
  • The language becomes not only less technical, but in fact deliberately casual and informal by design, since the goal is to maximise intuitive understanding across the largest number of people
  • Quirkiness and interestingness become crucial ingredients in the mix, since the recipient of the strategy is not simply some abstract notion like “the market”, but actual human beings, both inside and outside the organisation, and human beings care about that kind of stuff
  • Intelligence becomes balanced with more psychological notions such as motivation and inspiration, recognising that the effectiveness of the strategy is directly correlated with the intensity of the fire it lights in everyone’s bellies

In short, strategy becomes a wildly different beast.

I believe this is what founders, CEOs, and organisations at large are truly lacking.  Not intelligence, but confidence.  When I think back on literally every client I’ve ever had, and every company I’ve ever worked for, this truth is hiding in plain sight.  In every single case they weren’t quite sure of themselves, of what they were about, and what direction they should take.  They were plenty smart enough to take sensible decisions that would keep the business on track, and deliver growth.  But they were always crouching behind the shell of indecision I referred to earlier.  There was never any true conviction, and the full-blooded expression that comes with it which is the common factor in all greatness.

Insight + simplicity + passion.  That is what an effective confidence-oriented strategy looks like.

So my challenge to you is to stop measuring your direction by how “right” you think it is, and start to asking how much conviction it gives you.  If the answer is anything less than “100%, let’s get on it”, then one or more of those ingredients is lacking.  So dig a bit deeper, and when you’ve fixed it, you’ll feel it in your bones.

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