Editorial: Prototyping in public

CMO editor and publisher's Nadia Cameron explores the nature of trying something different during the COVID-19 crisis


It was a comment made by Cancer Council’s Adelaide Thompson which finally prompted me to pen this piece on brands and marketers giving it a go in the face of COVID-19.

In an interview about how Cancer Council has had to pivot to thinking virtually around its largest fundraising activity of the year, the Biggest Morning Tea, Thompson said to me: “The options are clear when you are just forced to do it.”

It reminded me of a conversation I’d had with WWF-Australia’s Earth Hour marketing lead, Marion Joyce, around how that annual grassroots environmental initiative also had to radically reshape itself in order to exist in our new norm of socially distanced, home isolation.

While detailing how her team had gone from inspiring hosts to run physical events, to becoming a digital event and broadcaster in its own right in a week, Joyce labelled her team’s efforts “protoyping in public”.

“It’s that forced innovation process, and we’re prototyping in public. But we’re just going to make it happen and make it amazing,” she said to me. “We have learned a lot and we’ll make mistakes, but we don’t care. We have to give it everything we have got.”

Then I thought about the new series of Webcam-based interviews I’ve kicked off under our CMO brand, dubbed Conversations over a Cuppa with CMO. I’ve facilitated a lot of physical events, panels, conferences, roundtables, thinktanks and one-to-one interviews in my day, but doing a video-based interview series wasn’t on my professional bucket list.  I studied print journalism at university, not broadcasting, after all, and I’ve never felt myself to be TV anchor material.

But seeing so many of our CMO community looking for camaraderie, a way to feel connected, and a need to bring contextually relevant marketing leadership content to our audience in this time of unprecedented crisis, I knew this video series would help people to feel less alone.  

It’s a risk to try something new. But the reality is if we don’t, we may not only miss a great opportunity to be relevant right now, we might forfeit our right to the future, too.

As the COVID-19 lockdown became a reality in early March, I witnessed marketers scrambling to figure out what their brands and teams should be doing as their organisations worked out what role they could and should be playing. And it’s no surprise so many felt cut adrift.

For many organisations, the impact of COVID-19 was immediately enormous and devastating: Whole business models and industries have quickly been decimated as we stopped travelling, going to places of work, or frequented pubs, clubs, restaurants, gyms and shopping malls.

For others, it’s been a time of overwhelming plenty. Just look at the supermarkets, bottle shops, telcos, conferencing and connected technology companies now in the hot seat with the essential services of a COVID-19 age. That too, of course, presents significant challenges going well beyond a marketer’s sole remit – supply chain, distribution, ASX financial reporting, to name a few.

Then there was the very real situation of how brands could be perceived through the new customer lens informed by COVID-19 anxiety, stress, fear and isolated reality. Every asset, campaign, activity, communication, digital and mobile capability, social post, product and service is being seen through a new COVID-19 context by every single one of us. A simple sales message is now at risk of being perceived as opportunistic, while any quip or humorous one-liner could be misconstrued as unfeeling or even offensive (toilet paper jokes, anyone?).

I’m not suggesting the scrambling isn’t over yet either for marketers. You only have to look at the recent IAB comments on advertisers shying away from supporting news media reporting on the COVID-19 crisis, or Airbnb’s latest concerning communications advising NSW hosts of their ability to circumvent the latest NSW strata laws to know we have a long road ahead of us.

We can’t expect to get things right every time either. Things are changing every week. We don’t know when we’re going to come out of this crisis. We don’t know what recovery will look like. I doubt anyone wants to hazard a guess right now about what ‘normal’ will look like in the weeks, months and years to come.

But as we settle into a sense of operating in a COVID-19 environment, it’s becoming increasingly apparent industry and category thinkers and leaders are starting to think and respond differently, pivoting the ways work is done and rethinking how businesses connect and engage. I’m seeing clusters of brand and marketing leaders innovating in order to navigate their way through the unprecedented COVID-19 environment we find ourselves in. Basically, it’s because they have to.

Which brings me back to protoyping in public, dirty prototyping, minimal viable productising and any other term you want to call giving something fresh a go and getting it to market quickly. COVID-19 is a global crisis we’re all in together. We’re all experiencing change. We’re all being disrupted. We’re all anxious, looking for certainty, control, a sense of connection, comfort and reassurance we’re not alone.

It’s an appetite that lends itself to more forgiveness should we try something different. What we come up with may not match our or our customer’s notions of perfect. We might not get the context quite right and have to pivot and take stock again. It may just be we learn something new but don’t get the ROI or outcomes we were seeking.

But the thing is, we risked it. We prototyped in public and importantly, people can see we’ve tried. Now is not the time to shy away from trying something new. Yes, that new thing needs to be as authentic as possible to your world view, your brand’s mission and purpose, and your organisation’s values. Most marketers don’t have the luxury of being completely altruistic I know, but you can be true to the principles that have governed your work and your brand all along and still be humane.

So I encourage you give innovation a go. Be brave and try something. Because you never know what it may lead to in the long term. And if anything, it’s going to keep you sane right now.

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