How’s Your 50-year Plan Looking?

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I recently became a part-time vegetarian. Cutting my meat-eating down to one night per week came down to watching Renée Scheltema’s documentary Normal is Over, amplified by the irking realisation that my daughters are going to need a planet to live on in 2068 (and I’d prefer if it wasn’t Elon Musk and Grimes’ Mars).

So many of us only have one-year travel plans, two-year career goals, maybe a rough ten-year-plan for renovating that dream home. But every now and again, something kicks you out of your seat (hello kids) and you start gazing beyond these short-term goals to think about the future. Really think about it. You start to think about how the world’s going to look in 50 years.

But why is it that global brands, businesses and agencies – companies with no reason to burn out like our own human lifespan – act in the same short-sighted way?

The old league is dying out

88% of the Fortune 500 firms that existed in 1955 are dead, and at the current churn rate, 50% of S&P 500 companies will cease to exist over the next 50 years.

The irony is, businesses are addicted to looking ahead. Whether it’s month on month, quarter on quarter or year on year. We work with brands to help them move their business forward, but a lot of what we see is people getting tripped up by their short-term planning cycles and forgetting about the long-term game. When surveying fashion’s biggest players, trend forecaster WGSN found that less than a quarter felt confident in their strategy for 10 years and beyond – with lack of innovation ranking as the number one threat to longevity.

Innovation is being sacrificed at the altar of short term commercial objectives. In some cases, so much so that businesses just fall over since they’re so far behind. While innovation is in start-ups’ very DNA, heritage brands often fail to keep up, cut through and make significant commercial gain. They then need to play it safe, cut operational costs to maintain margins… and so the cycle of decline begins. What happened to Kodak, to Blockbuster? Woolworths? Photography, movies and shopping didn’t die. They just changed.

We were even in a workshop with a brand the other day about how to nurture this culture of innovation. When pressed on the mix of budget allocated to business as usual vs. experimentation and innovation, the ration was 90:8:2. Meaning – only 2% of budget was allocated to failure. Businesses fear failure, yet it’s only the brave who shift with the disruptions of their time and reinvent themselves who will win.

At the other end of the scale, we’re all keenly aware of tech for tech’s sake. The average lifespan of a CMO is three years, and understandably, plenty want to create as much impact as possible during their incredibly high-pressure tenure. What you get is hyped-up, short-lived campaigns with little lasting impact on bottom line or reputation. But also the fear of messing things up in that tenure means there’s a temptation to hide in the conformity of adopting the latest tech solution to solve all your challenges. A tough balance to strike.

The solution to a sustainable future, if there is one?

Start at 2068 and work your way back.

Sure, if we knew the trends and shifts impacting our brands we’d all be the next Elon Musk.

But while we (nor he) can predict the future, we can undoubtedly write it.

Brands need to define their vision for the decades ahead. Look no further than everyone’s favourites for inspiration – Patagonia and Ikea. Patagonia builds the best products, causes no unnecessary harm, and uses business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis already hitting us. IKEA is about making everyday life better for its customers, no matter how that’s changing.

I don’t know what their strategy is to achieve this current vision, but you can admire Ikea’s ability to see a place where they enable the pinnacles of better everyday life for their customers, where their living spaces are as adaptable, liveable and as useful as almost being at one with human movement. Is it actually ever achievable? Who cares, it’s a vision and it motivates people in your organisation to get behind it and try.

Ikea and Patagonia have timeless brand strategies that will out-live any human lifetime. The strategy underneath these visions will most likely get pretty cloudy beyond five years, but it’s about having a view of where you want to get to – no matter how cloudy the view. It’s the job of the organisation to look up and check itself against this, and work on how to get closer to that zenith.

By building this vision and keeping your strategy as a living, breathing plan, your short-term goals will become less scattergun and actually have something to work back from and up to. Once a year when you look at annual planning, add some time in to look at the next 10, the next 20, the next 50.

The art of looking up

It comes down to galvanising your organisation behind a common purpose. More businesses need to look up beyond the monthly and quarterly reporting and ensure they have a brand that unites them, gives them a common purpose, something that gives them a role in society, something authentic, genuine; a truth that can serve to propel them into a sustainable future. And to check themselves against this, year on year.

Elon Musk’s 50-year plan is to have a functioning city on Mars. My personal plan is to take heed of the fact we’re apparently at 1.5 earths in terms of consumption, and slow down a bit – so we don’t have to escape to said planet. And on a more professional level? To keep pushing brands for the forward – breaking stuff, making stuff, experimenting, failing, so that the companies we work with will still be around in 2068.

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1 Comment
  1. Just look at Guinness, they epitomise this long-term thinking. Arthur Guinness signed a 9000 year lease on their St. James Gate Brewery in 1759… they see themselves only a part way through the brand’s journey. Which brand would have that kind of confidence and foresight to do the same thing now?

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