In order to thrive tomorrow, brands first have to survive today.
I first became aware of Amara’s Law via marketing provocateur Tom Goodwin, who typically cites it when discussing the tendency of marketers to be attracted by the concept of “new” ideas/technologies/approaches (typically in place of older, less attractive ones). Coined by Roy Amara, the law states that we tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run. As such, it largely explains the (in)famous Hype Cycle.
In modern society, we see it in practice almost daily. A new invention or a discovery comes along and we fall over ourselves with wild excitement over the imminent possibilities that it opens up, whether it’s VR, AR, AI, ML or any other technology soon to also be known by abbreviation.
An example of the law in practice (and a now abbreviated technology) is the GPS (or the Global Positioning System to use its full name). Launched in 1973 for use by the United States military, but close to cancellation numerous times in the years thereafter, it didn’t become fully operational until 1995. Today, of course, GPS technology can be found in everything from watches and mobile phones, to vehicles, airplanes and even the international stock market.
The GPS started out with one goal, but didn’t take off as expected. Now, we would be lost without it. Literally.
People often assume that innovation, like evolution, is a linear process that happens gradually over long periods of time. This is a misconception. Innovation typically progresses in unpredictable and irregular steps; much like a drunk man walking down the street — we have a very general idea as to where he is heading, but are largely unsure as to what he will do along the way.
Consider that Facebook, as measured by adoption and usage, is the most successful “thing” in the history of humankind, and it took a mere 14 years to get there. Think about Apple, and that only a few years before its triumphant return to success, shareholders were deeply concerned about the future of the company. As of today, Apple’s cash-on-hand is nearly equivalent to the GDP of Denmark.
The future is exciting, in part, because we don’t really know what it will look like.
I get it.
But marketers cannot spend their entire days dreamingly looking at the horizon. I work for a company that is remunerated entirely on its ability to drive growth for companies (annually), and consequently gravitate towards ideas and principles that influence my clients’ chances of success today. We (the industry) have many far more pressing issues to concern ourselves with than postulating what “the future” might hold. For example, the ability to distinguish between short-term activation and long-term brand building, and to identify which media channels are best optimized for each. These questions still evade many within our industry, as proven by Ebiquity’s recent “Re-Evaluating Media” report, work by Les Binet and Peter Field and articles by our own JP Hanson.
The crux of my point is this: marketing needs to live in today, not in ten years’ time. Why? In part, because there is evidently so much many still don’t know about marketing today, but perhaps more importantly because building the foundations for a business that will survive long enough to see the glamorous “future” is entirely dependent on the actions of now. The first objective for any business is survival, how it can compete and, ultimately, win.
Or, to put it another way , a vision of a future in which customers engage with brands via VR headsets means absolutely fuck-all if the brands don’t survive long enough to see it.
Perhaps I need to stress that I am by no means “anti-innovation”. There are many upsides to being first-to-market with new innovations and ideas, and I am fully aware that to discover these we need to explore different (somewhat more visionary) ideas. However, the pursuit of these “new” ideas shouldn’t be to the detriment of the principle objectives of marketing departments. We have to survive today in order to be able to thrive tomorrow.
Tom Goodwin, who I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, earns his money primarily (I would wager) from advising businesses on what not to do. He is brilliantly innovative because he lives in today; focusing on the problems that exist in the now, and suggests ways to solve them.
Much like how marketing should.