In pursuit of commercial bravery – the antidote to playing it safe…

I took the opportunity this week to watch the homecoming parade of the Royal Anglian Regiment who were gifted the freedom of St Neots, the town where I live. It was a humbling experience to see a marchpast of more than 200 soldiers who more recently have spent time doing their day job in Afghanistan and Mali. To draw any sort of parallel with the type of work they do would be simply plain wrong but it did spark a thought on the nature of the definition of bravery. To my mind as the son of a Royal Air Force father, I put the British Armed Forces on a well-deserved pedestal and I am personally thankful for all they do and the professional manner in which they bravely go about their jobs in often high risk situations.

For those of us who have pursued a commercial career path it is clear that the risks we have been exposed to are significantly more trivial no matter how important they may have seemed right there, right then in the heat of the moment. Decisions are almost always made with the best of intent, the challenge is whether the intent is about genuinely making a difference or pursuing a path of least resistance and dare I say it, playing it safe. I caught up the other day with an old contact (nice to chat Si) and he made a point about how frustrating he found it when people pursued a risk averse approach to developing communications, a position I totally understand.

Bravery in commercial roles can of course manifest itself in many ways – from the strategies you adopt to the partners you choose to the plans you execute. There are also of course degrees of bravery and it is critical to ensure that the route pursued is genuinely brave rather than genuinely foolish – a critical distinction. A former boss of mine once said identify those things you can be fired for and approach carefully. Sound advice.

If we are candid, here in the UK we are educated to typically tow the party line. It starts early on through the education system where you are encouraged to conform, fit in and work within boundaries. It’s simply not very British to be outspoken and attention seeking. I’m not suggesting a social revolution but I do think brands and businesses that look at challenges and opportunities through a more revolutionary and brave lens stand the best chance of winning in the longer term and behave in a slightly un-British manner albeit often with a British tone of voice.

The herding instinct is common behaviour in all walks of life and yet some of the most interesting behaviour is typically when something is a bit more breakthrough and someone takes a braver path. I spotted a great quote in a recent Luke Johnson article from Emerson who said “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” A fantastic sentiment.

Multiple categories are dominated (albeit decreasingly) by larger companies who have to protect topline revenue and bottom line profitability to satisfy shareholders of some sort. They are more often than not doing what they can to manage decline in the face of increasingly demanding and savvy consumer behaviour and their own internal disciplines and protocol can often stifle real bravery. That’s not to say bigger organisations can’t be brave but in reality it’s trickier when corporate expectations are to pursue a path through calmer waters where the returns are more guaranteed whilst the bigger wins in the choppier waters would require some quite uncertain navigation.

For me, the floor is wide open to businesses and brands that are willing to be brave. Risk and reward come hand in hand and I’ve recently been reading Seth Godin’s book Purple Cow. The main premise is the eternal search for the remarkable ideas (the purple cows) that will pique the interest of a well-defined and focussed target. Business bravery is very much in the eye of the beholder and far be it for me to define anyone else’s list but for me bravery starts with the most important asset for any business: people. Being brave and hiring great people who are prepared to challenge the status quo, push the boundaries and find those remarkable ideas and execute them brilliantly is a formula that stands a far greater chance of cutting through and persuading – my simple equation for effective commercial impact.

I’ve really enjoyed some recent conversations I’ve had with businesses seeking to pursue braver approaches to their particular challenges. More often than not these are smaller businesses who have the advantage of being nimble and less constrained on multiple fronts but also having to do more with less. I don’t think it should be a surprise to anyone that many of the more exciting brands to emerge onto the marketplace recently in any given category have at their heart an entrepreneurial spirit which again chimes with the great British public who almost always love a plucky underdog and in many instances love the thrill of discovering something new and interesting. The world of brands is turning upside down quicker than businesses realise and many brands run a very real risk of declining relevancy particularly those who aren’t genuinely thinking and acting braver…..

Fortune of course does favour the brave.

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