Marketing Book Worth a Look: Shift Ahead

We take a look at some key takeaways from Shift Ahead, an eye-opening new business and marketing book filled with case studies.

February 24, 2018

At a glance, Shift Ahead might not seem like a marketing book.

On the front and back covers, you won’t see it presented as such. Within its pages, you won’t find the kinds of tactics or insights typical of these guides.

Shift Ahead is a business book. That makes it just as valuable to marketers as any marketing book, and maybe more so, because it enables us to view common challenges -- namely, in this case, staying relevant while adapting to rapid and unpredictable change -- through a different lens.

In putting together this deeply researched compilation of interviews and case studies, authors Allen Adamson and Joel Steckel talked to dozens of executives who have been able to effectively navigate this business landscape and thrive.

The entire book is worth a read, and you can find it here, but today we’ll highlight a few of the central themes and takeaways covered by Adamson and Steckel. There is plenty of fodder for any thoughtful marketer to chew on.

Mind the Red Flags

One of the first premises established in Shift Ahead is that there are a number of common red flags indicating businesses are in danger of falling behind. Among them: basic math (troubling market trends, slimming margins, etc.), competing on price rather than differentiation, neglecting table stakes, and more.

Whether conspicuous or subtle, the idea is to recognize these ominous harbingers and take action out of foresight. Too often, by the time a business leader realizes her model is no longer working, it’s already too late. Wouldn’t the taxi industry have been better positioned to contend with Uber and Lyft if it had better anticipated their emergence? Would Blockbuster have kept Netflix at bay if it ventured into the worlds of delivery and streaming services earlier?

One of the most fatal mistakes in business, this book argues, is getting too comfortable and failing to heed the red flags.

“Success is Never Final”

Adamson cited the above Bill Marriott quote during an interview with AMA Quarterly for the Fall 2017 issue, linking it to another famous remark from Andrew Grove: “Only the paranoid survive.”

Having closely examined more than 100 companies for Shift Ahead, Adamson and Steckel point to one fundamental commonality among the most successful: leadership that drives organizations to keep improving, treating each day as a new challenge and never settling for the status quo.

It can be easy to get complacent when things are good. It can also be easy to interpret data in ways that reaffirm your perceptions, rather than identifying possible problem points. This is another prevalent theme in the book: Companies have access to voluminous data but often do not approach it with an open mind, causing them to miss those potential red flags.

“Data has to tell a story,” Steckel told AMA Quarterly. “If you have a preconceived notion of what the data are going to say, then you are going to look in the data and reject any data that does not confirm that hypothesis.”

Bathing with Your Customers

Adamson and Steckel coin this term in Shift Ahead, and while it sounds a little unsettling, it’s only a metaphor. Here’s how they explain it:

“To completely understand what role or roles your brand or products play in your customers’ lives and therefore appreciate the scope of the potential shifts you might have the opportunity to make, you must become intimate with your customer. You must bathe with them to understand how they live.”

One company profiled as exemplifying this practice is New York Life Insurance, which conducts market research not through phone calls but by actively engaging people in the community. Other organizations look much more deeply at data to determine what it’s telling them about their customers, instead of what it’s telling them about their revenue or competitive positioning.

At LinkedIn Marketing Solutions, this is something we frequently try to hammer home. The best businesses -- those that are poised to shift ahead -- are those that take adamant steps to learn more about the people they serve. Cursory analysis no longer does the trick.

It is precisely because of innovators like Netflix and Uber that people have come to expect tailored experiences, both in their personal and professional lives. You can’t offer a “relevantly differentiated promise” to your customers if you don’t have a crystal-clear understanding of what’s important to them. While Adamson and Steckel touch on a number of different operational priorities in the book, this seems to be the crux of the matter.

If you’re looking for a good read to occupy these winter months, we recommend checking out Shift Ahead: How the Best Companies Stay Relevant in a Fast-Changing World to get the full story. It will place you in the right mindset heading into 2018.

And, of course, you can subscribe to the LinkedIn Marketing Solutions blog for plenty more guidance on developing a customer-focused, future-proof strategy.