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What business are you in?

the joker vs the dark knight

Christopher Nolan. As a film-maker, he polarises.

In a nutshell

  1. A growing set of anxieties are brewing in New Zealand businesses: fear of disruption, uncertainty around the mechanics of their business, and confusion about what the customer wants from them.
  2. Amidst this massive upheaval, business people are feeling stressed, challenged and uncertain, but businesses must move forward and how they do this is incredibly important. 
  3. Genuine customer-centricity is a starting point, followed by an organisational commitment to knowing exactly what business you’re actually in. This is done by truly understanding the setting of people’s lives, the cultural and social context, so you can understand and define what it is people actually pay for.

People either love his work or think he is a blowhard – an academic that turns potentially great movies into drawn out, esoteric studies of the human experience that simply don’t entertain.

The Dark Knight is his most populist piece. While this movie doesn’t jump the shark in terms of intellectual wiffle, it is a significant study into the yin and yang that defines us human beings. Heath Ledger’s Joker is the chaos. Christian Bale’s Batman is the control.

The Joker: “Introduce a little anarchy, upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos, I’m an agent of chaos.”

Batman: “There will be no fireworks.”

Nolan uses this theme to elevate a comic book story to a higher-level exploration of how this tension impacts our lives. What is evident in the conversations we have with Kiwis every day, is that right now, the tension between the Joker’s chaos and Batman’s control is very real, clear and present.

While there is optimism and pride around some parts of life in New Zealand, it is clear that a brewing sense of chaos is starting to impact how we live.

  • We all enjoyed a long hot summer. For some this was a trigger to reminisce about the best summers of our childhoods. For others it was a stark reminder of the looming impact of climate change. How will this impact us and our kids?
  • We have a Prime Minister pushing a kindness and decency agenda, but a number of non-benign dictatorships are on the rise in other parts of the world. What will this mean for our place in the world, our economy, our jobs?
  • Technology is equipping us with more and more information and choices. However, it isn’t really helping to make our lives easier or better. What should I be paying attention to or doing, not doing, how should I be spending my time?

All of this appears to be impacting our every day as New Zealanders. The clear sense is that it’s harder to make decisions, more challenging to keep up in a culture of busyness and it’s more difficult to feel like we’re making progress.

How do we get ahead when everything is moving so quickly around us?

At TRA, we often talk about the fact that people are people. This may seem like the least insightful comment to ever emerge from an agency like ours. However, we operate in a world where the exact same person may be labelled, amongst other things, an infrequent buyer, a main household shopper or a business decision maker. So, given this, it should be no surprise that within the business environment, the battle between chaos and control is even stronger. The Joker has startled the CEOs at Bruce Wayne’s fundraiser.

Looking across the business landscape, both locally and internationally, there are a growing set of anxieties:

  • The start-ups are coming for us. Those in established businesses are feeling the looming pressure of disruption. Will we still have a business in two or three years’ time?
  • Uncertainty around the mechanics of their business. Distribution and communication channels are being reinvented by the day. How does the new world work, how do we change how we operate?
  • The battleground for customer relevance. With all the change impacting, there is uncertainty about how to deliver value to customers. Who is our customer, what are they seeking from us?

"There are mounting pressures around delivering growth, but people are scared of making the wrong decisions for their business."

Amidst this massive upheaval, business people are feeling stressed, challenged and uncertain. There are mounting pressures around delivering growth, but people are scared of making the wrong decisions for their business.

There are two core challenges:

  1. Superficial customer-centricity creates real risk. Missing the mark with people can have a huge negative impact. Think Pepsi and Kendall Jenner.
  2. The biggest issue is around the attempts to reinvent the business as something new. In the worst case, this takes all that is great about a business, its customer experience, its brand, its culture and puts it on the footpath for garbage collection. 

    It is easy to point at examples like Blockbuster as victims of technological change. Digging deeper into these examples actually shows that deviating from the core customer proposition contributed more to their downfall. Faced with rising competitive forces, rather than seeking new ways to deliver their core customer proposition more effectively, Blockbuster tried to be something new. The business sought to grow basket value, filled the store with snacks and convenience foods and filled the org chart with 7Eleven executives.

So what are we saying here?

Are we making the case for standing still in the face of a rapidly changing operating and consumer environment? No. Not at all. We have to move forward. However, how we move forward is more important than simply taking some steps.

Where we’ve supported a change process that has driven customer-led success and genuine growth, there have been two critical and interrelated elements:

  • Genuine customer-centricity.
  • An organisational commitment to knowing exactly what business you’re actually in.

Genuine customer-centricity is the starting point. There is nothing wrong with activities like empathy interviews. They simply need more context to deliver meaningful insight. Real customer-centricity has to start by taking the bigger picture view. Rather than seeking pain points or a problem statement, winning businesses start upstream of this, looking for the broader understanding of the people who pay money for their products and services.

How do they live their lives, what are their challenges, what impact is the cultural context having?

"By truly understanding the setting of people’s lives, the cultural and social context, you can understand and define what it is people actually pay for." 

This perspective provides the opportunity to explore, understand and define the ultimate insight: what business you’re actually in. Again, at first glance this may seem simplistic – “we’re a bank, I think everyone knows what we do”. However, by truly understanding the setting of people’s lives, the cultural and social context, you can understand and define what it is people actually pay for. This might be connection rather than technology, it might be escape rather than transportation, it might be certainty rather than information. Having this understanding ensures a business can transform its experience without leaving behind its core customer value. Without this understanding, well the Joker calls it like it is:

“I’m like a dog chasing cars, I wouldn’t know what to do if I caught one, you know, I’d just do…things.”

While Netflix is an often quoted case study, it is an example of an organisation that truly knows what business they are in. Netflix is simply focused on getting you the best content, as easily as possible. While others may extract broader meaning from their staged evolution from DVD delivery by mail, to SVOD delivery to content creation, it is really that simple. Using technology to enable their core proposition more efficiently and effectively.

The biggest challenge is getting clear on the distinctive value you offer the people that buy from you. How you make their lives easier or better.

Our work in this space has helped numerous businesses locally and internationally. Through world class people and collaborating to create genuine customer-centricity, we’ve provided perspective and pathways to growth. We’re really proud of the work we’ve done with these clients – helping them gain confidence that they can grow their business in an uncertain climate, and direction and support in doing it.

Connon Bray
Partner at TRA

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