Just over three years ago I wrote a piece in this magazine arguing that it was time for us to stop thinking big and start acting small instead. My argument rested primarily on how acting small made it more likely that brands and their partners could experiment their way to success and also shifted the natural bias from one of thinking to one of doing. Three years later, it seems little has really changed. By and large we are still paralysed by the fallacy of the primacy of 'big' – the big idea, the big insight, the big launch – and this has probably only been heightened by fundamental misunderstandings about what disruption truly is and what technology really means. So, this month I wanted to return to the power of small and offer three new reasons why I believe it is a more fruitful path for brands to follow.
The first reason why small matters is a simple one: it allows us to break the paralysis of big. Not only are 'big' ideas by definition a rarer beast in the world, but the very baggage that comes with the descriptor is enough to bring any company to a grinding halt. Throughout my career, I've seen that the 'bigger' the mythology an idea takes on, the more unlikely it is to make it into the world. Not only are they more difficult to 'birth' (we all know the pains that come when given the brief for a 'transformational idea') but they raise disproportionate levels of attention inside an organisation. And with that comes more chances of ideas dying, or at least having their interesting edges smoothed off, by the misuse of research and the attentions (and ensuing pushback) from different groups inside the organisation. Big ideas are born more often than not with a target on their back.
This leads directly to my second reason: acting small allows brands to move with real speed. There are a number of direct benefits that come with this. Teams are able to experiment and get real feedback quicker and adapt and evolve their thinking. It allows a brand, and the organisational culture behind it, to move as fast as the world around it. As Jack Welch of GE famously said, "If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near." More importantly, acting small generates momentum, not just speed. This is important in the short and long term. Analysis by the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University has shown that momentum is the best leading indicator of future preference and usage. In the longer term, work by John Gerzema based on the Brand Asset Valuator data set has shown that brands with 'energy' (their term for momentum) can demand higher prices, command greater loyalty and, as a result, outperform the S&P 500 over a five-year period by a factor of seven.
Finally, it has become increasingly my belief that acting small actually solves the real issues facing brands today. Thanks to the popularity of 'purpose', driven most notably by books published almost two decades apart by Jim Collins and Jim Stengel, brands have become obsessed by the big organising idea that helps them transcend their category and play a more valuable role in people's lives. My sense is that, as a result, more time is spent inside companies 'visioning' than looking for the simple things they can do today to improve the experience people have with their product. I'm frankly shocked at how few companies are taking experience seriously and don't understand the frustrations to be resolved and opportunities open to them along the customer journey. Part of this is about the opportunity to be the brand that provides 'brilliant basics' to people and part is about injecting some humanity, fun and delight into everyday experiences. A great example here is the Emoji ordering button for Domino's Pizza that transformed the utility of the Amazon 'One Click' button into something delightful and human.
All of this is not an argument against big thinking – it's needed to help show the direction we need to go and to provide coherence across the experience you have with the brand. Google has about as big a vision as you can possibly have – to organise the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful – but it also has a mantra to 'think big and act small'. I still feel too often we spend the majority of our time thinking big. Let's invest some of that time into acting small. I think you'll be amazed by the results.