Andy Cunningham

Founder and president of Cunningham Collective

Andy Cunningham is the founder and president of Cunningham Collective, a marketing, brand, and communication strategy firm dedicated to bringing innovation to market. The seven year-old firm has worked with many companies in various markets, including telecommunications, search, energy efficiency, media and publishing, finance, mobile apps, display technology, healthcare, big data, and semiconductors. She is the author of Get to Aha!: Discover Your Positioning DNA and Dominate Your Competition, which was published in October 2017. Today she advises companies of all sizes to bring their innovations to market and get traction. She also serves on several corporate boards, is a Henry Crown Fellow, and a trustee at the AspenInstitute.

How to Stay Relevant: Innovation and Disruption in the Digital Age

The Digital Age has brought businesses both great opportunities and a profusion of challenges, the latter of which threaten a company’s very existence in this new, device-driven world. While complete digital transformation affects all corporate levels (in infrastructure, operations, customer service, and economic models), marketing bears the brunt of perhaps the most important component of digital transformation: relevancy. The question on every CEO’s mind as the wave of ones and zeros hits every department is this: How do I make my business relevant today? And the challenge for every CMO is to answer this successfully. The key for marketers to maintain relevancy for their company, either in revolutionizing their business and the industry or by simply evolving and adapting to the changing landscape, is through correct positioning based on corporate DNA and effective communication of this position.

From the Annals of Digital History

Early in my career, I had the great fortune to work with Steve Jobs for the launch of the Macintosh. He was incredibly difficult and amazingly brilliant, absurdly detail oriented and ridiculously demanding – he was made for success. But he didn’t always get it right the first time. He faced the same question of relevancy. It’s hard to believe now, but back in 1984 Macintosh’s entry to the market was a failure. Steve wanted to position it as the business computer for the rest of us – the be-all, end-all to replace the IBM personal computer in corporate America. Sales slumped, and it was looking pretty bleak for the heralded Mac Division at Apple.

Business customers ignored the new computer, but Steve was listening intently to those who didn’t. It became clear to him that Macintosh was appealing to a certain sort of person – the exact opposite of the corporate IBM PC user. He got the advertising right (recall the famous and award-winning 1984, Big Brother Macintosh ad); Macintosh was about rebellion. But he got the target market wrong. It wasn’t IBM PC users who were going to buy into the Apple revolution. It was corporate revolutionaries who would prove to be his customers. And they were ensconced in the tiny enclaves of corporate creativity – in advertising departments. Creatives fell in love with the graphical user interface and the rebellious personality it evoked. Little by little they began to sneak it into their companies through the back door and out of sight of the IT department. The “computer for the rest of us” slowly morphed into the “computer for the best of us” as the Macintosh cult was born.

But it was too late for Steve. He had been kicked out of Apple because his Macintosh project bombed. It wasn’t until he returned to the flailing company that he doubled down on the original positioning and capitalized on the nascent cult with his Think Different campaign. By listening to his market, Steve captured its imagination and ultimately its loyalty, enabling it to grow. Understanding Apple’s DNA and communicating it effectively became his strategy of choice for positioning Macintosh, and then the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad. He revolutionized the personal computer industry from a technical standpoint of course, but he also revolutionized the way we as consumers derive value from them, all through using Apple’s core DNA in positioning and communication.

Looking to the Future

Fast forward to today and correct positioning based on DNA and effective communication is still the answer. But much has happened between then and now, specifically the advent of the internet and the digitization of everything (incidentally, a force driven largely by Apple itself). Differentiation is still a critical strategy to deploy to achieve relevance, but in today’s world differentiation must be unpacked on a deeper level to withstand the scrutiny of all the media we now use to build our brands, much of which we do not control. Differentiating a company today starts with understanding its core DNA. Companies are like people; they are built by people, composed of people, and exist to serve people. And like people, they have DNA. Understanding that DNA and leveraging it is the key to positioning in the information age.

The good news is, company DNA is a lot less complicated than human DNA, and there are just three kinds of companies in the world. Those that focus on customers as their primary driver are “Mothers,” like Nordstrom and Lyft; those that focus on product as their organizing principle are “Mechanics,” like Oracle and Walmart; and those that focus on concepts and fundamental behavior change are “Missionaries” like Starbucks and Tesla (and Apple). Mothers, Mechanics, and Missionaries structure themselves differently, hire different kinds of people, measure success differently, and focus on different things in meetings.

Once a company understands its strengths, competencies, and true identity in the market (its DNA) it can then use communication – the art and science of both listening to and talking with the market – to successfully position itself against the competition. The idea is to identify a white space in the market landscape that is ideally suited to the company’s DNA, and then use marketing and communication strategies and tactics to ensure ownership of that space.

When an integrated marketing communication program starts with an understanding of a company’s DNA, it has a far better chance of creating traction in the market because it’s authentic. And just like people, when you know what you’re made of, you can make something of it. Knowing corporate DNA (or purposefully steering it to a new place with substantive changes to a business) is critical because it enables a company to leverage its strengths in a very noisy environment starved for authenticity. Just as people are more successful when they leverage their innate talents and abilities, so too are companies more successful when they do the same. When every employee is aligned with the corporate DNA and behaving consistent within its parameters, the company automatically becomes more powerful. When forces align, progress occurs. And in a world where authenticity is a rare commodity and highly valued, marketing that aligns with DNA is more likely to be sticky in the market, enabling innovation to shine and disruption to transpire.

This piece is the Preface of JIMC 2019: “Marketing R(E)volutions”

Written by Andy Cunningham, founder and president of Cunningham Collective.
Edited by Hannah Toutounchi, Medill IMC Class Of 2018


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