The Only Thing Marketers Have to Fear Is Fear of Change

J. Walker Smith
Marketing News
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Key Takeaways

What? J. Walker Smith says consumers are looking for brands that are ready and willing to accept radical change.

So what? Brands that are too stuck in tradition may be perceived as stagnant, outdated and unappealing to consumers.

Now what? Change is valuable and essential to remain relevant. Marketers must be the "shock absorbers" of change and present it as an opportunity for their brand.

​Brands must embrace evolution to keep up with consumers who deplore the status quo and are seeking radical solutions

This political season has pried open a Pandora’s box of rancor, resentment and unrest. Across the ideological spectrum, people are defying institutions and incumbents in favor of outsiders promising to remake things from the ground up. People want something different.

Typically, when the public mood is this agitated it is because of upheaval or disruption, but that is not the case today. Nowadays, people are not worried about change. They are worried about no change. They are worried about stagnancy. People have lost confidence in the future. 

People are recoiling from, and in some cases revolting against, being trapped in a trajectory of decline from which they feel there is no escape. The only way people see to break out of this trajectory is to pursue a radical shift in course.

Pundits have proposed many theories to explain the bitterly disgruntled public mood, and some of these explanations make good points. Cultures are in conflict, as are social classes, income groups, geographies and racial groups. Defiance, not allegiance, is the defining expression of the moment. But every one of these explanations is about how groups are at odds with one another, as if the underlying dynamic is only about one group versus another. While conflict is a big part of the current mood, this is just a manifestation of a deeper current. What is common to every group on every side of every debate is the fear of no change.

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On one side, there are people whose economic fortunes have deteriorated or who feel their social standing is threatened, while on the opposite side are people protesting inequality and what they see as a rigged system of systemic prejudice. For both sides, the worry is that the problems they see will persist unchanged. Both sides are concerned that the future means more of the same. One side believes the other’s solutions add to their downward trajectory.

Polls by every organization, including Gallup, CBS, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, NBC and CNN, find a complete reversal of confidence in the future since the turn of the century. Over this period, robust optimism soured into forlorn pessimism. Gallup’s monthly tracking of the percentage of people satisfied with “the way things are going” is a straight line down from the late 1990s through the end of the recession. After a slight rebound, the percentage of people saying they are satisfied has settled into a trough two to three times lower than the highs a decade and a half ago.

People are not resigned to their fates, however. They are stirred up and determined to bend the arc of their trajectories in a more positive, hopeful direction. The annual Heartland Monitor Poll found in mid-2014 that 70% agreed the country needs “major changes,” with another 25% saying “minor changes” are needed. In other words, a vast majority of Americans—all ideologies, races, incomes and groups on every side of every debate—are calling for change. An April 2016 Public Policy Research Institute poll for The Atlantic found that 45% prefer a leader willing to “break the rules.” People want change, even radical change. No surprise, then, that this election cycle has been all about change.


Expectations about brands have been affected as well. Brands must embrace change, too. Brands content to continue on course will feel stagnant to consumers and thus out of sync with the change people want. This requires a new way of doing business. Brands are immersed in change, but seek continuity. Change is valued as an input but not as an output. This approach to change is embedded in business-planning models in which the objective is to temper change and tamp it down.

Marketing is like a shock absorber for change, keeping the ride smooth no matter how tumultuous the road. Marketers want change in and continuity out, but people are now thinking differently about what they need. There is a new sensibility afoot. What looks to be turmoil that puts brands at risk is actually an uncommon opportunity for brands to forge fresh competitive advantage. People fear continuity. They fear no change. They want something different. Change is the imperative for brands.


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Author Bio:

J. Walker Smith
J. Walker Smith is executive chairman of The Futures Co., part of the Kantar Group of WPP, and co-author of four books, including Rocking the Ages. Follow him on Twitter at @jwalkersmith.​
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