4 Questions with Stephen Denny, Partner, Denny Leinberger Strategy

Stephen DennyStephen Denny is an author, keynote speaker and consultant. He's also a friend who used to write a regular Note to CMO in the early days of blogs.

His first book, Killing Giants, provided a framework to succeed in the doing-more-with-less era. Stephen followed his 10 strategies to topple the Goliath in your industry with a playbook to put ideas into action.

I know he's working on a new book based on the research he and his partner Paul Leinberger have been conducting at Denny + Leinberger Strategy, which is heading into its fourth year this November.

Q: You do your own consulting and partner with Paul at Denny Leinberger Strategy. How do you see the two activities converging and complementing each other? 

Stephen: Yes, Denny Marketing is me – and all of the incredibly smart and talented people I’ve collected around me over the past decade or so to help deliver the work we do for clients. This has always been my personal consulting business, which has centered around helping mostly mid-cap sized clients who say, “We’re number 2… and we hate it.”

Killing Giants was published in 2011 and the framework that grew up around it has served as the centerpiece of my consulting work ever since. This has largely been keynote speeches, implementation workshops, and all the work that falls out of this process. It has ranged from product and corporate positioning to fairly complex strategic partner enablement, creating a “Giant Killer” point of view, and more.

My collaboration with Paul Leinberger has become a more fundamentally important part of the mix for me because of the work we’ve done for the past 4 years – we launched the Culture & Technology Intersection study in 2016, exploring the impact of technology on culture and what it means for smart brands as they wrestle with the human flip side of “digital transformation” and “customer centricity.” It’s fascinating to hear CMOs talk about this and hear the conversation devolve into martech stacks when the problems are inherently not technological. The consumer sentiment has shifted. Our mindset is elsewhere. We’ve grown up immersed with technology and it has changed how we see the world, from the relationships we have with the brands we buy to the ways we manage our own unique digital footprints to the way we approach work in an increasingly technologically-dominated and distributed workplace.

The Culture & Technology Intersection study actually had its genesis in the Killing Giants body of work – we just productized it into a survey instrument and invited corporate sponsors to get involved. So really, both sides of the business are just the two halves of a single whole.

Q: How did you and Paul meet and decide on working together? 
Stephen: Paul and I have known each other since he ran Roper Starch Worldwide for the western US and I was a very interested client in the front row of the room back in the mid-2000’s. I was VP of channel marketing for headset maker Plantronics in Santa Cruz, CA and was always asking for the slides so I could use them in meetings with Best Buy and others, both retail and commercial. I always gravitated to big picture, macro trend backstories when doing key account reviews.

As a short digression, this, I think, is what’s missing from most of the big partner relationships today. People take short-cuts. They can’t see beyond their narrowly defined specific domain of expertise. Unfortunately for them, partners see through this pretty quickly. I’ve used macro trend research to set the scene for major channel partners, key accounts, strategic partners and others for many years because it serves as the backdrop to everything we’re about to ask them to do.

When I was finishing up Killing Giants, I realized I had a ton of content – I did 88 interviews in 14 countries across multiple industries, including color commentary from professional gamblers, hostage negotiators, pro athletes and others – but I didn’t have a real beginning. I needed someone to set the scene for the audience. And I immediately thought of Paul and the presentations he used to give us. It took some work, but I found him and he gave me the foundational interview that described the “new normal” we faced in 2010.

And we’ve been collaborating ever since.

Q: Talk a little bit about your research. What surprised you, so far, and what delighted you  so far?
Stephen: The Culture & Technology Intersection study is heading into its 4th year – you can download a quick key insights summary from our website, if you’re interested – and explores the big issues surrounding how technology has impacted culture.

One of the bigger ideas we’ve seen emerge from the data is what we call, “Seeking Control in an Out-of-Control World.” We didn’t go looking for this – it emerged from a series of questions probing a number of different ideas. The definition of success, for example, has gone through a complete polarity reversal, where once we thought of the trappings of success – a big house, a big job, a nice car – as being of paramount importance, as opposed to today’s view that control over our outcomes, such as having control over my time or working for myself, as being more important. We see huge issues of distrust in the institutions around us, with technology companies playing a big role, but we see an important distinction – we are not simply resigned to a world no longer in our control but are looking for ways to wrest control back in our lives any way we can.

Because we’re “Seeking Control in an Out-of-Control World,” and are living in an age of collapsing trust, we no longer believe the traditional gatekeepers of information, from the media to the official corporate spokespeople that have always told us what to believe. Instead, we now turn to our own judgment and senses – we have a hunger for “Raw” communication. We want the raw feed, the hidden video, the email dump, the actual data. This has huge implications for anyone in business. We, the brand, are no longer the hero. We are the Greek Chorus, no longer fighting a zero-sum game with our audience but standing beside them, showing them the raw data and, importantly, teaching them how to interpret what they’re seeing with their own eyes. This, as one CMO told us, “changes everything we do.”

This is the core of the key insights we’ve mined out of the study – these two major themes. The careful brand steward can look at this body of work and see how things need to change to accommodate a consumer marketplace immersed in their own technology and consequently uninterested in being “marketed to” with messages they don’t believe by a brand they inherently don’t trust.

What’s been surprising and delighting?

We’ve realized that late 2018 was the date we hit “peak outrage” – and we’ve been on a down slope ever since. We saw support for brands that took polarizing positions on controversial social or political issues collapse from the mid-50%’s in 2017 to the mid-20%’s in 2018. Apparently, we finally had enough of brands telling us what to think, particularly when the brand – be it Gillette and its catastrophic “toxic masculinity” campaign or Dick’s Sporting Goods’ misguided retreat on the 2nd Amendment – had no credibility in the subject matter under debate.

In its place, I’m wondering if we don’t see the beginnings a “post-outrage” brand landscape, where we just don’t pay attention to the brand’s histrionics and revert to the more basic brand-consumer relationship – namely, the desire to buy brands we like at the best prices possible. I don’t care that Nike’s ads feature Colin Kaepernick, this possible future says, because Nike’s feel better on my feet than other brands do. And I’m going to buy them on sale. I appreciate that brands want relationships. I want a transaction, thanks.

The research is a lot of fun! We’re going back into the market with a handful of sponsors in a month and while we’re still tracking many of the big trends we’ve seen emerge over the past few years, we’re also very intrigued with a few more big ideas. Stay tuned.

Q: You’ve always had the finger on the pulse, what’s next for marketing?
Stephen: What’s next? Against an industry trend of greater marketing automation and investment in technology, I see a growing backlash to the loss of humanity in how we communicate with our customers. I think the re-humanization of the brand-consumer relationship is going to need a lot of thinking.

More focus on the shift towards a “C2B” world – where the consumer owns the brand relationship and dictates the terms of how and when and even why they buy (or don’t buy). This wonderful idea came from iCrossing’s former head of strategy, Anne Bologna, who is a friend of the firm and a wonderful advisor. Her insight takes some getting used to for most marketers. Once we embrace the idea that the consumer is truly driving the relationship, it changes what we say, how we say it, what touch points are emphasized and which are de-emphasized, and everything else. It’s not that this is truly revolutionary as a high-level concept – it’s just that so few brands actually embody this idea. More active elements like face to face engagement, like events and experience centers, and more passive elements like “customer service as a marketing vehicle.”

Underpinning all of this is the shift to Raw.

We see this in business, with examples as diverse as Patagonia and Delta Airlines to GoDaddy to T-Mobile and others. We see this exploding in the culture, from politics to sports to music to film to porn. We see the hunger for raw experience, the human desire to try on another reality that they’d normally never have the chance to experience themselves. We see AR teaching us what it’s like to be court-side at an NBA game. We see purely virtual music events – with no attendees – where audience members shower the performers with virtual bouquets and gifts, which incidentally is the only compensation they get for the show. We see sports analytics in real-time, while the game is going on. We see the explosion of cinematic movies shot entirely on iPhones, eliminating the influence the camera has on the actor and creating scenes that once would have been physically and emotionally impossible.

Technology has emerged as the single most profound cultural driver in the world today. Doesn’t it make sense that all of us in business should pay attention to how it has changed our customers and their mindsets, rather than fixate on mass producing personalization and ending up with something akin to an uncanny valley of automation?

As always, it’s fun to catch up with you!

PS: Our book on the subject, entitled, Raw: 5 Rules to Win Back Trust, Credibility, and Customers in an Age of Digital Distraction, will be out in late 2020. Download the key insights from DennyLeinbergerStrategy.com and we’ll keep you posted on developments, insights, interviews, and everything else we can think of.

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