‘Burning platform.’ It’s a phrase I haven’t heard for a while, but it’s popping back up again, maybe because we’re in a period of upheaval for CPG brands. It’s a metaphor for taking action even though we don’t fully know the consequences. (To give you a more vivid description, it came from an explosion on an offshore oil drilling platform when people had to jump into the ocean instead of remaining on the burning structure.) The then-CEO of Nokia entered the phrase into the business vocabulary when he used it in a corporate “get-to-your-battle-stations” memo in 2011.
In our world, the idea of the burning platform means making bold decisions you think are right for the brand, even though you won’t know the results of those decisions until some distant date. You know you’re on a burning platform when you assess your offering against your category and competitors: You see that your brand is losing relevance with consumers. Your products are becoming commodities, and the platform is getting smaller and smaller. In three to five years, your brand risks obsolescence.
Existential Threat Creates Chaos and Opportunity
Some marketers welcome the burning platform, even celebrate it, because it creates the kind of chaos that forces big decisions. You gotta jump and start swimming. Whether this external threat proves to be a good thing or a bad thing depends largely on how your organization responds.
A burning platform can create a sense of urgency for change within an organization.
It can help identify problems and opportunities for innovation and growth.
It can mobilize teams and stakeholders to take action for positive transformation.
It can foster a culture of fear and anxiety within the organization.
It may lead to knee-jerk reactions rather than careful strategic planning.
It can result in short-term gains at the cost of long-term sustainability.
If the platform on which you’re standing is on fire and getting smaller, you have two options: 1) dive into the unknown, or 2) call in a helicopter to rescue you. The choice is yours. But you have to do something.
It sounds dire unless you and your organization turn it into a strategic opportunity. I’ll share a couple of examples: For one of our clients, a regional snack brand with a long history, the burning platform was the aging (and shrinking) demographic they appealed to. We helped them make the choice to dive into the unknown: to transform a lagging secondary brand into a line of natural, culinary-inspired snack blends with high appeal to younger consumers. We repositioned and resuscitated the original brand, buying the company enough time until the natural brand took off like gangbusters. They survived on the old brand platform while it burned, then jumped onto the new one. In 2022, the two brands (one a superstar, the other a solid performer) were acquired by a private equity investor.
For another client, a major CPG brand with global influence, shifting consumer preferences created the burning platform. Their audience was turning away from a key component in the product’s manufacture, threatening both the supply chain and the brand’s long-favorable reputation. So we built them a helicopter: A strategic campaign that rebuilt consumers’ confidence in the brand such that their objection to the material became moot.
Don’t Get Disrupted; Be the Disruptor
At some point, you’ll find your brand standing on a burning platform. CPG categories are made to get shaken up. In fact, better-for-you alternatives in food, beverage, wellness, and fitness are disruptions to their original categories, and then there are disruptors to the disruptors. (Think: traditional dairy vs. plant milk, and then soy milk vs. almond/cashew/oat; or commodity meat vs. grass-fed meat, then vs. plant-based meat.)
So what makes a brand a legit disruptor instead of a player with unique (even defensibly different) ingredients? Answer: attitude. It lies in your brand’s mission — the problem you’re out to solve or the difference you aim to make in the world. Why are you involved? And why will it matter if you succeed in your goal to disrupt?
Here are some key strategies to adopt if you’re out to do the disrupting instead of watching it happen to you:
- Identify and understand customer needs and pain points in the existing category, and seek to fill the needs that other brands currently aren’t meeting with their products (or needs consumers don’t yet know they have).
- Innovate with unique products, services, or experiences that solve consumers’ problems and accelerate demand.
- Create a clear brand identity that differentiates from competitors and establishes an emotional connection with customers.
- Ensure consistency in brand message and experience across all touchpoints.
- Leverage collaboration and partnerships to amplify impact and create network effects (think bundles, LTOs, and mash-ups).
External competitive forces that threaten your brand’s existence will come. The platform will ignite. Instead of ignoring the situation (which ensures that the platform will burn at an alarming rate), be strategic and plan for it and do something amazing over time to keep competitors at bay.
If you sense disruption of your brand and your category, know that there is a solution. We’ll help you determine whether you need to expand the platform to survive or call the helicopter.We’re agnostic to the solution, but know there’s a solve. Ready to take action? Let’s connect.