How to fail quietly – and succeed in the process

How to fail quietly – and succeed in the process

Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover seems to be following the classic phases of the “Move Fast and Break Things” mantra.


That’s fine for Musk: right now he’s the richest being on the planet. If he breaks things and fails fast with Twitter – no matter how expensively or publicly – he knows he’ll still live to see another day.


And ultimately he’s only answerable to himself.


But…what about those CMOs out there who don’t have that luxury?


Whose employers don’t grant them the deep pockets to allow them to fail fast?


Who don’t have the bandwidth to chase every NPD rainbow before pulling the plug?


Or who certainly don’t want to be seen to fail publicly?


If you aren’t Elon Musk – and so failing noisily and expensively isn’t an option – how does “failing quietly” sound?


It probably sounds a little odd, but let me explain.



Why failing quietly is the better strategic option


According to Professor Mark Ritson, the essence of business strategy is as much about deciding what you are not going to do, as much as what you are going to do.


The challenge for a CMO charged with developing their company’s marketing strategy is finding an evidenced basis on which to take the decision not to invest in sub-optimal strategies, propositions, product launches, advertising campaigns and the like.


Yet there is rarely the time in a CMO’s increasingly short tenure to repair an ad campaign that is publicly tanking.


Or patch up a product that is publicly sinking.


Or turn around a pricing strategy that is publicly failing.


Indeed it can be very hard to turn around anything that is already out there in the public domain, once market sentiment has given it the thumbs down.


So what’s the solution?



Ask first, act later


So many times in the rush to get to market, one of the most basic tenets of marketing can get missed: “Understand Customer Need”.


Sure, you can do this by going Agile and rushing a beta version to market, and testing the product, pricing, promotion in the real-life laboratory of the market, updating iteratively as you go.


But even getting to a Minimal Viable Version (of a product, or an ad campaign or whatever) takes an investment of time, people and money.


The senior management time investment alone can be punishing. Even more so for B2B CMOs, who are rarely as well-resourced as their B2C counterparts.


And their time (and that of their limited teams) can quickly get spread all-too-thinly across a range of shotgun initiatives, many of which are all-too-destined to fail.


Taking a little time and investing a little budget to actually understand customer need – without taking a product or service all the way to market to test it – can save a firm thousands of dollars, as well as thousands of staff hours, and thousands of the fast-greying hairs on the CMO’s head.


But how does a CMO go about it?



A quiet word


There’s a very simple, proven framework that can help a CMO do this. It’s particularly applicable in the B2B field (which is my own speciality) but the general principles apply to Consumer world too.


You have a quiet word with four groups of people:


  • Your own current customers
  • Your former customers
  • People / businesses who enquired about your product or service, but never bought
  • People / businesses that buy near-equivalent products or services from your competitors


You ask them a handful of short questions on these topics:

  • What problem they were looking to solve when they bought your / didn’t buy your / bought a competitor’s product or service
  • The places they looked for a solution
  • The criteria they looked for in the solution
  • Which solution providers they considered
  • Who they chose
  • (If a business decision) which people in the business chose them
  • Why they chose them
  • And how happy are they now with the choice they made?


And whilst asking these questions you also can test your own market hypotheses with them without all the cost and palaver of taking your hypotheses to market.


To do this properly may take a couple of months (the hard bit, particularly in B2B, is getting hold of people who have chosen your competitors without ever indicating to you that they were in your market).


But once the data is in, you will know everything you need to about:

  • Who buys from you
  • Why they buy from you
  • Who buys from your competitors
  • Why they buy from them


Crucially, you will also know:

  • What media and proposition strategies your competitors are successfully using against you
  • But also where your competitors are weak
  • On what basis customers / clients of your competitors are ripe to be poached
  • What it is the market really wants, but your competitors are not providing


And more brutally:

  • Where your own customers / clients are ripe for poaching by a competitor who understands and can service their needs better than you do


In terms of marketing planning, ultimately you will give yourself the huge business advantage of knowing:

  • What value propositions to put in front of which audiences
  • At what time in the buying process
  • In what media
  • And potentially at what price point


So that you can get to the point where you can persuade prospects currently buying from your competitors to buy from you instead with much greater certainty.


Importantly, it also means that you can give yourself an evidence-based filter which you can use to abandon those superficially seductive strategic choices that would otherwise lead to a massive waste of your company’s resources, time and cash, and result in a very public failure.



Why this matters


The huge advantage that research confers on those that commission it – compared to those who rush to market with an unfocussed plethora of tactical options – is that your competitors do not know what you are planning.


You can test your product hypotheses in the market without actually taking them to market – and let them fail quietly before your competitors even know what you are up to.


As a result:

  • Strategic dead-ends no longer suck up time and resource.
  • Instead, that resource is re-focussed on strategies with the best chance of success.
  • Your teams are aligned to a strategy founded on insight rather than guesswork.
  • It is far easier to make a compelling business case for the resources you need for your strategy to work.
  • It is also far easier to get senior stakeholders in other directorates to back your strategy with their own resource.
  • And ultimately the Go To Market strategies you actively chose to pursue are far more likely to succeed.


In other words not only do you fail quietly, you succeed publicly.


And without all the other distractions of failure, you succeed far more quickly too.



Making the business case for research


Yes, business research does need an investment of time: probably 2-3 months in many cases. Sometimes longer, depending on your market.


But the financial investment required is almost certain to be a fraction of what you might otherwise end up investing in a poorly-designed product, or a badly-framed ad campaign, or a hopelessly misjudged price-point.


Especially in the B2B world – where a single sale can generate $000’s of revenue – you can recover the cost of the research off the back of achieving just one additional sale you wouldn’t otherwise have made.


Or retaining just one paying current client you might otherwise have lost to a rival.


So quiet failure does come at a cost – but it is a heck of less than the cost of public failure.


And it’s also a heck of a lot more rewarding from a career perspective when the result is public success.



Why ask me to help you with your business research?


As I said earlier, my specialism is business to business research. (If you’re a consumer marketer, sorry you may need to look elsewhere – I guess that’s my own strategic choice).


I’ve actually been working in B2B marketing for 25 years.


I spent 10 years in advertising agencies running significant B2B multi-media marketing campaigns on everything from TV downwards, for some very big B2B brands.


I then spent 10 years in senior client-side B2B2C marketing and account management roles.


And I’ve spent the last five years solely in B2B market research – with the last two years running my own successful independent B2B market research consultancy.


This means that unlike many B2B researchers, I have actually walked-the-walk in terms of applying many of the kinds of insights that my research will uncover.


Which means that my findings, recommendations and conclusions will always be grounded in the practical realities of the day to day challenges any CMO faces.


I love my job. Clients pay me to go away and find out interesting, valuable things about their market.


I find it endlessly fascinating.


My own research tells me that my clients think that comes across in the way I go about conducting their research, and the effort I put into giving them genuinely valuable insights they can use in their own businesses.


I’m UK-based, but work with clients globally.


If you’re a B2B marketer and would like me to help you fail quietly and succeed publicly, please do get in touch.



Simon Hayhurst

[email protected]

November 2022


Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash


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