From Frameworks To Flywheels
Weaving brand and business back together, to drive new momentum, magic and monetisation
The Great Disconnect
We have a situation.
For the past decade (arguably longer), within organisations, the domains of business and brand have been unbundling; fragmenting into smaller and smaller splinters, specialities, silos, fiefdoms, ‘areas of expertise’, whatever you want to call them.
The result of which is disconnection on a grand scale.
Within the daily goings-on inside a company, we’re past the point of ‘the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing’ and now in the territory of ‘the fingernail of the index finger disagrees with the knuckle of the pinkie, who is in turn completely oblivious as to what the thumb metacarpal is working on’.
And if that sounds ridiculous, it’s because it is.
Building a brand was and is an integral part of the engine of a business, created to roll the proverbial turd in glitter, garnering outsized attention, appealing to new customers, developing (potentially irrational) preference - all with the aim of selling a product or service, bumping up profit, growing the bottom line and investing into new product development.
In turn, the business was and is driven by the perception and possibilities unlocked by the brand, whether that’s expanding into new markets, exploring a revised product roadmap, considering new bells and whistles, moving into new categories or developing new business models.
But as the two have pulled away from each other, it’s resulted in both becoming far less engaged, far less educated on the necessity and power of the other and therefore far less effective.
This is also happening at a time when the speed of change within culture and technology is only getting faster. Trying to keep up with it all is like subjecting yourself to aggressive whiplash several times a day, whilst running in heels on a treadmill, with matchsticks in between your eyelids in case you nod off for 5 seconds and, God forbid, miss something.
Yet despite this dynamism and pace, the way we build brands and the way we develop businesses has remained mostly static and stagnant.
Think about it - a brand onion, a brand pyramid or a brand key, a business canvas, a four box or a ‘growth matrix’ - they’re all static, immovable frameworks.
We fill in the boxes, arguing over the word smithing for weeks or months on end, then we file them away, deep inside a sub-folder on a server, for occasional reference.
It’s a similar story for advertising. Ten years after Jon V Willshire coined the phrase ‘fireworks and bonfires’ to refer to big campaigns to garner attention vs social content to keep the coals burning, we haven’t really evolved beyond it. Not to say that Jon’s thinking wasn’t great, it was, but a lot has changed in a decade and so our practices should have too.
Yet we’re still so besotted with frameworks, formats and platforms, that we struggle to see the wood for the trees; whilst the world is moving on at a clip, we’re debating the merits of 2x2 box or arguing the semantics of what Jon Steel meant, when he once said that thing...*eyeroll*
So, where does that leave us?
Ever-increasing disconnection within organisations between the domains of business and brand is leading to decreasing effectiveness across the board, because the two key component parts aren’t working in tandem, or even in some cases, in the same reality.
Meanwhile, the rapid pace of cultural and technological change is butting up against brand and communications practices that haven’t evolved for a decade or more, focusing on static and structured processes, rather than dynamic and organic approaches.
It doesn’t sound good, does it. So, what’s the solution?
I think I may have an inkling. It’s not perfect, but it’s the seed of an idea and that’s better than nothing.
Taking a cue from the creator economy
If you’ve had your head in the sand over the last few months or if you’ve quite rightly been in a state of shock and confusion as the year 2020 continues to harass us like a wine-drunk deity with a sick sense of humour and a serious grudge against humanity, you may not have heard about the creator economy or the rapidly evolving role of fandoms in birthing new platforms and monetisation models, so let me give you an quick overview…
The traditional way of building a business and a brand can be (overly) simplified to the following linear process:
Product > Brand > Audience
TLDR; You create a product, which you then wrap in a brand, which you then try to find an audience to sell it to. Rinse, repeat.
But the acceleration of the creator economy due in part to Covid-19, but due more so to the rise of new infrastructure (Patreon, OnlyFans, Tiktok x Teespring, Shopify, Substack etc) that allows them to nurture and grow their communities, develop their brand, create products and monetise their audience accordingly, has upended this model and it’s instead becoming…
Audience > Brand > Product
TLDR; You build an engaged and passionate community, which in turn helps to slowly but surely build your brand (often based on an individual persona), from which you can create products to sell back to them, especially as often, they would have felt involved in the creation process based on ongoing feedback loops. Rinse, repeat.
But, the difference here isn’t only that the model is reversed, it’s that it’s also no longer linear, it’s looped.
What these creators are building is what’s known as a flywheel.
WTF is a flywheel?
First off, flywheels are nothing new. They’ve been around for a very, very long time.
One of the first and most comprehensive examples of a flywheel was actually drawn up by Walt Disney back in 1957.
It acted as a visual representation of how each of the different components of the business and the brand would coexist and complement one another and how IP (which was and is Disney’s gold dust) would spin out from the centre (theatrical films) to influence and drive every other facet of the business.
They called it the ‘Synergy Map’ and it acted as a blueprint for the business ecosystem, showing how different units, products, customers, interactions, distribution channels, potential markets and the sourcing of new ideas, could all come together.
Every cycle provided more value and entertainment to customers, while growing brand and product potential, increasing revenue and creating new opportunities.
And though it’s a static image, it certainly doesn’t feel that way - rather it’s dynamic, continuously moving, evolving and self-sustaining.
In 1967, a second version of the Synergy Map was published, showing how their ecosystem had evolved, in a short space of time, leading to it being ever more connected and energised.
Many years later, Jim Collins coined the concept of ‘the flywheel effect’ in his book, Good to Great; describing how driving a new strategy is like getting a huge flywheel into motion and that the ‘holy grail’ is for every single aspect of an organisation’s activities and culture to be aligned with it in mind; contributing maximum momentum with minimum friction.
In recent times, one of the most successful companies to use the flywheel concept has been Amazon, they called it ‘The Virtuous Cycle’.
Here’s how it works (taken from Lance Peppler’s great piece):
Customer experience is key, and all Amazon employees have this as their number one principle
Excellent customer experience drives traffic to Amazon.com
Sellers are attracted to put their products on Amazon.com
This creates a greater selection of products for customers
At the same time the increased sales on Amazon.com allows Amazon to lower their cost structure and reduce prices.
This, along with customer experience, increases the traffic on Amazon.com
And so it goes.
Each effort creates influence and momentum, that directly drives the adjacent component, and so the flywheel spins - getting faster and faster, bigger and bigger.
Here’s another example, this time for Peloton, visualising how all of the different facets of the brand and business feed one another, creating a self sustaining loop.
In the last year, the concept of the flywheel has experienced something of a rebirth, as VC’s have taken to Twitter and Substack, writing up their views on upcoming S-1’s, deep diving into new and exciting companies or analysing recent earnings reports.
They’re resurfacing the terminology and visualising these (often complex) companies in such a way that their seemingly disparate activities can be seen in a new light, coming together to showcase the potential inherent when they’re more than the sum of their parts, and instead add up to a bigger, connected picture.
Because the flywheel is about putting the emphasis on how interrelated pieces work as a whole, how the relationship between audience, brand and business can and should be a cycle, an unending loop, with continuous feedback, influences, builds, momentum and magic.
From frameworks to flywheels
Creators, new media companies, esports teams, entertainment franchises and beyond; the most successful emerging brands and businesses of the moment are embracing the power of the flywheel approach.
They understand that the self-sustaining, ever-evolving cycle represents a powerful form of connective tissue that can and will shape their success in a far more profound and durable way.
Ensuring that for every input, there is an energetic and comprehensive ‘spin’ that takes place and that once you start it up, you’d do well to keep it turning.
And if they can see this, why can’t we?
Why are we still using static onions, pyramids, 4 boxes, matrices and keys, when we could be focusing on the dynamism of the flywheel?
Why are we still operating in ever more niche departments, with ever more pigeonholed methodologies, producing increasingly disjointed outputs, when we could instead be connecting the dots and augmenting each facet, by tying it all together and focusing on the flow of influence and momentum?
Now, I know this isn’t realistic for every brand or business.
Some are too far gone, others are bureaucratic beyond belief and others still have such embedded fiefdoms that the concept of collaboration would be met with flamethrowers, grenades and all out warfare.
So let’s put those cases aside and instead focus on what we can change, by examining a few different ways to bring flywheel thinking to the fore...
From static to dynamic
How can we start to visualise the flywheel for the brands that we work with, to see how each component part relates to the next and in doing so, how understanding these relationships can help us to pinpoint the most effective areas to focus upon, in order to start the wheel spinning? This should obviously include the three key areas of business, brand and customer, we need to be able to see the whole, not just our bit.
From silos to ecosystems
How can we use the flywheel to open up conversations with adjacent departments or teams, to find opportunities to work together, to combine resources, to move towards overlapping and joint success? If we can see that one of our ‘spin’ ideas could influence and drive myriad other business units, then we need to be working alongside them to maximise the potential, to augment the affect and then to see how we can keep the momentum going. The flywheel is very much a team sport.
From fits and bursts to accumulating advantage
How can we shift our energy away from ‘fireworks and bonfires’ thinking (sorry, Jon), and instead start to see everything as a set of overlapping, looping cycles, each building on the next. Because as X increases, it leads to more of Y, which in turn increases Z. As Z increases it flows back to X and the cycle begins anew. It’s about building up advantage over time (kind of like compounding interest) and ensuring that you don’t drop the ball or your pace.
All of this is only a starter for 10, but it’s an approach I’ve been playing around with and putting into practice on recent client projects; a way to see the bigger picture, to understand each component part, how they all fit together and where my energy would be best utilised to start building up momentum and encouraging the flow of influence from one element to the next.
It also means I can see which cogs are moving easily and which might benefit from a bit more elbow grease.
But mainly it’s about energy, connectivity and accumulation.
Each effort should build momentum across the board and each subsequent initiative should build on top of that, and so on.
Using the flywheel can help you see it all through a different lens, one that shifts you from away from the static and towards the spin.