Optimising isn’t growing, muda-f*ckers

How do brands grow?

I used to work for Unilever. Not on the sexy brand-side. I worked in a factory. Where fish fingers were made.

The factory had some people – operators and engineers and managers, and lots of machines – band saws and blast freezers, conveyors to jiggle those breaded cod jenga-blocks, machines to box them, and others to wrap the boxes in clingfilm on a pallet.

People in factories are obsessed by efficiency. The systematic reduction of waste. There’s a Japanese word for waste – muda. It’s only ever said with haughty disdain.

I know this because we used to have an ancient sensei – a Japanese grand master of waste reduction – who would visit the factory, and we would follow him as he pointed at stuff and gruffly proclaim ‘muda’. And we would all flap about going “what does he mean? Seriously? It’s a factory, we need to have spare parts, and inventory, and wet floors. Does he really mean we should eradicate these things?”

And he would stare back – inscrutable – and we’d form improvement teams, and chip away at those wasteful muda things, second-guessing what he meant. And make a few gains, and proudly show him on his next visit (he was never impressed).

This was not a growth-job. Factories don’t persuade more people to love fish fingers. They satisfy demand, maintain quality, improve efficiency. They are all about repeatability. Best practice. There’s another Japanese word – “kaizen” – meaning incremental, continuous improvement towards ‘perfection’. A Shangri-la of 100% efficiency.

Growth is not achieved by kaizen. To grow, you have to go to new places. To reach new people. Increasing penetration. When you are doing this, you don’t talk about efficiency.

You do talk about ROI. Because you are investing. And – when you’re investing for growth – you know that it is not about certainties. It’s risky, but the potential gains – in time – are worth pursuing.

Of course, you plan. Boy, do you plan. It’s not ‘spray and pray’. You set an objective, and you come up with ideas. You form a strategy. You think, you imagine, you craft, but this is not the pure application of logic. It is not algorithmic. Because, in the end, you would like some new people – human beings – to feel differently about your brand.

That’s why – when I see some of the marketing presentations (I’ve just come back from 2 days of those) on AI, machine learning, and optimisation, dynamic content with 1.4million versions – I know that we’re not talking about growth, muda-f*ckers.

Read More