Winning with a Continuous Planning Mindset

Winning with a Continuous Planning Mindset 650 650 Kim Donlan

You need to be able to respond to the unhappy customer experience in front of you and let go of the ideal customer you dreamed of.

When you start out, you plan for the perfect customer. You hone your product to their every need and know that you will do everything you can to make them happy. And then they aren’t. They ignore you. They complain. They don’t want what you give them. No matter what you try, it doesn’t work. Despite how much you love them, you don’t make them happy.

Predicting what customers want is more difficult than ever. Especially in this unpredictable, consumer-controlled, environment where customers continuously cry for a customized brand experience. Developing a rock-solid plan that has little flexibility is setting you and your brand up for failure. As the boxer Mike Tyson famously said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

According to research from Harvard Business School’s Shikhar Ghosh, 75% of start-ups fail. This is often the result of an unexpected setback that they didn’t plan for. If you stay on plan or don’t respond fast enough, it can lead to disaster. You need to be able to respond to the unhappy customer experience in front of you and let go of the ideal customer you dreamed of.  


A better approach is to adopt a continuous planning mindset. You’ll still be tied to sales goals — but exactly how you are going to get there is less rigid. Think of continuous planning as a new and improved version of the lean start-up model. The lean start-up model is all about listening and responding: using the customer feedback to develop the next step. Exactly what the next step should be — a marketing campaign, a fix for the onboarding process or an investment into a business intelligence tool that will provide the customer insight you need — all depends on what you are up against and what makes the most sense. You need to be willing to test alternative tweaks to the experience, product or messaging on the fly and watch very carefully for a positive response.

Continuous planning requires alignment and strong relationships across the organization. Whether it’s just two of you or an organization of thousands, the ability to pivot — to try something new is critical. Responding to customers, even imperfectly, demonstrates you care. And customers know you care even if they can’t express it at the time.

SCHEDULE INNOVATION (into your planning)

A big problem with planning is the pesky goals and milestones that need to be established. Exactly how or what will make your company stronger is different for everyone. Do you need more users, higher sales or a chance to just start anew? Whatever goals you establish will quickly be something from which you will be judged or worse, you will use to judge yourself. Who among us has not downgraded the goals and milestones to what is “achievable? “

If you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got.

What makes better sense is creating time to innovate. A consistent time dedicated to a mindset of what can we do differently. The focus is to evaluate, brainstorm, design and implement a new response to the customer feedback and behavior. It’s about building innovation into your work so that you and your organization have an opportunity to see things differently.

At RedSwan5, founders come to us stuck. Despite everything they have tried, their customers are unhappy and they are exhausted. Their messaging isn’t working. Sales aren’t closing fast enough or the digital strategy and onboarding process is disconnected. Through innovative workshops, creative and digital strategy, and UX design, we address what keeps you up at night.

To learn more about how we can help you, contact Kim Donlan at

Better Client Relationships

Better Client Relationships 650 650 Kim Donlan


The client/agency relationship and business model are changing as each grapples with the best way to support rapid innovation in a digital age. Just as CMOs are being held more accountable for the business strategy and creating a complete customer experience, agencies are finding themselves tackling difficult assignments that require deep collaboration, total transparency and often an unclear idea what the final deliverable should be. One thing is clear: the old (and some current) ways of doing things just aren’t working and a new path is something clients and agencies need to forge together.

At RedSwan5, our unique approach is working and we offer our insights into what is working.

1. Rethink the Discovery Process

Your client’s problems will not be solved by a single creative marketing campaign or a new website. Organizations face complex business problems that must be understood to make a true impact on the business. It is important to investigate internal issues that have hurt the client in the past and to have insight into how your work will contribute revenue or impact operations.

According to Leslie Collins, executive director of, “An open dialogue at the very beginning of the assignment about how we get in our own way allowed us to acknowledge when it happened — and course correct when we needed to.

At the start, both clients and agencies should know:

  • What internal processes will get in the way
  • Who should really be part of decisions
  • How the data might be collected and used
  • What they wish would have happened when they’d done this in the past
  • If everyone will be okay if the assignment changes based on what is collectively learned in the discovery phase

2. Embrace the Iterative Design Process

Forget counting revision cycles and restricting feedback — a better model allows for collaboration around an objective that is tied to a timeframe. With the objective clearly established, design decisions can be prioritized based on how well they fit the objective. If they do not, they can fall lower on the list or be addressed in subsequent work.

In order to successfully embrace this process, both client and agency must agree to:

  • Remain focused on the agreed objective
  • Start with prioritized requirements that tick and tie to the objective
  • Prioritize design ideas and functionality based on requirements
  • Limit the time frame so work can be managed and delivered
  • Address related items later if they do not directly support the objective


3. Get to the MVP (Minimum Viable Product) or Prototype Fast

Gathering feedback from potential early users is the best and fastest way to test beliefs and requirements. An MVP is also a way to screen for user experiences that may be based on potential client bias. Real users clicking through actual designs that demonstrate the user flow teach both the agency and the client what customers are willing to pay for.

“It is more productive and far more gratifying to be collaborating with all the right people in the room focused on a single objective, without worrying about getting it perfect right out of the gate.”  

Darryl Settles, Catalyst Ventures Development

Before finalizing design or spending big on development, use click-through prototype tools like Invision, Optimal Workshop, JustInMind or even a presentation application with links to verify your assumptions.

The tools can be used to:

  • Gain valuable market intelligence
  • Tease out the real competitive differentiator
  • Attain additional funding and support
  • Prove the concept

4. Remember: Change (of Scope) Is a Good Thing

It used to be that a change of scope was a sign of things gone wrong. In today’s world, it is a sign of a growing relationship. RFPs or scopes of work (SOW) written before the collaborative thinking and discovery (steps 1 through 3 above) will never fully capture what ultimately needs to be delivered.

There will be a more refined project plan based on the discovery phase findings and results of user testing and feedback. It may be a more elaborate scope of work or, in some cases, a fundamentally different project altogether. In fact, it could even mean a decision to not pursue the project at all — a shiver-inducing prospect for many agencies.

“As part of the branding process, you reach several forks in the road where you need to select the right path. Sometimes, the best decision is to not move forward – or go in a completely different direction. It takes the right agency relationship and very competent people to choose it.”

— Andrew Boyd, former CMO, Dimensional Insight


The truth of the matter is that what is best for the client and their customers is best for the agency. If the scope is bigger, smaller, different, difficult, uncomfortable, exciting or simply out of your wheelhouse, it is an opportunity for both the agency and the client to continue to build a relationship based on trust.

Often this re-scope will:

  • Build a foundation for a long-term relationship
  • Lead to a larger project
  • Support new partnerships or extend the service offering

5. Propose Alternative Budgeting and Payments

Introducing new models of collaborative, iterative cycles means that controlling costs can be very hard for both agencies and clients. Restricting hours in the discovery phase can end up costing far more in development when a feature is more difficult than originally thought.

Budgets and pricing models can be adapted to the work effort. It is perfectly acceptable to have different models for each phase of the project. The most important issue is to discuss pricing and payment plans based on what is required for each phase — and acknowledge that one size or price does not fit all — and mixing the models for different phases of the engagement is actually appropriate. For example, the discovery phase might use a consulting model while development is a fixed cost.

For the agency and client relationship to improve, both sides must be open to a better way of working together. This relationship needs to be based on a stronger connection, transparency and trust. It is imperative that agencies understand the client’s full business problems and are able to listen to and embrace the internal client hurdles while focusing on developing an external solution. It is important for clients to keep agencies continuously involved on the front line of the business where (if you are doing it right) the real magic happens.

Design for the Most Valuable Customer

Design for the Most Valuable Customer 650 650 Kim Donlan


Customer engagement is a vital part of every conversation across an enterprise. It involves everything and every action the customer encounters — and is based on a deep emotional connection. A connection that intrigues, assures, entices, satisfies and soothes the customer so that they never look at the competition.

Customer engagement can be defined differently within an organization and even within a single department. When launching a new product or service, how do you determine what connection and which series of actions are the most valuable? Do you have a plan for the most profitable customers to engage with your organization?  

81% of marketers admit customer engagement is the top priority yet only 28% have a plan*

There is a better approach. Just remember these three key points:

  • Discuss engagement early and often
  • Advocate for customer centricity at all costs
  • Remember that a single path is not a journey — it’s a trap

Step 1: Discuss engagement early and often

Your product launch may require a new website, an email blast, a lead generation campaign — all of which must make and reinforce an emotional connection. Continuous discussion of exactly what that emotional connection is should include near- and far-reaching teams to expose opportunities. Empowering others to own the emotional connection improves engagement across every touchpoint.

Step 2: Be customer-centric at all costs

It is natural to think from a company view — especially with the pressure to outperform KPIs. When you look outside in, you see the longer view — the opportunity for customers to have conversations on multiple paths to the same destination. It takes discipline to home in on what Peter Fader calls “the most valuable customers.” Connecting with the most valuable customers requires creating positive online and in-person conversations some of which will lead to a lift in the KPIs while others will be measured by lifetime engagement value.

Step 3: Remember that a single path is not a journey — it’s a trap

If you only offer a single path, you run the risk of alienating customers instead of enticing them. The customer might feel led into an alley with the requisite marching band parading behind. Without choices, customers may protest in small or big ways like providing dirty data or just not trusting the emotional connection.

Offer customers minor content detours to support their decision-making. This goes a long way in ensuring the customer feels empowered by your messaging and connected emotionally. More importantly, your customers will reciprocate by willingly providing accurate contact information. The bonus is that you will have embedded a mini A/B study for added insight into content and behavior.

Customer engagement requires a holistic approach — a precise solution that matches your culture, company, and competitive advantage. It involves everything and every point the customer encounters — and is based on a deep emotional connection. A connection that intrigues, assures, entices, satisfies and soothes the customers so that they never look at the competition.

*According to a recent report by B2B Marketing and The Telemarketing Company



Holistic Marketing in Chaos

Holistic Marketing in Chaos 650 650 Kim Donlan


A New Perspective on Holistic Marketing: Your Customer’s

Holistic marketing is based on a strong belief that all aspects of marketing and the customer experience are interrelated. Makes sense, right? Yet, marketers are failing to grasp exactly how to develop a truly holistic approach because it is so incredibly hard for brands to think like their customers.

“86% of brand marketers admit that a holistic marketing approach is a top priority, yet few feel prepared to execute one.”

Problem 1: Company mindset

Up until now, holistic marketing has been viewed from a company-centric mindset.  When building a corporate process designed to provide a seamless brand experience, very smart, experienced marketers are spending (lots of) time and money trying to align around the idea of the most perfect customer behavior that leads to the highest profit. With a company-centric mindset, brand strategies and decisions are one-sided — only viewed from the internal perspective. If everyone who is part of determining the brand experience is sitting on the brand’s bench, it is impossible to see the issues from perspective of the customer.  

The efforts to align and collect data from everywhere — marketing, sales, and customer service —  lead to the consideration of technology and systems that promise a 360-degree view of customers. However, the 360-degree view puts the brand in the middle looking out at their potential and existing customers’ behavior. Several problems arise from this approach:

  • Customers only care about their view
  • Every customer has a unique view

A company-centric approach makes it difficult to organize and operationalize around the countless ways with which potential customers interact across touchpoints. To make this more manageable, buyer and customer journeys are developed that streamline a set of interactions that lead (hopefully) to a consistent experience. The customer journey — while a good starting point — can only manage the optimal behavior of a limited number of people. Customers don’t follow a single journey. And a customer journey cannot be personalized to the level customers demand.

Thinking about all the customer interactions and experiences is overwhelming. Trying to anticipate all the paths that may (or may not) quickly lead to loyal customers is like trying to imagine chaos. Your version of chaos might be different from mine, but it is still overwhelming and leaves you wanting to run screaming for the hills. To make a difficult situation worse, online behavior is evolving. For those operating within a company-centric mindset, this leads to continuous failure to deliver a seamless brand experience across all channels. To avoid this, three things must change. You should:

  • Embrace a holistic approach that is truly customer-centric
  • Support multiple customer paths and strategies
  • Treat prospects and customers as your marketing department

Holistic marketing must be customer-centric and responsive to multiple customers’ perspectives. Honing a holistic mindset and operational approach will need to support the ability to respond to the chaos of customers who interact with brands in any way they see fit.

At RedSwan5, we believe in the co-evolution of marketing and helping brands prepare to respond more successfully to the chaos of engagement. We are working with customers to perfect a better approach. It involves building a holistic marketing approach that is customer-centric and able to manage multiple strategies that are often led by the customers themselves.

We intend to share case studies and research on this new approach.

Rebranding: Are you ready to innovate?

Rebranding: Are you ready to innovate? 650 650 Kim Donlan

In celebration of World Creativity and Innovation Week, I wanted to share our viewpoint on creativity and innovation in the rebranding processes. When an organization needs to rebrand, it means that somewhere along the way, it got stuck. In rebranding, size really doesn’t matter. It can be necessary for a two-person startup, industry leaders and everything in between. The process is the same — a series of guided exercises played out in workshop meant to get to the core of what a brand really is.

At the most fundamental level, rebranding is a concerted effort to innovate. It means the organization has realized it must do something in a new way. That is a vulnerable place to be. A company ready to rebrand needs to think carefully about how ready they are to re-invent themselves. Innovation requires an honest look at what is to clearly see what can be. It is not easy. It is not fun.

So how do you know you are ready to innovate through the rebranding process?

Do Whatever It Takes. Often, organizations have spent a great deal of time fixing what is broken. This is a group of smart people, but despite their best efforts, something still isn’t working. All the effort and brainpower can only mean that something is fundamentally wrong. Innovation by definition means the organization MUST do something in a new way. The old way must be so painful, you are willing to do whatever it takes to change it.

Retrace Your Path. Understand where the organization got off-track. Was it the early customers who controlled the roadmap? The failure to make decisions based on accurate data? Or just moving in too many directions so that true progress couldn’t happen? As part of innovation, it is important to acknowledge and learn from what didn’t work. And then let it go. To truly innovate, you need to abandon the woulda, coulda, shoulda mentality to think freely about what might the truer path.

Find the Real Story. Willingly abandon your story and perspective to see the impact of your product, service or idea. Clearly and painstakingly look at what the early customers and friendly advisors were really saying. This is the time to look at the nuances and messages buried in what people were saying. It is an exercise in listening with the intent of finding the common emotional connection that you can fulfill.

Seek the Small Change. Innovation isn’t about making a huge change. It comes from making a new connection that potentially can have a big impact. It is often small and previously overlooked. It can be disguised as anything — a tweak to the positioning, a slightly different customer experience, razor focus on a thing you do better than anyone else, a new onboarding process, a refined value proposition or discovering the best customer was the person next to the guy you were selling to.

Innovation is not something that happens naturally within organizations. It is a mindset backed by the willingness to go through a process that will make room for it. Creativity and innovation are a result of hard work. It is not always easy, but it always yields great results.

Image source: Creative Commons

Defining Holistic Marketing

Defining Holistic Marketing 2923 2108 Kim Donlan

R2_HolisticMarketing_Graphic_700-01 (1)

Redefining Holistic Marketing: Does Everything Matter?

Standing in front of my Bentley MBA marketing class filled with hopeful, smart analytical marketers, I try to explain how the branding process and integrated marketing communication are related. I thought using a case study that documents the deep, difficult process firms go through to adopt a strong branding foundation by addressing their internal culture would demonstrate the messy, enmeshed process of holistic marketing. I am met with facial expressions that range from slightly bemused to full on “Orange is the New Black’ Crazy Eyes. I am not believed.

On Management Mania, the brilliant Philip Kotler and Kevin Lane Keller offer a sound academic definition of holistic marketing, “ Holistic marketing recognizes that ‘everything matters’ with marketing and that a broad, integrated perspective is necessary to attain the best solution.”   What particularly jumps out is ‘…everything matters…integrated perspective.’  In the frenzy to build interdependent programs, the true value of holistic marketing has gotten lost in the quest for short term measurement of process.

In looking a bit more at the definition and comparing it to the vast number of (mostly horrible) infographics out there, I get the sense that holistic marketing is generally considered to be an internal alignment problem. It explains, to some extent, why marketers and CEOs lament in various flavors of… “if the integrated marketing programs were just capturing more data at each customer journey touchpoint…” or,  “if we didn’t have multiple agencies and layers of brand managers, we’d have a more holistic approach.” But by only considering the issue of internal alignment, marketers are focused on closing the gap between touch points and are not asking the more critical question: “how does this touch point relate to the holistic marketing for this customer?” Or, even better, “do you have a holistic marketing solution that this customer understands?”

Organizational Perspective: Everything Measurable Matters

Organizational alignment has provided a framework where customer experience is measured across all touch points. This organizational mindset results in strategies and campaigns that attempt to influence what potential and existing customers do when they search, read, watch, click, buy and socialize. Each interaction collected, measured and stored in the fluffy data cloud is an attempt to understand the customer experience. It has become what we mean when we say “everything matters.”

bad holistic 1source: Project Guru

It is true that processes, systems, culture and policies within an organization should be working together in a more fluid, natural way that makes marketing more efficient and productive. A significant part of holistic marketing requires an inward focus. However, the relentless quest to measure disparate marketing components locks the organization in a narrow perspective that interferes with the higher goal of building a long term customer relationship based on trust. It is this trust that is the foundation of holistic marketing.

Think for a minute about the brands you really trust. What did it take to gain your trust? The digital experience you have with them is probably meeting your needs every single step of the way. You feel taken care of and, likely, understood at a deep level. Your personal expectations continue to be met. Dan Edelman, in his timely article “The Business of Trust” provides the sobering opinion that “trust in the digital age requires consistency of interactions across the customer’s journey — transparency, simplicity, reliability, responsiveness, and a proper use of the customer information the consumer expects you to have.” (Edelman, 2016).  The big takeaway is: “Are you just working on a punch list of fixes, or are you making the overall flow of the experience to bring out the best reliability, transparency, personalization, responsiveness and simplicity your brand can offer as part of a commitment to building trust?” The answer to that question changes the narrative across the customer journey and requires marketers think about what they mean by ‘alignment’.

Customer’s Perspective: Gaining My Trust Matters

Holistic marketing, in its current definition, provides an approach that traps many organizations in an endless cycle of punch list fixes without considering the importance of trust. Holistic marketing must comprise more than the organization’s marketing interdependencies; it must be centered on the customer’s dependency on you, the marketer, to provide a simple, seamless solution. Perhaps it is time to strive for a new definition… holistic marketing is the development, design and implementation of marketing programs, processes and activities that are designed to build a seamless customer journey that is highly personalized, truthful, and anticipates the breadth of the customer’s needs – every tiny step – including both the vulnerable moments that require care and the inspiring times that are the rewards of being in business with one another. Holistic marketing recognizes that ‘everything matters’ to customers and that a personalized, integrated perspective is necessary to attain trust.”  

Customers desire to trust the brands they need and need the brands they trust.

By rethinking the holistic approach with the customer in the center, organizations will be forced to change how they align programs, processes and activities.  Only then can an organization shift from counting customer clicks to becoming a brand customers can count on.