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Scenario planning for marketers

Author's avatar By Robert Allen 24 Jan, 2017
Essential Essential topic

Marketers should plan for every scenario, rather than only the most likely one

2016 is behind us. Marketers have their eyes set firmly on the year ahead, and will be currently drawing up their marketing plans and strategy documents for 2017. However, the vast majority of these plans will actually only plan for 1 scenario: business as usual.

It makes sense to plan for business as usual, after all, it’s impossible to predict the future so it wouldn’t make sense to base ones marketing plan around an event which may or may not happen.

Consider the following:

- The future is not pre-determined or predictable

- If it were, there would be no point taking action today, because it would have no effect on the future.

- Full information about the future is never available

But precisely because the future cannot be predicted, you shouldn’t only plan for one scenario (businesses as usual), but rather should have strategies in place ready to deal with all manner of possible scenarios, some of which may involve crises.

‘don’t wait till your in a crisis to come up with a crisis plan’ – Dr Phil

Different types of future

The future is a murky world. A good way to make sense of it and give structure your thinking towards planning for different eventualities is to think about different scenarios and divide them into the 4 p’s. Not the 7 p’s of marketing, but rather the 4 p’s of the future:

  • Possible – Anything that might happen.
  • Plausible – Could feasibly happen, but unlikely.
  • Probable – Likely to happen.
  • Preferable – What you want to happen.

Thinking of different possibilities and then categorising them this way can help you concentrate of a set of key scenarios, which you need to plan for.

Future model

Brainstorm as many possibilities you can think of, and categorise them this way. Discard any that won’t significantly affect the marketing department or are so unlikely to happen it doesn’t even bear thinking about (think meteor strike). What you are left with is a map of possible futures for your business. These should be planned for so you have a process in place if and when they happen.

Possible scenarios:

What scenarios are likely to affect the working of your marketing department? Some are obvious. A PR disaster arising from an exec mincing his words and coming out with an un-PC gaff might blow up on social media. Your website might be hacked, leading to customer details being leaked, creating a storm of bad PR and recriminations flying around the IT department.

Bad PR can come in a flash, as the Singapore-based ecommerce store ‘SuperGurl’ discovered when the ad director failed to review his graphic designers work and the brand ended up having this horrific call to action button on their home page this Black Friday.

bad PR

Others may be less obvious because they are not what springs to mind when you think of crises. If you work for a publicly listed company, have you consider how your brand may be affected if a larger rival started buying you out? How could the brand be protected in this scenario?

The scenarios don’t have to be crises either; they could be positive developments that you weren’t expecting. Global news might focus attention on your brand in an unexpected way. Perhaps you are a small business selling sustainably sourced kidney beans. How would you capitalise on a new research report published in the BMJ that links Kidney Bean consumption to lower rates of bowel diseases?

Crisis Management

Many of the potential scenarios you will come up with will involve some form of crisis, which you will need to plan for. If you don’t have a plan in place for these scenarios, when one does inevitably occur it you will be unprepared and team members will be unaware of their responsibilities.

The different scenarios will vary wildly, and thus the responses will need to be very different. However, the crisis management plan, which you should have in place, will always contain a key set of principles.

  • Anticipate – Anticipating the crisis is the first step towards planning for it, and possibly avoiding it. Think about the possible ways the crisis could begin or unfold. This can often help ideas for how to prevent the crisis from emerging in the first place.
  • Identify - the team members responsible for handling the situation – Detailing responsibility is crucial as it allows your team to respond effectively to a crisis, rather than people running around not knowing who is responsible for what. With a clear structure of responsibility and accountability, staff can get straight down to their roles in solving the crisis. Make sure this plan can still function if certain team members are away from the office. If a certain problem crops up whilst the marketing manager is on holiday, your plan needs a clear back up in place so someone knows its up to them to step up to the plate and take charge of the response.
  • Training- Once you’ve identified who is responsible for what in the given crisis scenario, various skills gaps may well become apparent. It may be wise to train up some staff in the basics of certain skills so they can provide a back up in the case of a certain specialist being ill on a day where they are needed. It may also be wise make everyone aware of certain processes or rules which are designed to prevent crises emerging in the first place. For example making sure all staff are aware of social media guidelines may prevent PR gaffs.

Plan to capitalise

“Only a crisis - actual or perceived - produces real change” – Milton Friedman

One of the few things which is certain is that 2016 will bring big changes for a vast range of businesses. Many of these changes could present massive opportunities for your business. The problem with a marketing plan that deals only with the ‘business as usual scenario’ is that it is inevitably unable to best exploit new opportunities that may arise for marketing your business from events that cannot be expected.

If you don’t have a plan in place to make the most of it, an opportunity to grab some fantastic PR off the back of a favourable news story may pass you buy, or an opportunity to market yourself off something as simple as a freak weather event that makes your service more relevant may not give you same boost in sales as it could if you had planned for it.

If you are a B2C business, make sure to have agreements in place with suppliers to cope with sudden spikes in demand, less you be left sold out if an unprecedented event causes a massive surge in sales.

Always be monitoring your social streams and those of your competitors to spot trends that your business may be able to capitalise on. There’s nothing wrong with pointing out your own virtues if your competitor has done something sinister and is in a spot of trouble because of it. The controversial / much despised ‘Are you beach body ready?’ campaign by Protein World got a fantastic set of spins off by other brands who were practising their Real-time marketing, which pointed to the fact that they weren’t forcing unrealistic beauty standards on women.

beach body ready dove

Beach body ready

Are you overdue being disrupted?

One thing the last few years have taught us is that industries can be disrupted quickly. Before 2012, no one outside of San Francisco had heard of Uber, and now it's worth over $60 billion and has totally revolutionised how people get about in cities, much to the anger of established taxi companies. Before Uber no one had considered taxis a business that was particularly likely to be disrupted, expect perhaps by the coming of driverless cars that are still several years away.

The same may be true for your industry. This year may be the year a new app totally revolutionises the real estate industry, banking or legal services. Think it won’t happen to you? Look a the way AirBnB totally disrupted the hotel industry, something which one would have thought could never have moved away from bricks and mortar model. Disruption doesn’t mean doom, it just means you have to position what you offer to sell it in a way that stresses its advantages over what the disruptor is offering. AirBnB may be the world's biggest accommodation provider, but there will always be a market for luxury hotels. They’re not going away anytime soon. Your plan for this scenario must thus address how you would change your offering in response to disruption and how you would stress your USP.


We all know the overused maxim ‘failing to plan is planning to fail’ (personally I prefer the more alliterative ‘Piss poor planning leads to piss poor performance'). Well failing to plan for a failure is even worse. It is times of crisis where you need a well thought out plan to turn to more than anything. Similarly, if your plan doesn’t take into account scenario’s which can’t be predicted but could allow you to get great marketing results, then you’ll loose out. The best way it to consider all possible scenarios, map them out according to the 4 p’s and then create plans for the scenarios that could have a major effect on your marketing department.

Nothing is certain, least of all in the fast-paced world of marketing. But if there is one thing I can predict 100% for 2016, it’s that something you didn’t think would happen will. It’ll help if you have a plan.

Author's avatar

By Robert Allen

Rob Allen is Marketing Manager for Numiko, a digital agency that design and build websites for purpose driven organisations, such as the Science Museum Group, Cancer Research UK, University of London and the Electoral Commission. Rob was blog editor at Smart Insights from 2015-2017. You can follow Rob on LinkedIn.

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