Field Marshall Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke AKA Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, was part of the Prussian army in the mid-1800s. He was also the man who said that:

No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force.

Mike Tyson said something similar, albeit rather more directly:

Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.

Thankfully in our field – marketing and communications for running, cycling, triathlon and outdoors brands – we don’t deal with people who are part of an opposing army or even people who want to punch us in the mouth.

But we do regularly bring clients into contact with people. And knowing how those people will react is really hard to predict. Every campaign, every piece of content, every social network post is an invitation for the target audience to criticise, ridicule or, perhaps worst of all, ignore.

Often when the response of the target audience is not what was expected or hoped for, the temptation can be to shut everything down. In Helmuth’s world, that would be to retreat. In Tyson’s, throw in the towel.

The best teams adjust

But today I witnessed something very interesting – the England rugby team come back from a devastating first ten minutes against a very competent Australian team, to win a test match for only the fourth time in Australia.

As the England team made first contact with the main hostile force, they were completely overwhelmed. Australia scored twice in quick succession. With 70 minutes of the match still to play, I suspect most English (and Australian) fans thought that the men in white were doomed. Not so. After a thrilling match, the England team over-turned the deficit to win 39-28.

After the match the England coach, Eddie Jones, was asked for his thoughs. He said that the opening ten minutes totally undid the plan that his team had gone into the match with. One of the England players, Owen Farrell, echoed that, saying that the reason his side won was by “sticking to our plan … and by adapting as we go”.

Expect the unexpected

This happens over and over again. There is a plan. Then someone or something happens that means that the plan is not going to work. Sami Wanjiru in the Olympic marathon, throwing in devastating surge after surge – which was not how runners were supposed to race a marathon. Wiggins, Miller & Co in the Tour de France, racing the crucial team time trail with the bare minimum five riders after the other four members of the team dropped out. The list could go on and on. What links all these examples, though, is that the individuals or the team had to figure out what to do mid-race.

Planning and adaptation, then, is the key. When it comes to communicating a brands messages and values, it is essential to have a plan. But the key is being able to adapt on the fly. After all, it is impossible to know what the other side – for brands, that is their potential customers – are going to do or how they are going to react. But if you can survive the first onslaught (which for many people who met Mike Tyson in the ring, was not possible) then you have a chance to adapt. What is undoubtedly true is that if there is no plan to adapt, then the chances of success are slim-to-none.


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