What can boxing teach us about business?

This post by Diego Kerner, Managing Partner for Latin America, is one of our occasional ones which goes a bit “off piste” to look for lessons on brands, business and leadership.

At our recent brandgym global partner retreat, we all shared personal highlights from 2018. One of mine was an enthusiastic return to an old passion: amateur boxing!

I agreed to reflect on what learnings I could draw from my months of very serious training in “the noble art of punching an opponent without being punched.” Let me share them with you.

1. Start with a clear and inspirational goal

Setting a clear and inspiring goal was key to give me the energy and determination to put in the hours and hours of punishing practice: perform decently in an official amateur boxing fight. This goal really helped focus my training and fuel my motivation.

Action for marketing teams: avoid the mistake of starting a brand strategy processes without a clearly defined brand and business goal. We start our projects with a ‘Destination Session’ to help the team set a business ambition that inspires and guides the process, keeps them on track and ensures the outputs are rooted in the real world.

2. The fight is won in the gym

Great boxers are highly talented, but believe me, they all spend at least 6-8 hours a day training. The match is won way before you jump into the ring. It is won in the gym.

Action for marketing teams: Avoid the mistake of a poorly planned and prepared ‘brainstorm’ which is unlikely to help  create a winning brand idea, be it positioning or innovation. Rather, you must first work and sweat in your gym, in this case a brandgym 😉

This means identifying the opportunity (Who is the target? What needstate, in which occasion? What’s the source of business gains etc) and fresh and relevant insight ‘fuel’. Then, be ready to experiment and learn many times through sequential iteration until you’re ready to launch.

3. Focus on your strengths

My boxing trainers told me that I would have more chance of improving my performance,  mental and physical, by focusing on improving my strengths, rather than getting bogged down trying to address my weaknesses. I have a decent jab but a weak cross, so most of my training was focused on landing jabs faster, stronger and from different angles. This is in line with the learning from extensive research by psychologists and performance consultants, as we posted on here.

Action for marketing teams: identify your strengths and work to make them even stronger while trying to keep your weaknesses into an acceptable level. This applies to you as a marketing leader, and also to brands, as we posted on here. For example, McDonald’s focused on taste and fun, whilst also working to ‘neutralise’ a weakness on health.

4. Overcommit

“If you want to climb a mid size mountain, train as if you were to climb the highest one,” a great boss once told me. The format of my fight is three rounds of two minutes each. However, in my sparring sessions I do four rounds of three minutes each. I ‘overcommit’ in my training to ensure I’ll be fully prepared for the real match.

Action for marketing teams: when designing the customer experience for your brand, what are the ‘moments of truth’ when you will really over-commit and delight the customer in a distinctive way. We call these distinctive brand properties ‘service signatures’, as described in this post for the Lux* chain of hotels.

5. Plan for success but be ready to respond too

When boxers develop the game-plan for their big match, but they also need to be flexible based on how the opponent reacts. As former world heavyweight champion Mike Tyson famously said,”Everyone has a plan, until they get punched in the face.”

Action for marketing teams: part of effective planning is thinking of different scenarios and potential competitors answers. But perhaps even more important today is the need to be responsive and agile, especially for big brands. This means finding ways of speeding up innovation processes, to be respond quicker to insurgent threats, a topic we plan to return to in our 2019 research project.

In conclusion, even if you don’t plan to put on 14oz gloves yourself and enter the ring, I suggest boxing can still offer some valuable learnings on brand, business and personal growth: define a clear ambition, work hard ‘in the gym’, focus on leveraging your strengths, over-commit to create a memorable experience and be agile to respond when you get ‘punched in the face’!