A Summer Case Study on Marketing, Planning and Brand Management

I was a commercial river guide two summers in college. Since then, my friends and family have been my crew on rafting trips on the Colorado, the Snake, the Middle Fork of the Salmon, and other rivers for over twenty years now. Why do I love whitewater? Because you don’t get to push ‘pause’ or ‘restart’ when you’re in the thick of it. No meetings or focus groups to discus what should be done. It is living in the moment at its purest.

In those same twenty-years, I’ve been helping brands and companies read the currents of their industries, prepare for fast approaching challenges, position themselves for opportunities ahead, hit the sweet spot with their customers; and grow revenue, share and profits. Here are a few quick thoughts on lessons learned on and off the water.


I. Wear a lifejacket.

If you’re gonna play in the big waves, you’re gonna get wet and be forced under – at least once. Do your homework. Know your competition. Study out the issues. Understand the legal, trademark, and comparative claim issues that affect your brands. Have a back-up plan, or two ready. Make sure you have the processes in place to float you back to the surface when you get shoved under.


II. You can’t stop the river.

In fact, you can’t even slow it down. Like the flood of technology, new competition, eroding margins, consumer trends, and time itself… the dynamic elements of the marketplace will only accelerate. Our job as marketing professionals is to navigate the best route THROUGH these waters. Using technology and social trends to our advantage. Seeing and anticipating these trends so we can prepare and best position ourselves for that next hazard or opportunity.

On the river, you quickly learn that if you are floating exactly at the same speed as the current, your ability to maneuver is limited. Only by paddling a little faster (or slower) than the current, can you move the boat efficiently. Riding the trends and currents of the marketplace is similar. Being out in front, a little faster than the current conditions (or deliberately following the wave of early adopters) is often more productive than being swept along in the flow.


III. There will always be unmarked hazards.

Every river changes with each new season. Rock slides, erosion and  fallen trees will change the path of how water flows downhill. New rapids will appear, and old ones may flatten out. The best marketing plans map out your route based on the best information available. And they are flexible enough to adjust for challenges and opportunities that appear along the way. Being able to react quickly and profitably to the unexpected isn’t magic, it’s simply the result of preparing for those unmarked hazards before you are hung-up on the rocks not indicated on any map.


IV. In big water, listen to your guide.

Small, slow rivers with few obstacles can be floated with inner tubes. Floaters will bounce off the banks and rocks as the current leisurely pulls them downstream. In big water, having a guide can be vital. The guide sees the best route and gives directions to the paddlers on the raft to stay on course. Frequent calls for “Forward on the left,” or “Everyone paddle backwards,” allows a coordinated effort of all on board which safely moves the boat precisely through the obstacles. In today’s marketing, branding and advertising industries, there is no shortage of guide services available. Define what type of assistance you need, find a good fit, and then trust your guide. It goes without saying that having two guides in the same boat giving contradictory commands is NOT helpful. The best guides know the river because they have been down the same stretch of water many, many times.


V. Enjoy the ride.

Great river trips have a mix of preparation, boredom, exhilaration (aka absolute terror), camaraderie, hard work, success, celebration and relaxation. Great marketing efforts share most of these stages. Perhaps the greatest riskto successful marketing teams is that they don’t make time for those last few stages of the adventure… success, celebration and relaxation. Without the moments to celebrate and share stories after the water slows down, the hard work and fear and stress become the only memories of the adventure. Take the time to celebrate. Share the stories of the big wins, the great campaign, and the successful launch. Congratulate each other on a job well done. Then, when the next big rapid is approaching fast, you will have a crew ready to hit it with the confidence that comes from having been there, and done that.

About the author: Scott R. Rackham

Scott has been running rivers and helping organizations craft compelling stories for over 20 years. With professional experiences as varied as the rivers and mountains he loves, Scott currently serves a consultant at Sprout Marketing. Other experience includes: Director of the Strategic Communications Labs at BYU; President, Partner, and Director of a number of award-winning ad agencies; Executive Director at MPTV Friends; and Corporate Identity and Brand Strategist for Monigle Associates, a national brand consultancy. With degrees from Brigham Young University, and The Newhouse School of Syracuse University, he has the distinction of being an alumnus of the two schools that have proudly occupied the top slot at The Princeton Review’slist of “Best” (SU) and “Worst” (BYU) party schools in the country. Scott has eight kids, one wife, and lives deliberately in the shadow of Mt. Timpanogos in Orem, Utah.