Scenario planning is one of the essential ways we get from culture to commercial advantage at Crowd DNA. Here’s how it works…

Creating culturally charged commercial advantage: it’s a term that everyone who works at Crowd DNA gets to hear pretty incessantly. And communicated very enthusiastically – it’s utterly central to how we go about our work; to how we reach high quality solutions for our clients.

While we bring a wide range of methods, techniques and frameworks into play, few speak to fusing cultural understanding to addressing business needs quite as explicitly as scenario planning. It has been one of our go-to approaches for years but – as per sourdough bread and jigsaw puzzles – Covid-19 has seen it rise to even greater prominence in our world.

With a history heading back to the 1950s and early uses in the military and think tank organisations, scenario planning is a strategic method which allows us to explore credible alternative futures – and then what opportunities and threats these futures might precipitate for our clients. We’ve used it for objectives such as product and experience development, brand positioning, comms activation, new market entries, investments and partnerships strategy.

Importantly, we don’t consider scenario planning as being about hard and fast predictions. More as well evidenced hypotheses that allow businesses to start considering less routine, less linear, multiple futures and to start a process of honing the right strategy, or strategies. Scenario planning also enables our clients to think beyond the ‘official future’ – which, though generally little more than an extrapolation of present day realities, often looms too conspicuously on the roadmap in large and complex organisations.

There is a diversity in how we use scenario planning across projects. Sometimes the field of vision is wide; at other times narrower. We may work with just one set of four scenarios; though other projects require us to develop several sets to work with. While it is always a collaborative process with our clients, the depth and frequency of the collaboration certainly varies.

We pour culture into our scenario planning work and we extract commercial advantage from it

What’s less variable is that, for us, it starts with culture. We pour culture into our scenario planning work and we extract commercial advantage from it. Numerous references to changing needs and emergent tensions – often derived from our Crowd Signs methods (trends analysis, semiotics, culture-at-scale and our KIN network)  – go in. Commercial factors such as spending habits and category developments are considered, too. From there, we edit down – often with a need for considerable ruthlessness – to the ‘critical uncertainties’ we will work with.

This gets us to two axes on which we place the critical uncertainties; generally using a two-by-two matrix as our format (it’s the most commonly used format for good reason, striking a balance between allowing for different futures without overcomplicating the issue and losing the audience).

Example 2x2 scenario matrix for comms development work
Example 2x2 scenario matrix for comms development work


Thoughtful and empathetic storytelling is used to make sure our clients can imagine their way through every dimension of a scenario

Creating the narrative that will populate each square is key – thoughtful and empathetic storytelling (strong naming principles advised) to make sure our clients can imagine their way through every dimension of a scenario, and understand the sequence of events that leads to each of them. To bring further credence to each narrative, we also look for the early signs of life. The first traces and initial manifestations of each story. Generally an extension on the work that goes into defining the narratives in the first place, again, we often leverage our Crowd Signs methods for this (engaging with our KIN network invariably reaps great results), alongside qual and quant insight.

Getting to a high level of credibility is a recurring focus point throughout a scenario planning process. It’s a consideration we often meet via socialising the work, creating films, editorial content, frameworking tools and immersive sessions to make each scenario as relatable as possible – and thus making sure that the strategies developed are truly attuned to each story.

And whether we’re working with four stakeholders or 40, face-to-face or remotely, on projects more ‘sprint’ or extended in format, strategy development is always our ultimate aim in this work. What strategy means of course depends on the context – brand or innovation, global or local etc – but it’s the essential outcome; and our clients must be left better armed to survive and thrive in the future than when the process started.

Criticisms of scenario planning? There are a few. One is that it can function as an abdication of leadership, concentrating on multiple options over a confident and unswerving path ahead. But we consider that more of a communications challenge, in how the role of scenario planning, and the scenarios themselves, are messaged to the wider business, and integrated into future objective setting.

Consider scenarios as living, breathing, evolving entities

It is also important that scenarios aren’t used once, then discarded. We encourage our clients to consider them as living, breathing, evolving entities. They need to be revisited; the narratives refreshed; the strategic implications kept sharp and prescient.

There are variations in how we use scenario planning. Sometimes the four scenarios are considered equally; in other projects, one scenario functions as the dominant ‘base case’. And then there are future-looking projects where we choose not to use scenario planning at all. It can, in some instances, be more appropriate to work with stand-alone cultural shifts and to innovate against these discreetly. In other circumstances, it may be more fitting to build our thinking around a singular forecasted future.

But scenario planning remains the framework we come back to most often. It’s balances simplicity with dexterity. Focus with range. It is easily understood, cultivates a shared language, and encourages contribution and action.

So how have we used scenario planning recently? It has helped us plot post-pandemic futures for a major water brand; plan communications, with capitalism’s fast-changing trajectory in mind, for an upmarket media title; innovate around nascent drinking and socialising moments for an alcohol portfolio; forecast our future relationship with money, and the opportunities this presents, for a fintech business.

To learn more about scenario planning at Crowd DNA, and how it gets us to culturally charged commercial advantage, do get in touch

To attend one of our June 17 webinars, where we’ll be sharing fresh thinking and practical direction on how we apply scenario planning to strategy work, head here