Keeping Up With The Joneses: 8 Ways to Stay on the Cutting Edge of Your Industry

"Keeping up with the Joneses." It‘s a familiar phrase, coined over a century ago, that refers to comparing oneself to one‘s neighbors as a benchmark for social class or the accumulation of material goods. But what does this maxim mean in the business world, and how can companies, especially marketers, avoid falling behind their industry peers?

In today‘s rapidly evolving digital landscape, with new technologies emerging and consumer behaviors shifting constantly, keeping up with the proverbial Joneses is more critical than ever for brands. Failing to adapt to the latest trends and tools doesn‘t just mean losing status—it can mean losing customers and market share to more innovative competitors.

The stakes are high. According to a 2020 McKinsey study, companies that ranked in the top 10% for innovation saw 2.4x higher revenue growth than bottom-quartile performers. Another study by Adobe found that companies with robust digital marketing strategies have a 13% higher shareholder return compared to their less digitally advanced peers.

So how can marketing leaders ensure they are keeping pace and pushing boundaries in their space? Here are eight proven strategies:

1. Conduct regular market research and gather customer insights.

Just as gossiping neighbors might try to suss out what shiny new car the Joneses bought, savvy marketers must keep a pulse on evolving customer needs and pain points. Traditional methods like surveys, polls, and focus groups still apply.

But don‘t overlook newer research tactics enabled by advancing technology. For example, some companies are now using AI and machine learning to analyze unstructured data like customer reviews and social media posts at scale to surface insights.

One case in point: Unilever used AI to analyze hundreds of thousands of public images to understand how people use its food brands in real life, informing content and product development. Market research doesn‘t have to be a quarterly initiative—with the right tools, it can be an always-on feedback loop.

2. Read voraciously to absorb new knowledge.

Making time to read industry blogs, news sites, research reports, and more is table stakes for staying informed. The challenge? The sheer volume of content.

Consider using an aggregator tool like Feedly or Flipboard and subscribing to updates from a few authoritative sources you trust in your niche. For marketing leaders, some of the most valuable free newsletters include Think with Google, eMarketer, and The CMO Survey.

Blocking regular time on your calendar for focused reading is also key. As Meghan Keaney Anderson, CMO at HubSpot, has shared: "I try to carve out the first 30 minutes of every day to read."

3. Outsource specialized functions to expert partners.

Sometimes it pays to enlist outside reinforcements to fill capability gaps. The marketing technology landscape has exploded in recent years, ballooning to over 8,000 solutions as of 2020. Developing expertise in every emerging discipline is near impossible.

That‘s where partners come in. Say you want to experiment with voice technology—you might tap an agency that specializes in building Alexa skills. Looking to dip your toe into VR? Seek out a production company known for that capability.

Even giants aren‘t shy about buying versus building. Apple‘s $3 billion acquisition of Beats in 2014 is a prime example—it accelerated the company‘s entry into music streaming and provided an instant cool factor.

4. Leverage insights from the sales team.

The sales team has their finger on the pulse of the competitive landscape and shifting customer needs. Establishing a tight feedback loop and collaborative relationship between marketing and sales, known as "smarketing," is key.

Schedule regular sync-ups between the teams to discuss learnings from sales calls, including common objections, competitive claims, and evolving customer pain points that can inform marketing messaging and content.

According to LinkedIn research, 86% of marketing and sales professionals say collaboration between the two teams enables critical business growth.

5. Divide and conquer as a marketing team.

Staying on the cutting edge doesn‘t have to fall solely on the CMO‘s shoulders. Empower your team to help by dividing up trend-spotting responsibilities.

Consider assigning each team member an area to own monitoring and reporting back on, such as one person covering SEO news, another tracking social media updates, another focused on content marketing, and so on. Create a simple system, like a shared spreadsheet or Slack channel, where people can log their findings.

Then schedule quarterly "state of the union" meetings to discuss key takeaways and implications as a group. Crowdsourcing knowledge helps democratize innovation and eases the burden on leaders.

6. Acquire innovative companies.

For organizations flush with cash, purchasing up-and-coming companies at the forefront of new technologies or methodologies can be an effective way to gain emerging capabilities.

M&A activity in the marketing tech space, especially, has been on a tear. The first half of 2021 alone saw $7.2 billion in martech acquisitions, according to Martech Alliance—a blistering pace considering the full-year total for 2020 was $5.3 billion.

Giants like Salesforce, Adobe, and Oracle have all used this strategy to round out their offerings and stay competitive, snatching up buzzy younger companies in areas like AI, personalization, and account-based marketing.

7. Embrace agile marketing.

Borrowing principles from software development, many leading marketing organizations are now adopting an agile operating model with the goal of enabling swifter innovation.

Agile marketing is characterized by releasing work in shorter sprints, rapidly iterating based on feedback, dedicating staff to specific initiatives via "squads," and visualizing progress with tools like kanban boards.

In a 2020 survey by Merkle, 67% of marketers reported they‘re either fully agile or heading in that direction, up substantially from just 32% in 2019. It‘s a key culture shift for keeping pace with change.

8. Stay true to your brand‘s core identity.

Amidst all the pressure to evolve, don‘t lose sight of your brand‘s foundational mission and values. Authenticity still matters deeply to customers—it‘s persistently one of the top traits they seek in brands, per several global studies.

As marketing guru Seth Godin has cautioned, don‘t "round off your edges" so much in an attempt to appeal to everyone that you lose what makes you unique. Innovation for its own sake, without a strategic north star, often backfires.

Which Strategy Is Most About "Keeping Up"?

Looking at these strategies, which one best exemplifies the "keeping up with the Joneses" phenomenon? I would argue acquiring innovative companies, when done in a reactive way simply to gain the same capabilities a competitor has, maps most closely to the original idiom.

There‘s an element of striving to "keep up appearances" that‘s core to the phrase. M&A can sometimes fall into this trap of pursuing "the next big thing" for its own sake or out of fear of missing out, without a clear tie to customer needs or the brand‘s mission.

However, that‘s not to say M&A is necessarily a misguided tactic—when deployed thoughtfully as part of a future-looking growth strategy, it can be a powerful tool for moving into new markets or product areas.

But it takes work to get right. McKinsey research shows that in the 1,000 largest global companies, so-called "big-bet" acquisitions (those over 30% of market cap) deliver higher shareholder returns than other M&A moves, averaging 4.0% above their industry index. However, over half of big-bet deals fail to create value.

The lesson? Due diligence is critical, as is a clear strategic rationale beyond playing catch-up. Cultural fit, integration planning, and a long-term lens for measuring success also make or break M&A moves.

Pursuing Purposeful Evolution

In today‘s sink-or-swim business environment, keeping up with—or rather, keeping ahead of—the competition depends on weaving a spirit of continuous innovation into the fabric of an organization.

But it‘s a tricky balance. Brands need to evolve their marketing strategies, capabilities, and technology at the pace of change without losing their core identity, alienating loyal customers, or making missteps by moving too fast without proper planning.

As Rita Gunther McGrath, innovation expert and Columbia Business School professor, advises in her book Seeing Around Corners: "The solution is to make innovation a continuous process, not a one-time event. The new imperative is to start bolstering your organization‘s resilience and ability to navigate change long before it hits."

Gathering real-time customer insights, upskilling team capabilities, experimenting thoughtfully with emerging tools and tactics, and pursuing strategic partnerships can help marketing leaders keep their brands on the cutting edge—not through reactive "keeping up," but through proactive evolution with purpose.

The author Bo Burlingham may have put it best in his book Small Giants, which profiles companies that choose to be great instead of big: "The key is to have a mission that‘s bigger than making money. For most of these companies, what they‘re doing is an extension of who they are."

So by all means, keep tabs on the Joneses. But never forget what made customers fall in love with your brand in the first place. Find ways to innovate that let your authentic DNA shine through. Because truly great brands don‘t follow trends—they set them.