Lessons to be learned from Glenn’s vision at Birds Eye

Aidan Bocci takes a monthly look at how leading CEOs build brands and draws lessons that anyone can apply

Aidan%20BocciMartin Glenn, CEO of Permira-owned Birds Eye Iglo Group, is often cited as one of the country’s most influential marketers. With the economic climate as it is, and as it will be another year at least until we see some turnaround, there’s a good reason to look to Martin’s work at Birds Eye for inspiration.

Martin was formerly president of PepsiCo UK, and many would argue that his most notable achievement was to turn Walkers Snack Foods from a small regional player into the UK’s largest snack brand. I’ve known Martin for ten years and knew that when he assumed his new role at Birds Eye Iglo in August 2006, he would have to apply his brand building experience to over-come some pretty difficult challenges.

At Commercial Advantage, we believe a brand provides the single most critical fulcrum to any sustainable business. This means that the way your organisation is structured and works together has to be built around the brand strategy, as opposed to compromising your brand strategy to avoid changing your organisation. The latent strength of the Birds Eye brand couldn’t make up for the fact that the organisation itself had not necessarily lived up to the expectations of its heritage. With this in mind, Martin’s challenge was to change the way his entire organisation thought and behaved, to enable them to survive and flourish outside the relative comfort of a global corporate machine.

There are a lot of myths around about how much private equity-owned brands can invest in building the brand. Private equity is often misunderstood and seen as a financial quick fix under strict controls set by an intrusive board. In reality, it can create more breathing space between the brand and the destructive forces of public disclosure. Martin says he has “total freedom” at Permira. When he was offered the post he had to decide if he could lead a 1.3bn (870m) sales turnaround and whether the risk and potential return was worth it. Many at Birds Eye feared a “slash and burn” approach, but Martin was clear from the start that a brand-led growth story would provide a better return for Permira than merely cost-stripping. His instincts proved correct and that’s a lesson we all need to believe in and learn from right now.

Martin was prepared to bet personal money on the success of his approach by investing personally in the business. That will have had a huge impact on his mindset. Investing your own money creates the closest possible alignment between personal and company objectives. Maybe it’s a pity more employees don’t personally invest before joining a new company. It would certainly help transform the success rate on new product launches as managers would seek to invest astutely and make their investments work, rather than sink money into launches designed to fill holes in short-term business plans.

Marketing budgets are always the first ones to be looked at when a business is under pressure. The way through is to ensure cost-cutting is done in the correct areas of the business, that activities that aren’t aligned to deliver a brand’s consumer behaviour objectives are culled at every opportunity for the sake of the brand. Taking this approach can still mean growing the overall advertising and promotions (A&P) pot through re-investment, if that’s the right thing to do for the business as a whole, just as Martin has done. When clients ask me how much they should be spending, I always say that’s the wrong question to ask. Real results depend on how you spend money in the market place. Spend it in whatever amount and whatever way is right to deliver brand objectives.

Far too many marketers perfect their creative and analytical skills and leave it at that – in Martin’s words: “New Romantics who think it’s a human right to spend marketing money”. Great marketers are managers that get a real kick out of execution. They recognise the limitations of market research and focus their efforts on getting to know their core target consumers personally. They use first-hand insight to create passion in others, teach their teams how to make decisions that best deliver consumer objectives and “learn by doing” to build brands one step at a time.

Martin’s team strives to incorporate learning into live business plans, rather than find the perfect ROI measure to justify history. We advise clients to agree common frameworks for making decisions about the future, which, by nature, is bound to be uncertain, as opposed to spending time buried in numbers looking for a magic answer. The result is a far more agile organisation that quickly responds to the real world and harnesses the full capability of its people.

You might also need to go through a process of changing the agencies that aren’t right for your vision, again, like Martin did at Birds Eye. Good agencies are challenging and focus on giving clients honest advice, even if that means follow-through work might be lost. Co-creating the brief with agencies that you trust will deliver a far stronger outcome than a competitive bid process.

Martin’s aiming for solid growth in 2009 – a very good result in today’s economic climate. Others out there may feel very unlucky this year. The only way through it is to confront the brutal facts of your own reality and turn the biggest wholesale change in consumer behaviour in decades to your own commercial advantage.

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