Knowledge proves a wise investment

An increasing number of companies are learning that tailoring staff training to the needs of the business is a cost-effective way of creating a whole workforce of brand ambassadors. By Robert Lester

It would be brave, and possibly foolish, for politicians or business leaders to claim that the economy is emerging from the woods just yet. But as “green shoots” are cited with increasing regularity, the beginning of the recession’s end might just be in sight.

With that in mind, it would be remiss of brands not to be thinking about what has been learned from this downturn and how it can be applied to the new working environment in the future, making staff training more important than ever. During the recession, offering marketers the chance to acquire extra skills has been used by many businesses to placate those facing salary freezes and a lack of promotion opportunities.

Mhairi McEwan, founder and joint managing director of Brand Learning, believes this focus on “marketing capability development” will continue.

She explains: “Building marketing capabilities is seen as an essential investment, not a discretionary cost. Customers are becoming more demanding and rivals are getting more creative in their search for a competitive edge. Businesses need to stand out and their people are their route to this. If they can get a substantial return on their investment, then it makes absolute sense.”

Analysis of the American Consumer Satisfaction Index database supports that argument, making the link between marketing and shareholder value by demonstrating that companies with higher than average customer satisfaction scores consistently outperform competitors in their sector.

McEwan says that training has moved into a new era where companies are seen as more joined-up than simply discrete departments; most of Brand Learning’s clients, which include Unilever, Shell, Diageo and Tesco, now talk about “learning” and the benefits it can have for a business as a whole rather than just for individual staff members.

“Leading companies are focusing on the needs of the organisation, rather than individuals,” she adds. “Marketing capability development is aimed at driving top-line growth, rather than what individuals need to learn. The programmes that companies are putting in place are much sharper and more focused on end results than they were previously.”

Private healthcare specialist Bupa has just started working with the consultancy as part of its aim to create a strong, differentiated brand. Brand director Fiona McAnena explains: “We want to make our brand work harder for the business and for that we need great marketers. Our brand should be the touchstone for what makes Bupa special around the world.

“To achieve that, we’re not just doing generic training programmes – they’re very much translated into the context of our business and our business strategy.”

British Gas has also been investing in marketing training to put customers at the heart of its business decision-making process (see case study). Marketing director Rick Vlemmiks explains: “We have increased our market share over the last 12 months, even in a recession, by embedding understanding and insight into how we behave as a business.

“We now run a very intensive two-day insight and customer understanding module. I have championed that across the marketing department and the commercial divisions of our business. Senior managers involved in any of the profit and loss areas have also been on the course.”

There is a range of training options available for companies or individual marketers looking for extra skills. The Marketing Society runs the “Marketing Fast Track” programme to bring marketing professionals who have been in the business for a minimum of three years up to speed on the latest topics, such as how to be a “customer champion”.

Meanwhile, the Brand Learning Academy was recently launched to develop and build foundation-level marketing skills. It works by students taking part in six one-day modules – inspiring insights, building brands, winning innovations, strategic planning, activity planning and integrated communications – aimed at giving them those core skills.

McEwan, who identifies insight and innovation as particular areas of focus this year, says that “blended learning” is an important concept for brands to consider. She suggests that learning programmes should use a range of channels, including face-to-face, the internet and ongoing on-the-job support.

Of the latest learning trends, McEwan adds: “Within face-to-face workshops, we’re seeing a move towards live action learning. Companies don’t just do training, they run programmes that get employees working on real business issues at the same time as building skills.

“If a business has an innovation workshop, for example, marketers come out of it with [usable] innovation concepts at the end. It’s quite a clever way of combining building the skills of marketing with solving issues.”

As well as a move towards more businessfocused learning, the recession has highlighted a lack of basic skills in some marketers, as identified in Marketing Week’s last special report on training (MW 9 July).

The Chartered Institute of Marketing’s director of research and professional development, David Thorp, says courses such as copywriting and market research are particularly popular at the moment, pointing out that brands may have become overly reliant on agencies.

“We’re seeing a lot more focus on the core skills around marketing,” he adds. “People are not going for more esoteric courses or courses that might be of use this time next year. They’re focusing very much on the here and now.

“Marketers used to have to do everything. If I had said to my boss in the old days that I wanted to bring in an agency, he’d have laughed – or sacked me. To some extent, we’ve lost those basic skills over the last few years. Some marketers are almost like project managers now. We need to bring core skills back into every marketer’s tool set.”

Thorp points out that digital courses are also growing in popularity as a new generation of web-savvy marketers take up roles.

But Hugh Burkitt, chief executive of The Marketing Society, warns that marketers must not forget the basics of return on investment. “Marketers need to be more analytical than in the past,” he says. “A lot find it easier to be creative, but a good marketer always combines the two.”

Another brand that has put training at the heart of its strategy is pub operator JD Wetherspoon, which claims its standard of service is one of the key factors behind its recent record sales results. The company’s personnel team works closely with its marketing department to make sure that all staff, including people working in the pubs themselves, are fully briefed on the launch of any new products.

Head of personnel and training Mandy Ferries says: “There’s a management guru in the US who says that the more you spend on training, the less you have to spend on marketing. If you can get the training right and have people in the business as brand ambassadors, there’s less of a need to market the product.

“It’s very much about customer service in our industry. You need to be able to interact with consumers and give them a reason to return to the pub. We have something called the 100 Club, where we encourage staff to get to know 100 customers and find out something about them. We believe we’ll reap the benefits because that will lead to return custom.

“We want to give people a reason to return apart from price and value, and when the economy starts to pick up, we will be the preferred choice because of that personal touch.” This is a tactic that is also being employed by British Gas. Vlemmiks adds: “Every time we take a service or product to market, it’s as important to communicate it to our frontline staff as it is to communicate it to our customers.

“Our staff are the brand. It doesn’t really matter what I put on TV if it’s not aligned to how our people are delivering the brand promise.”

Case Study: British Gas

British Gas marketing director Rick Vlemmiks believes the recession has changed people’s spending habits forever. But he claims to be confident the company is well positioned to prosper in the new environment – thanks to a specially designed training course. Vlemmiks, who joined the energy giant from financial services group HBOS last year, has been the driving force behind an intensive two-day insight and customer understanding module for British Gas’s marketing department and senior managers across its commercial divisions.

“Embedding customer and insight into the business and business decision making process has become fundamental over the last 12 months,” he explains. “Delivering value, as in what customers really value, has become more important than ever before.

“Over the next five to ten years, all of the big winners will be the ones that understand what customers really value and find innovative and creative ways to do it.

“The recession has made us all more conscious of where we’re spending our cash. If you look at the winners and losers, it’s not just companies that have reduced their costs that have won – it’s the companies that have understood customers better.”

British Gas’ course is designed to put customers at the heart of every decision the company takes, from investment and product decisions to route-to-market strategies. The groups get back together after three, six and 12 months for a two-hour session to discuss how they have “embedded” customers into every decision they make. This helps ensure the training is being used in real-life scenarios.

Vlemmiks sums up: “It’s become part of the vocabulary and it’s going to be even more important as we come out of the recession. People have changed their mindset and it won’t ever be the same again. You won’t win in the future if you rely on old areas of differentiation.

“Of course, we still have to use traditional decision-making criteria, but asking ‘Is this delivering value to the customer?’ is an important factor now too. As people become more aware of their investment and purchasing decisions, they’ll either go for lower prices or ask who’s delivering the best value at a certain price.”

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