Don’t waste a good crisis – take the opportunity to rebuild your strategy

As we come out of lockdown, solid foundations and a clear brand strategy are vital to guide short-term tactics and ensure long-term shareholder value, former group marketing director at Royal Mail.

I have been mentoring, advising and generally supporting a portfolio of ventures in the UK, US and Canada in the nine months since being made redundant. They range from startups to established multimillion-pound turnover businesses, and operate across a range of different sectors from sports equipment and education to agritech and sportstech. Despite the variety, I have found several recurring challenges and themes that provide insights for businesses of all sizes as the UK comes out of lockdown.

Regardless of size and nature, they have all struggled with key aspects of brand and strategy development during lockdown. They have been unable to succinctly answer perhaps the two most powerful questions in business and marketing: Where are we playing? How are we going to win?

Marketers must be at the centre of transformation, not at the edges

When the sun was shining at the beginning of last year, few had put any real thought into developing a clear strategic positioning, brand strategy or coherent go-to-market plan – really understanding who their most valuable customers were and how to reach them effectively. This is not to say during the pandemic they have not been bootstrapping, hustling and generally succeeding in what are perhaps the most treacherous trading conditions since the Great Depression a century ago. They have all done well. But for some their gains were inefficiently won, and reliant more on luck and sheer force of will than solid thinking about how to leverage their brand and market forces better than their competitors, to thrive over the medium to long term.

I am not naïve. Blue-sky thinking and time-consuming brainstorms have no place in a crisis, especially when cash generation and cost control are key. I do not advocate navel-gazing conceptual thinking at any time, least of all in a crisis. Strategy development is about setting an ambitious but achievable plan, and aligning all resources against delivering that plan. This is practical stuff, not wishful thinking.

I learned at Royal Mail how vital it was to have a clear direction in place, and the right resources aligned to delivering it; or else hard-won gains made in the muck and bullets of any transformation, or indeed crisis, fade away, momentum stalls and growth disappears as quickly as it arrives. We are seeing winners, losers and also-rans emerge in key categories. This has kicked off significant activity with businesses adapting to fight back, investing in further growth and transforming to compete, regain, or keep their edge.

Churchill is reputed to have advised that one should “never let a good crisis go to waste”.  So, what have I learned from working in the innovation and SME space through this crisis that can help marketers, no matter their business sector, as we leave lockdown?

Strategic positioning

With the sudden influx of ecommerce activity in established businesses, and the continued growth in innovative new startups, all using mind-boggling new technology, the practice of developing a clear strategic position can sometimes get lost in the hype. Positioning is the art of being different from one’s competitors. It is about knowing who you are for, how you do things and what you don’t do the same as your competitors.

A strong positioning can insulate a business from effective competition. Too often positioning is relegated to communications only – differentiated purpose, tone, visual identity, a tagline – without the business being, or indeed doing, anything different. A mere veneer. Good strategic positioning is much more. It is about how a business operates, its culture and the ecosystem around which services are delivered. As the economic hibernation ends this year, and businesses start to recover at pace and compete, well thought through strategic positioning versus competitors will become vital.

If you haven’t built recognition and awareness, quick wins through discounting and ecommerce will quickly fade away.

Oxwash, a space-age laundry service, has been taking Oxford, Cambridge and now London by storm. Initially positioned around sustainable chemistry and innovative technology, it has more recently broadened its positioning by identifying and building out four key ingredients that make Oxwash what it is: an intelligent technology platform that maximises asset utilisation across collection, processing and delivery. It offers customer self-service via web and app, convenient collection and delivery, and lastly, hygiene and sustainability.

Together, these form a very distinctive strategic position with clear blue water between Oxwash and its competitive set. Critically, it also informs what Oxwash won’t do, as well as the areas to focus on for further innovation. The strength of a clear positioning became plain during the pandemic. Understanding its core strengths, Oxwash has been able to pivot and accent the aspects of hygiene and convenience in its positioning, to support new growth around cleaning medical and scientific clothing during the pandemic, keeping NHS staff and Oxford scientists clean and safe. Other laundry service providers, with a far woollier sense of their positioning and proposition, have been unable to adapt as coherently and effectively.

Now is the time for businesses and their marketing teams to review their strategic positioning. As we come out of lockdown into a world that has changed, it will pay organisations to ensure they are taking advantage of market forces as they are now and differentiating from competitors where there is an advantage to be gained.

Brand strategy development

In a time of great change and digital evolution, reviewing an organisation’s brand strategy becomes particularly important. Not only does it force a discussion on who the business is for, but also a definition of what it is trying to achieve for them, and how. This is important when consumer behaviours change through enforced use of ecommerce, and competitors react differently.

During the pandemic we have seen many brands evolve their channel strategy and product propositions to capture volume and, if they are lucky, growth. But not all sudden moves are advisable, or indeed sustainable, in the long term. The economics of ecommerce are quite different from bricks and mortar retail, for example. Furthermore, the capabilities required to ‘win’ in your category are also different.

From a brand perspective, if you haven’t built recognition and awareness amongst your most valuable prospects, quick wins through discounting and expanding into ecommerce and D2C will quickly fade away. Or worse, they’ll cause long-term issues with margin contraction and lost control of distribution channels. To succeed in direct-to-consumer, having a strong brand is a prerequisite.

Ram International, a sports equipment business serving schools and clubs with low-cost, decent-quality rugby and cricket kit, faced into real challenges when we first moved into national lockdown last year. When the pandemic struck, its traditional customers stopped buying. Clubs stopped playing matches. Schools were closed. Quickly, it pivoted to single-item and small-batch sales through online platforms and their own website. It even launched a half-size rugby ball for home training, which kids and players stuck at home could throw against a wall.

Consolidating this new direct route to market required significant new skills in the organisation and dedicated resource in consumer ecommerce. It also highlighted an opportunity to build on the Ram brand. What did it stand for? How could it carve a distinctive path away from the larger, better-known international premium brands? Recognising this, the team set about clarifying their brand strategy.

By working through why it was important for its customers, Ram was able to evolve its brand away from a very functional definition, based on helping clubs buy cheap but good-enough equipment, to a more powerful and purposeful definition centred on ensuring every aspiring grassroot athlete, passionate about rugby and cricket, could compete with the best. This richer proposition continues to enable it to appeal to different audiences across different channels.

As in strategic positioning, a clear proposition points to other things the business could pursue. As the low-cost enabler of sporting aspiration, Ram now has new opportunities to explore, across product development, customer experience and geographic expansion; to support diversity and inclusion in sport, as well as developing sporting nations. Helping aspirational amateurs to realise their sporting dreams is also a cracking employee proposition.

Spending time now, as we leave lockdown, refreshing your brand strategy for the world we live in today will provide your business with firmer foundations to compete and grow with real confidence and energy. This will also help maximise chances of success in new direct channels.

Go-to-market planning

When launching a new venture or planning for aggressive growth in a scale-up business, the practice of developing a clear go-to-market (GTM) plan is key. It’s not just a large Gant chart with key milestones and project streams, a proper GTM plan looks holistically at how a business or product will enter a market to ensure the maximum chance of success.

It is not uncommon to read about transformation failure, and the ever-present gap between strategy and execution which impedes improvements in business performance. A thorough GTM plan should be the glue that holds it all together.

Lego and GSK on what it takes to be truly customer centric

As with strategic positioning and brand strategy, it all starts with the customer. But in many ways, it pulls in much more than positioning and value proposition. A strong GTM plan will look at how to enter the market: how to phase the launch, the pricing approach to take, distribution channels to use, and of course communication and lead-generation approaches.

In my dealings with ventures in both the Oxford Foundry and leAD sports technology accelerator programmes, I have engaged with leadership teams in answering just such questions. In the innovation space, when you are launching from scratch, it is greenfield. This is quite different from more established businesses, with legacy practices.

There is a lot that established businesses can learn from startups. From the very nimble approach to testing pricing and revenue models, to using technology to lower barriers to access; for example, charging by use or even outcome, rather than a flat fee. But perhaps the most important learning is how insidious is the passionately held assumption that digital advertising, and more specifically social media, is a panacea to brand building and lead generation.

When you are starting out, the limitations of a solely social or digital approach become apparent very quickly. Quick wins fade. Reaching new audiences with impact becomes disproportionately expensive on a CPM basis. Quite often volumes of new customers can be gained quicker and more effectively through partnerships, affiliates and utilising online platforms, alongside standard digital and social advertising approaches.

In startups you experience this quickly and must diversify your media plan to maintain revenue. It is far less obvious with established brands, unless a very intricate econometric model is used to discern what is driving volume, versus what is shiny, new and in your own feed.

In the melee of doing business day to day during the lockdown, there remains significant benefit in reflecting on the fundamentals of your marketing, brand and go-to-market approaches. As we exit lockdown this summer, making time to review, refresh and, where needed, put in place stronger foundations calibrated to the world we are now living in could be vital. It will ensure your business has the strongest possible platform to build on as markets and, hopefully, customers’ wallets open up.

Ben Rhodes is visual identity director at GSK and former group marketing director at Royal Mail.

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