Once again the summer holidays have come and gone. Children, beaches, festivals, and in my case a funeral too. As I downed my marketing tools for the best part of three weeks at the end of July, I set myself a task to do some holiday reading, before the final mile on our marketing strategy development that would get us to budget sign-off by the end of September.
To brush up on strategy, I picked out Richard Rumelt’s tour-de-force ‘Good Strategy Bad Strategy’ to re-read, and on sound advice, Alan Lafley and Roger Martin’s ‘Playing to Win’. My goodness there is sage advice in both of these books for anyone willing to open their mind.
While away I heard the news, that I and many others had been dreading for weeks, our friend and colleague Suki Thompson had passed away. While I feel her premature passing keenly, I relish my memories of the vibrancy, warmth and energy she brought to all our conversations, which were often intense, full of laughter, and always inspiring. It still warms my heart to remember how, on learning of my redundancy during lockdown, she instantly recommended me to a friend for a job. Her generosity of spirit and straightforward can-do approach were so distinctively Suki, amid the anodyne platitudes of others. I can’t help but think there is a new star shining brightly over Perranporth.
Return to work
As with Mary Earps heroically saving that penalty in the Women’s World Cup, so I returned to work to find all hell had let loose in my absence, and had my own last-minute tongue-lolling goal-line antics to perform.
One of our brands, the largest and arguably most important customer brand, hasn’t succeeded in establishing itself as we had intended when we acquired it several years ago. It isn’t failing, but it isn’t winning either. In my summer absence, what started as a marketing strategy refresh has grown legs and morphed into an alternative ‘brand strategy’ for the group.
Rather frustratingly this has been developed and shared with the C-Suite ahead of the official planning process, and without any intervention on my part. Grrrr. Politics. In a fairly ludicrous meeting with the Group CEO it was mooted that the holding company rebrands itself to this customer brand to support it better in-market.
Decent marketers know that marketing activity and investment only has impact if you set a realistic, ambitious time-bound goal, that supports the commercial plan.
It’s hard to know exactly where this rather fantastic leap in logic came from – or indeed if I will ever dare to go on holiday again. It is a bit like saying let’s rebrand AB InBev to Budweiser to help Budweiser sell more beer in light of the struggles it has been having. This shallowness of thinking in a portfolio business does that brand’s leadership team in general, and the marketing individuals specifically, no credit. To borrow from Rumelt, this is bad strategy. And what makes it worse is that now it is out there in the business with a life of its own.
While anyone who is able to elevate themselves up to look across the group will recognise that the idea is a false edifice built on mistaken foundations, it will flourish in some areas despite floating above serious analysis or logic.
It is so often the case that lazy thinking gets held aloft, by people who should know better, in the hot hope that they can avoid dealing with the tricky fundamentals of their business, and the difficulties of mastering them to grow their brand.
Trying not to get too distracted, while dealing with this separately, my team and I are persevering with the actual group marketing planning process. Having identified core segments, and updated our positioning for most brands over the last few months, we’re now reaching the end of strategy development and moving to setting objectives.
Objective setting can be quite elusive. Business units like to sandbag, and executives like to have some strategic ambiguity. However, decent marketers know that marketing activity and investment only has impact if you set a realistic, ambitious, time-bound goal, that supports the commercial plan.
Working across the business we’re using data from our customer research to build a suite of funnels. One for each brand, with some competitor comparators. The funnels show where each brand stands across key performance indicators like awareness, familiarity, consideration and the like. But more importantly they focus on the conversion rate between KPIs.
What’s been fascinating has been hearing the pennies drop. As an example, customer brand A doesn’t have a consideration problem, as it has been saying for several years to justify a large ad and sponsorship spend. For sure its consideration is marginally lower than peers, as is its awareness. But the main issue is the conversion from usage to repurchase. It’s 50% less efficient than the main competitor. That’s a service issue that we need to address to stop outflows, not least because cross-selling a new product line is a big driver of incremental higher-margin growth for this brand.
It is so often the case that lazy thinking gets held aloft, by people who should know better.
For brand B it’s just about low awareness. Conversion rates down the funnel are really strong. From focusing purely on performance marketing, what they need to do is build a more well-known brand too. Brands C and D both have similar identifiable issues when looked at through the lens of a funnel. It’s such a great tool to help the teams.
Armed with these and a focus on developing SMART marketing objectives, the hardest bit in the time we have left will be running around the ‘affordability, audience size, % uplift’ circular debate until we get to the right place for each brand, and the business overall. We’ll do all this calmly, all the while, facing into this rather distracting and ill-conceived new brand strategy coming from brand A.
In truth, I’m not that concerned about putting their bad idea back in its box anymore. My initial response was pure emotion. But on reflection, I am confident this can be done fairly smartly with the right data and arguments: A) The immutability of our investor narrative in the capital markets is such that we really don’t want it to change – our corporate brand is renowned for M&A and consolidation. It will be quite a while before organic growth will be a more investible alternative. B) Brand contagion and how the corporate brand acts as a buffer to our organic growth brands where service is key, from our lower service consolidation brands. And finally C) the huge disruption rebranding all our employee infrastructure, materials, websites and offices for next to no external brand upside or even cost saving.
No, my main concern is that if this ‘smash n’ grab’ strategy is the best that marketing team can come up with to propel their brand forward, god help us when they see their marketing objectives for next year. Perhaps this is an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. Not only can we get that brand to focus on the right marketing strategy, but this also appears to be a time for a change in the marketing leadership in that part of the business as well. You could call me a melancholy optimist.