Want to become a strategy-forward marketer? Follow these five principles

Our marketer on the inside admits being strategy-forward is not for the faint hearted, so has identified five key principles that will help brand leaders navigate through the fog of uncertainty.

Secret MarketerI had to draw the line when it came to using pan pipes in the new sonic identity we were developing. What is it about branding and music that brings about such bizarre discussions?

Once, when discussing the music for our new brand advertising campaign, the CEO broke into song. It was both uplifting and surreal. In a quavering alto she performed a full rendition of Coke’s ‘I want to teach the world to sing’, not once, but twice.

Inwardly chuckling, I grasped the point: we needed something epic and distinctive. Yet there I was, in a singsong discussion with the CEO, when we should have been having a much more important strategic debate about how to reinvigorate and reposition a slowly dying super brand.

How did I let myself get lured into an absurd tactical exchange and lose focus on the substance? And more to the point, have other CEOs ever sung to their marketing directors?

Mark Ritson: Three axioms and three questions that summarise all of brand strategy

Being a strategy-forward marketer is not for the faint hearted. It means identifying and answering the fundamental questions that will support the business and enterprise plan, before jumping into our much beloved marketing tactics.

The benefit is that you can build a firm platform to operate from, rather than flitting between different short-term approaches that never truly move the business forward. Strategy-forward means you focus first on the outcomes that will transform business performance over the longer term.

If changing the brand can’t clearly deliver the upside needed, it might be wiser to say so, and move on.

Recently, I have been addressing two strategic questions: How best should we configure our brands to support our enterprise strategy? And how do we embed our purpose across the group to support our transformation? I found the following five principles really helped me navigate through the fog of uncertainty:

1. Situate the brand strategy in the enterprise plan. Brand and marketing activity is worth nothing if it is not focused on value creation. It’s all about following the money and, if pushed, how to balance effective value creation with efficiency. If your brand or marketing activity isn’t helping to deliver the commercial plan or enterprise strategy, you’re going to get your very expensive colouring pencils taken away.

2. Think long. Brands take a significant amount of time to establish, grow, transition or turnaround. Often, brand transition can take several years to complete, which means you need to build the brand for the business tomorrow, not just today. This can be very challenging as most executive teams don’t have a detailed five-year plan, let alone a view on the next decade. Operationally, most MDs tend to be focussed on in-year performance. So, we must first lift our stakeholders eyes to the horizon.

3. If you can’t identify clear benefits, do nothing. Brand building is eye-wateringly expensive, so it must bring significant value. Whilst symmetry is attractive, rationalising brands will cost millions for most large established businesses. That’s a lot of extra product you need to sell or margin to generate just to break even on the investment. Identifying and calculating costs is much more straightforward than being able to pinpoint the measurable financial benefits of any brand transition. If changing the brand can’t clearly deliver the upside needed, it might be wiser to say so, and move on.

4. Be very clear on the role of your brands and their strategic fit. Are they focused on different value pools? Will combining brands reduce their impact in core markets? What of brand contagion? What is the role of the corporate and employer brand? These are challenging questions, especially if the business has grown through merger and acquisition without a formal brand strategy in mind. Working with colleagues to clarify the role each brand could play is vital in linking back to the enterprise strategy, and getting to a clear brand architecture that stimulates equity flow up, down and across the organisation.

5. Be objective and call out the truths. Are your brands strong enough today? Will the group purpose be as dynamic and compelling with customers, as it is internally and in helping attract new talent to the business? Do we have the right capability, capacity and budget to deliver the change we need? It’s tough peeling back received corporate wisdom, and injecting some clear dispassionate thinking. Telling the board that none of the brands in our stable were currently strong enough to win in their markets was tough to say, but more so for them to hear. However, it broke the inertia, and led to the right debate: what do we need to do to win?

With the musical rendition over, and brand commercial subsequently nailed, I knew I had to reposition myself, and the role of marketing in that organisation, to achieve any lasting impact. I had to get into a strategy-forward position to drive change. After several years and multiple restructures I achieved what was required to drive the marketing strategy forward and make the kind of impact it needed to, only for a flurry of new CEOs and Covid to get in the way.

Now in a new organisation facing similar brand challenges, and yes, still fussing over instrumentation and the virtues of the piano over pan pipes for the leitmotif of our new brand track, I am here specifically to be the strategy-forward driving force. My task is to teach this organisation how to sing in perfect harmony.

Our anonymous marketer has spent years working for big brands in large organisations. They have seen what you have seen, been left scratching their head at the decisions (or indecision) of others, had the same fights. They have also seen the possibility and opportunity of marketing. In this regular series, our marketer on the inside will unpick the failings, articulate the frustrations and speak up for marketers everywhere.



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