How to avoid marketing’s ‘thud factor’

!cid_78E1DAE0-8D22-4361-BEBF-73A3482D7F5FBy Elsa Gouws – strategist at Yellowwood Future Architects

Sadly, for many organisations, marketing is the job of the marketing department.  It operates in its own silo, with very little influence on business strategy or operations.

It rarely has any representation on the board, and without an executive voice, it just becomes a ‘nice to have’.  Marketing strategy gets dropped on the CEO’s desk with a ‘thud’, and from there on out it gathers dust.

In our experience, one of the biggest issues facing our clients is the adoption, internalisation and implementation of the brand or marketing strategy in their respective organisations. They spend time and money developing inspiring and strategically sound strategies, only to become frustrated with de-centralised organisational structures where different marketing functions across various business units each have their own strategic objectives, metrics and financial results. We see great plans that never make it into the market – into the retail environment, customer service, social media campaigns or advertising. Many of these strategies fall flat in the organisation – failing to influence product development and innovation, company culture, behaviour, values or leadership style.  ‘Living brands’ are truly hard to find.

Misalignment, disjointed brand messages and customer experiences across all the brand touch points result from the ‘thud factor’. The problem is that marketing is no longer a departmental role. A business and brand’s reputation is built through customer and employee experiences and interactions that go well beyond “traditional” marketing. Marketing needs to be central to business decisions and operations, and business leadership needs to contribute to, debate, shape, buy into and champion the marketing strategy for it to have any impact on influencing customer decisions.

Here are a few tips on how to avoid the ‘thud factor’ and become a brand-led organisation:

FROM THE TOP-DOWN: GET COMPLETE COMMITMENT FROM, AND CO-CREATION WITH, COMPANY LEADERSHIP

When a brand embarks on a big change, it is critical to involve the CEO and directorship upfront and keep them informed and involved throughout the strategic process. For example, for FNB to re-position itself as the ‘innovative’ bank in a time when banking was seen as boring and ‘behind the times’, it needed the CEO at the time (Michael Jordaan) to lead the change, become the ‘face of the brand’ and therefore the ‘face of the change’ that the whole business was undergoing. No distinction was made between the brand strategy and the business strategy, and so driving change across the entire organisation was possible – from IT and infrastructure, to supply chain and new business development, to product development and advertising. The new brand promise was credible and achievable.

Key learning: If strategy is not adopted by leadership, it won’t be adopted by anyone else.

“I am responsible for our company’s culture” – Steve Balmer, former CEO, Microsoft

FROM THE INSIDE-OUT: BUILD THE BRAND IN EVERY CORNER OF THE BUSINESS

A brand’s promise has no meaning, relevance or credibility if we only see it in advertising and messaging and not through the ‘lived’ experiences of every function of the business. To avoid the ‘thud factor’ in strategy, the strategy needs to be adopted by everyone in the organisation and so it is critical to include a plan to inform, inspire and involve all employees in the brand internalisation and to include brand metrics in employee evaluations. At a company like Zappos, all employees – from receptionists, sales clerks and call centre reps, to IT specialists, product and content developers, designers and marketers – are brand ambassadors or ‘de facto members of the marketing team’. In fact, Zappos offers new hires $3,000 to leave after four weeks if they have not embraced the company culture of customer obsession. A brand-led organisation is one where all internal stakeholders share a common vision for the business, are guided by the same values, are inspired by the same culture, and live up to the same purpose – so that they deliver on their promise in their daily work and interactions with customers.

Key learning: If strategy is not adopted by every person in the business, nothing will ever change.

“Marketing has become too important to be left to just the marketers in a company”

(Harvard Business Review, 2014).

FROM THE BOTTOM-UP: STRATEGY MUST START WITH THE CUSTOMER

In many companies, business strategy and organisational structure are still modelled around what is produced and not around who it is produced for. Even though ‘customer-centricity’ is a cliché marketing term these days, very few businesses truly get it right (both B2B and B2C businesses). It is because the customer does not sit at the centre of business strategy that many organisations are not designed to truly satisfy them. Moreover, if there is no shared view of the customer across the different departments in the organisation, the customer experience across the brand touch points can be an inconsistent one. A tip to avoid the ‘thud factor’ in strategy is to create an ‘internal insight bank’ that encourages employees from various business functions (marketing, IT, design, finance) to share ideas, observations, experience and lessons about the customer. This allows for collaborative brainstorming and sharing of different perspectives. At Unilever – a marketing-led organisation by its very nature – people from different categories sit together to form ‘hot houses of good ideas’, strategically designed to encourage the sharing of knowledge. This ensures customer insight is embedded in strategy and every decision that is made.

Key learning: If strategy is not built around the customer, it isn’t relevant.

With so much customer choice, channel fragmentation and commoditisation, there has never been such a strong need for smart marketing strategy. Businesses can’t afford to let this strategy stay in a document that lands with a thud on the CEO’s desk. It needs to influence every process, product and experience in the business – and so marketers would do well to involve business leadership from the outset, plan for the brand’s internalisation across all departments and to ensure that customer insight lives and breathes and feeds back throughout the organisation.