Looking inside before venturing outside

So you have made a decision to embark on a strategic brand transformation exercise? That’s great for a start, as you have obviously realised that a brand (or a portfolio of brands) you own and manage, needs rebranding to be able to better tap into current and future opportunities. Most organisations get the ‘need’ for a brand transformation right, but the problem starts thereafter.

“Transformation in its purest sense is a strategic endeavour and needs to be treated as such”

It goes beyond changes to logos, straplines, positioning statements, identity and values. Transformation is a change in thinking towards brand building, which needs to be driven by a change in organisational level thinking, and associated structure and processes. A successful brand transformation can be profusely rewarding for a brand (and its owner) in the medium and long term. A poor brand transformation, in most instances, does not see the light of the day, and even if it does, ends up harming the brand (and the organisation).

Tom Shapiro’s insightful piece in CMO.com looks at three successful brand transformation projects and their outcomes. Even though there are differences between the factors that triggered the transformation, there is one common thread – The overarching need to be relevant for the future, or risking the existence of the brand

http://www.cmo.com/features/articles/2014/6/2/_3_brand_transformations.html#gs.gcLs90I

At risk of being irrelevant can be a driving force for transformations, but there are other important drivers:

  • Expanding the brand into new global markets or new categories and the existing brand promise / positioning can only go so far
  • New brands have entered the portfolio (through acquisition) and rebranding has become a critical task from a portfolio optimisation perspective
  • Competitors (old and new) have stolen a march and there is a need to reinvigorate / refresh the brand to catch up with them

Whatever be the reason for a brand transformation exercise, its success lies in effectively managing three important but understated factors – peopleprocesses and decision-making.

A few examples of why these three factors play a critical role in brand transformation exercises (but often remain unreported or downplayed in their importance):

In this interview with Forbes’ Kimberly Whitler, IDG CMO Josh London provides a candid outlook of the involvement and impact of the organisation’s brand transformation exercise on how employees thought about the business, how they approached clients and how they foresaw IDG’s future.

https://www.forbes.com/sites/kimberlywhitler/2016/07/04/how-a-brand-evolution-drove-a-cultural-transformation/#5429ca3d6c71

A few relevant quotes that bring out the importance of people (or employees) in any brand transformation exercise:

“When done right, brand becomes part of the culture of the organization, and what it stands for”   Karl Isaac, Director of Brand Strategy, Adobe

“Inspire employees first, customers second” – Jim Stengel, former CMO, P&G

Colette LaForce, former CMO of AMD sums up the difference between a traditional brand transformation exercise and a more ‘inclusive’ one which she led in this quote:

“Most brand transformation work is closely held by a small group of marketers and agency partners, but at AMD we took an open, inclusive approach and the results of that inclusive process have been tremendous.”

Some interesting insights into the role of people, but what would processes – the ones that everyone ‘needs to follow’ but would love ‘not to follow’ or the ones that ‘do not need to be there’ but are ‘always there’.

As a generic need, and going beyond the need to drive a successful brand transformation, brand building and management is in a dire need of simplification. This simplification needs to be a holistic, 360 degree one that addresses the following issues:

  • Fragmentation of agency partners
  • Undue complexity of decision-making processes – there is a clear distinction between ‘complexity’ and ‘effectiveness’
  • Ambiguity of a defined ‘start’ and ‘end’ of a process and the role of each party
  • Overlapping roles and responsibilities
  • Need for ‘constant’ alignment (as if you are robbing your own house)

A single (or multiple) decision-making process has a direct relationship with the effectiveness of involving employees in a brand transformation programme. A feedback loop is a process – how simple or complex is it? Can an employee share his or her feedback directly with the brand owners / agency partners / or a Brand Council who is managing the brand transformation?

Answer is ‘Yes’ – You have achieved harmony with employee inclusivity and decision-making. This is the first step of an ‘inclusive’ brand transformation programme.

Answer is ‘No’ – You have a positive intent but employee feedback on the brand transformation will gather dust somewhere in the organisation. the brand transformation programme is not ‘inclusive’ and you are pretending to spraying fairy dust.

The key question to address right at the very beginning is the interplay between people, processes and decision-making principles in the organisation. It can take many shapes and forms depending on the organisation structure and hierarchy. Some questions that brand owners typically come up against:

  • Level of centralisation vs. decentralisation in brand building processes and decision-making principles – Important if the brand is a global brand
  • Level of maturity of markets in which the brand is present and its market strength – Again important for a global brand as it can influence the decision of many internal stakeholders to involve in the transformation exercise
  • Level of fragmentation of agency partners who work on the brand – This is a critical element as you need to decide the level of inclusivity of agency partners based on the type of brand building work they do; strategic partners should be given preference over tactical or implementation partners
  • Level of complexity of the brand portfolio – This, again not very obvious, impacts the level of involvement of people and processes. A brand transformation exercise conducted in and around a complex brand architecture requires cross-divisional, cross-functional and board level alignment. On the other hand, a transformation exercise conducted for a brand with a simple architecture (and minimal cross-category linkage) will require lesser levels of engagement
  • Level of depth of the transformation exercise itself – All transformation exercises do not have the same level of depth. Each transformation exercise has its own defining characteristic – many require a complete transformation of a brand’s positioning, identity, visual assets, mode of communication and voice. Some transformation exercises require a radical change in one or two specific aspect – a new logo and a new slogan, a new name and a new slogan etc.
  • Level of complexity of sales channels (and no this is not the offline vs. online debate) – The outcome of a brand transformation exercise ultimately needs to be activated. For a FMCG brand it is the challenge of clearly communicating the rebrand (new name, new logo, new colour etc.) clearly on supermarket shelves. For a restaurant chain, it may mean a complete overhaul of the look and feel of all its outlets. If your inclusivity initiative does not include those who would be responsible for implementing the rebrand at the front lines, then you have missed a critical link (corporate history is riddled with examples of ambitious rebrands bordering on sales disasters)
  • Level of heritage and iconic status of the brand – The older the brand more it has heritage ‘baggage’. If the brand is considered iconic (even when it is failing), the challenges are considerable. Consumer irrationality is the most at display when we moan about the old and then go on to reject the new (and try to hanker after something in the middle). A very apt corollary are our conversations on weather. Consequently if you are attempting to inject a fresh lease of life into a brand that is losing relevance, expect resistance from employees, agency partners and even top management

The above factors help you shape the core communication elements of the brand transformation programme. Then comes smoothening out the rough edges of the actual decisions that need to be taken and the processes that need to be followed. The decision on the overall need of a brand transformation exercise (and its integral elements) needs to be shaped by the following factors:

  • Continuous decline in market share and on key brand KPIs over an extended period of time – Brands should not be subjected to transformation exercises if they have been declining for six months or a year. Getting a product innovation fully rolled out in a market still requires 4-6 months. Let’s give an opportunity to the other side of the story to play out
  • Internal stakeholder, external partner and consumer consensus – There has to be a consensus on the type of feelings, conversations, debates, discussions and reactions that the brand is influencing (or the lack of it). If the general consensus is negative and reliable forms of consumer data strongly indicate a slowdown over a considerable period of time, then it is time to act on this consensus
  • Failure of strategic and tactical initiatives to spruce up the brand – Consumer and sales data are continually indicating that new ad campaigns, innovation, pricing and promotional initiatives are failing to have a positive impact. Feedback from the sales front also include push backs from retailers on stocking (if that is the primary channel), significant reduction in footfalls (if it is a retail chain) or a significant decline in subscribers / consumers (if it can be tracked). Failure of strategic and tactical initiatives need to come with facts that indicate a sense of ‘irrelevance’ with the brand (a feeling that Blackberry has experienced for long years now) or an increasing sense of getting ‘substituted’ (a feeling that Levi’s experienced before waking up)
  • A slow but steady deepening of a feeling of ‘falling behind’ – Analysis and close observation of category evolution, market characteristics and consumer needs and preferences always brings on a sense of getting left behind among those who are involved in brand building. This foreboding is a definitive sign from those who have been involved in the brand’s growth sense its demise (in its current avatar)
  • Caught between ‘need for speed’ and ‘same old same old’ – External and internal stakeholders want to tap into emerging opportunities but know that the current brand cannot be effectively positioned against them. There is a data-driven and intuitive belief that the brand needs to be refreshed so as to be able to enter new categories (brand transformation along the lines of expanding the brand’s core purpose and benefits to enable brand extension)

Only one of the above reasons or a combination of all five are enough to trigger a brand transformation exercise. We have talked about the topics of employee involvement and processes, but have not addressed the principles of decision-making. ‘Making decisions’ or deciding ‘who would be making decisions’ are two critical factors influencing the success of a transformation.

Organisations that make brand transformations work have quite simple, yet effective, decision-making principles. Whether these principles are autocratic or democratic is a debate for a different post, but it is important to understand the fact that decisions are ‘linear’ items. They are designed to end feedback loops, cut out ambiguity, reduce waste, increase focus and instil a sense of discipline. These decision making principles (in their myriad forms) should enable the following to happen in a brand transformation exercise:

  • Agree on a holistic brand transformation or elements of a brand that need a refresh
  • Agree on aspects that the transformation exercise won’t touch or influence
  • Agree on a realistic time frame with clear stage gates and timelines
  • Agree on number, level and nature of stakeholder involvement and participation
  • Clear defined roles and responsibilities for both internal and external stakeholders
  • Formation of a core or steering group or a Brand Council who will own, manage and will be responsible for the actions and outcomes of the exercise
  • Ensure direct visibility and alignment right to the top of the management hierarchy
  • Clear understanding of impact and inter-relationships with other strategic initiatives
  • Consensus driven decision-framework but availability of individuals to break a tie / resolve a stalemate / push everyone forward

There is a lot of emphasis and visibility on the visual aspects of a brand transformation exercise. The aspect that sadly lacks is around people, processes and decision-making. This crucial imbalance between the visibility of the ‘recipe’ and the ‘outcome’ is a key reason why brand transformation exercises do not pan out as intended.

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