Jan Gooding: When is it time to change strategy?
If you are the incumbent CMO or strategic advisor, when and how do you call time on a strategy and start again? Jan Gooding candidly shares her experiences - and offers a guide to getting it right
In my experience one of the most difficult challenges facing any marketing leader is defining and executing the optimum strategy for a brand, whilst carrying their team and organisation with them for long enough for it to be effective.
The next most difficult challenge is knowing when to dump it and start again. Consistency over time is what helps build great brands. Longevity of positioning and messages constantly reinforcing what you stand for is a precious attribute. So, when is it best to contemplate a change in tack?
I have experienced every possible scenario
Strategy change is often provoked by the arrival of new people and ‘fresh thinking’, whether that be the CEO, or CMO, of an organisation. More rarely is it prompted by a new strategy lead in a marketing services agency, although arguably there are times when it should be.
It can also be provoked by a procurement cycle pitch process, which invites incumbent agencies to draw a line on the past and either be more radical in their approach or resell the current strategy against a new business context.
Surprisingly difficult to navigate, I have been in the position of calling time on a strategy that simply wasn’t producing the desired results. Many vested interests are at play who resist such proposals in spite of the evidence supporting it.
And most difficult of all, calling for a radical rethink in spite of the evidence that a strategy was showing no signs of fatigue and was continuing to meet its targets.
These moments are difficult professional judgements to make
They place under scrutiny the competence of the marketing function and their advisors, usually strain relationships between the various parties involved, and the change is very visible to staff and customers alike. Which is of course the point.
A huge amount can be at stake for the people involved, not just the destiny of the brand"
Bluntly, there are a number of occasions when I have either been removed from a pitch team because I was unable to get my head around a proposed change in direction and a ‘new line up’ has been proposed. Or I have been at risk of losing the account, or my job, if the desired change was unsuccessful in the marketplace. As a leader one is grappling with the integrity of the exercise and the ‘career limiting’ choices that lie ahead. A huge amount can be at stake for the people involved, not just the destiny of the brand.
Most senior leaders are pretty blunt about it
My first startling experience of this was as a newly appointed board director working on the Reckitt Benckiser ‘Finish’ brand. The CEO, Bart Becht, had picked up on P&G’s plans to enter the dishwashing market with its brand ‘Fairy’. At the end of a compelling one-to-one briefing getting me up to speed, he finished by saying, ‘So, I want to see a completely new strategy and creative in four weeks, and if it’s not right, you are fired!’
Whatever the truth, revolution is rarely talked about
If you notice, most leaders use the terminology of ‘strategy refresh’, so as not to imply throwing everything up in the air. But the truth is that, for consumers at least, changes in the course of action pursued by a brand can feel much more like revolution rather than evolution.
This is most evident when there is a new CEO, who uses marketing strategy in general, and advertising in particular, as a relatively quick way to make visible their impact on the business. The arrival of a new CEO can mean a new brand flag going up the flagpole, which reflects their own strategy of renewal and revitalisation of the whole company.
Many new CMO’s want to signal regime change
How better to demonstrate your mark on the brand than to develop a new strategy and brand campaign? You will also notice that it often goes hand in hand with the appointment of a new media and creative partner. I have worked in agencies and been faced with the dilemma of feeling responsible for the ongoing stewardship of a brand and yet just knowing that the desired answer is wholesale visible change, not continuity.
I learnt that you either get on the programme and try to work with the new direction or get someone else to lead."
If you have deep investment in the past strategy and effectiveness of campaigns it is only with great reluctance that radical review seems desirable. An understandable position. Frankly, I learnt that you either get on the programme and try to work with the new direction or get someone else to lead. Saying ‘I told you so…’ is likely to take two to three years to play out before brand equity scores are hit. And you are unlikely to be the person who will be able to make that remark.
However, if you are the incumbent CMO or strategic advisor when and how do you call time on a strategy and start again?
I think there are three main moments of truth when you have to get a grip of the strategy, take a big breath, and go for it.
1. Evidenced based signs of fatigue
All of us try to track the effectiveness of our marketing campaigns using lead and lag measures to evaluate their success. Navigating all the vested interests who have a strong motivation to look for signs of success, rather than failure, is a minefield.
However, in trying to decide when to make the call, I have asked myself the following questions:
Are the creative and media teams still able to innovate and refresh ongoing executions against varying target audiences and with different propositions, or has the campaign become formulaic?
Has the competition noticed your success and moved into the same space, eroding its distinctiveness?
Is it able to underpin marketing strategy in multiple markets, or was its development very particular to the market of origin which is proving challenging to translate across borders?
Are brand equity measures falling over time, in spite of short term sales targets being met?
Even with such evidence, the case for change will have to be carefully made, and you should anticipate not being necessarily welcomed on either client or agency side.
2. Disruption in your market that calls for a direct response
I have already given one example of a new market entrant, Finish, provoking the incumbent brand leader to change course. A challenger brand creating a point of vulnerability in your value proposition, often by undercutting your price, or alternatively challenging your offer as inadequate cannot usually be ignored.
You will face arguments about staying steady, and not flattering them by responding directly. However, staying alert to the competition and not being complacent with regard to new entrants is a lesson I learnt early in my career. The questions to be asked are usually related to the scale of reaction that is appropriate and the length of time that should be spent addressing it which will vary from market to market.
The watch-out is that the advertising doesn’t get ahead of the reality of meaningful product change which takes longer to deliver"
The response of the marketing team under Bart Becht when Fairy launched into the dishwasher market was to precede it with a constant ‘two for the price of one’ promotion for Finish. By the end, consumers’ cupboards were too full of product to contemplate trying a new brand. In addition, hard hitting messages reinforcing the brand credentials as the most efficacious dishwasher brand worked alongside. It was dull but proved to be very effective.
3. A new business strategy that makes the current approach no longer fit for purpose
Changing business focus and operating in entirely new sectors, or through new distribution channels, is the reality that impacts most organisations in the ever-changing digital economy. It is by far the easiest impetus to justify a radical change in strategy. Mainly because it is likely to be strongly supported by the CEO, marking a genuine change of era for the brand, with corresponding deep-rooted changes to service, operations and distribution. The watch-out is that the advertising doesn’t get ahead of the reality of meaningful product change which takes longer to deliver.
I experienced just such a change when Gavin Patterson took over as MD of the Consumer Retail division of BT. Whilst the race to reach one million (and then five million) broadband customers had already been set internally and externally by the Group CEO Ben Verwaayen. It was Gavin Patterson who clearly set out to change the brand strategy and re-positioned BT as a broadband company, not a telephone company. This led to transformation of the brand from identity through to proposition development and the shape of marketing investment. Consigning to history decades of acclaimed campaigns built on the idea of ‘It’s good to talk’.
I think we all probably know when it’s time to move on. But it doesn’t make it any easier to deliver.
Jan Gooding is one of the UK's best-known brand marketers, having worked with the likes of BT, British Gas, Diageo, Unilever and Aviva. She is also the chair of both PAMCo and LGBT equality charity Stonewall, the president of the Market Research Society and a partner of Jericho Chambers. She writes for Mediatel each month.