The stock of the CMO is rising as boards realise that you can’t dismiss ‘brand’ as a buzzword. At a time when loyalty is hard to come by, clued-in directors fully appreciate that a strong and trusted brand is the difference between those organisations which have a bond with their customers, shareholders and employees, and those that are marginalised and mired in an identity crisis.
“There is a general awakening to the power of brands across the board level,” says Stephen Smith, Chief Marketing Officer at supermarket chain ASDA. “A transition has taken place from reputation management to brand management, stemming from the many crises of reputation which have damaged or even destroyed companies and their brands.”
Whether you’re B2B or B2C, you need brand champions in the boardroom. Catherine Green, Marketing and Communications Director at international construction and consultancy firm Mace, says: “Really understanding what makes your business different and better from the competition is all wrapped up in your brand strategy. Boards need to be much more fluent in this because employees and consumers are savvy about values and whether they are authentic… What people say about your brand through social media and third-party endorsements is now much more important.”
Nicolas Mamier, Managing Director at brand consultancy Appetite, comments: “Brand is an organising principle not an extension of the marketing department. It’s too important to be left only to the marketeers, however good they might be, because if a trusted brand means a trusted organisation, it simply must command the attention of the C-suite.”
Traditional consumer behaviour has been atomised by the financial crisis and convergence. “Brand loyalty is nowhere near as strong as it used to be because consumer promiscuity is up,” says Steve Parkin, CEO of Mayborn Group, which makes baby and child products. “Boards need to work a lot harder on getting that interface back with their consumer on a one-to-one basis, which means new techniques are needed to build a connection with your consumer and maintain it, so that loyalty is never taken for granted.”
Pam Powell, Non-executive Director at Premier Foods and formerly Group Marketing Strategy and Innovation Director at brewer SABMiller, says: “In this market, you’ve really got to earn your customer loyalty. Strong brands can communicate quality and reliability so there’s a reassurance in the value you’re getting, where as weak brands will be shown up in this respect.”
This goes beyond customers. Ian Wright, Corporate Relations Director at Diageo, which controls some of the biggest alcohol brands including Johnnie Walker and Guinness, says: “Institutional investors are more discerning about where they place their funds and apportion investment… The way you gain the confidence of investors and get them to stick with your business is by having a great brand. It represents a reason for confidence in the management of your business.”
Out with the old
If a brand has lost its allure, or has been compromised, you have to act quickly and decisively, either opting for a substantial rethink about how to establish relevance or axing it completely. Before joining ASDA, Stephen was tasked with replacing a range of shops called Kash n’ Karry with a new brand, Sweetbay. The former had been in steep decline and, having changed its strategy and leadership team on several occasions, had lost customer loyalty.
“Any transition starts with people offering you a new choice but finishes with taking the old choice away,” says Stephen. “We were very clear that one was gracefully retiring and that there was something brand new sprouting up in its place…
“When you’re making dramatic changes you are quite dependent on new customers coming in and reappraising you. Of course, you’ll always have some detractors who liked the old store and didn’t want something shiny and new, but the ultimate goal is to have more people coming in than going out. You have to try and stay ahead.”
If a global rebrand is necessary, clarity on what the business stands for is paramount. “The project that we did to refresh the BBC brand was all about understanding how we could make the brand work across all of the countries,” says Peter Horrocks, Director of BBC Global News and World Service. “The challenge is: how do we make it more engaging while still maintaining the authority and trust that there is in the brand?
“When you’re talking about a global organisation with a variety of products, [the brand] needs to be something that is unifying and that hits the sweet spot for multiple countries… if you can get that right it can be tremendously powerful because you’ve got massive scale to work with.”
Companies must always be on the lookout for new ways to get their message across. “A brand is the ultimate differentiator,” says Professor Dominique Turpin, President of IMD and Criticaleye Thought Leader. “Great global brands stand out, and they make our lives easier, better and cheaper. Nobody wrote an e-mail one day to Steve Jobs saying they needed an iPhone or iPad. Very few business leaders ask themselves, ‘What are my customer’s headaches?’ But this is such a good question. Provide a product or service that solves a customer headache and you’re on the right track.”
Steve comments: “In terms of what drives our brand strategy, it’s all about consumer recommendation. If we can get mums talking to other mums positively about their experience with our brand, particularly with the onset of social media and digital, that’s the number one driver that gives us the trust in our brand.”
There is a tendency among underperforming boards to only realise how vital a brand is after a calamity has occurred, or a competitor has stolen a march on them. It takes years of investment and personnel change to try and regain former glories. Some never get it back.
Don’t be one of those businesses.
I hope to see you soon.