Helen Edwards: When CEOs prove their worth

Whatever the organisational hierarchy, chief executives play a key role when it comes to internal communications, where 'top-down marketing' truly matters

A total brand relaunch is a big deal, often the pivotal moment of a marketer's career. In this high-stakes commercial renaissance the business will redefine what it stands for, reinvigorate its offer to customers and showcase the innovations that will power new growth.

Campaigns across the media spectrum will carry the new brand out to consumers. Fresh iconography will symbolise change. Just as importantly, the new way must be dramatised internally, to employees, since their commitment and evangelism will be crucial to eventual success.

That internal thrust is the bit that can flummox even experienced marketers. What's the best way to mark the moment? An event? A video? A brand book? Ten thousand brand-coloured butterflies released from a high trapeze in a party marquee?

The biggest decision is one that probably doesn't feel like a decision at all: who is this relaunch coming from? It's a simple enough matter when talking to consumers: any overt message of renewal is seen to emanate from the brand itself, crystallised by the logo, with all the credibility that brings to bear.

Internally, though, people don't see it that way; it's never the 'brand' talking to them, but a someone, a department. Precisely which someone or department has a great bearing on the seriousness with which they internalise the change and accept their new responsibilities.

Why shouldn't it be the most senior marketer who launches the news? The answer is group dynamics - that amalgam of 'co-operation, competition, domination, reciprocity, defection and deceit' that the biologist EO Wilson has identified as the hallmarks of bounded human units.

For the heads of departments such as operations and HR, through whom all business paths pass and upon whom all success depends, marketing leaders are sideways in the hierarchy, rivals as much as colleagues. 'This is what our brand now means and stands for' is not mandated simply because marketers say so, not even if they insist that the leadership endorses it.

Within the organisation the only credible force to signal a full relaunch is the CEO. No matter that yours might be a former accountant with low-watt charisma and a scant appreciation of marketing. What he or she embodies is of far more primal significance: the only person in the organogram from whom everyone else is 'down'.

That symbolism is why the announcement needs to be made in person, even when engaging with the humblest stations. This could work through low-key conversations with small groups, or high-octane events in which the CEO takes the stage in front of thousands.

Video presentation should be a last-resort option. As for the fashionable practice of 'cascading', forget it. New research shows that this seemingly sensible arrangement, whereby the CEO briefs only those who report directly to him or her and they brief downwards, fails through perceived lack of authority.

By all means, take command of the mood film, brand book and all the other 'informing' aspects of the relaunch, but not of the big announcement itself. The wise marketer knows that organisations are tribal environments and, in that context, keeps in mind what the 'C' in CEO actually stands for.

Helen Edwards has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand. Follow her on Twitter: @helenedw


To make the case for this precious resource, it helps to know how it is currently spent and how you might argue for greater priority for marketing issues.

Last year researchers at Harvard, the London School of Economics and Political Science and the European University Institute jointly published a report entitled 'What do CEOs do?', based on close observation of 94 European and global business leaders.

- The CEOs spent 85% of their time in meetings, on calls or at public events.

- Few devoted more than 20% of their time to solus activities such as reading reports or simply thinking.

- The researchers were particularly interested in how CEO 'face time' was split between outsiders and employees of the company; 42% was spent with insiders, with the finance department getting most, followed by marketing; HR got the least, and frontline staff failed to get a mention.

- Perhaps the most interesting finding is that time spent with insiders seemed to improve company productivity and performance, whereas time spent with outsiders appeared to make little impact. The researchers concluded that this was because CEO time with outsiders was most likely to be spent building their own career or profile.


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