British marketers have lost the inititative and will to lead, argues
Andrew Seth. Now is the time for a counter-attack
It was Burke who said: ‘He that wrestles with us, strengthens our nerves
and sharpens our skill. Our antagonist is our helper.’ The most
prescient of the Irish, Burke could have had marketers in mind when he
conjured up this combative notion. Burke knew about leadership - but 90s
British marketing people appear not to care.
Marketing people have deserted the uncompromising demands of strategy,
brand coherence and the long view, for a more intelligible, manageable
world of operations and brand tactics.
Partly, we can attribute this to brand management’s desire to be good
company soldiers. They are saying to themselves: ‘These are the Board’s
aspirations; this is what the stock market looks for.’ Global realities
and unexpected new sources of competition don’t improve the position.
At the same time, companies are moving with unseemly haste and an
absence of analysis to new structures and processes which the players
don’t always understand. Indeed, they often threaten mainstream brand
responsibility and obscure well-recognised management development and
career patterns. Not good news at all.
The result is that anxiety takes over. Today’s international brand
manager is no happy pioneer. In his stripped-down world, work levels are
the only, and certainly the fastest-rising, graph in sight.
Uncertain about his role and remit, reporting to bosses who are
countries or sometimes a whole continent away, and psychologically even
further removed, can you wonder if the brand manager resorts to safety
first? Radical approaches to strategy aren’t encouraged. If he has
ideas, he rarely knows how or to whom to present them. Competitive
pressure constrains risk taking.
Internally, the finance team, with their expanding range of exciting
techniques and ratios have the whip hand, and the CEO’s eye. Marketing
expertise looks threadbare by comparison. Investment in long-term
consumer research is less popular. When it is present, it’s not always
the brand manager who has first call on either the research findings or
the resulting business conclusions.
Meanwhile, the brand team’s own constituency is deserting them, and
seems to matter less in company realpolitik. Consumer franchise is still
what drives business forward, but mass market brand appeal is a pretty
blunt-edged weapon in a world of fragmented media.
To make things worse, retailers are intervening in consumer
communication. In some companies they’ve had enough clout to effect a
wholesale take over of the relationship between brand and consumer. The
new breed of category manager occupies the crease for at least as long
as his brand ‘partner’. With his other friends in customer service, and
an insistent pressure from the total quality management people, you
don’t hear as much distinctive or innovative brand voice as you used to
in company councils of war.
In this changing world, where is the measurement or appraisal? It’s
always been vital to successful marketers. Fighting and winning brand
battles is immensely satisfying - often, in the best run companies,
dwarfing salary and prestige in the personal lifestyle equations brand
managers write for themselves. ‘What matters, gets measured’ is a
business axiom everyone accepts.
These days it’s lack of appraisal and absence of measurement of both
external and internal achievement that worries aspiring marketers. As
the plaintive old song had it, ‘It just don’t matter any more’.
In my experience what follows, as night follows day, is a lack of belief
in the centrality of marketing in the company. The marketer himself
behaves as an operator, avoids risk when he can, champions very little
and grounds himself in the numbers - the more recondite the better. (Boy
- hasn’t he or she been putting the hours in on the paperwork!)
Personally, he sets out to find the quickest route to the seeming safety
of general management - wherever or whatever this might be.
Brand management needs root and branch overhaul. It always has had, and
must have, a championing role on our boards. Marketing is leadership,
entrusted with identifying competitive market advantage. It’s to this
that business turns for intelligent competitive appraisal. Brand-
building propositions based on meaningful innovation and considered
judgment of risk are the concrete results business looks for. They are
the sine qua non of marketing at work. Without them, the marketing task
becomes mere administration, routine in scope, properly insignificant in
reward, and depressingly low on job satisfaction.
While the overall understanding and performance of marketing has lapsed
badly, there are still companies who understand it well.
On more than one occasion I experienced the dedicated, ruthless
competitiveness of Procter & Gamble. Sneaking a glance at a P&Ger’s
papers on a New York flight, one of my Lever team read an accurate CV -
his own. P&G’s business proposals are a model of respect for competition
and exude careful and disciplined market assessment.
Aspirant marketers must learn from P&G’s Mid-West frontiersman’s view of
competition. Read Harvard’s 1983 Vizir case or Alecia Swazy’s Soap Wars.
Faith in our brands is honoured more often in the breach than the
observance, but is still a top priority in the best-run consumer
companies - P&G, Unilever and Mars, for example. Years ago, Adrian
Cadbury spoke of ‘The Character of his Company’ in which ‘competitive
edge derives directly from the relevance and vitality of its brands...
the company’s main assets - a guarantee of quality and value to its
Good companies don’t change character. I see that concept still alive
and well in Dominic and David Wellings’ Cadbury. There are visible signs
that service businesses, financially driven enterprises and even the
hitherto impenetrable City of London are recognising the value of brand
names and the need to treat them as strategic properties. An exciting
and growing group of my established clients are from the financial field
and perceive marketing potential in their brands and business.
Where the business culture itself is right, marketing people can do a
job with vision and repute, recognising sensible constructive tension,
employing challenge and throwing down barriers as they go.
3M, the Minnesotan conglomerate, is a fine example of how it’s done -
and they still practise what they have preached. Honda’s middle
management, given a mission to innovate and adjured by visionary
leadership to ‘gamble’ in automotives, stood Detroit’s comfort and
appearance strategy on its head, and launched Honda City.
Radical marketing approaches emerge from unexpected quarters. Body Shop
was a retail pioneer, picking out and riding a tide of environmentalist
consciousness to build unique brand strength from limited resource.
Grocery retail is an increasingly willing experimenter. Tesco leads the
field, but look at any major’s wine section and appreciate world-class
consumer choice and value.
Virgin is nothing if not radical, anxious to take serious risk and
redefine competitive territory in the process. Branson stretches his
‘new... fresh... uninhibited and in there to help you’ brand into
improbable areas. Virgin’s advantage is that it structures itself to
give the young and the entrepreneur a proper share of decision making.
But didn’t we all used to try this?
The British fashion business is producing strong brand-led cultures. In
a small, overcrowded backyard in North London, a young business has
taken the unmodish (US) Caterpillar tractor name, and turned it, at one
innovative strike, into a brand property in quality fashion footwear.
We must promote willingness to propose and own risk. It will bring with
it renewed adventure and a deliberate search for experiment. Companies
must intend to be radical - to ‘reinvent their businesses’ as ‘Competing
for the Future’ has it.
My own belief is that ‘reinvention’ is most likely to be driven by
impatient, caring, marketers. It’s unlikely to start in the factory;
finance and audit play important but different roles; personnel hasn’t
the clout and customer management has its mind occupied with retail.
In the company setting, the brand provides the glue and business purpose
that holds things together. It’s the brand man or woman’s proximity to,
and care for, the brand which gives him or her the most profound
authority and scope.
The marketing team should be first to appreciate the hard-edged
advantages of business learning.
Brand marketing is a terrific job and always will be. It has always had
stature and purpose, and given world markets and competition, it has
more scope and range than before. But marketing must lead again in
strategy, in innovation, as well as operations. Its constituency, the
brand, carries the ultimate vote. Brand response matters more than
anything, because it alone speaks for the consumer and marketing is, in
turn, its single spokesman.
Andrew Seth, a former marketing director and managing director for
Unilever, is non-executive chairman of The Added Value Company.