Business advisor and experienced Chief Marketing Officer, Ben Rhodes, shares his approach to transformation, and seizing growth opportunities, in our new digital world. The average tenure of a CMO is said to be just over three years; the median tenure is just 2.5 years.
A major challenge with such short-term stints, is that longer term business building programmes are undermined by tactical short-term fixes. Often expediency trumps sustainable brand building and long-term value creation. Given the rapid changes and market forces facing many businesses and marketers today, CMOs need to go back to first principles to ensure their business transforms in the right way and has a brighter future.
For the last 25 years, I have enjoyed a career providing advice and leadership to a wide variety of blue chip international businesses including Microsoft, JP Morgan, AMD, and Johnson & Johnson, before moving in-house to lead the marketing in two highly trusted and high profile brands – MasterCard and Royal Mail. More recently I have been advising a cohort of tech start up and scale up enterprises, at the start of their commercial journeys in education, medicine, agriculture and even laundry services. Despite this breadth of sectors and different levels of corporate maturity, I have identified several recurrent themes about transformation, growth, and the ingredients of business success. These themes are common to all these organisations, both fledgling and mature.
Today, stories and news about how so-and-so company used such-and-such new tech platform to transform their business, are ten a penny. But in my experience, true transformation takes much more than bolting on a new bit of kit, moving to a new platform, or opening up new digital channels. I have seen much more success when businesses, legacy and new, transform through the lens of their brand strategy. Assuming they have a clear brand strategy to begin with.
The technology in digital transformation simply brings strategy to life, as does nurturing the culture of the organisation, and equipping teams with the skills and capabilities to realise the strategy.
Understanding the role of the brand
I don’t have a degree in marketing or an MBA. My education was in the arts, philosophy, and literature. This means my start point is always reductive: Why are we here? What are we trying to achieve? Who are we for?
Having a clear sense of brand purpose and mission is where it all begins for me.
You are parachuted into a failing £1bn media business to support a newly recruited MD. The CEO needs it to be turned around and transformed. You have a large incumbent marketing team full of passion, who appear to be terribly busy, but your numbers are all going backwards. The sales team have lost faith in marketing and are doing their own thing. You have been given a significant budget. So, what do you do?
This was the challenge I took on with MarketReach, the direct mail division of Royal Mail in 2013. My start point was to understand what role we played in our customers lives. Defining our value proposition, or what we called – The Case for Mail.
Through a significant research and customer insight program we understood much more about what services customers wanted, how they wanted to use mail alongside other channels, not instead of them, and as importantly how they wanted to have access to our services – direct through our website and sales force, via automated and digital CRM platforms, and for some via their media agency. Significantly, we learnt that we were not seen as a credible media brand. To be successful, the presentation and ethos of MarketReach had to be much more aligned with that of other media brands: modern, dynamic, responsive. Not characteristics readily associated with Royal Mail in 2013.
Key to this turnaround was a twin track approach of image transformation and sales activation, followed by digital transformation. The immediate priorities were to ensure direct mail was considered by customers, and in parallel to up skill and equip the sales team with a suite of well branded materials and incentives to drive sales conversion.
We also supported sales with hard working performance marketing activities to create a steady lead stream while we set about establishing the brand proposition. Once established, we could launch new ways to trade, opening up digital channels to purchase direct mail services and partnerships with CRM platforms. This of course led to the birth of Publicis Chemistry’s award-winning Mail Men campaign, and a stellar sales performance. It all came from having a clear brand strategy roadmap.
Creating a brand platform that nurtures the culture of the organisation
As we deregulated and moved through our IPO, it became clear to the board that our people were extremely concerned about what Royal Mail would stand for as a listed business, and not a state-owned public service. With 500 years of history connecting communities, companies, and customers, we wanted to ensure that our transformation to being a publicly owned, commercial business, didn’t leave our people behind. We needed to modernise but with 140,000 employees, that would have to come from the inside.
An organising principle is a big idea. An idea that informs your positioning, proposition, product development roadmap, customer journeys and customer experience. Having a clear organising principle is as important in a start-up, as it is in a FTSE 100 company. The big idea at the heart of Royal Mail has always been about democratising the right to communicate and trade – from anywhere, to anyone, at any time. But what makes this special is the spirit in which it is done. At Royal Mail this is embodied in the organisation’s determination to never let customers down. We have all seen this writ large during the lockdown, with postmen and women braving the streets to make sure communities were connected and vital supplies were delivered.
The CMO’s role isn’t to make up big ideas with an agency, it is to identify this essential truth and behaviour from within the business, capture it, and convert it into a platform for leverage. Working with our HR department we used our organising principle of ‘We Go Further’ to develop three new values that we embedded in the performance management process: Be Positive, Be Brilliant, Be Part of It. We updated all our branding and imagery to demonstrate the human network that connects the nation – striving to meet customer needs in all weathers.
Lastly, we put in place product development, customer experience and digital improvement programmes to bring this principle to life for our customers. Over several years employee engagement scores increased and customer recommendation and satisfaction scores reached market leading levels, and the business continues to deploy significant digital product improvements, which all speak to this organising principle of going further for our customers.