“Turnaround, every now and then I get a little bit nervous
That the best of all the years have gone by ……….”
Remember this old song? Total Eclipse of the Heart, written by Jim Steinman and sung and recorded by Bonnie Tyler? Despite Bonnie’s heartfelt approach and having led a number of these in my career, my most important learning in affecting a major brand turnaround is not to get emotional about them.
If ever there was a time for objective, rational analysis and calm decision making , it’s when you, as a lead marketer, are faced with a major Brand, vital to your Company’s future growth, that is in “free fall” or being overhauled by a faster growing competitor. A similar challenge exists when a corporate function is no longer felt to be fit for purpose and you are tasked to fix it, just like that.
That’s not to say that it is easy to avoid emotion in situations like these, nor that emotion should be avoided all together. It is likely to be a time of high pressure as a company starts to react to a gap in performance , and it will probably necessitate some type of urgent short-term response, to help stabilize a situation, as well as a more thoughtful assessment of what to do in the longer term. These situations can feel daunting and overwhelming. However, neither panic or despair have a real place in these types of scenarios, even though they are often costly in time, resources and missed opportunity. Instead, an effectively managed turnaround process , enabled by clear, determined and passionate leadership, can often save the day.
Take inspiration from Eugene Krantz, the thirty six year old Flight Director for the ill fated Apollo 13 lunar mission whose brilliant decision making approach and process, in safely returning the astronauts to Earth, was an example of calm and optimistic leadership, under severe pressure from every side.
So, as a Brand Leader or a Functional head , what do you do, other than not panic, when faced with this type of situation, whether on your watch or when you are specifically anointed to help reverse a deteriorating performance?
The following steps may offer you guidance:
Clarify the Ground Rules. It’s important, before doing anything else, to really clarify the boundaries and autonomy of your role and any entrenched positions that exist. While this may not change the task ahead of you, it may affect the “how you go about it” and give you a better sense of where and when you should go for help or aircover, and when you shouldn’t. It’s also important to get a sense of the alignment that exists within senior leadership, and their level of conviction that something needs to change, and I believe time spent here can really affect the speed of implementation once you have a clear direction.
Gather the Information. Probably the most important work is the next step. This involves discarding all your current assumptions and any guess work and instead,getting into objective capturing, collecting and learning mode. I find it best to conduct many structured yet informal 1:1 interview discussions though I have gone as far as issuing a Survey to over 70 key stakeholders in an organization, when the endeavor is a very inter-disciplinary one. The focus needs to be on collecting data and information about the overall Company mission and vision, the market and the competitive dynamics, the customer, your own brand profile (including its history) and the marketing or functional capabilities (and gaps) within the organization, including how success is currently being measured. Key is what do the customer beliefs (brand equity) behaviors (NBRx, TRx, Market growth) and experiences (Cx scores, touchpoint scores) tell you? There are many reasons for a brand or function to go off track and you are trying to bring as much information and knowledge into one place at one time, in order to be able to do an effective job at the audit and diagnosis stages.
Conduct a Brand Audit. This can help structure the information and includes a deep look at the current brand positioning (including it’s history and the whys behind it) which is so critical in driving towards ownership of a differentiated space in a customer’s mind. Key questions might cover; Is the segmentation still relevant and why? Does the segmentation represent enough potential volume to achieve the growth goals? Are the target patients clearly defined and narrow enough to take advantage of the positioning / power the brand? Is there a strong, insights-based need, underpinning the positioning? Is the positioning clear and differentiated enough? Does it still appear to be ownable? Is there the potential for an emotional as well as rational connection with the customer? Does the evidence still support it and does the overall promotional campaign align with it? How challenging is it for the patient to gain access to the medication, what is the balance like across the marketing mix and what forecasting methodology is being used? Does the overall growth expectation feel reasonable and why? Key here is to keep the assessment objective and avoid the temptation to diagnose the answer too early , until at least you have processed all the data into information.
Diagnose the Root Cause(s). This is probably best done in a workshop or series of collaborative workshops with a cross functional team as it can promote ownership and alignment and increase the likelihood that any decisions made are informed ones. There are many methodologies to help power a root cause analysis (For E.G. the “fish bone” cause and effect diagram and the “Five Whys” technique from Toyota etc.) and spending the time to do this right, with appropriate urgency, is advisable if you don’t want to be fixing the wrong problem or having to revisit it in the future. There may be acute short-term pressures that require simplification and focus to stabilize them and that can’t wait for a detailed root cause analysis. In this case, you may even want to divide your team for a short period, to work in a parallel yet connected way, on both stabilization and diagnosis, so that the different pressures are balanced. Again though, do not compromise the root cause analysis as spending lots of energy, resource and credibility on addressing the wrong problem will be very costly.
Define the path and plan forward. A smaller team (with appropriate outreach) should work on a multi-faceted plan with clearly identified metrics, to address the key root causes, once they have been identified. This should integrate all the most relevant insights, outline the solution and prototype approaches, and prioritize and sequence them into a roadmap to effectively tackle the challenge. The more logical, clear, succinct and compelling this is as a stand-alone planning document, the stronger the confidence you can have that it creates the support to move forward. It should include sufficient detail on further market research, customer advocate meetings and implementation workshops (on repositioning, developing solutions, developing aligned integrated campaigns etc.) and on the intended information management and analytics systems with thoughtfully chosen KPIs that will measure progress. Having these in place can help secure sufficient latitude from above and room for the team to move to execution really quickly, now that there is clarity of direction.
Engage and Over Communicate. There will be a development stage and then a roll out stage, to both internal employees and then to external customers. Ensuring that customers have input during the design and development phase can be really helpful here , as can capitalizing on existing frustrations from front line employees whom will be motivated to contribute if given the chance It’s important to make sure that all brand team members , all relevant senior leaders and any critical partnering divisions, understand and feel able to support any new brand positioning and approaches before they roll out to the customer and the real world. This is especially the case if, for pragmatic reasons, they weren’t all involved in the initial exercise. Anything you can do to make them, or those that represent them, feel as though their thoughts and feedback were considered and that they feel somewhat part of the process, will pay dividends. The importance of ensuring the evidence and rationale for the new approach is communicated and over communicated across multiple internal channels and that employees have the internal materials to be advocates themselves, cannot be underestimated.
Execute and Measure. Most of the subsequent activity should be focused on relentless and prioritized launch execution across the integrated channel mix to your external customers, though again it can pay to start with smaller steps and prototype and experiment quickly to be able to make early course corrections. Clearly none of this can be allowed to start without the existence of a continual management information gathering process, fit for purpose, containing lead and lag measures and enabled by predictive analytics to help anticipate, adjust and optimize for the future as well as capturing current results in the initial phase.
Three final pieces of advice , born from experience:
1. You only really get one chance to turnaround or reposition a brand so avoid being pressurized to decide too early, act too quickly or move in a direction based purely on the conviction of one individual, no matter how Senior they are. Yes there is urgency but better to be the “Villain” early and then subsequently the “Hero,” than the other way around.
2. Continue to calibrate with the cross functional team as the plan comes together. I.E. How much belief and alignment is there and how vested are they in delivering it? The work required to influence here could be truly where you earn your stripes.
3. Continually ask yourself whether the “right people” with the “right capabilities, backgrounds and motivation” are part of the turnaround effort. If not, work with management to make sure you have the strongest team available as, as stated above, this is a normally a “one-shot deal” and not a situation where you can afford to mess around.
Being faced with a major turnaround, critical for your Company’s future success and possible survival, can be a daunting task. It should also however, be viewed as a privilege, as not only have you been chosen for a leading role in this, but the personal learning you can have from keeping your wits about you and your emotion under check, while you demonstrate great skill leading a team though a well-considered, structured and highly informed turnaround process, can have real benefits for your customer, your company and your own career advancement prospects.