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.

Ensuring you have the organisational capability in place to realise the full transformation potential

A few years ago, I was appointed to a central role at the top of the organisation. One of my tasks was to transform the digital brand experience for customers, staff, investors, and key stakeholders. This involved deploying programmes to re-platform and completely rebuild one of the largest, most visited websites in the UK, introducing new applications, live chat, and voice skills, establish a social media operation, and digitise our internal and external communications approaches.

Putting aside the necessary technology and vendor choices around Content Management Systems, ecommerce platforms, email service providers, marketing permission managers, data providers, social listening tools, research platforms, workflow, and social media tools, not to mention introducing agile working to the organisation, the most significant challenges were actually in structure, people and governance.

Merging the Digital and Customer Marketing teams into a new Group Marketing function removed complexity, simplified decision making and allowed for the creation of a central specialist social media team responsible for social customer service, brand promotion, recruitment, and activation. Having previously established digital performance marketing, CRM and data analytics teams, I knew the steps to take. But this really was a bold move, and as with any restructure not without risk, and a significant drop in productivity as managers got used to new roles and processes.

At the same time, we also deployed an on-site studio capability to ensure high quality, fast turn around production and recruited in specialists to lead digital media, SEO and social. This was supported by a comprehensive social media training and up skilling programme for marketing and content managers, the PR, internal comms and public affairs teams, as well as product managers. Although well attended, this wasn’t enough.

The key to establishing a category leading social media, digital and communications capability lay in governance. Clarity over where budget and decisions were made, unlocked everything. Assurance for big, important activities remained with the management team, but everything else – and I do mean everything else – was managed in the line. Reactive tweets, promoted posts, new content on the website. As confidence grew, so did quality, pace, and an infectious desire to use the digital channels by the organisation.

Where before communication activities were heavily managed with multiple approval layers, we stripped all that out. Where it might have been press release first, social and web content after, very quickly it became “here is the idea, how can we best amplify it?”. With a clear brand strategy, trusting our people to do this in real time, empowered the team to create brilliant content, at pace, but also, critically, it improved outcomes. The digital transformation became embedded. Visitor numbers to the website and social channels increased significantly, engagement and conversion rates improved, digital revenue grew.

During lockdown not only did we spin up an entire dedicated content hub visited by more than five million customers in a matter of days, but our highly engaging customer communications programme reached and engaged tens of millions of people. This simply wouldn’t have been possible without the transformation.

Summary

Whilst technology is hugely important to transforming businesses for recovery and future growth, in and of itself, it needs to be part of the background. The platform that enables. In my experience, when transformation is all about deploying new tech, more vital components of successful transformation get relegated, which adds significant risk of failure. I have found that successful transformation relies much more on:

Developing a clear brand strategy. Being clear on your vision, your customer, their needs, your role in their lives, your positioning, proposition, customer experience and product development roadmap. Wrapping the brand around the commercial challenges to drive growth. Your technology sits within this. It enables and opens new opportunities to bring your brand strategy to life.

Creating a culture of change. Engaging your people on the journey ahead, the options and the strategy. Rewarding positive engagement. Celebrating evangelists. Thanking the silent majority and listening to their views and concerns.

Building the right capability. Ensuring you spend enough time looking at what will unlock higher performance. Today that will include balancing in-house capability with outsourced support, and creating a dynamic ecosystem integrating teams to deliver real time, personalised content. At Royal Mail in my Group Marketing function we developed a simple 4Ps capability framework: People, Process, Planning & Partners. Critically, capability needs to be dynamic, it takes time to embed transformation and realise the full benefits, and a degree of nimbleness and pragmatism is required.

So, if you are thinking of transforming your business, product, marketing plan or team, go back to first principles and double down on the foundations: strategy, culture, and capability. That is the key to delivering sustainable transformational change. The technology, for all its utter, mind boggling ingenuity, becomes the life blood of the business, not the arms and legs. It’s what allows it to happen, but on its own, it simply won’t be enough in the long run.

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