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Helen Edwards: When CEOs prove their worth

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

30 SECONDS ON: CEO TIME

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.

Helen Edwards: Take a chance on creativity

If this is the year you resolve to inject more creativity into your brand, who do you invite to get things started with an inspiring pep talk? Who is the right person to reveal to your department the secrets of unfettered commercial imagination?

Not just someone from the agency, or even the wider communications industry; this has to be a real player from out there, who has achieved commercial creativity on a macro scale.

We all have our own idea of the dream talent, the one we would have in our fantasies, to stand in front of the team and shake them out of their mental shackles. Not so long ago, most of us would have automatically said Steve Jobs; sadly no longer. Ted Turner? Stella McCartney? Tim Berners-Lee?

High on my fantasy list would be Bjorn Ulvaeus, and not just because Dancing Queen was one of the most successful creative products to date.

Ulvaeus has that restless inventive spirit that never stops probing; his latest project is Abba The Museum, an interactive experience due to open in Stockholm in early May.

Extrapolating from that latest work, here are some of the nuggets of advice he might dispense.

Technology isn’t an idea

Many marketers talk about being ‘interactive’ without imagining how. Technology needs ideas. It can give them scope and scale, but someone has to create them.

Visitors to Abba The Museum will be given a unique ID on entry, which generates a personal space for them on the museum’s website. Their renditions on the holographic stage, with spangly 70s costumes beamed onto them, will then be recorded by scanning the ticket, ready for personal review and download when they get home. For the more shameless, the ‘performance’ can be easily shared on social media.

True creativity is generous

Although the museum’s principal focus is the eponymous pop group, it will also be a showcase for 400 other acts in a Swedish Music Hall of Fame. The winner doesn’t take it all. In today’s world, generosity helps make winners in the first place.

Wrong now can be right later

Corporations can be guilty of the ‘we tried that’ response to ideas, generally followed by the damning ‘and it didn’t work’. Abba The Museum has been long in the gestation. The first attempt, in 2006, was floored by issues with backers, but Ulvaeus and his partners never lost sight of its potential, using the time to improve the concept. Creative people rarely bin anything; a slight commercial or cultural shift can suddenly make previously mistimed ideas relevant again.

There is one more nugget that I assume Ulvaeus would be too modest to impart, so I will: it helps to have a genius on board. There aren’t really any creative corporations or departments – it is always people, and usually very few of them, who are the alchemy that turns a bare concept into something amazing.

It is possible that there is one on your team; there will probably be no more than one or two even in your agencies. The best advice of all is to seek them out, and take a chance on them.

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

30 SECONDS ON: commercial creativity

- According to a global IBM study, the majority of chief executives believe the key to navigating today’s increasingly difficult business environment is creativity.

- Recent research shows that, while IQ scores are rising with every generation due to enriched environments (the ‘Flynn effect’), creativity scores have been steadily falling since 1990.

- ‘It’s the unlikely juxtaposition of creativity and logic which causes the woolliness and confusion around the term “innovation”. Everybody wants to be innovative; many companies and ideas are proclaimed to be innovative and no one doubts that innovation is a money-spinner. And, thus, we are all looking for the magic formula. Well, here you go: Creativity + Iterative Development = Innovation.’ Sir James Dyson

- Fast Company’s Most Creative Person in Business for 2012 is Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs. Ma founded the not-for-profit institute in 2006 and has used the power of the internet and a national network of volunteers to create a force for positive environmental change in China.

- Andrew and Gaia Grant, authors of Who Killed Creativity?, claim that there are seven insidious creativity slayers: over-control, fear, pressure, insularity, apathy, narrow-mindedness and pessimism.

- ‘Creativity comes from constraint.’ Jack Dorsey.

Helen Edwards: The importance of thinking inside the box

What’s the story behind easyJet’s up-and-away 2012 financial results? As ever, there is more than one: a dismal summer that got people flying, the Olympic fillip, the retrenchment of flagship carriers in basket-case Mediterranean economies, and deft realigning of bases and routes.

The most edifying story, though, is the one the airline chooses to emphasise itself, since it can be extrapolated to any brand, in any category, anywhere: a focus on fundamentals.

Taking big ads in the City pages that reported its 28% surge in profits, easyJet promoted its ability to fly business people around, efficiently, at modest prices – taking a swipe at the ‘free’ fizz offered by legacy airlines that charge far more for ‘business class’ travel.

‘Airline goes from A to B, charges reasonably’ – not exactly news, is it? It feels more like table-stakes. Where’s the uniqueness? Where’s the differentiation?

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Helen Edwards: Is Apple facing a crisis of confidence?

For the cool brand in the early-adopter technology sector, the sight of yesterday’s leaders trying their hand at the latest thing must have had the feel of parents dancing.

Nokia and Microsoft are up on that platform again, strutting their Lumia 920 smartphone, causing Apple to switch its gaze for a moment from the more vigorous movers of the youthful East.

What’s this, though? The oldies seem to have learned a few new steps. The new Lumia is sassy, with a touch of Asian exuberance about its interface design. It has stuff that performs better than the iPhone equivalents: mapping that actually locates which hemisphere you’re in, a camera that takes brilliant pictures even in the dim light of bars and clubs, and a neat wireless charger.

Wasn’t Nokia supposed to be living out its days in a Finnish old-brands home? Wasn’t Microsoft always the nerdy one in a V-neck, looking awkward next to Apple’s high-cheek-boned insouciance? What are those throwbacks doing in the here and now, mounting a credible challenge in a $100bn leading-edge market?

They always had stamina, though, and doggedness, and resources to fund their egoistic aspirations. So maybe, just maybe, their smartphone resurgence is on the cards.

It wouldn’t be a first. Technology brands that have defied the winds of change and reinvented themselves include IBM, Nintendo and, for that matter, Apple itself.

For high-tech comebacks to work, three factors usually need to align. First, a product that can genuinely stimulate consumer reappraisal. After a botched entry with the prototype Lumia last autumn, the duo seems finally to have created that with the 920.

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Helen Edwards: The BBC is insulated from reality

If the latest results from Primark tell you one thing, it is that consumers will reward brands that get it right. The retailer’s 15% surge in profit, to £356m, reflected all the exuberant abundance of the stores themselves.

These are places where wheelie bins and copious tote bags at entrances are a deliberate signal that you are at liberty to fill your boots. Primark prices are ‘why-not?’ low: you pull out a soft wool jumper, hold it up, tilt your head as you decide if it’s exactly right, quickly check the price tag and, since its only £6, conclude, ‘well, why not’?

Of course, shoppers might be less enthusiastic if they had misgivings about how those prices are achieved. The brand, knowing that ethics could be its Achilles heel, takes great pains to reassure, with a prominent section on its website dedicated to supply-chain probity.

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Helen Edwards: Momentum is magic

The line between thinking and doing is fuzzy. Let this page serve as an example. Since this is a weekly opinion piece, you could argue that the cerebral bit – musing, researching, theorising – is an integral part of the doing.

That is justified, up to a point – and that point comes abruptly at noon on Thursday, with the final deadline for copy. By then, I have most definitely reached the doing phase, and it feels scarily different: copy typed and emailed, in all its imperfection, to the production desk, to be sub-edited, art-directed, indexed, marked up, printed, distributed, sold. Miss that deadline, and brain cells are irrelevant.

In the other world that I inhabit, working with marketing teams as they grapple with targeting, innovation, customer service and the endless quest for advantage, deadlines seem to have gone out of fashion. Instead, there are ‘key milestones’ in the ‘project phases’ which, ideally but not imperatively, should be reached by ‘target dates’. Read More »

Helen Edwards: Starbucks denials can’t mask management failures

Let’s get beyond the ‘did-they-or-didn’t-they?’ Let’s take Starbucks’ denials at face value, and accept that its failure to pay any UK tax since 2009, and precious little before that, is genuinely due to meagre profits. Not corrupt, but inept: chasing too many prime locations, paying too much rent, roasting its beans too far from home, tolerating too many loss-making stores.

Let’s regard those comparisons with Costa – cannier with property, siting its roastery in the UK, making profit, paying tax – as embarrassing evidence of the difference between the strength of the management teams.

In that scenario, without any imputed skulduggery to stoke anger, what is the rational action for a coffee-loving consumer blessed with a Starbucks on one corner and a Costa on the other?

It is to choose Costa. Nothing political, no righteous indignation, just simple self-interest. Buy your latte at Costa and some of that £2.35 comes back to you – albeit diffusely – in the form of tax contribution, either lowering the eventual burden for you, or enhancing what can be achieved with the common pool.

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Helen Edwards: Deluded campaign ignores Post Office disorder

Downton Abbey has become our equivalent of the Super Bowl for showcasing blockbuster TV spots. In this season’s opening episode, it was John Lewis that stole the show with its wistful look at the world of then and now, and the human glue that bonds us together.

Latest to emulate both the choice of launch platform and the big, emotional sell is the Post Office, which recently aired a 60-second spot in front of 10m viewers already moved to a high state of arousal by the story of the dying Sybil.

In the ad, the Post Office claims credit for its role in the special moments of our lives, from kindling new love to reuniting old friends. Perhaps that might have been true in the era in which Downton is set, and letters arrived on time despite the inconvenience of world wars. Today it strains credibility even more than some of the plotlines in the ITV drama.

The most laughable claim in the ad is that the Post Office lowers people’s blood pressure. Well that got me leaning forward. How does that work?

Turns out it’s the place to go when you need a rod licence. At this point I can almost hear the planner’s excited laddering up: ‘Well, so we help people go fishing, right, and that’s kind of a relaxing thing to do, and being relaxed means your blood pressure drops, which is cool. So, hey, we help lower people’s blood pressure.’

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Helen Edwards: Step away from the PowerPoint

As a young account manager in advertising, one of my duties was to ensure that the slides for big meetings were all present, correct and the right way up in the carousel.

Yes, carousel. In those Palaeolithic days, circa 1989, slide content had to be shipped out for processing 48 hours in advance, then ordered on a light-box and stacked oh-so-carefully in the round plastic container – 80 in each, I recall. Sometimes we would head into a meeting with a small tower of these carousels and the looks on the recipients’ faces told us they knew what they were in for.

When PowerPoint came along, life got easier for young account managers, who could now devote more time to sitting at the back of focus groups, cutting up images for mood boards, and drinking.

Two decades on, it has become fashionable to blame PowerPoint for the torture of the bullet-point format and dreary slide content, but these sins, I can tell you from experience, long preceded the technological advance.

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Helen Edwards: Why the ‘b-word’ spells bad times for brands

You know your brand is in trouble when journalists are unable to mention it without inserting the qualifier ‘beleaguered’. Such is the replicable nature of media that, once established, there it sticks, stubbornly, like chewing gum on a sole.

Famous brands from Marks & Spencer to Fiat lived with the epithet for so long that it almost seemed part of the brand name itself: ‘I’m just popping out to Beleaguered M&S.’

The road away from B-word status can be slow and bumpy, as senior management grapples with often multifactorial problems, to attempt to turn things around. For M&S, it involved painful introspection, management change, an overhaul of stores, rationalisation of sub-brands, international retrenchment and new advertising.

The retailer finally breathed some clean journalistic air in 2011, although the dreaded word is creeping back in following lacklustre quarterly results. Sometimes the swagger and confidence never quite returns.

Some don’t make it at all. Woolworths went from beloved in the post-war decades to bewildered in the 90s, as it struggled to find its role in a rapidly changing retail environment. ‘Beleaguered’ followed soon enough, the editorial accompaniment to a slow, agonising decline, with the axe finally falling in 2008.

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