Time to transform transformation? By The Marketing Society’s Tim Burnell

The Marketing Society’s Tim Burnell looks at what those repositioning conversations really mean.

Transformation has been a constant theme for big business since the 1990s, largely in response to tech-led disruption. 2020’s challenges, however, have made it de rigueur for many more, as a wave of smaller organisations and individuals are inspired or pressured to repurpose in response to the sentiment of customers, partners and commentators. Cue a huge rise in the number and categories of specialists on hand with tools and strategies to help organisations change.

Are we now at a point where the guidelines for transformation are clearer to all and navigating the process is smoother?

If digital transformation has been the “T” du jour, what then are we talking about now? Is it brand and cultural or strategic business transformation? The latter would be a Netflix-style fundamental core business shift from distributor to producer based on growth opportunities and declining financials – in this case an iconic move tripling company value.

Let’s focus on brand and culture-led change.

In terms of triggers, at the sharp end the reality can be very visual as C-level executives become tired of their brand “style”, explaining one of the reasons that brand platforms average only a three-year shelf life out of a 20-year company lifespan for the S&P Top 500. A little more probable is a net promoter score (NPS)-measured drop in love from consumers that green-lights the exciting allocation of a budget for a brand audit. This is a popular starting point when the business transformation is still being framed and passes the ball firmly to the brand team.

Commonly, after a series of clarifications, research, surveys, insights and new hypotheses, we likely arrive at a new purpose, proposition and position. Alongside this sits a journey plan to roll out the fresh platform that will right all the wrongs and meet the new strategic vision.

However, this may not be enough to pass the tough exam set by a results-hungry senior audience from all areas of the business.

Critically, are all parties even agreed on what is being transformed? Subjective arguments on taglines, vision and mission narratives, visual identities, employer brand and culture are worryingly common at the latter approval stages, rather than the discovery phase. But, taking a wider view, is it even the brand that needs a refresh?

The very mention of proposition and positioning in a brand-inspired presentation will set off justifiably heated debates about business strategy and basic product, customer, staff, technology and distribution issues. The brand can either be a catalyst for bringing these themes together or a scapegoat for their shortcomings and lack of alignment.

Doubts can surface easily. Do we have an innovative new product that will disrupt the market or are we wrapping a new story around the same goods and services to appeal to a different audience? Or, perhaps the financials are so concerning that Transformation, with a capital T, is really a cloak for cost management and a tighter value focus.

If the brand is expected to solve such strategic and commercial issues, luckily technology is at hand to bring quick results and ease the pressure. Letting digital marketing take the lead can bring immediate improvement, neatly attributable to “brand transformation” as spiked investment in AI-driven media brings a step change in reach, consideration and purchase for products that may have been only marginally tweaked or repackaged.

Delivering such results will certainly help get the change piece approved across the more commercially and operationally minded areas of the organisation where data-backed ROI is king.

A new outcome

But in the media-led route we’d be missing many tricks, and of course it is generally accepted that product improvement, brand strength and cultural harmony will reap the best rewards in the longer term and thus should be at the core of meaningful transformation programmes.

Moreover, the current climate of a global pandemic, long-overdue championing of causes for equality and mental health, digitally-driven lifestyle norms and the acceptance of a need to look after our planet have provided a richer and clearer picture of what transformation really needs to address and how to achieve it.

If we truly focus on our community more than our shareholders, transformation agendas are free to create a new bond between our organisation, customers and society based on meaningful themes such as diversity, sustainability, equality and wellbeing.

This approach is more likely to allow organisations to achieve real relevancy with what customers need, value and engage with, and we will see the championing of more innovation in markets that will be characterised by superfast disruption and very little continuity.

And if these are the new guidelines for transformation, the good news is that mindset shifts should provide a helpful, sympathetic and sophisticated environment in which to succeed.

Purpose will win over profit. Networks will replace hierarchies. Empowerment will trump control. Experimentation will challenge rigid planning, and transparency will open up privacy. All you need is a strong, charismatic and courageous chief marketing/communications/growth/experience officer to see it through.

Tim Burnell held VP roles at Etihad and Emirates during 19 years in aviation and was SVP communications & brand at First Abu Dhabi Bank for four years. In these roles he enjoyed the challenges of multiple strategic transformations with a global rebrand at their core.