Building a brand in the trenches |
Building a brand in the trenches

By Sandeep Das
August 23, 2019 5 min read

It is my intention to proceed slowly with our trenches.” — Peter Stuyvesant, last Dutch Director General of New Netherland (before it was named New York)

We are periodically exposed to the glitz and glamour of global brand building, and more so when it is a resounding success. The typical razzmatazz includes expensive launch (or re-launch parties), campaigns showcasing success, CEO / CMO interviews in different media channels, full-page features in print and outdoor mediums, glitzy shareholder and investor forums, keynotes at high profile conferences and in some cases, risky stunts. What we do not see is the grit, determination, hard work and the gradual but consistent progress in the trenches. The obvious question then becomes as to what are these "trenches" in global brand building?

In a war, you dig a trench when you know that it needs to be fought over a period of time and the outcome is long drawn and uncertain. Similarly, global brand building is a journey over a long period of time, with an uncertain outcome and a shifting set of challenges. The journey is painful, with alternative swings of elation and frustration, is arduous and is one of long drawn out alignment.

Global brand building always has a single strategic objective of achieving harmonization and centralization. In 9 out of 10 instances, the starting point is heavily decentralized. This decentralized state can have different characteristics - a global brand exists but with no single identity, a fragmented set of local brands operate in the portfolio, or the global brand operates with a strong local mindset (and stands for different things).

Coming back to the "trenches", these are essentially the strategy and marketing business units picking up the cudgels of building a global brand. The trenches utilize multiple lines of communication, criss-cross across organizational layers, travel several times across the world and impact the fortunes of business units (soldiers) stationed across geographies (battlefronts). But there are some fundamental principles used to station, battle and move around the trenches.

Principle 1: A battle does not need to be won at one front, and can be won by succeeding at multiple fronts

There is a difference between "decentralization" as a starting point of the global brand building journey and a conscious attempt to build global brands in a "decentralized" fashion. The former is an undesired state while the latter is a strategic roadmap for building global brands. When different markets adopt the global positioning in a disciplined manner but the build the brands locally for stronger relevance, adoption, and competitive ability, then it is a sure-fire way of building brands that are truly 'global' in nature.

“One example of a category which requires localized advertising is food — which goes not just close to, but into your consumer’s body — and is governed by extensive subliminal consumer preferences, traditions, history, taste palates, and choices.” — Tatiana-Vivienne Jouanneau, CMO, Duracell International

Principle 2: A loss or a backtrack at one front can be made up by progress on another. A loss is never a definitive loss, as you can try again the next morning if supply lines in the trenches are abundant

In the journey towards building global brands, strategies may be adopted, re-adopted, redefined, fine-tuned, abandoned, etc. The journey is the most important thing, and any form of examination and analysis is allowed till the time there is progress. The time frame is important but you cannot fight battles indefinitely and neither do trenches hold up indefinitely.

Principle 3: Gradual wins at a single front or aggregated/accumulated wins across multiple ones signify that the battle is being won. In each win, the role of the trench matters

Moving from a decentralized to a centralized state in global brand building happens through phrases. These phases are essentially aggregates of small progress over different fronts. Getting the global positioning to translate meaningfully in multiple languages is one. Implementing a set of guardrails for brand messaging is another. Creating a disciplined innovation roadmap is a third. Sometimes these might happen in a region, then become pan-region and ultimately global (if there is a lead region).

These three principles outline how the battle can be won in the trenches, but sweat and guts start flowing in the trenches when it comes to actually winning it. "Alignment" is an important word in global brand building, and which is required for multiple dimensions (e.g. positioning, campaign mix, campaign messages, media mix, targeting, pricing, SKU strategy, distribution strategy, etc.).

This 2011 article from McKinsey highlights why the decision between centralization and decentralization is a difficult one. The argument for centralization has gathered momentum now. This has also been exacerbated by factors like increasing the cost of raw materials and production, sluggish global economy, uneven growth patterns across regions and the rise of the conscious consumer. The rapid consolidation and wave of M&As across industry verticals strongly point towards the fact that a decentralized corporate and brand-level strategy leads to inefficient use of organizational resources in present times.

Battles can be won or lost in the trenches if old habits are not shrugged off and new instructions not adopted according to the changing scenario in the battlefront. The same holds true for global brand building.

Factor 1: The need to let go

Letting go of old entrenched habits is a painful process. When brands are built and managed locally, the thinking, strategy formulation and implementation are also local. Letting go of these habits can be incredibly frustrating if brand managers are used to seeing success with them. Brand managers need to let go of multiple things — their belief of building brands, the freedom and independence, ways and means of defining and measuring success, control over strategy, confidence of knowing their consumer and the most painful of all, the freedom to do what they believed was right (and were vindicated multiple times).

Factor 2: The need to adopt

Wise men say that it takes 21 days to adopt a new (good!) habit. There is no such thing in global brand building. It is a continuous process that may take months (and even years) to perfect. In reality, if you adopt a new way of thinking to build a brand, you will be accused of ‘short-termism’ in the beginning. If you have the guts to stick with it, people will come around to believing your vision and thinking. In addition to letting go of their comfort factors, brand managers at a country level wake up to a harsh reality — a global strategy that needs to be adapted locally, global positioning that needs to be adapted locally, a different command and control centre, a shift in the balance of power, freedom and flexibility but within a pre-defined framework and a constant ‘checks and balances’ system.

These two opposing factors gradually come together after a long time, when one system of thinking is replaced by the other. The key aspect to remember here is the element and magnitude of sacrifice. It is not uncommon to see significant employee churn when organizations move from decentralized to centralized operating models (let alone for global brand building). The hundreds of hours spent to get acclimatized with a new thinking of brand building requires a fine balance between "letting go" and "adopting the new". Systems, guidelines, processes and business models can be quickly implemented, but thinking takes its own time.

Successful global brand-building programmes have a common characteristic — a top-down system of implementation combined with a sensitive approach towards alleviating the frustration and dissatisfaction at the bottom.

Strong global brands need strong global teams. Many of these brand builders in these strong global teams would have already spent a significant chunk of their working lives in building brands in terms of where they are (local or regional or global).

This unseen struggle happens in the trenches, which are never celebrated and bought to the surface. Organizations need to celebrate brand building struggles as much as they celebrate successful outcomes. In global brand building, the struggles never stop and the outcomes are not always positive. But the human and organizational spirit eventually prevails.

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