One of the key areas of our business is helping clients with their brand planning process each year. In the decade that we have been doing this, we have seen many different approaches to the process. Some have been excellent, the majority have been OK, some have been truly dismal, and some have been completely absent.
In a conversation with one of our clients last week, they asked us what we felt were the biggest mistakes that brand teams make in their brand planning process. There are a number of others we could cite but these were the ones we felt were the most prominent:
- Not having a brand planning process at all
- Building the brand plan without wider input
- Rushing to strategy & tactics without understanding the environment properly
- Building a brand plan that doesn’t tell a clear, coherent story
- Not pressure-testing the brand plan after completion
Let’s look at each of these in a bit more detail.
1. Not having a brand planning process at all
It still amazes me that, in the highly competitive world we face today, some teams do not have a formal brand planning process. This is simply business suicide. The old adage of “if you don’t know where you are going, anywhere will do” is very true.
Failing to plan, for whatever reason, really does leave you at the mercy of your competitive environment. If you do not know what is going on in your environment, both external and internal, you certainly cannot set a strategy and you cannot be proactive. In their seminal article on structure and strategy, Miles and Snow stated that your strategy forms the interface between the internal and external environments. Whilst it is certainly true that you can be aware of what is happening in your business environment, the lack of a formal planning process means that environmental monitoring is likely to be erratic and incomplete. This therefore increases the likelihood of a failed strategy (if there even is one).
2. Building the brand plan without wider input
As we say in all of our brand planning workshops, you may well be the smartest person in the room, but you certainly don’t know everything. By including insights from a wider, cross-functional team, you reduce the risk of making a bad decision. In addition, by including the broader team in the planning and decision-making process, you improve buy-in as it becomes everyone’s plan, rather than just yours.
Of course, there is the opposite to this: including too many people in the brand planning process. This really doesn’t help matters either as it is often a case of decreasing marginal returns – beyond a certain number of people, the size of the group becomes unwieldy and ceases to add anything constructive to the process. Have the people you need in the room but no more (in the case of pharma, that certainly includes representatives from the field teams, the medical team, marketing and market access at a minimum).
3. Rushing to strategy & tactics without understanding the environment properly
The single biggest mitigator of risk is information – the more we know, the lower the risk of making a bad decision. Note that we said “mitigator”, not “eradicator”. You cannot completely eradicate risk in your brand planning process because the future, pretty much by definition, is unknown and risk is therefore inherent. We can, however, strive to reduce it by ensuring that we know as much as we possibly can about the dynamic business environment within which we operate. Take your time in doing this – in the workshops that we run, a very significant portion of time is dedicated to understanding both the internal and external environments. Allocating sufficient time to this section of the planning process really delivers dividends (hopefully not just figuratively) later on.
4. Building a brand plan that doesn’t tell a clear, coherent story
Brand plans have to tell a logical and coherent story. There needs to be a red line that connects all of the different elements together to make it flow logically to a clear outcome. To paraphrase Andre Gide, understanding is the beginning of approval. By making the brand plan into a logical story, it is much easier for people to understand and accept.
This means that every step needs to be connected to the one before, as well as what follows afterwards. You cannot end up with a proposed opportunity or tactic that is not fully supported by the information you have provided before. People have to understand the flow of logic and information.
The story also has to be clear. As far as we are concerned, this means that it also has to be simple. People have to get it. This means that you cannot afford meandering presentations that include a whole lot of irrelevant information. It must be clear, concise and sharp – whilst still providing the required detail. The number of absolutely awful templates that I have seen shared by some clients is biblical; they seem to be more focused on justifying the existence of the person building the template than on delivering a good brand plan.
Keep it short, simple, complete and concise.
5. Not pressure-testing the brand plan after completion
I remember being a fairly junior brand manager and having to present my brand plans to the senior management team. The sessions were awful – hostile atmosphere, a high-pressure environment characterised by antagonistic questioning that was more focused on the proposed numbers than the strategy and tactics. I hated every minute of it, as did the rest of the marketing team. Talk about being counter-productive.
The above example is how not to do it, but the fact remains that brand plans need to be pressure tested for a number of reasons. The first is that it provides an opportunity to test the logic of the plan. The second is that it reassures the senior management that the business is in good hands and that there is a clear, logical plan in place. The third reason is, I think, the most important from the brand team’s perspective – it provides the opportunity to check just how realistic the plan is from a workload and capabilities perspective. Almost every brand team member we have worked with feels compelled to be incredibly ambitious when putting their brand plan together. Plans are developed and proposed that, in reality, are completely unachievable and certainly undeliverable with the current resources and budgets.
Pressure testing the brand plan allows the management team to challenge the proposed plans, cutting out wasted time and resources as projects are started and then cancelled further down the line. By having an open, interested and constructive discussion with the brand team about the brand plan, resources can be better deployed, and a degree of stress and frantic activity can be removed from the brand team.
We have touched on five key mistakes made in the brand planning process. There are certainly others but, by concentrating on removing these, it is possible to dramatically improve the brand planning process. If you would like more information on how you can improve your brand planning process, please get in touch with Andrew Wilmot at email@example.com.