What the C-suite should expect from a brand-building programme

Building a brand is no short-term undertaking, yet many CMOs are under pressure in the boardroom to demonstrate quick returns on this investment. It’s time to rectify some fundamental misapprehensions

Ed Sr Illo Oped Pxx

At the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity in June, Mastercard’s chief marketing and comms officer, Raja Rajamannar, spoke on stage alongside CFO Sachin Mehra about a lack of understanding between the two functions at the top level of many companies. 

Citing a Forrester Research survey reporting that only 37% of marketing chiefs believe it’s vital to build a good relationship with the CFO, Mehra stressed the need for better communication and teamwork. Rajamannar, meanwhile, acknowledged that too many CMOs still struggle to “connect the dots” between long-term marketing initiatives and business outcomes.

Such observations align with the results of a recent survey by B2B marketing agency Transmission. Of the finance chiefs it polled, 72% said that their CMOs found it hard to measure the effectiveness of brand programmes, while 81% said that such measurements could be done and dusted within a mere 12 months. 

It’s the task of the CMO to manage the expectations of the CFO

Part of the problem, says Tom Fowler, planning director at brand consultancy the Propaganda Agency, is an overreliance on so-called vanity metrics – for instance, those concerning engagement with a brand on social media – that aren’t clearly related to key commercial priorities such as boosting market share and turnover. This leads to inflated growth indicators in the short term and an inevitable plateau in performance after about 18 months.

“Digital performance tactics have given us loads of ways to measure the effectiveness of advertising. I think it’s 170 ways at the last count,” he says, noting that nearly all of these are vanity metrics – from open rates to dwell times – that foster unrealistic expectations. 

As the economic uncertainty continues, many marketing chiefs are under intense pressure to build a short-term business case for what is an inherently long game. It’s therefore up to them to ensure that their C-suite colleagues have a more realistic understanding of their brand-building efforts, argues Kristof Neirynck, global CMO at beauty firm Avon and the MD of its business in western Europe. 

“A lot of businesses are under profit pressure, which places a greater onus on their CMOs to prove immediate returns. This can prompt some to opt for tactical conversions alone, which presents a danger in the long term,” he says. “It’s the task of the CMO to manage the expectations of the CFO (and the CEO) about the return on marketing investment. Success is openly delivering the ROI you’ve committed to and driving brand growth in a profitable way.”

So, what should business leaders realistically expect from a brand-building programme? Here’s a theoretical timeline of how an effective one might work. Crucially, it runs for three years.

After six months: create and align

The first six months need to be a time of strategic creation, according to Yael Alaton, a partner at the Pearlfisher London agency in charge of vision and strategy. This period of initial analysis and R&D work should produce a well-defined “roadmap” for the brand, she says. 

Fowler adds that it’s important to divide expenditure between brand and performance, but this means that you must hold your nerve beyond 18 months, as brand-building isn’t a short-term undertaking. 

“You might see an immediate short-term impact on some tweaks, but you really need to be thinking about the long term,” he stresses. “You must set in place tracking measurements, so that you can show your C-suite colleagues what the impact has been and actually understand this yourself.” 

Fowler continues: “Ultimately, this is about being clear about what you’re going to do, but also what you’re not going to do. This needs to be at the heart of your strategy in the first six months.”

After 12 months: express and connect

Brand-tracking measurements can often take months to show movement, but there are short-term indicators, such as share of search, consumer sentiment and site traffic, where you’d want to see evidence of an uplift between six and 12 months. So says Michael Lee, global chief strategy officer at creative agency the VCCP Partnership. 

He believes that it’s important at the one-year mark to avoid falling into the trap of seeing brand-building as a trade-off for investing more in tactical performance. 

“We often talk about ‘brand response’ – creating tactical communications that still do a brand-building job. Working with easyJet, for instance, we might run a tactical sales promotion campaign, but the look and feel of those comms still exist in the aspirational brand world,” Lee explains. “The factors that make brand-building activity distinctive and memorable are the same as those that improve the performance of more short-term activity.”

After 18 months: establish and measure

This phase, according to Alaton, is about developing the full brand experience across platforms and touchpoints, while learning from consumers as well as in-market results.

At 18 months, the brand’s unique position, complete brand experience and key brand equities should be established, and the evaluation methods put in place for long-term assessment and planning.

Kirsty Hunter, CMO at Innocent Drinks, notes that “you might start seeing a small community of customers forming around your brand at this stage through more active engagement on social media, user-generated content and discussions about your products”.

But she adds that marketing chiefs must be able to demonstrate to their C-suite colleagues the longer-term commercial value of brand-building work.

“While the rise of AI and other tech has enabled marketers to gain a greater understanding of their programmes, it has also brought many challenges,” Hunter says. “Many people assume that the technology has made marketing cheaper, which is not the case. Marketing isn’t just an algorithm; the human factor behind it must not be underestimated.”

Her company saw this principle at work when it ran an Instagram post that put adverts created by its social media team up against AI-generated ads. Hunter reports that, although the automated content “performed suitably, people connected much more to what the team created”.

After two years: expand and diversify

By year two, your brand identity and values should be firmly established in the minds of your target audience, according to Hunter. It’s also a good time to expand your brand further to new territories and demographics, or explore partnerships and collaborations with other brands, NGOs and influencers in your core market.

Alaton adds that, two years in, the brand should also be capitalising on its unique position and powerful equities to look at expanding and diversifying its role in people’s lives.

Neirynck believes that brand consistency is key at this stage to build returns in the longer term. “Take ‘Ding-dong, Avon calling’, for example. This tagline was built over many years. It gradually became synonymous with the Avon brand and is now hardwired with consumers,” he says.

After three years: nurture and grow

The strategic efforts of the first three years should produce a brand that’s fit for the future and set for growth, according to Alaton. At this point, the brand should be protecting its equity while nurturing its unique relationship with customers, with a focus on unlocking further opportunities.

Hunter says that, by the end of the third year, “you should have established a familiar brand in the market – easily recognisable and associated with your products. Having reached brand maturation, it’s now time to build on the strong foundations you have set for the long term.”

Getting to this point requires clear and honest communication from the outset. A strong strategic framework, tangible measurement of brand-building effectiveness and clear communication in the boardroom about what to expect at every stage are prerequisites for success.

As Alaton says: “An effective brand-building programme is one that’s integrated into long-term business strategy. The C-suite has to approach this as an investment in the future.”