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Alpha versus better

Chest-beating CVs about high-risk repositioning strategies sit at odds with the kind of slow-nurturing subtlety that would benefit most brands
A telltale characteristic of the alpha marketer is the tendency to go for a full brand repositioning
Helen Edwards

Helen Edwards has twice been voted PPA Business Columnist of the Year. She has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand.

I was the marketer who repositioned the category brand leader. I was the marketer who masterminded a global challenger relaunch. I was the marketer who – pick your favourite high-testosterone verb – transformed/disrupted/redefined an entire industry.

On a senior marketer’s CV, as they move briskly upwards from one brief stint to the next, these are the claims that power the climb. They sound strong, they sound definitive, they sound alpha.

And so much more impressive than this sort of thing: I was a marketer who built on my predecessor’s success. I was a marketer who minimised risk and achieved steady gains. I was a marketer who constantly refreshed and kept relevant a long-term brand positioning – and still am.

But what sounds heroic on a CV is not always the same thing as what a brand most needs. Brands don’t always require heroes; they don’t always respond to alpha marketing. Mostly, what they are crying out for are canny nurturers who understand the depth and resilience woven into the fabric of the brand and who meet the challenges of market dynamics and consumer behaviour with subtlety and precision. Increasingly, it is not what they get.

If the objectives of modern marketers are at odds with those of the brands they manage, the finger of blame can be pointed at the ever-shorter tenure of the professionals who run marketing departments – typically under two years, according to a recent industry survey (see panel).

It’s as if the shortness of stewardship needs to be matched with a sharpness of achievement: “Been there, changed that.” And brevity encourages heroics by absolving the would-be hero of the downside risk: they don’t stay around long enough to have to glue back the fragments shattered by the law of unintended consequences.

A telltale characteristic of the alpha marketer – one that I’ve noticed much more in recent years – is the tendency to go for a full brand repositioning when a brand refresh would have been the saner course.

Repositioning is a powerful but volatile piece of marketing ordnance. It embraces nothing less than a complete overhaul of what the brand means and stands for – and usually implies changes to much else besides, from targeting to innovation strategy.

Despite the inherent risks of tossing away decades of carefully crafted brand equity, there are times when the tactic is justified – usually when a sensational new opportunity beckons or where the current one is irrevocably stagnant.

That’s why Lucozade is the classic case: it featured both, moving from a dead-end role as a sickness recovery aid, at a time when ailments such as the flu were in retreat, to the creation of the mainstream energy-drinks sector. It’s an inspiring story. There just aren’t that many Lucozades out there.

Brand refresh looks less dramatic on the résumé but is usually the more justified option in reality. The brand stays true to its long-term meaning and role in people’s lives – but makes changes in the way these are expressed that are sufficient to jolt consumers, employees and the trade into positive reappraisal.

There are many kinds of refresh – although, as with most things in marketing, they can merge a bit and you can employ more than one at once.

There’s “reinterpreting roots” – as Burberry did when it refocused its creative vernacular back on the classic trench. There’s the “relevance hike” – used by Mattel when its Barbie doll finally gained some ethnic variety and modifications to her implausibly slender body. And there’s “raising the stakes”, brilliantly executed by Persil, which reinvigorated its tired “dirt is good” positioning by showing that today’s kids spend less time outdoors than prisoners.

In all of these cases, the brands were in enough trouble for an alpha marketer to have called for a complete repositioning. But better marketers held sway and reaped the rewards: a near-tripling of sales for Burberry, double-digit growth for Barbie after ten quarters of decline and a 12 million upsurge in washes for Persil.

Quieter, saner, steadier marketers are out there. The ones willing to build on the work of others rather than bury it, respect brand heritage rather than disown it, and refresh the organisation’s most precious asset rather than reinvent it.

Perhaps they are also the ones who tend to stay longer in their roles – because, in the race for that next high-profile assignment, when it comes down to the wire, they lose out to the alphas: the guys whose career histories, captured on their pulsating CVs, are just that bit more impressive.

Or are they?

Marketing tenure

Chief marketing officers typically spend less time in their roles than other members of the C-suite.

In a 2016 survey by US organisational advisory company Korn Ferry, the average tenure was eight years for chief executives, 5.1 years for chief financial officers, five years for chief HR officers and 4.1 years for CMOs. The C-suite average was 5.3 years.

A recent study from global executive search specialist Spencer Stuart reported that “nearly half of CMOs have been in the role for two years or less” and noted a steep decline in the number of CMOs who have stuck it out for three or more years – down to 34% in 2016 from 41% in 2015.

The report’s authors concluded that “today’s CMOs are under pressure to deliver quick results”.