How to Navigate Brand Change, When Your Sales or Operations Team Dominate the Conversation

April 7, 2020 | by David Lemley

Some of the organizations we work with are veritable marketing machines, built on the strategic thinking and specialized discipline that drive modern better-for-you brands.

Others are operations- or sales-centric, focused on chasing opportunity and ROI. Not that there’s anything wrong with either, of course. But in ops- or sales-driven corporate cultures, marketing takes a backseat, which means that the brand and the consumer often do, too.

If you’re a marketing leader with one of those companies, you and your team likely feel like order-takers, consigned to producing yet another sales brochure or tradeshow booth. You may lack the influence to pursue a comprehensive brand strategy. And your management peers probably don’t value the thinking you bring to the table (if you’re at the table at all).

When Brands Lack Marketing Discipline

In our experience, it’s easy to spot BFY brands that don’t place what we consider the proper amount of emphasis on marketing. Some of these companies were founded by process-minded entrepreneurs who thrive on the challenge of making a product, without worrying about how to build an audience around it. Some brands start out with a focus on building a wholesale business and are unconcerned about the end consumer. Organizationally, some companies bolt marketing onto another department, like HR and communications. Some brands are led by “numbers people” who don’t bother with “soft” disciplines like marketing.

In organizations where so much of the business rests upon sales or operations, the marketing team just produces what sales team needs. Rather than working as strategic partners, marketers are stuck in reaction mode: strategically underutilized, demoralized, and overtasked with chores that don’t move the needle.

But then, something in the business changes. A wholesale-only brand shifts to a consumer model or launches a companion consumer brand, or a company starts selling direct-to-consumers. These shifts require a strategic marketing approach, and if management doesn’t understand or value marketing, the battle to build a consumer audience is long and uphill.

If marketing doesn’t have a seat at the table when the business climate pivots, there’s a risk that the brand goes “rogue,” speaking in different ways about different things to different audiences. The brand loses internal and external relevance. Sales stagnate and growth is stymied. There’s a significant loss of potential, and the brand won’t fulfill its destiny.

How Marketing Leaders Can Gain Influence

If you’re a marketing executive in a company that doesn’t emphasize the discipline, or if your organization is facing a shift that makes your work more important and visible then it’s previously been, we can offer several suggestions for how you can gain influence.

First, start with the end in mind, instead of only the next step. So, for example, if you’re working toward a financial target, look at that, not at what your first sale will be. If you need to build an audience, do the research to identify and understand that audience. If you’re starting a consumer marketing strategy, look at what we call the Brand Ecosystem (seven essential communication platforms) as a whole, not just one tactic; like building a social media campaign.

Second, consolidate opportunistic and strategic needs as much as you can. If the sales manager asks for a new section of the website to communicate to a key retail account, can you also deploy resources to build out the consumer side? Can you use project requests as opportunities to do broader research? This approach to building influence and understanding of marketing involves “Yes, and …” conversations. Rather than declining a project request from the sales team, say, “Yes we can help you, and of the five things you’re asking for, here are two key projects that best mesh with our brand strategy.”

Develop the art of reflective listening. This tactic has proven highly effective whenever we encounter client organizations that distrust or devalue marketing. We teach our partners to use internal stakeholders’ own language when they talk about marketing solutions. When we gather all the client’s department heads, we model how the marketing leader can communicate to her peers in a way that makes them feel heard.

Wrap your conversations with other business leaders in strategic language. Always be talking about how and what other departments are doing and how they fit into the brand strategy. Gaining influence in an organization is like parenting a small child — you have to fold each interaction into a larger goal. Acknowledge their needs and start to bend their requests to your larger objectives. The more they feel you’re an ally and the more you use their input, the more they’ll feel like they’re being heard. Give them guidance on strategic thinking without cluing them into the lesson.

Enroll a small number of key people in strategy conversations. Enlist influencers within the corporate culture to advance your brand initiatives instead of hosting an “all-hands” meeting where egos will take over and the group is harder to corral.

It’s an eternal struggle for marketers to prove ROI on their work, but to the extent that you can, try to quantify your team’s impact. Beginning every project by setting goals and metrics that will define success is essential, especially as you’re building influence. At the end of programs or campaigns, recap goals and planning conversations so that you can point to outcomes. You’ll further advance your cause if you admit when you’re wrong and an initiative didn’t perform as you’d expected.

Finally, enlist your entire team in building a reputation for marketing in your organization. Set your own private agenda for every meeting with internal clients and stakeholders to make sure they feel heard and supported. Advancing the cause of marketing is all about managing up and around you.

If you’re seeking an outside partner who can advance your marketing agenda and spark growth for your brand, we’re here to help. Just drop us a line.