As marketing researchers, most of what we do is relatively uncontroversial. Occasionally, we are commissioned to undertake a program of research to assist in turning around a severely ailing business. Such projects can go wonderfully well or horribly wrong – with usually little in between.
The research skills required for these corporate turnarounds are markedly different than those required for the usual briefs.
If you crave universal popularity, are afraid to punch past institutionalized deafness, or are more concerned about account revenue than the organization’s prosperity, you are almost certainly the wrong researcher for this job.
In the case of a severely ailing business, particularly those where brand is central to the business contraction, an irrefutable fact is that for the marketing research to be effective, it needs to be directly sponsored by the CEO or, at the very least, a first lieutenant of the CEO. Otherwise, we can stop this discussion right here. I realise how black and white this sounds, but it is based on dozens of corporate turnarounds and 30+ years of lived experience, both happy and bitter.
Design for success
Given the business is in relative contraction, the researcher will most likely be delivering evidence that directly implicates the shortcomings of the incumbent management and leadership. The challenge is exacerbated when the incumbent creative agency is also implicated in the contraction. The isolated researcher needs to be able to bravely deliver the news, sheltered from the crossfire and the potential management wrath.
Realistically, soon after being commissioned, you can usually tell whether the insights you produce will initiate what is required to commence a turnaround. The most immediate tell-tale sign is if executive management fails to deeply engage in the process. If the most senior echelons are not involved in comprehending the insight and formulating the plan of readdress, then the program is almost certain to result in no change in the prosperity of the business, regardless of how great the insight is.
“Silencing researchers is usually done to navigate around the sensitivities of the incumbents who are being implicated by the poor findings.”
Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the best soccer players in the world, is quoted saying, “Talent without work, is nothing”. Similarly, insight without activation, is nothing. Insight alone cannot turn businesses around. It merely provides a microscope to locate and identify the bacteria. The poor relative position of brands often tells us that the bacteria has been festering unabated for years. It is not unusual to find a decade of misdirection and decay. Accompanying this, there is often a pattern of sidelining past research findings that are considered divergent with management’s opinions. In such cases, what is needed is to allow the full sunlight of open scrutiny to be the bacteria’s disinfectant. Silencing researchers is usually done to navigate around the sensitivities of the incumbents who are being implicated by the poor findings.
Strategically report findings
In such organizations, hostilities toward the researcher often begin from the first presentation of the findings. Typically, middle management insists on seeing the findings before the executive. Listen carefully to their “questions”. They are usually bound by a defence that the data is either wrong, incorrect conclusions have been drawn, or that the findings are not new and past efforts have failed so why should this be different? (And sometimes, all three.)
When reporting the findings, it is the responsibility of the researcher to do their utmost to engage with the executive. Often, the person in the organization who commissions the research will be uncomfortable facilitating an audience with the CEO. In the instance of a major turnaround, for the insights to succeed, fundamentally, you require a CEO who is engaged in the process, assertive, and wishes to succeed. Otherwise, marketing research is not an agent of change, but instead just another activity amongst a plethora of floundering activities in a languishing business.
Three essential turnaround components
There are three elements to mounting a successful marketing turnaround.
- Brutal singularity
Tenacity and endurance are fairly self-explanatory. Brutal singularity requires the organization to fall behind a single customer driver and to become famous for delivering to that driver of consumer choice. Marketers often have trouble placing all bets on one driver. As by Brittanica, “Closure (a term used in Gestalt psychology) is the illusion of seeing an incomplete stimulus as though it were whole.” In this case, through brand building, consumers note that the organization is outstanding at delivering to the primary driver of choice and assume that the organization is likely to be operationally strong across the board. That requires alignment between marketing communications and operational performance. Hopefully, the organization has a chief customer officer who brings these factions together (please check out When Will There Be Peace Between Creatives and Researchers?).
“In severely ailing businesses, the researcher often finds that the ‘house’ has inwardly facing mirrors rather than windows.”
In severely ailing businesses, the researcher often finds that the ‘house’ has inwardly facing mirrors rather than windows. Management has become reminiscent of the Greek mythological character Narcissus, who fell so in love with his own image that he stared at it until he died. There is a wild difference between an organization commissioning research, embracing the insight, and then acting on the insight. Too often, the message is moderated and softened, and the audience is not sufficiently senior to effect the necessary change. This is gut-wrenching for the researcher who applied discretionary effort well beyond the brief in the name of restoring the brand.
Executive buy-in is key
The best time to mount a restoration of the brand is when there is a new CEO who wishes to rule a bold line under the past atrocities. If the CEO is not new, they need to have come to the end of their patience with the current efforts and are prepared to break the mirrored windows and allow the blazing sunshine in.
Complementing insights need to be an activation process to act as a “loudhailer” to the executive. The goal is to alert the CEO to the situation to be addressed. And yet, with all that amplified evidence, sometimes we still fail because of the drowsiness of the business. Sometimes, we find the incumbent middle and executive management have no real appetite to change the lifestyle that mediocrity affords them. There is no burning ambition to be better, and so the bacteria continue to flourish.
All in all
Experienced researchers know the challenge of ensuring the truth is heard and achieving a business turnaround. Often, the research messenger needs to muscle their way through. Researchers have a range of voices, but sometimes to raise our voice above the naysayers, we need to opt for the most assertive, “shock and awe” voice. Great researchers also have a gentle voice ready for deployment after the sudden impact required to create the initial awakening. Lastly, to achieve that blazing sunshine, researchers should be prepared to put the findings on high rotation throughout the organization. One client presented the findings 57 times. Another had us facilitate 16 workshops, including one with suppliers.
We can all pretend otherwise but to execute a corporate turnaround, it is the political landscape that almost entirely determines the success of the researcher. Researchers have very limited power to alter that landscape.