Why Innovative Businesses Need a Brand Change Agenda

As B-to-B marketing capabilities commoditize, the brand reemerges as a critical driver of success

By Robert Davis




Creating effective advertising for businesses driven by product innovation can be a challenge. For years, many in the advertising industry have operated with a fixed mindset that "our innovative solution will sell itself." Luckily, those days are almost over. Senior marketers today have transformed their organizations to focus on understanding and influencing the buyer's journey. They commonly do this with journey maps — visualizations of the process that a person goes through to accomplish a goal. Anywhere a pain point emerges marks a spot where a prospect feels frustrated or confused and illustrates a potential opportunity for a brand to smooth the journey.

Understanding the customer's journey is almost always a positive evolution away from how engineers and product managers used to think about marketing. Lately there has been an overly optimistic consensus about the customer journey: build the journey map and things will work out. Unfortunately, this is just an updated version of "our innovative solution will sell itself." If your brand isn't fully activated to build a sustainable marketing advantage by leading the customer experience, it's unlikely that a customer journey map by itself will get you there.


Marketing Needs to Drive the Change Agenda, Not Follow It

In 2014, Ian Ewart, then head of product, services, and marketing at the London-based private bank Coutts, was quoted in Harvard Business Review succinctly reinforcing the importance of the senior marketer in driving change: "If marketing is not driving the change agenda then either the agenda is wrong or marketing is not being effective."

Most senior marketers have spent a good chunk of the past five years dealing with change: building buyer-centric processes, tooling for digital, integrating their marketing technology stacks, operationalizing content, building data infrastructure, and upgrading measurement. This is a daunting list for anyone. Yet as a change agenda for marketing innovative products, all these initiatives may not be enough. Here are three key reasons why:

  • Buyers may not know how to buy your solution. When innovative solutions present new ways to address old issues, buyers lose their reference points. Their criteria for consideration, evaluation, and decision-making were all set by the old way of doing things, and they need to be reset.
  • Most people in the category may be having the wrong conversation. Your brand is just one voice in your buyer's crowded environment. When other brands, their influencers, and your buyer's peers are talking about the status quo, they may be creating friction for innovations like yours that challenge the way things are today.
  • Even when you've reeducated buyers into rethinking a category, larger cultural forces can slow your growth. PJA tracks some annual research on the state of the CIO, and while the number of business-minded CIOs has increased, the percentage who feel they're stuck in day-to-day IT execution (and, hence, are unable to develop new ways to create business value) is changing very, very slowly. Culture is largely responsible for this drag on change.

Therefore, if you want to make meaningful change today, you need a change agenda.


How to Change Your Change Agenda

Today's marketing change agenda is necessary, but it's limited by a narrow focus on generic marketing capabilities. Marketing stacks — which include email marketing platforms, social media scheduling tools, content management systems, etc. — are increasingly cost-of-entry capabilities. Even marketing campaign automation is reaching commodity status. (Oh, and your competitors have detailed buyer journeys, too.)

On the other hand, a change agenda designed to help make your innovation successful in the market looks very different. To that end, marketers should focus on a "brand change agenda" that does the following things:

1. Establish the role change can play in making your innovation successful. You're probably surrounded by people in your company who are in love with your innovation, but you need to get them on board with the idea that innovation alone won't be enough to be successful.

2. Define the changes that can accelerate adoption of your innovation. Do buyers need to learn new ways to buy? Does the category need to be having a new conversation? Is there an opportunity to reshape culture that can change how buyers think about your category and your solution? At PJA, for instance, we use a set of graduated "steps" to envision the different types of change (see below).

3. Create a role for your brand in making those changes come true. You can't do it all, but you should be doing something. Your brand's unique DNA can drive a mission-like approach to making change come true. PJA's Mike O'Toole has some useful advice on how mission-driven marketing can start a movement.

4. Equip your brand to deliver the change. Organizing to drive change means giving different guidance to internal teams and your external agencies. Update your brand strategy to define the role of change in driving success, communicate your brand's unique role in driving that change, identify the brand values that will characterize your approach to driving that change, and develop a set of strategies for how the brand can make the change happen. For example, one strategy can show you how to engage the "crazies" who can help you make your change come true. (Learn how fitness innovator Peloton leveraged its crazies on its route to runaway success.)

5. Budget for change. It's nice to have more money, but budgeting for change is also about looking at your resources differently. If you see your awareness marketing line item as the resource for growing awareness, the presupposed next step is usually to get some people started on an awareness campaign. It's time to reorient those expectations, and demand that those dollars and resources drive the change agenda. Awareness might in fact be a valid strategy for driving change, but having a change agenda will change the way you think about awareness.

For example, challenge your team to become the brand that resets the conversation in your category, or the brand that changes an element of business culture ripe for evolution. Then work with them to rethink the way your budgets are aligned with these outcomes to drive change.


Aspiring to Change Takes Guts

It can feel ambitious — or even crazy — to change the conversation from "growing awareness" to "changing culture." Study and share inspirational examples of marketers driving change with their brands. A few examples:

  • Moving from on-premise software to SaaS apps is a technical innovation that was mostly waiting to happen. Salesforce set its sights on changing culture when it proclaimed, "No more software."
  • Red Hat knew that unleashing business-minded CIOs would create more demand for dynamic infrastructure over time, so the company created The Enterprisers Project to invest in helping this particular set of "crazies" challenge existing business culture to become more successful. (Full disclosure: PJA developed this program in partnership with Red Hat.)

With examples in hand to get the conversation started, you can begin talking about your brand's unique change agenda — and take better advantage of the tools that can help you make your vision of change become real.


Robert Davis is EVP and director of strategy at PJA Advertising + Marketing. You can reach him at rdavis@agencypja.com.


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