Powerful insight leads to inspiring purpose for brands and leaders

A forward-looking strategy focused on consumer needs can build their value to the organisation and, as a result, help drive sustainable growth, writes Mhairi McEwan, chief executive and co-founder of Brand Learning.

Customer-centred leadership
Customer-centred leadership

Today’s marketing leaders are dealing with unprecedented pace and complexity. On the one hand, there are the technical skills needed to excel: generating customer and market insight, creating inspirational brand experiences and building engaging and enduring relationships with customers to deliver profitable growth.

On the other, there is the behavioural side of the role, inspiring and engaging people and teams to create and implement pioneering ideas. This involves broader leadership skills, making people feel valued and focusing their attention on delivering what really matters.

With this in mind, organisations need to build a culture of "customer-centred leadership": bringing technical marketing and leadership capabilities together to create real customer value and attain new levels of performance.

Know what matters

The first step toward customer-centred leadership is, naturally, deep insight into what matters to customers, to oneself and to the organisation. As Procter & Gamble chief executive AG Lafley wrote in The Game-Changer: "We expanded our mission to include the idea that ‘the consumer is boss’. In other words, the people who buy and use P&G products are valued not just for their money, but as a rich source of information and direction."

Create a purpose and strategy

From powerful insight, leaders can define an inspiring purpose and future-focused strategy centred on customer needs. Harriet Green was appointed chief executive of Thomas Cook in July 2012 and in just two years the share price has risen 950%. This followed the launch of a strategy focused on NPD and innovation, digital leadership and putting customers at the very heart of the business.

Engage the team

The third step is to engage people and teams with that strategy, both inside and outside the organisation, in a spirit of partnership and collaboration. Internal teams and external agency partners need to follow one overall vision in order to deliver and sustain an integrated customer experience.

Deliver value

The final part is driving organisational performance by delivering customer value in practice. Niall FitzGerald, chairman of Brand Learning (and former chairman of Unilever and Reuters), notes: "In visiting over 80 countries worldwide, I always met with our consumers and customers on the ground before I met the local teams so I could build insight and ensure everything we did created value for them."

Sounds easy? Then why is this so difficult for marketers to actually deliver? The challenge lies in the fact that the skills and behaviours needed by marketing leaders are very different from the ones that got them to the top in the first place. Leading a marketing organisation has also become exponentially harder in recent years owing to the pace and scale of change in marketing practices, the fragmentation caused by digital channels and the increased complexity of, yet need for, cross-company and global engagement.

Moreover, relationships between leaders and teams have shifted. Teams are more fragmented and demanding, there is less power/authority from expertise or hierarchical positions, and employees feel a greater need for authenticity and emotional engagement.

Combining the skilled "doing" of marketing with the skilled "being" of leadership is challenging enough, but putting customers at the heart of both is absolutely vital to help organisations engage, inspire and build customer value to drive sustainable growth.

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