After you went through brand planning last year did you vow to do things differently this year? Are you hearing buzz words from senior management regarding your planning to ‘do more with less’, ‘be innovative’, ‘be bold’, ‘think outside the box’?
No one ever intends for brand planning to be an exercise in mediocrity but even with a strong team and the best intentions, it can happen.
Brand teams—especially leaders—face a competitive environment that’s changing at an unprecedented rate, and their sales and marketing resources are often scarce and inconsistent. You need your brand planning to be a productive process that engages your team, instills confidence in your senior leadership, and is a blueprint for success that you will actually execute.
A fresh process is not only possible, it’s essential. Amid these challenges, a plan your team trusts and believes in is a necessity.
Having designed, facilitated, and participated in many brand planning sessions, we’ve seen outstanding processes, as well as some common pitfalls. From that collective experience, here are 5 practices to make your next round of brand planning the best it can be:
1. Be selective about who to involve and when.
Brand planning is a process and shouldn’t be jammed into a single day (more on that in practice #4). Chances are, there are going to be a series of sessions focusing on the competitive environment, strategy development, and tactics. Avoid the temptation to invite everyone who touches your brand to every session. You may figure more people means more ideas and more buy-in. The reality is, two heads are better than one, but twelve heads aren’t better than six. Once you get past 6-8 people, diminishing returns set in. The more people you add, the less each one (on average) contributes. Typically, even with groups of 10, 12, or more it’s a core group of 4-6 that do most of the talking, leaving everyone else disengaged. This not only wastes some people’s time, it might even work against the goal of achieving buy-in.
A great way to manage this is to invite people individually. Spell out each participant’s role and how you’re expecting them to contribute. If you find yourself struggling to articulate an invitee’s role in a particular session, that’s a sign that they should not attend—even though they may have valuable roles elsewhere in the process. Sending individual invitations shows you’re thinking the process through carefully and encourages others to do the same. Finally, cross-functional people who support multiple brands will appreciate not being invited to every meeting.
2. Don’t have anyone who needs to contribute facilitate the session.
A good brand planning session is carefully designed, with a flow and specific activities meant to foster creativity and promote healthy debate. Guiding this process and keeping it on schedule is a full time job, especially with a room full of smart, opinionated, people. Members of your team who are there to contribute ideas, need the freedom to do so without the distraction of having to facilitate. This rule applies to your agency partners, too. If an agency person is facilitating, it shouldn’t be someone you need at the table.
3. Capture the ideas that walk in the door.
Many people who come to a brand planning session, whether it’s about strategy, tactics, or something else, will arrive with ideas already brewing. Don’t let those go to waste. They might not be directly applicable to the theme you hope to tackle first, but they’re likely to be some of the best insights and most creative ideas.
Kick your sessions off with an exercise to get these ideas on paper. Asking people to save their thoughts for a later session or until after a lengthy presentation (by the way the worst way to start a session) often kills creativity, and can make people feel like they’re going through the motions—not being fully involved and engaged. When people get these thoughts out early, they’re far more focused and engaged in the rest of the session.
4. Don’t jam too much into one day.
This is easily the most overlooked best practice in brand planning. Yes, you can cover a lot with a core group of people in 8-9 hours. And, yes, if you’re flying people in, it’s nice to get them home same day. But there are huge down-sides to a one-day marathon. The biggest problem is that people are busy. Stuck in a full-day session, participants will inevitably have to check emails, and will lose focus. During breaks, they’ll be returning phone calls and taking care of the ‘real work’; this can result in late returns from breaks and other disruptions. Delays and interruptions put you behind schedule and make the afternoon a mad rush. Important issues that deserve time and attention may fall off the agenda as people leave to catch flights or put out fires.
Avoid all of that. Either cut down the length of your session, or split it into two days. To cut length, see how many presentations you’ve planned and how long they are. Keep presentations few and brief–20 minutes, max! Consider splitting your full-day session into two days. Start around 10:00am to allow for late flights and to let people clear morning emails. Wrap up mid-afternoon. If people know they have time later in the day to take care of things, they’ll feel more free to focus on the sessions. The biggest benefit of a two-day exercise, however, is giving participants an opportunity to sleep on it. You’ll find that people will arrive for day two far better able to contribute after reflecting on the previous day’s conversations. This is especially true in tactical planning where a round of creative thinking often needs to be followed by a practical round of sober second thought.
5. Involve senior leaders (judiciously)
having senior leadership participate fully is often not practical or helpful. But selective attendance by senior management demonstrates their commitment and support. Having participants share where they are and account for decisions they are making is an opportunity for senior management to provide perspective. An informal presentation to senior leaders mid-way can also stimulate useful reflection, encouraging greater clarity about the rationale for the emerging plans—useful parts of the process.
There are plenty of other tweaks that can enhance your brand planning process (for instance, consider inviting a member of another brand team with no experience in your therapeutic area to participate; an outside perspective can be valuable). But the five core practices laid out here are the building blocks of a brand planning session that will set you on a path to success in 2015.