There are many tools and processes available to leadership teams who want to strategise. Sometimes I think there are too many; and I’m always of the opinion that the simplest models are the best. Too many questions to answer, too many options to expound and your strategic plan soon becomes an end rather than a means.
But there’s one thing harder than coming up with a winning strategy … and that’s sticking to it. Whether it’s the five-year plan for your business or the three-year plan for your brand (or both, if your business is a brand in its own right). The temptation to tinker starts as soon as the ink is dry. And it is hard to resist. Harder still if the first few quarters’ results aren’t what you had hoped for. Or if the FD meets a new consultant whose sales talk makes the current plan seem shoddy. Or there’s a change of leadership in the enterprise.
Here’s what happens if you don’t stick to your plan. First of all, the employees to whom you sold the plan in the first place (let’s assume you did, anyway) begin to ask questions. The first question they ask is ‘does the boss really know what she’s doing?’ This is understandable because employees like bosses who set a clear direction and explain the role each employee has to play. They like that almost as much as they dislike change. For change always means more work, and often provokes internal conflict.
Secondly, your partners start rolling their eyes. Your partners in retail or logistics or packaging – or whatever intimate support your business needs to succeed – who went out of their way to accommodate your intentions into their own plan. This is a problem because you want your partners to be your promoters. To actively endorse your strategy, your products and services to third parties in the business community. Not to say ‘ we don’t know what Company A is up to any more.’
Thirdly and most alarmingly, your customers become puzzled. They are very quick to perceive a change and, if it lacks logic, they become unsettled. Indeed if you are clever enough to have created a popular brand you may find consumers actively opposing a change in strategy. This is because brands belong to consumers more than they belong to brand owners. They exist in the hearts and minds of people who buy them.So against this backdrop I have been delighted to reconnect recently with a couple of brands that have stuck to their strategy.
Seven, maybe eight years ago I was privileged to work with a company that started life as a tyre dealer in Western Kenya. They had built a good business in partnership with Pirelli (which continues to this day) but they felt there was an opportunity to enjoy brand success independent of that global giant. Together we worked on a strategy to launch the brand that was to become AutoXpress (www.auto-xpress.co.ke).
One pillar of that strategy was the requirement to create highly visible, modern tyre centres. They stuck to their plan, and now boast 29 outlets in Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda. More importantly, they executed their brand identity to exactly the same standard in every location. This is much harder than it sounds – thanks to people’s propensity to express individuality. And now they are extending that discipline to the digital space – enabling customers to specify, cost and compare, and book appointments to fit a wide range of auto accessories. They are also line-extending the brand into much more capable auto-repair centres in partnership with global leader Bosch. All of which represents innovation – but innovation in line with the original strategy.
This past weekend I was on a ranch, re-engaging with a brand called Mara Beef. This brand is still in the early stages of its journey, but the young owners have remained true to the strategic principles we agreed nearly three years ago. They are adding value; in terms of more educated cattle husbandry, a modern abbatoir, and tasty product development. Their vehicles and packaging bear a simple, strong logo that connotes healthy grass-fed beef on the range. They have enlisted the local community, and are rewarding its support with training, development and business opportunities.
Mara Beef is laying the foundations of a food brand we will all come to admire as it develops in scale, communicates with its target audiences … and above all sticks to its strategy.
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