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Unlocking a communications blockage

Sep 17, 2019 | POINTS OF VIEW

What to do when you’re stuck with a global brand proposition that doesn’t work.


Unlocking a communications blockage
Brand propositions should make local activations easier. Invariably they don’t.

It’s the moment everyone’s been waiting for. The big reveal. The solution that’s going to make everything better.  The global team and its agency have been working on it for ages. Kegs of blood, sweat and tears – as well as a gazillion dollars – have been spent on getting it right. The global brand proposition and its accompanying toolkit are ready for local markets to issue to their agencies and everyone can rejoice in the sales which are surely to follow.

But hold on. There’s a rumble. And it’s not in the jungle.  It’s from local markets asking for clarification.  And then clarification turns to frustration. And frustration turns to disbelief. And disbelief turns to its local agencies and says, ‘make sense of this’. The agencies try. But they can’t think outside of their channel. And their most senior people are busy. Or too pricey. But they have a go.  And another go. And another, until they look at their investment (aka loss) to date and down tools. 

 The clock is ticking. Buyers are waiting. Agencies are waiting. A decision has to be made.  Stick or twist? 

Sound familiar?  It possibly puts too much emphasis on the global team and not enough on its agencies who have been paid top dollar to create something workable in every market.  And for that I can only apologise.  In my experience though, in over 15 years of overhauling and re-creating global brand frameworks and propositions, it’s an all too familiar scenario.

When the outputs don’t match the inputs, or there are critical fault lines with the inputs in the first place, relationships between local teams and HQ aren’t the only ones to suffer. Ultimately, the brand suffers. 

Schizophrenic and ill-conceived communications not only leave customers bewildered; they create a power cut in the energy supply from a brand to its audience that can take years to fix. 



Creating a brand proposition which translates into multiple market isn’t easy.  But then no-one said it would be. Ensuring every market understands, agrees and is aligned with the central strategy, the supporting data and the very essence of the thinking, is a task beyond the capabilities of many people in marketing communications. I don’t know why. It’s probably due to lack of time and resource. Or not wanting to go deep enough. Or settling for an easy option. But it’s anything but easy.

Getting a brand proposition right lies at the very heart of both the art and the science of marketing. It’s strategy over creative. It’s diagnostics over analytics. It’s head over heart but knowing when the heart has to engage.  It’s the foundation stone to a creative engagement platform which can change the fortunes of a brand forever.


The blame game never benefits anyone. But the buck has to stop with someone, right? Probably, but it’s not that simple. Having created numerous propositions and undertaken dozens of reviews over the years for a wide array of global and domestic brands, I’ve seen the same mistakes being made over and over again. Sometimes the fault line is cultural. Sometimes it’s people with the wrong capabilities or lack of experience. Often it’s a lack of time and resource. And too many times it’s an agency charging top dollar for lacklustre work.

Appointing blame is too simplistic. What we need to do is identify the key culprits and look at how we negate them.

1. A global customer does not exist

Global segmentations / typographies can be great in steering markets. But they rarely have enough local detail to be relevant. Or helpful.  More often than not, the target conceived by global is not the right target for local – either attitudinally, behaviourally OR the numbers just don’t stack up against the revenue targets.  Unless you get the target (not the segment) absolutely right, there’s little point in questioning effectiveness later down the line.

Three things that will help the local market:  

  • Interrogate the data that lies behind the segmentation.  And do that for every segment – not just the target identified by HQ. Often the most valuable data points aren’t the ones identified by the global team.
  • Find local data points which either support or challenge the recommended target.  Brands don’t want more problems, they want solutions so dig hard to find them.
  • Any short cuts at this stage will come back and bite you on the a*** and end up costing more time and money. Don’t do it.

2. It’s not a place for subjectivity 

There’s nothing like a pen portrait filled with subjective assumptions to get the blood boiling. Often teams think it’s a useful exercise to sit around and wax lyrical about this mythical creature, the target audience.  Words and phrases are captured on a board and translated into the toolkit to help bring them to life around the world.  See point 1 above. This person only exists in the minds of the people in that boardroom. One of the primary jobs of the brand framework is to present objective facts and interpretations of facts and guidance as to how to make them locally relevant. If you’re the unlucky person trying to make sense of someone-else’s opinion my advice is don’t. Move on as it falls into point 3.

3. Choose your battles

There will be elements of a global toolkit, compass, architecture, call-it-what-you-will, that make no sense. Whilst it’s good to question everything, not everything needs to be solved. A global team isn’t looking for a local market to overhaul all of their good work.

And a local team isn’t looking for any more battles to fight.  So pick your battles carefully and wisely and only focus on the elements that have to be revised to help the local market execute.

4. Don’t fight the global proposition – align with it

I’ve never known a global team who, at the end of an exhaustive process, have sat back and said “That’s a piece of sh***. Send it out and let’s see what people say”. A huge amount of resource goes into creating a brand framework, but sometimes it just doesn’t translate locally. No-one wants to burn a piece of work publicly nor do they want to spend endless weeks and months delaying programmes because a certain word or phrase won’t work in, for example, Germany or Spain.  The job, in the first instance isn’t to bin a strapline or a platform, it’s to find a workaround. Be aligned globally but, find a way to bring it to life locally.

5. Diagnostics are more important than analytics

When my gut tells me something is wrong, I usually listen to it.  After all, it’s a big gut. But telling someone you don’t agree rather than proving why you disagree are two different things.  Data is critical in peppering fresh perspectives with facts but, diagnosing the problems in the first instance, saves everyone a lot of time and, ultimately, money.

6. Collaborate but too many chefs spoil the soup

I’ve always found three meaningful check-ins with the client saves everyone a lot of heartache.  It means you’re all on the journey together and there are clear, signposted junctions, to review and agree before moving onto the next phase.  It doesn’t tend to end well though when you either involve other agencies too much or not at all.  

Reviewing and revising a brand framework is a highly strategic operation. Unless everyone involved is deeply and actively involved, it’s best to keep them out of the kitchen.

7.    Beware the truth

I once gave a presentation to the head of omnichannel content and marketing operations at BA where she stopped me, after slide 4. Our presentation was a fast turnaround response to bringing the brand’s new purpose to life across 64 markets. “I can see where you’re going.  And I don’t disagree. In fact, I agree with the truth you have found and are following. It just happens not to be the truth we are following.”  It was a great lesson to learn.  There are many truths embedded in a framework; working out which ones to follow and which to replace is all part of point 6 but critically, of point 8.

8.    Who’s the boss?

If you don’t get senior buy-in at every junction, you’ll fail. Every time. And by senior, I mean the person who ultimately signs off the work.  It has to be face to face; you have to have enough time to walk through your thinking, reflections, considerations and recommendations; there must be no distractions. And you must be prepared. Obvs.  Sometimes a team will say the decision-maker can’t make it so present to them and they’ll then run her/him through it. DON’T.  It won’t save time. It will kill time. Lost in translation becomes a reality; workload has just doubled and the timeline is creaking ever louder.

9.    Enjoy it. 

The buzz from nailing a big piece of strategic work is just as big as nailing a creative. If not bigger.

Remember, tactics without strategy are just ideas doomed to eventually fail.

We aim high. Every time.

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