02 Mar Abacus – our strategic marketing planning process in action…
After an absence of some 18 months, dating back to August 2020, it felt appropriate to relaunch our Marketing Matter blog (and our social media feeds) with an explanation. When Covid-19 first flared up in the UK almost two years ago, on 16 March 2020, we were instantly affected, just like everyone else. It was a scary time. All our client work stopped in the space of a few days, just like that. Of course, life carried on, as it always has to do.
It would be easy to suggest that we took stock of the situation and made new plans for the future, but that would not really be true. We had already done this, almost a decade ago when I first set up the agency, with the aim being to deliver the best possible outcomes for our clients. This had manifested itself in a marketing consultancy framework we built from scratch over the last ten years, which we call a Strategic Marketing Planning Process, the objective of which is to create a blueprint for the future success of our clients, whatever their size, whatever their sector, whatever their size.
Blue Chip Clients
Of course, for our blue chip clients, like Canon, we needed to tailored our framework to the specific needs of their brief – they didn’t need help with defining their business plan, their marketing strategy or their brand proposition; what they needed was creative strategies to bring campaign briefs to life. And that’s what we have done for them many times over the last five years, creating advertising and promotional toolkits that are customised for local use by their regional offices in over 100 countries across Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa to support sales of both camera and printer divisions. Although Canon paused all activity for 15 months, due to supply challenges and excess demand, we are now working with them at the same level as before – but we are delighted to now be sitting at their top table, formulating the marketing strategies upon which our creative concepts are based.
This was in part due to our investment in Mintel, the gold standard for market intelligence, to ensure our desk research was as high quality as possible – as well as to save time and deep dive into the latest factors influencing consumer behaviour. This significant cost has paid rich dividends across the board. We were growing increasingly concerned with the quality of freely available information on Google. Yes, it’s free, but is it rigorously proven, and is it journalistically unbiased? We didn’t want to risk our client’s budgets on flimsy evidence, and our clients have appreciated this approach, which we don’t charge them for; it’s simply a part of our agency overhead we need – our virtual research team of experts.
Our SMPP framework
Our SMPP framework involves a series of what we call “discovery sessions”, which normally include a number of half-day workshops with the client, all of which are recorded and transcribed (and read several times) to ensure an accurate representation of the meetings is always preserved. We also conduct individual interviews with all workshop members, spend time getting to know key people and the processes and systems within every department, conduct competitor research and check out Mintel for insights. We even go out on sales calls and do some mystery shopping if we think it necessary.
Canon aside, the first SME client for whom we formally delivered our SMPP framework was De Baere, a high quality London bakery. Although our work with them was paused for a few months due to Covid-19 until June 2020, we worked on the strategic component of the process during the summer months, and then delivered the creative solution towards the back end of the year. Due to ongoing restrictions affecting their bottom line (as they service the hospitality sector), the implementation process was delayed for the whole of 2021, but the new brand identity is due to launch on their website later this year. It’s already been soft launched on their social media channels. This led to several changes to their commercial proposition.
Whilst we are not management consultants per se, it is always the case that good ideas that can improve the overall business plan naturally occur as a consequence of delivering our SMPP. This can be thought of as three key factors that affect success – quantity, quality and direction. Most companies are pretty good at the first two – lots of hard work by talented people. The primary objective of marketing consultancy should be to finetune the direction of travel. The more poorly the compass is balanced, the more inefficient and ineffective a business will be. We see incredible changes that come about due to this finetuning process.
After De Baere came Adio, an online company operating in the healthcare community run by a pair of ethical entrepreneurs who just happen to be health-mad sisters, passionate about life and wellbeing in every possible way. Our SMPP framework helped them to choose a different commercial path to the one they had envisaged, and the brand strategy element of the process helped us to come up with the new trading name for the company (Adio stands for Above Down Inside Out and is related to chiropractic thinking). The new website launched in May 2021, and the start-up enterprise continues to evolve in interesting ways. We even took a small stake in the business in lieu of payment, partly to keep costs within budget, but primarily because we believed in the future viability of the business.
The basic premise of our SMPP framework is that we need to clearly define the commercial proposition and the brand philosophy before we are in a position to be able to create an effective and efficient strategic marketing plan (remember, strategy is all about the most effective and efficient use of scarce resource, and that normally means time and money). Our process works incredibly well, regardless of the size of the business – and as we have seen with the likes of Canon, it works for product and service streams, just as well as it does for complete organisations (including situations where there are a number of partner brands operating within the group hierarchy).
After Delivering Adio
After delivering Adio, we then applied the same strategic marketing framework to an ambitious SME, Nicola Jane, a company specialising in the sale of products suitable for women who have had breast surgery due to breast cancer. This, in spite of the fact that the two key members of our delivery team are men. Nicola Jane trusted us, because they believed in our methodology – and once again is has worked incredibly. After the marketing strategy came the creative development process, which manifested itself in a brand style guide that was used to create their 2020 Collection, a catalogue-magazine (which we call a magalogue), that was posted through their customers’ letterboxes earlier this month, and which has met with widespread approval. We are now working on their website, which will go live in the next few months. It’s not normal to work on a catalogue before your website is ready, but there was a strong commercial incentive to do things the wrong way round. We are nothing if not flexible in our approach. Yes, there is always a “right” way to do things from a marketing perspective, but if the short-term commercial needs outweigh the brand benefits, then we will always accede to the requirements of the business. After all, our SMPP is primarily focused on increasing sales and profits, as well as stakeholder satisfaction (customers, employees, shareholders etc.) and increasing the value of the business in general, which if course more important if an exit strategy is a key corporate objective.
The Basic Premise of our SMPP
The basic premise of our SMPP is that it delivers robust insights which guide the development of the marketing strategy. These insights relate to a business, its brand, their consumers and the wider echo chamber in which they operate (which is basically the cultural landscape pertinent to their marketplace). These insights come together to create a core proposition (often called the unique sales proposition (USP), a name we don’t really like because it is a bit limiting), that we are able to support, due to the robust nature of our discovery process, with evidence-based proof points that we unearth during the intelligence-gathering stage.
At about the same time as we began work on Nicola Jane in early 2021, we restarted work with a previous start up client called TLC (aka The Lovely Clinic), which had by now grown into a thriving small business operating within the non-surgical cosmetics sector, offering a variety of treatments to a well-heeled customer base in the more well-to-do parts of West London. We began with a creative update of their brand identity, then we delivered a photoshoot to create assets (video and stills) representative of their target audience in two mood states (natural and dynamic) – and only then we did we deliver the SMPP part of the process, with a particular emphasis on the strategic brand proposition. This might sound a bit odd, mostly because it is a bit odd. But, because we knew the client already and had worked with them before, delivering a simplified version of our SMPP process to produce a strategic and creative brand proposition that focused on tone of voice and core messaging, this approach worked well. We are now making great progress with the new website, which is going to have a Bauhaus-inspired visual identity, also ensuring it is aligned with the look and feel of their incredibly impressive new salon, that is opening up later this year, the design of which is being delivered by a fantastic third party commissioned by our client.
We believe that there are four factors a marketing agency needs to bring to the party to achieve successful outcomes for its clients – knowledge and experience is the obvious first (aka induction), as of course is gut feel and instinct (aka intuition), and the third we have already talked about, which is a deep and meaningful understanding of the commercial proposition and the brand philosophy, which we deliver through our SMPP framework (aka intelligence). However, the fourth element, which is often thought of as being the elusive chemistry between client and agency is what we call ‘passion and purpose’ (aka integrity). For us, this means a desire and a willingness to act well beyond the norm. To go above and beyond. To leave no stone unturned. To not just go the extra mile, but to go the extra miles and miles and miles. Whatever it takes, we will do it.
That message resonated well with Mintel, who decided to contract us to deliver a marketing consultancy project, using our strategic marketing planning process, to identify ways to promote Mintel to marketing and advertising agencies across the UK. We know this market well, of course, so this meant we needed to be careful to avoid any unintentional bias. We’re now in the end stages of the creative section of the process, with the aim being to create a suite of sales and marketing collateral by the end of March 2022.
The Creative Process
The creative process is an essential part of our framework. It is our premise that the best creative solutions – in whatever form they take – are always the outcome of a robust and credible marketing plan build on solid foundations. This works for any size of client too, from start up to blue chip, and everything in between. This means that our creative ideas are protected from subjective bias. We can choose colours, images and even fonts based on the strategy.
Last September, we picked up our latest SMPP client – a company called Formula, who are a part of the international Saint Gobain network, who chose Abacus to help them to launch their new brand purpose – Formulate Together Brighter Futures – to their global network of stakeholders, including employees, partners, agents, suppliers, prospects and customers. We are now well on our way to delivering this project during the summer months of 2022. It’s another example of how our SMPP framework operates across any industry sector. We were certainly not experts on the industrial gypsum marketplace before we began work. And neither are we now. Our clients are the experts. All we need to know is what is relevant to what we do – in this instance, understanding the internal culture, and thinking about the psychology of deployment, within the context of a new brand proposition that sits along a relatively recent commercial proposition.
So, the long and the short of it is that the real reason we have been absent from social media for so long (and not found time to write any blogs) is simply because we have been super busy delivering SMPP work for our clients. We are the proverbial cobbler’s children… That’s now going to change. We decided at the beginning of 2022 that we had to devote resource in this direction. Why? Well, partly because it doesn’t look that great for an integrating marketing agency championing best practice not to follow it itself. And partly because it helps us to look outside our immediate environment too, and to talk about marketing matters of general interest that we think are likely to become more relevant in the future. So, our first series of blogs will look at the Metaverse, Google Cookies and TikTok, all of which are big news right now. We will also look at influencer marketing strategy and share important consumer trends and market insights across the board that we think are worth flagging to ourselves and others for future consideration. Finally, we will delve into our client work in more detail, producing case studies that illustrate marketing consultancy in practice, and how a dynamic approach to a formulaic framework will always deliver rich rewards for our clients, regardless of their shape, size, sector and goals.
Also, it is worth noting that we have chosen to work exclusively with brands that are ethically minded, and that are devoted to a sustainable future. These are important principles for us too. Whilst there is always more we can do, we all have to start somewhere. And, just as important, but going hand in hand, it is so important that we have good chemistry with our clients. Basically, this chemistry embodies the spirit of openness, cooperation and authenticity in equal measure from both sides.
Finally, we are conscious that our SMPP is not an affordable investment for all companies. With this in mind, we are now offering ad hoc marketing consultancy on an hourly basis to any client, and we will be introducing one-day group workshops (both virtual and physical in nature) to discuss our strategic marketing planning process in more detail. Finally, our intention is to write a book outlining the various stages of the SMPP framework in more detail, but that’s likely to happen in 2023 when we get more time to do so.