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Marketing – If the chief executive doesn’t get it and isn’t behind it, then forget it

Whilst browsing the Media and Marketing Section of the Irish Times Online, I came across this interesting article by Laura Slattery from Thursday  February 20th.

Marketers must not be blindsided by the message

Marketers “are probably the worst communicators”, says David Bunworth, the former Bord Gáis Energy managing director and Aer Lingus commercial director who “came out of retirement” two years ago to lead the rebranding of United Drug to UDG Healthcare.

“I think marketing has a massive role to play in a company but I’m not sure that, as a profession, we do ourselves too much justice at the executive table,” says Bunworth (63), who has also held marketing-led roles at Guinness, Esat and Sterling Health Pharmaceuticals during his career.

Too many marketers focus only on the end communications campaign – the advertising messages and visual identity – without first “opening up the bonnet and looking at the engine to check that it is in working order”, he says.

When he got a call from United Drug chief executive Liam Fitzgerald to act as a consultant on its seven-figure restructuring project last year, the Iseq-listed healthcare services group had 52 separate business units in four clusters. Customers were finding the company “hard to navigate ”.

But the project, now nearly compete, had to get the backing of executives who were often more entrepreneurial by background – thanks to the group’s history of making bolt-on acquisitions – than managerial.

“All your diplomatic skills have to be there,” Bunworth says. The four “clusters” of the renamed UDG Healthcare are now organised into branded divisions: Aquilant (specialist healthcare services), Ashfield (commercial and medical services), Sharp (packaging services) and United Drug (supply chain services).

As well as commissioning design work from Dublin company Zero-G and hiring consultants from the firm Genesis, he held in-house workshops to ascertain the values of the business. “We had to ask the question ‘are we doing it, are we set up to do it, and if we’re not doing it, then why is it one of our values?’”

Bunworth, who oversaw an Aer Lingus rebranding in 1995, believes its current chief executive Christoph Mueller has “done a really good job at differentiation”.

He wasn’t a fan of the period in which the airline aped Ryanair’s no-frills philosophy. “Companies need all the time to be lower cost – to take cost out of the business. But low cost is a completely different animal [than lower cost] for an organisation that has been around for 80 years.”

At Bord Gáis Energy, “we knew we had to be bold and provocative” when imploring consumers to make the “big switch” after it entered the residential electricity market. The research indicated that Bord Gáis was well-respected, but was seen as “the safe boring cousin at the party who keeps under the radar”.

Its advertising campaign, fronted by broadcaster Lucy Kennedy, won awards for its effectiveness, which he attributes to its “clear call to action”, transparency on the precise savings that could be achieved and preparation that ensured the company could actually handle the influx of new business.

A decision not to impose contracts that locked in customers for a period also removed “the fear factor”, at least for the switchers. “The accountants were a bit nervous of that one,” Bunworth says.

When “the back work” ends up being little more than “a light touch discussion with customers”, organisations are left vulnerable to service gaps whereby they cannot live up to their marketing. “That’s a big debate that a lot of organisations don’t have.”

Happily, he has enjoyed the advantage of working with chief executives – Fitzgerald, Gary McGann at Aer Lingus and John Mullins at Bord Gáis – who “would all have been believers” in the power of marketing to lead a company.

“If the chief executive doesn’t get it and isn’t behind it, then forget it.”

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