Advice for insights leaders on how to influence your organisation’s strategic plan

June 12th, 2020 by Colin Buckingham

Reading Time: 6 minutes

In market research and insight, we have long talked about the need to have a seat at the top table, to influence the board and the C-suite. Most of these conversations revolve around the broader business skills researchers need in order to have that influence. But there is one key element we can use to win the ear of the senior team which has been discussed far less; how to have specific and direct influence on your organisation’s strategic business plan.

The strategic plan – or StratPlan – is at the heart of any organisation and will span all the businesses, geographies, categories or divisions the company is involved in. It sets priorities, focuses energy, allocates resources, establishes alignment around desired results, and adjusts direction in response to a changing environment.

And of course, it should be based on evidence, which the insight team is best placed to provide. However, in practice, many strategic plans are directionally sound but contain little or no consumer insight to evidence them.

But get it right and it’s a virtuous circle. By providing the right information to support and drive the strategic planning process, senior insight directors can prove the value of insights and get the level of engagement from the C-suite they need to exert further strategic influence. Insight becomes less about order taking and more about setting direction for the business.

But every organisation is different and there are many approaches to strategic plans. So, what are six things insights directors can do in order to ensure they have strategic impact?

1. Work with existing processes

The best start is to look at how the planning process works within your organisation and understand the outputs that you need. Know exactly what you have to deliver, by when, and the format it needs to be in.

Strategic planning processes generate their own energy. It is an awful lot easier to ride their momentum than to fight it. Large corporations have to have a consistent process. That doesn’t mean that you can’t, as a senior insight leader, have a constructive input to what that process should be. But once the process has been defined, you have to work within it. And preferably be at the heart of it, having the right conversations throughout the planning cycle so that you can truly influence the outcome.

2. Combine top-down and bottom-up

There are two elements to strategic planning – a top down process which is likely to be a resource and financial planning exercise, and a bottom up process which relies on marketing and insight people working together to manage brands successfully.

The top down element might start with the main things the CEO has on their agenda – the financial goals they have to deliver and the big picture initiatives they needs the business to sign up to, such as restructuring programmes, geographical expansion, or innovation and diversification of the portfolio. They’ll be anticipating company-wide support for the principles even if the details have yet to be worked through.

However, a successful StratPlan isn’t just about painting the big picture and then running the numbers. The “bottom up” parts are crucial because these should drive what the company actually DOES. This is where consumer insights can play a pivotal role, working with people who are managing countries, managing portfolios of brands or managing individual brands. This is where listening and responding to consumers enables ideas to be generated, opportunities to be identified, and strategies to be created and evidenced.

No prizes are awarded for complaining that the organisation is too financially driven, and never listens to its consumers or even its own marketing people. If you’re the global director for a brand that has enjoyed great success in North America and has enormous potential to expand into other Western markets, you need to solidify that thinking, get it into the strategic plan, and ensure it is interwoven into the company’s goals globally and in the relevant countries.

The best way to achieve this is to build an invincible commercial case based on the most robust market and consumer insight you can get your hands on. In our experience, the key often lies in the successful interplay between marketing people, who often tend to be a bit more passionate and conviction-led, and the insight people who are often more evidence-led. The best StratPlans don’t just have big promises and financial spread sheets, they are rich on both passion and evidence.

3. Focus on where you can have most impact

Your goal is to make sure, in terms of the areas of the business that you impact, that the right things end up in the strategic plan from both a consumer and a commercial perspective. This means anticipating what consumers are going to need and demonstrating that it is viable and profitable for the business to deliver them. So that’s what the plan should be helping you to do, making sure that both the consumer needs and the profitable commercial outcomes are given full weight. Again, establishing a clear line of sight between the strategic objectives and the insight function will place commercial insight – and hence the customer – at the heart of the business.

4. ‘Own’ the customer

Building on that need to focus, of course it is the role of the insight team to represent the customer. You must know what the two or three big things are that your company needs to do to move forward with customers and champion them, without abandoning fundamentals. You could do this by taking each area your company needs to focus on and providing evidence for consumer-inspired initiatives to feed into the plan.

We worked with a client on the second iteration of its revamped StratPlan. The first time round, they developed the big picture and some big numbers.

They had outlined some broad brush initiatives – “growth pillars” – to support the financial projections, mainly drawn from their internal innovation pipeline.

In the second version, we started with the consumer. We took each of the original growth pillars and explored their potential with consumers, mainly using data and research the business already had. We identified the core target for each growth initiative, demographically and geographically, and pinpointed the needs and behaviours the brand would need to connect with. We then developed evidenced based projections for the incremental volume and value of each part of the strategy, globally and by market, so that these could be woven tightly into the updated plan, and investments targeted accordingly.

The result was a joined-up strategy which respected the big picture objectives to which the company had committed publicly but supported these with well evidenced strategies which could be implemented at a practical level.

By providing proof to the business of how consumer needs convert to commercial opportunities, you can connect the voice of the customer directly into the plan and enable better decisions to be made.

5. Get fluent at speaking finance

Of course, different companies have different structures but the responsibility for building and delivering the strategic plan often sits ultimately with finance. Most plans support the financial forecast and the budget. And the best way insight people can influence finance people is by spending time with them, understanding how they think, understanding what they need, and giving them objective, compelling answers, with decent evidence, in a form that they will understand and find easy to relate to.

We often work directly with insight, marketing, and finance people to create these connections. If there’s a specific pro forma required, as there inevitably is, we convert our insights and conclusions into that format. We fill out the forms; we help compile the spread sheets; we work with the finance team to understand what they need to deliver; we use their terminology.

Without this, marketing can resemble the much-caricatured tourist in a foreign restaurant, shouting his requests more and more loudly in his own language to an audience which simply ignores him and serves up whatever it has to hand.

6. Have conviction

If you wait for the evidence to take you to the answer, someone else will have found it. But if you go after something that you believe in passionately, despite all the evidence, then you may run into expensive trouble.

But sometimes even insights professionals need passion and conviction as well as evidence. Believe in your judgement and go and seek the data to support your view, don’t expect it to come to you.

One recurring theme in strategy work in recent years is the desire to stretch much loved brands into new territories. The commercial logic is compelling; it’s usually far more efficient to expand the reach of an existing equity across geographies and / or categories than it is to build new brands from scratch. However, consumers are rarely crying out for something they don’t know exists, or even could exist.

In these situations our work often includes blue sky sessions, where we uncover the dreams, obsessions, and hypotheses of the client team – where could we take this brand if we had no constraints? – and marry them with examples of how other companies and industries have broken through barriers to reinvent themselves. We then take what is often a very long list of potential future directions and sense check them. What data can we find that would give us at least a steer on what this idea could be worth to us. There will be some dross and some madness on the list, but there may just be one or two gems.

And then the more focused evaluation and evidencing can begin.

If heads of insight are passionate and engaged and take a position, they are more likely to be listened to and their advice followed then if they just present evidence dispassionately and do not engage with the process emotionally.

Impacting the strategic plan is vital if we are to ensure the future of insights. And insights matter if we want businesses to be led by their customers – people, in other words – and deliver what we the people want from them. Follow these steps and you will be well on the way to ensuring you drive change proactively, and collaboratively, within your organisation and move insights from responding to questions or behaving reactively, to setting the agenda for the future.

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