Catch 22: When is good global strategy bad?

Bernard Murray argues that global marketing strategy must always be informed by local insights and have a clear route for implementation if it is to avoid the creation of ever grander ideas that are far removed from what is really achievable.

The race to globalisation of marketing in the pharmaceutical world over the last 25 years has led to the development of truly global brands with uniform colours, tag lines and values. The benefits of good global strategy are clear, allowing a common vision, co-ordinated communication, and shared messages and values.

The problem is that the deeper we have gone into the global game, with bigger, broader and stronger strategy – the further the industry has moved from local insights and ideas about implementation. This can lead to the ‘Catch 22’ situation where strong global strategy becomes of little use when it can’t be implemented at a local level, making good strategy bad.

So should a global strategy be shaped by what is possible to implement – or should the strategy itself always drive the development of innovative implementation?

You can define good global strategy in a number of ways, but essentially it is about a company making judgements on likely future developments in the market, and predicting the most important and relevant trends that could either help or hinder their ambitions. Within this robustly defined future framework, the success for the brand and the company are then described and defined.

“This can lead to the ‘Catch 22’ situation where strong global strategy becomes of little use when it can’t be implemented at a local level, making good strategy bad.”

The strategy is developed through careful consideration of what needs to change internally and/or externally to achieve success. It is difficult to argue against this approach, with a clear ‘red thread’ from external opportunity analysis through capability assessment to strategy, and it provides (or at least should provide) a clear framework for success with defined strategic imperatives.

The problem can occur when this framework is too rigid. Global teams ask their regions, and then their country-level affiliates, to create and implement innovative tactics to ensure these strategic imperatives are realised. But what if the tactics needed to succeed within a locality are not in tune with that strategic framework?

There is clearly a balance to be struck here: if the strategy is too rigid, local implementers have no flexibility to make it work in their specific markets. But if you build the global strategy to be all things to all markets, you run the risk of it becoming bland and generic.

That is the Catch 22 of global strategies: the danger that a ‘good’ strategy will become ‘bad’ in the implementation and the opposite danger that in trying to avoid that you end up with a strategy which is bad (in that it is bland and generic) in the first place.

If a strategy is not succeeding, it is not always easy to understand whether the problem lies in the strategy itself, or in the implementation of it. Key Performance Indicators can measure progress by whatever parameters are relevant. But if those KPIs are not being met, what can be done? Should you change the definition of success, alter the strategy, push for better tactics or perhaps even redefine the measures used? There is no easy answer to this.

One thing is clear, though: in order for a strategy to be sufficiently flexible to succeed, clear lines of communication are vital. If those responsible for implementing the strategy, either at regional or local level, find an element of the strategy which is impractical, or if they find a way of implementing it which requires a degree of flexibility, that needs to be fed back up the ‘red thread’ so that the strategy can be tweaked if necessary, and best practice then fed to other geographies to improve their own implementation.

“…if you build the global strategy to be all things to all markets, you run the risk of it becoming bland and generic.”

That ‘red thread’ is the thing that links all the way from the conception of the strategy to the implementation of it on the ground. The start point of that thread is critical: all roads lead back to this point, and arguably this is where we find the most uncertain part of the entire strategic planning process.

And, of course, if you get the trajectory wrong by even a small amount at this stage, its effect will be much magnified at the other end of the thread. When strategy-makers are identifying opportunities on a global level, they can’t possibly have the required local-level insight at that point. But because every other activity that flows from that point is linked to that judgement call, if you get it just a bit wrong, the effect can be dramatic.

It is at the other end of the red thread that strategies are properly tested; it is here that every day new insights are gathered and instant alterations in tactics are tried – some with greater success than others.

So a successful global plan needs to have an effective mechanism for feeding these micro-level insights into what is achievable back to the global strategy-makers.

It is a bit like a colony of bees: this has as its future goal to expand and spread its influence over a wider area. As it sends its workers off to search for pollen, it is effectively seeking out local insight; if a single bee finds a rich field of flowering plants, it has the ability to inform the colony where this opportunity lies. The colony can then alter its strategy, and instead of sending bees in many directions, it focuses efforts on where it is now known that success is possible.

“Should you change the definition of success, alter the strategy, push for better tactics or perhaps even redefine the measures used?”

In pharma, local affiliates should feel confident in including tactics in their brand plan that are not necessarily in the over-arching tactics set out in the global strategy. But more than that, the strategy needs to build by feeding those locally relevant tactics both upwards and sideways to other geographies – perhaps an annual forum where things can be shared: insights from the field, and everyday small tactics and strategies that might show what is really achievable in real life.

Should implementable tactics drive changes to strategy? This perhaps rightly goes against the instincts of the strategic planner. However, can local implementation strategies be converted into global initiatives to be replicated in other territories? Can implementable and successful tactics drive some global choices and directions?

If pharma companies are to avoid the Catch 22 position of trying to combine consistent global strategy with implementable tactics on a local level, a connecting thread linking the future environment to strategies and tactics is key, but this should not be a one-way street.

A clear line of communication that backs up that ‘red thread’ to the strategy-makers could allow the globalisation of some implementable tactics to be a strategy in itself, thereby perhaps altering the balance between the prediction of the future on one side – and its shaping on the other.

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About the author:

Bernard Murray is a senior consultant specialising in strategy development at Cello Health Consulting. He can be contact at bmurray@cellohealth.com.

Have your say: Should a global strategy be shaped by what is possible to implement – or should the strategy itself always drive the development of innovative implementation?