The seven Cs of cross-functional brand planning


Jon Bircher outlines seven recommendations to get the most from all company functions and ensure optimal brand planning.

As more and more organisations have moved to cross-functional and cross-regional involvement in the development of their strategic and operational brand plans, the result has been greater engagement and alignment, with richer outputs – but this approach comes with significant challenges.

The major one comes from navigating large and diverse groups of individuals with cross-functional perspectives in what is still largely a commercially-minded activity. Harnessing differing expertise, expectations and knowledge, and guiding towards clear, relevant and prioritised plans can be extremely tough, so here are seven easy-to-digest recommendations to smooth the process.

1. Calendar

One of the greatest challenges and frustrations regularly observed is misalignment in the timing of different planning deliverables. There is often no natural sequence to the components of the plan, and a disconnection in the timings of the global strategic plan with affiliates' plans.

Budgets and long-range plan submissions often happen ahead of the 'thinking' and the strategic plan development; functional plans sometimes need to be delivered before the overarching brand plan has been completed, and global plans end up being delivered after affiliates have finished their plans. This is common in many companies and is not often addressed, even when pointed out year after year.

One global organisation's brand planning cycle essentially 'started' with a long-range plan and forecast submission in March, yet the five-year strategic brand plan process only began in February, and was supposed to generate the thinking and cross-functional alignment required to build that plan and forecast. So they had a long-range plan and budget process which was disconnected from the cross-functional thinking and strategic brand planning cycle.

The situation was made worse by the fact that the global operational plan needed to be delivered to countries in May, also when the five-year plan was still not completed. This was further complicated by the fact that individual functional heads were requested to submit their functional plans before the overarching plan was complete, and this overarching strategy was not delivered to affiliates until two months after the countries had started their own individual planning process.

Recommendation: Ensure the alignment and sequence of your planning cycle makes sense. This will require significant internal management, senior management direction, and some pain, but if your planning process is genuinely going to add value to everyone cross-functionally and regionally, it is worth going through the organisational change.

2. Competence

Cross-functional planning is, by its nature, just that: cross-functional. That means that not everybody will have the right commercial, marketing and business skills, training and experience to understand and contribute to building a brand plan.

To get the most out of different functions and their diverse areas of expertise requires some core competence across the group on planning itself.

For example, I recently worked with a US cross-functional team developing strategy. During a series of workshops, I was constantly taken aside by members of the managed care and medical functions, who were becoming frustrated, not because they didn't believe in what we were doing, but because they didn't understand the value of the process to them, the implications of this thinking, and how they could add value.

This organisation had decided against running a 'marketing excellence: planning 101' with non-marketers, to ensure base-level competence. The issue was solved by taking some of the delegates aside for quick sessions to explain some of the theory, process and basics of developing strategy.

Recommendation: Don't skip training and developing your less commercially-minded, marketing-naive team members (as well as your marketers and commercial teams). It is a false economy and leads to more superficial brand plans, reduced buy-in and a heavier reliance on consultants year after year. If training is built into the planning process, it takes longer and requires investment and commitment. Alternatively consider a wider 'planning excellence training programme', which is less pointedly aimed at non-marketers, and therefore an easier internal sell.

3. Consistency

Cross-functional brand teams comprise people from a variety of experiences and backgrounds, ranging from those with business qualifications such as MBAs, to those who have 'learnt their trade' - and developed their planning process within other pharma and non-pharma companies.

The company needs a common and consistent way of planning. This is as much about language and definitions as it is about planning steps, stages, philosophy and thinking. It needs to be simple, consistent and meaningful, so that everybody in the organisation has the same understanding of what is meant by the process.

Often the plan needs to be adapted to different company languages and approach, while maintaining the core philosophy, challenge and emphasis. This is vital, because even a small difference in language can jeopardise understanding and engagement. People then get distracted by terminology and process rather than focusing on building an exceptional plan.

One company had six different layers of strategy, which was confusing for contributors and readers. Additionally, the planning process was delivering some great thinking, but because it had to be forced into set templates, it lost its power and its story – and lost its impact.

Recommendation: If you already have a planning process in place, make sure there is a clear vocabulary that is understood throughout the organisation, and ensure that the process, approach and final deliverables are all aligned. If you don't have a clear process, or it has become riddled with duplication and inconsistencies over time, consider bringing in help to build a tailored and relevant process, approach, philosophy and set of tools and templates which can be trained in and embedded across the organisation.

4. Consequence

This is about senior management endorsement – they need to demonstrate what they believe the expectations are, especially if the process has changed. Senior management across all the functions need to stand together and say 'this is a process we all agree on, a language we subscribe to and a way of working we endorse; we also agree that the overarching strategic brand plan should be finished across functions, before we ask for your specific functional plans.'


"Bring each of the functional heads in to a common approach across all business units, geographies and functions"

That means involving them in decisions around the process, bringing each of the functional heads in to a common approach across all business units, geographies and functions. They should help roll the whole process out – and define the consequences for any lack of engagement or contribution.

One company had embedded a new process for strategic planning, and engaged and trained its teams. They delivered smarter, focused plans, and the strategy was pressure-tested. Choices were clear, and the final documents were strategic and well-written.

Unfortunately once the plans were submitted, it became evident that upper management had not been fully engaged. They didn't understand some of the language, they liked the previous way of presenting the data, and they were unnerved by the level of prioritisation, focus and decision-making the teams had made. This was a good lesson for the cross-functional planning team about the level of effort required to ensure buy-in to a new planning process.

Recommendation: If you are changing a process, make sure that the final reader or whoever will sign off the plan has fully agreed to it early on. But there also has to be a consequence about being engaged and involved. If you genuinely want cross-functional teams to contribute, they need a consistent message from senior management that it is important that they are there, and that they see senior executives leading by example in meetings – and that there are consequences if they don't engage fully.

5. Clarity

In many organisations, the planning process has moved from a small group of commercially-minded marketers locking themselves away to build global strategic brand plans over the course of a week or two (which no-one references or engages with beyond the few who wrote it), to large, unwieldy cross-functional teams of maybe 40 or 50 people, where everyone has to be included in every key meeting, workshop or decision-making session, even if they might not be able to contribute.

But clarity of thinking requires clarity of roles and responsibilities. Who do you need at which meeting? Should there be different roles at different times? For example, you might use smaller groups for making key strategic decisions or where you want to go into deeper prioritisation, but you might use larger groups for bringing fresh knowledge, insights and perspectives, or where it is about engagement, roll-out or buy-in.

The second part here is about the process which must deliver clarity of plan, clarity of strategy and clarity around the choices you are making. If you have too many people around the table, it is very difficult to get that real succinct clarity of thinking. A great plan, cross-functional or not, should be focused, with a clear strategy, where choices have been made so anybody can immediately understand it. Clarity of process, and clarity of roles and responsibilities in the planning process, will bring clarity to the plan itself.

Recommendation: Think carefully about who you need to engage at which points. It is vital to dispel internal beliefs that are based not on fact, but on 'myths' which have gained traction over a period of time. The starting point in the planning process is to bring everybody together to dispel some of those myths, encouraging people to bring different perspectives and experiences – opening up the whole process with everybody contributing. However, to develop a clear plan, there need to be regular touch-points and decision/prioritisation points throughout the planning process where you use smaller groups to your advantage.

6. Contribution

If you are bringing together a cross-functional team, and ensuring that each person has the competence to contribute to the planning process, the logical next step is to ensure that you are getting the best out of them during the process.

For example, say you are undertaking situational analysis – perhaps you are doing a deep-dive into particular key planning questions, to really understand the market access challenge or what the clinical data tells you about the competition.

In that early stage of discovery, when you are going back to review old plans, reviewing market research, bringing in knowledge from across the team, it is important to prepare people so that they can contribute.

Some of this has been covered earlier: they need to understand the process, they need to be prepared in terms of their own strategic planning knowledge, and they need to be engaged and supportive of the process. But you also need to give them time to do some thinking, so set them questions, so that they will bring fresh, considered insight, and answers to key planning questions.

You want people to contribute at the right time. Staging the different steps of the process appropriately means they can have the time to go and do some thinking and research, to be able to come back and contribute again.

One company we worked with started their planning process by identifying the critical questions they needed to ask, and by asking them at the beginning, people from across the functions could prepare evidence, knowledge and fresh thinking to bring to the first situational analysis review.

The feedback from the team was that they felt much more able to contribute, because they knew the challenges that they needed to address. So when everybody was together, it was much more about discussion and debate, rather than finding the evidence.

Recommendation: Help people to prepare for key meetings, so that they can contribute their expertise fully. Make sure they know what you want them to contribute, and pose them the right questions to allow them to go away and do the thinking and research necessary.

7. Cohesion

The seventh 'C' brings all the others together. Whether you are an affiliate or sitting in the global team, it is so much better if all of the plans are cohesive – which they should be if you have followed the previous six recommendations.

It is vital that every plan which is developed together is aligned – they are like stories which need to sit together. If the starting point is about developing an overall strategy for the brand, make sure the market access plan, the medical plan, the HEOR plan, the sales plan and the marketing plan all feed into, connect with and align with the overarching strategy.

Do the tactics, the operational plans, support the strategy that the overarching plan has suggested, or are you still delivering tactics that you have always delivered, because the medical team doesn't want to give up a study, or because the marketing team is fearful of pulling a programme which is someone's 'baby'?

I have known a cross-functional team deliver an overall plan, but when the individual functional plans have been examined, they don't seem to have any resemblance to the overarching strategy. Often the people within the functions have been part of the cross-functional team, but they are not applying that same thinking to their own functional plans. In some cases, they look like different plans written for different companies.

Cohesive, focused plans are the goal. They can only come about when the other 'Cs' are brought into alignment – and the result is a set of plans which fit together, which allow everybody in the organisation to understand the priorities, choices and areas of focus, and to deliver success across the board.


About the author:

Jon Bircher is Global CEO of Cello Health Consulting. Cello Health specialises in supporting companies through its unique Red Thread Planning approach. He can be contacted at Twitter: @jonbircher

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