It doesn’t take Superman: Marketing leaders in China don’t need x-ray vision, just consumer focus

Who owns the brand?

How does a mainstream global multinational set about turning a somewhat tired consumer brand in China, growing in the single digits in 2005, into a market-leading, powerhouse brand, growing in the double digits five years later, culminating in a four-fold growth in revenues?

DDG (not the real name) created a culture of deep consumer centricity and ruthless focus, supported by a globally aligned leadership team, to take full advantage of China’s emerging opportunities. In turbo-charging growth, acquisitions help, as they did for DDG, by building scale, multifaceted talent, and broader and deeper capabilities. But acquisitions didn’t account for the success of this Turbo brand, which saw organic growth far surpassing competition and even DDG’s own past successes. Over these five years, DDG drove a huge shift in the organization’s commitment to innovation, local decision-making, and talent.

Our first instinct is to attribute this success to one game-changer, in this case, to Tom Ringer (not his real name), the agile head of marketing. Much credit is due. His impressive communication skills, humility, and strategic sensibilities pop out. He’s the un-superman. I’m tempted to doom Tom with the ‘effective manager’ moniker, which isn’t how we describe game-changers in this day and age. Most impressively, this leader, based in Asia and armed with natural charm, savvy, and empathy, altered the organization’s orientation from a headquarters’ sense of true north to an entirely new bearing, a place deep inside the Chinese consumer. The result was a fresh and open mindset and willingness to dismantle all that was understood about the brand. A new organizational culture took root in China and grew in lock-step with Corporate’s willingness to cultivate local autonomy, accountability and pride. Along with all the other good stuff, DDG’s growth recipe has resulted in a senior leadership team in Asia that is now 90 percent Asian, up from just 75 percent two years ago. The team takes pride in, and celebrates, the results. This personalized, globally aligned leadership team, led by Tom, is not the stuff of super-heroes; it is, however, game-changing.

China will emerge as the world’s largest economy during the career-span of Tom’s high-potential young managers. Two-thirds of the world’s middle class will reside in Asia by the year 2030, if not earlier, creating enormous opportunities for both Asian-based and Western-based multinationals – and pressure on these same global competitors to develop talent fast enough to exploit these opportunities. Given the shifting footprint of their customers and workforce, companies like DDG are fast re-thinking their management structures and centers of gravity in an effort to support local decision-making, speed, greater autonomy, and, just as importantly, the mission-critical leadership competencies of their high-potential young leaders. Hardest to alter is the corporate culture underlying most of today’s successful, highly centralized, globally integrated organizations. And yet change they must, especially around the talent that will drive their double-digit growth in Asia.

DDG drove a seismic shift in their approach to marketing, moving from a headquarters-determined brand strategy to a China-centric approach based on deep customer understanding and local innovation. This doesn’t happen without leaders who listen and learn. DDG transformed the way they grew leaders across the talent platform in Asia. It doesn’t take superman.

The gravitational shift: Asian multinationals have the economic edge

Tomorrow’s battle for corporate dominance will be fought and won in the emerging markets of Asia, home to half the world’s population. The the winners are likely to Asian.

As the world’s economic center of gravity shifts to Asia over coming decade, new multinational corporations will emerge to take advantage of Asia and emerging markets in ways that the established Western multinationals cannot. These multinational organizations, with cultural roots in Asia, will emerge with a strong natural understanding of Asian consumers and needs; they will possess great adaptability, responsiveness, and consumer insights – posing a threat to the many of today’s largest and most successful Western multinationals…especially those multinationals who continue to maintain their Western roots and leadership far from their customers and suppliers.

These new Asian-based multinationals—Samsung, Tata, HTC, Huawei, LG, Acer, Lenovo, Alibaba, Tencent to name a few of today’s leaders—are not interested in borrowing business models from their Western counterparts; they possess the needs of the emerging markets in their corporate veins and are not interested in the past. The shape their business models and products for the emerging markets from the inside out, drawing on organizational cultures that are unique to Asia – not cultures and organizational models derived from 50 years of multinational experience, but models that germinate from the opportunities and needs of today. The impact of this important mega trend on talent and leadership is staggering. Just in case the boardrooms of the West haven’t noticed, the battle is already being won.

Get me outta here: Pressure and cuts at tech firms leave talent disenchanted

Amidst layoffs — yes, they’re still going on — it should not be a surprise to anyone that employees feel frustrated and cynical about their employer. The bigger the employer, the greater the sense of frustration, according to my anecdotal observations. Pressure from Wall Street to lower costs is almost universally translated into lowering headcount: it’s the easiest and quickest way to please the Street. At the same time, the pressure to drive revenue creates a culture of “deliver or else.” Companies the size of HP and IBM need to create $10 billion in new revenue just to keep their investors happy. The running joke in tech companies is that if a line manager fails to hit their numbers for two quarters they’re out. When this Great Recession ends, look for this culture to continue, and for corporate cynicism to spike. 2010 will likely see a wave of corporate mergers take place in an effort to create global powerhouses and revenue-generating machines.

I hear GMs of big tech companies tell me that the fun is gone, that the spirit of innovation and that the ‘values’ at the root of the great technology boom are lost amidst the pressures to meet quarterly expectations. Executives at my biggest clients are whispering to me: get me outta here. They’re asking me to find the fun places to work, places where they can put their stamp on things. But before you complain, before asking for the start-up, ask yourself what you mean by “fun.”

It’s true that as technology companies grow in size, the pure-play technology-oriented enterprise — the company you always wanted to work for — naturally morphs into a more complex, dispassionate, commercial enterprise resembling the company your dad worked for. The technology idealogues get acquired by the corporate beasts. Business guys take over. This can spell doom or success depending on the leadership and the talent that is developed to meet the challenges in the market.

In my corner of the world, we don’t make a value judgement on size. There are big companies that stick their necks out and achieve great things and big (and small) companies that are a pain to work for. We look to the leader, not a company’s size, as the issue. As organizations grow in complexity, a new breed of leader – the model changers and transformational figures – need to be developed so that the needs of the market are met, value is created and employees have a reason to come to work. If you’re with one of these beasts hear the message: master your surroundings and stick your neck out. Hopefully, this defines fun for you. If this is not possible, heed your instincts and get out. Life’s goodies come in big and small packages. Look to the leadership.

%d bloggers like this: