Small is the new big: How your organization can harness the power of thinking small

by Julian Dailly

Think small, win big

Think about what happens when you use Amazon’s “1-Click” feature: In a split second, instructions, payments, and products are moving all over the world. “1-Click” satisfies our need for impulse shopping and makes Amazon feel like a familiar, real-world retailer. This one small action works in a big way to create customer value, which drives up the value of the Amazon brand.

Interbrand has worked with thousands of organizations spanning many sectors, markets, and customers. Our experience consistently confirms numerous opportunities to make small but highly effective changes like the one above. Critically, small change creates the most impact when individuals collaborate, teamwork focuses on quality not quantity, and organizations think more entrepreneurially about the long-term. Ultimately, when it comes to brand value, small changes can only create a big impact if marketers are bold enough to stand up for the customer.

So how should the marketer proceed to create a big impact from small changes? It is first important for a marketer to understand how and where small, often unnoticed and uncontrolled activities have an impact on the brand. These impacts could be positive and negative. They could be off the radar or happening outside official processes.

A simple example of an activity that could be questioned includes how copy is signed off. Factors to consider in this circumstance might include pinpointing when and where the brand idea enters the innovation process, what impact this has on communications and perceived brand innovation, or how it affects where we recruit.

Once the marketer understands how these activities are impacting the brand, he or she must work to bring these aspects of the business into the limelight, showing the opportunity of managing these activities more effectively.

Good places to start looking for change

These tasks (think small, win big, and find the source) aren’t easy. To help master the challenge, I thought it would help to highlight some common spots where small changes can lead to big impacts.

1. Are people engaged in the brand? Engagement improves commitment.
Many businesses only think about brand strategy once a year, as part of their corporate planning cycle. Often, because only a few senior managers take part in this process, the bulk of the organization can become disconnected from the brand—where it’s going and what it stands for.

Taking small steps to engage individuals with the brand will help to align their day-to-day decision making with the brand strategy. Alignment increases the clarity and consistency of brand delivery, creating brand value. To collaborate more, consider holding regular forums about the brand, perhaps online. Invite feedback and comments, sharing suggestions with senior managers and communicating how the wider debate has influenced strategy. Greater inclusion, dialogue, and understanding ultimately foster a better customer experience.

2. Are teams working together? Collaboration improves effectiveness and efficiency.
If the right people collaborate at the beginning of projects, these projects will create a greater impact on the customer. Our experience suggests that running marketing projects as a series of messy handovers across otherwise unconnected teams means customer insights are too often “lost in translation.” Why not always begin with a “Project Launch” meeting? Here the marketer can get everyone together, set objectives, share ideas, and forge a group commitment to the customer. Key teams to consider are HR, the brand team, internal communication, and always, to ensure the project is recognized at a senior level, the finance guys. Closer collaboration can cut costs. Take the example of research. Sharing research can lead to more robust results, reduced overheads, and a common understanding of the drivers of customer value. Research can often become a hostage of internal politics. Attempting this small change takes courage, but the impacts are very powerful and long-lasting.

3. Are costs being cut without consideration for the customer? No expense should be spared.
Efficiency is at the heart of modern business. And efficiency is not a bad thing. If costs can be cut without upsetting the customer, they should be—in order to invest in other activities that make them happy! This is good cost cutting.

And yet, efficiency on its own too often encourages bad cost cutting, discount-led promotion, and the systematic downgrading of the experience for customers. Look at the brands around us. How many marketers are actively weakening their brands through attempts to be more efficient? 

Marketers cannot expect immunity from cost cutting or the need to drive short-term volumes. However, the best marketers think as hard about cutting cost as they do about investing. Asking simple questions can help. With every proposal to remove cost from the brand, it is important to ask this question: How will this impact the customer in the long run?

Embedding this simple question in the cost-reduction process will enable the business to cut cost while maintaining a focus on the customer. Also, the process reveals the richest areas for investment when resources become available.

4. Is there too much happening at once? Less means more.
When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, he looked at the number of proposed research and development projects. Then he stopped most of them. Consequently the Apple brand is known for its small but value-added product range and launch program. The impact of this simple change, according to Jobs, comes from saying "no." Jobs explains that he says "...'no' to 1,000 things to make sure we don’t get on the wrong track or try to do too’s only by saying no that you can concentrate on the things that are really important.” The strategy has served him well. Over the last 10 years of Interbrand’s league table, Apple has been one of the top risers.

One small change, in this vein, that is proven to create a big impact is to actively limit the number of new marketing initiatives. A simple exercise is to ask project sponsors to rate their proposals based on how they create impact and value for the customer. Selecting the top projects will save money, accountability, and ultimately create bigger customer impact.

To many, reducing the number and range of projects feels undiversified and uncomfortably risky. However, our experience tells us that complex organizations have a tendency to overload, tolerate mediocrity, and thereby reduce customer and brand value. Rediscovering an entrepreneurial spirit, guided by the brand vision, enables individuals to achieve more from less, thereby increasing the value of the brand.

On a practical level, small changes to how projects are accepted and how they are focused on customer and brand impact will encourage individuals to concentrate on what customers value. This will allow the organization to dispassionately reject initiatives customers will not value.

What to avoid and what to adopt

Interbrand conducted a piece of research among 50 client-facing senior strategists within the Interbrand network. We asked the team: “What are the small changes organizations should adopt and avoid to create big impacts and grow brand value?” Below are their replies.

    1. Choosing tactics over strategy

·       Avoid only “rebranding” and “quick fixes” (e.g., a guidelines refresh rather than a full review) at the expense of innovation, genuine product, or process improvement.

·       Avoid commissioning brand trackers and research that do not provide information about strategic progress. Avoid research into silos.

    2. Disengaging your people

·       Avoid poor internal engagement around changes and launches, which will lead to limited impact at rollout and greater staff cynicism.

    3. Sacrificing quality for cost savings

·       Avoid moving to “boutique” creative agencies to save costs, resulting in poor-quality work that has little impact on the customer.

    1. Rationalizing and up-weighting

·       Centralizing and up-skilling customer insight teams saves money and head count and will free up the time of marketing professionals to think about the customer.

·       Proactively seek out low-impact, cost-savings opportunities in downstream areas. For one client, we changed the type of varnish coating on a piece of packaging and saved over US$ 250,000 per year. The change was completely unnoticeable to consumers.

    2. Engaging your people

·       Stimulate internal communication. Build clarity around what the brand is trying to achieve. Bring people together to discuss feedback on changes and impacts to senior management.

    3. Collaborating more

·       Ask your agencies to use a multi-office approach towards creativity in order to deliver more depth and relevance for customers.

·       Hold “Project Launch” meetings. Get individuals on the same page, set objectives, share ideas, and forge a group commitment to the end result for the customer. Invite HR, internal communications, and finance.

    4. Being more entrepreneurial

·       Act like it’s your own money!

·       Pose more daring questions in your research questionnaires to juxtapose common assumptions about the business and the customer. Ask new questions. Set customer value hypotheses up front.

·       Increase your teams’ flexibility in how they approach problems and their ways of working.

·       Try recruiting through different channels.

    Source: Interbrand Network 2009

Small changes can and do lead to big impacts, but it isn’t easy

It is proven from experience that small changes can and do lead to big impacts. So why don’t more organizations leverage the opportunity to make small changes? In truth, small changes can only yield big impacts if marketers have the confidence to challenge the small but sometimes deeply embedded obstacles that stand in the way of truly inspiring customers.

Finding the energy and commitment to think beyond how things are usually done is the key to generating big impacts from small change. As Charles Kettering, R&D head at GM between 1920 and 1947, once commented: “The world hates change, yet it is the only thing that has brought progress." 

Julian DaleyJulian Dailly is Director of Valuation in the London office. Julian joined Interbrand in 2005. Prior to Interbrand, he was a financial controller at Ford Motor company and a finance analyst and strategy manager for Sainsbury's supermarkets. Julian graduated from Sussex University with a bachelors degree in Linguistics.