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Why businesses should look beyond the numbers.

Numbers. Data. Metrics. Yep - all great. But I believe that businesses today are too focused and shackled to the numbers.

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Numbers. Numbers. Numbers.

Now I appreciate numbers are important. Data oils the machinery of business. We use them to track, improve and incentivise. We use them to help inform and validate.

Marketing Directors / CMOs and their teams need to know how their initiatives are doing. They need to focus on website visits and leads generated. They need to look for trends and constantly improve. This comes from the numbers.

Sales Directors also need to focus on the numbers. How many leads are they closing? Targets. Commission. Conversion rates. These are all built on the numbers.

Finance Directors and CFO’s need to know outgoings and incomings, tax, PAYE etc etc. They need to know the business is in profit. They need to have projections plans and contingencies. They need numbers.

Operations Directors need to know what orders to fulfil so they can deliver. Manage supply chains and ensure the right amount of materials are in place at the right time.

Managing Directors and CEO's have shareholders and investors who all love numbers.

Etc. Etc. I get it and I am not saying numbers are not needed. But I think we have become too obsessed with the numbers.

They can become the be-all and end-all. But they can also make us miss out on more important things. They can make us short term, rearview window watchers when business needs us to look forward and innovate. They can make things become all about us. Not about our customer.

Who is looking after the long term of the brand

I’m here to make a case for something bigger. The human element. The customer. The Brand.

Now what I mean by 'brand' is “the meaning customers attach to you or your organisation”. They own this meaning. Not you.

'Branding' is "the attempt to manage that meaning". You can influence it. If you have a strategy to do so.

In the past (and sadly in the present in some businesses) “brand” was something done by marketing teams. It was a subsection of “Marketing” and perceived as being a logo, set of colours and a font.

With my definition above, branding covers so much more. It actually covers all business activities. Rather than being focused simply on the numbers, it is human-centred. It is customer-centric. It speaks to knowing why you exist and who you exist for and ensuring you stay true to that endeavour. It has to do with how a business behaves, who it recruits, how it answers the phone, deals with complaints, sources it’s materials and - yes, how it markets itself. All of these activities and more create “meaning” in the mind of the customer. They need to be managed. They need to be framed. Branding should underpin business strategy for without the management of meaning customers will begin to go elsewhere and you will have to start selling on price. That's a race to the bottom.

Although systems can be put in place to look at brand by numbers (and the hunger of businesses to make everything into a metric does attempt to do this!) it cannot ultimately be led or governed by numbers.

It is human. The brand is emotional. It is built on beliefs. Human beliefs. It stands for something that other humans can connect with. For things humans value. For meaning that humans are willing to pay for.

It has to do with the “why” not simply the how or what. So it is my suggestion to leave the “how” and the “what” to the numbers people but form a place in each business I work with - for the “why”. For the human. For the brand.

Why should businesses look beyond numbers?

  1. Creativity & innovation - Mostly numbers are retrospective. They can tell you what has happened in the past. They can give you indicators of what may happen in the future. But they do not help you do anything wildly different to bring new value to a market place. If you want to innovate in new places. If you want to get creative. If you want to stand out and be different then you need to get away from the mass market of averages which numbers can entertain and take risks.

  2. Customer-centric - Getting to understand the emotions of your customers really require you to have listening systems in place to hear what customers are saying. Are they attaching the right meaning to your business? Are you giving them experiences that work for them? Why are they buying from you? This is qualitative rather than simply quantitative. It’s in emotional insights where customers problems, desires, goals and challenges can be discovered and it is there that you may need to focus.

  3. Unification - Thinking outside of the numbers helps you imagine the future in 5-10 years time. Not just what you hope will be happening in Q4. It helps you imagine a world where you are adding value. It gives a direction and vision to businesses. It unifies leadership teams and the people underneath them around something bigger and greater than a metric.

  4. Talent Attraction - People go to work to be paid. Sure. But in the globally connected marketplace that we now live in they can do this anywhere. Especially top talent. Why would they join your organisation? Will it be for the numbers? Or will it be because you are doing something they believe in? Top talent goes where they feel most fulfilled. Purpose-driven organisations will attract purpose-driven individuals.

  5. Meaning creates value - We are obsessed with making improvements - to get things made cheaper, faster and quicker - for making things more efficiently. However, is this truly what customers want? Perhaps they want to spend longer with your brand or product because they don’t just want stuff. They want an experience. A memory. They want meaning. A story to tell. We could make our own coffee cheaply and meet friends on the park bench. But we’ll pay for a Starbucks experience. It means something above the function and we’re willing to pay for this meaning.

  6. Because it's well... exciting - Is it me or are numbers boring? Maybe it’s me. But what gets me out of bed in the morning is making a difference to humans. Not numbers. The numbers of your bank account increase if you focus on what you do for people. But if you focus on the numbers then sometimes the people suffer. Changing the world for better, knowing who you are serving and knowing you are creating value and not simply a commodity is far more exciting than churning out products.

How to look beyond numbers?

So how do we become more customer and brand-aware?

Well - I'd suggest that firstly leadership teams need to lift themselves above the day to day sea of numbers and take a holistic look at themselves and, more importantly, their customers. What is our collective purpose? Why do we exist? Who are we serving? What do we collectively believe and not believe? What is our story and how does this fit with the story of our customers? How will we ultimately win? Where are we going? Is this story consistent with the experience our customers have of our product, services and offering? You need to define and set your high level “brand strategy”.

You could do these activities yourselves (my book Storyategy can guide you through this: or you could hire someone like me directly who can physically come into the board room and walk you through tried and tested processed to effect change. Sometimes having an outsider can help to give a fresh perspective on things and help you hold your leadership team accountable to a process which is outside of the politics of a business.

Next, you need to look throughout the business for areas which are not being managed through your brand lens. A “swat” team headed up by someone senior at board level can be most helpful in regards to this. This board-level leader (and for the sake of a better title I’m going to refer to them as the CBO - Chief Branding Officer - should be reviewing all the businesses decisions through the lens of the brand strategy. Alternatively, an external brand consultant can also hold this role and again there are some benefits of having an independent incentivised outsider to help add value here as there are no politics involved.

The “swat” team the CBO heads up should be a diverse group who meet regularly to review the brand, customer feedback, and how staff are feeling. This could (and perhaps should) even consist of a few ideal customers as well as people in charge of research, HR, and a cross-section of employees who are on the front-line of the business.

This group's role is to monitor brand perception - not through numbers, but through stories. It is their job to make recommendations for improving the long term effectiveness of the brand and ensuring it is fulfilling it’s vision. Not form a numbers perspective. But from a human perspective. To guide the businesses decisions. To act as a sounding board to the leadership team. To put the customer first.

Let the revolution begin

So. I encourage you to unleash the number shackles and ask yourself - what are you doing to manage the meaning that your offering has in the minds of your audience. How emotional are you getting? How human is your strategy?

However you do it I believe it is crucial for businesses to yes, look at numbers, but to, more importantly, to lift themselves above them. To think bigger. To think forwards. To think customer and to think brand.

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