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How does one go about reinventing a traditional brand? How important is sustainability for successful brand management? Which skills does the CMO of tomorrow need and what kind of role will they play in companies in the future? Florian Haller and Susann Schramm, CMO McDonald’s Germany, met up for an interview to discuss the answers. 

Florian Haller: Two years ago, you ushered in a new era of brand management at McDonald’s. How does one go about reinventing a traditional brand?
Susan Schramm: I think the secret – and not just for McDonald’s – is not to allow a brand to become a “traditional brand” in the first place. You have to permanently breathe new life into it. At McDonald’s we’re constantly asking ourselves how we can do things better, how we can look at things in a different way. McDonald’s is a brand that manages to move with the times and keep an eye on its customers’ needs. In brand management, you have to really take a close look at the everyday lives of your target group. There can also be a certain element of tradition in the consistency of change and development.

It’s a well-known fact that digitalisation is the biggest driver of change. What role does it play in the rethinking of a fast-food brand?
Susan Schramm: At first sight, digitalisation doesn’t seem to really apply to a company like McDonald’s, because the act of eating is always analogue. But losing sight of the digitality in our lives would be a huge mistake for us as a brand. Our extensive digitalisation – with our ordering kiosks, app, CRM system and lots more besides – has fundamentally changed our service concept, our production options and our overall business model. Especially now, in the crisis, focusing on our digital further development is really paying off for us as a brand. We are seeing that the path we have chosen was the right one. This means that we now have completely different ways to communicate with our target groups and also offer them virtually contactless services.

What form does digitalisation take at McDonald’s?
Susan Schramm: Launching our app, which I can use here as an example, has benefited us greatly. Sure, there’s nothing revolutionary about an app in itself. But in next to no time we gained over 15 million registered users and therefore also the opportunity to learn something about our customers and target them effectively. And it means we now also have a tool that we can use to make perfectly tailored offers for specific target groups. As a company, keeping up with the times is very important, particularly for our target groups in their teens and 20s. The app gives us a form of communication that we can use to reach them in the digital environment that is such an integral part of their daily lives. And the “Mobile Order & Pay” feature that is integrated in the app is proving extremely useful during the current crisis.

Would you say that McDonald’s has developed from a mass brand into a personalised one?
Susan Schramm: We are definitely getting there. Now that we can appeal to our customers in an increasingly personalised way, our communication with them is completely different and we can build up a sense of familiarity and trust. The only way to find out who our customers were in the past was through research. In future we won’t only know who visits us, but will also be able to enter into a 1:1 dialogue with them and provide them with individualised offers.

Will the coronavirus crisis leave a permanent mark, or will things eventually get back to normal?
Susan Schramm: I don’t believe that there will be a “back to normal”. We have all learnt a lot from the crisis, I think, and it is precisely these findings that we will take with us into the future. What I could envisage is a shift towards more sustainable consumption, to a greater sense of responsibility and appreciation of things.

So will sustainability and purpose remain megatrends?
Susan Schramm: I have the feeling that these topics will become even more relevant. The pandemic has shown us that we humans are lot more vulnerable than we thought. Our entire generation didn’t ever imagine or expect such a crisis to happen to them. We are suddenly realising that a lot of things we took for granted are being questioned and can fall asunder quickly. So in that respect, I believe that sustainability and values will gain in significance – even though we are seeing a certain discrepancy between morals and consumption. And if a brand wants to be relevant in the long term, it has to face up to that. So as a company of course we have to look at what our customers want and what is actually being purchased and consumed.

McDonald’s isn’t a brand that most people would associate with sustainability. How do you want to change that?
Susan Schramm: By moving with the times and constantly developing, we can always ensure that the measures are visible and transparent.It all comes down to authenticity, i.e. the things that you can credibly represent. The McDonald’s of 2020 is a far cry from the McDonald’s of 30 years ago. A lot has been achieved: more sustainable packaging, a vegan burger, free-range eggs and lots more. We know that certain things cannot be changed from one day to the next, but that it takes time – for example in the case of supply chains that have to be built up. There are a lot of small steps that we are taking with a view to becoming better in the long term.

In an interview you once said that loudness wasn’t your thing. But in this day and age, how can you be heard without being loud?
Susan Schramm: A lot of brands can be loud – sometimes all they need for that is the right budget. But many loud brands are still not very convincing and aren’t necessarily successful either. And volume alone doesn’t enable you to get your message to stick in people’s minds, not by a long chalk. Relevance and authenticity are more important here. There are many great ideas that start out small and then often spread a lot more successfully than if you were to just shout them from the rooftops.

Speaking of which, how do you use social media as a brand?
Susan Schramm: We use a lot of social media channels to communicate with our customers, but it’s about keeping the dialogue going here too. Marketing messages don’t work in the same way on all platforms and in terms of channel-adequate messaging, we have experienced an enormous learning curve in the past few years. Just because something works on Instagram, that doesn’t mean it necessarily also has to work on TikTok. A lot of work and orchestration are required: what is the target group, on which channel, how should we target them and what messages are relevant?

But when it comes to social media, there is still the question of how you scale all of that. You need a widespread impact, after all…
Susan Schramm: That’s why I always say that social media and digitalisation are absolutely indispensable. But simply writing off TV, outdoor and print advertising is the wrong approach in my opinion. Conventional media still have a very strong impact and are moving more towards interaction with online and social media. You need to find the right media mix: which medium is the best for which purpose? I’m a firm believer that success all comes down to having the right mix.

Does a brand need one big idea, or does it make more sense to appeal to the different target groups on different platforms with lots of different ideas?
Susan Schramm: If I have an amazing idea that works on all platforms then that one idea is enough. But that’s rarely the case, which is why you usually need lots of ideas. You have to keep surprising people, while always keeping your eye on the current zeitgeist, trends, medium and target group. And also make sure that all of that is in harmony with the brand’s core. The trick is to ensure that the brand is recognisable at all touchpoints in the long term, without always being the same.

What do you see as the core of your role as CMO?
Susan Schramm: I have a very young team made up of lots of great people – and it is my job as CMO to motivate and inspire them and to create an environment in which employees are confident enough to develop things and also themselves. Ideally, I am the person who has the vision for the brand and says where we need to be heading. And then we develop the path to that goal together.

Is working with the younger generation different these days?
Susan Schramm: It used to be about accumulating knowledge and then passing it on to the next generation. But it has become more of a give and take. As an experienced CMO, you bring a certain calmness to a situation – you are able to analyse things and recognise opportunities and set out guidelines in certain areas. But there are also areas in which I learn an incredible amount from the young people I work with, for example when new channels gain in relevance among the young target group. That’s a lot of fun and always exciting.

Do you expect the CMO to have a more or a less important role in companies in the future?
Susan Schramm: I’m an optimist as far as that’s concerned. Basically, I think the CMO will gain in significance, although it does of course depend a little on the company structure. McDonald’s, for example, is very much a marketing-oriented company, and we as the marketing team are not only responsible for the brand but are also measured by sales and have a responsibility for them. We get the figures every morning at 8:00 am, and that’s when I can see how our products and offers are being received by the customers. That success is much more quantifiable than if I am “just” responsible for shaping the brand. And it means I have more of an influence on the company’s profits and direction.

One point is certainly also that digitalisation is breaking down barriers to market entry. That is levelling the playing field, which in turn is leading to marketing generally becoming more important.
Susan Schramm: It’s true that digitalisation is making it more important to develop your brand and clearly differentiate yourself from the competition. If you want to stand out, you have to engage with new channels and ways of interacting with the target groups. The greatest challenge here is creating instant recognition value and communicating it as individually as possible at the same time. A lot of people underestimate how difficult it is to develop a brand and keep it relevant and modern. So I believe that intelligent marketing will continue to make the difference here in the long run.

Does a CMO need to be a forward-thinker when it comes to innovation?
Susan Schramm: Ideally, the marketing team should bring creativity and a new way of thinking to the company. I think all companies would benefit from giving their CMOs the freedom to innovate – perhaps even the formal responsibility for innovations.

What will be the major brand management issues in the post-coronavirus world?
Susan Schramm: The main issue in our post-pandemic future will be what kind of an effect the crisis is having on consumers and consumer behaviour, and how brands can communicate accordingly. That’s not really something that anyone can predict yet. Security and trust are important factors here. It will be important to understand what your own brand stands for in this new context. Reconciling both those factors in the future will be quite a challenge.

What skills do brand managers need to bring to the table to achieve this?
Susan Schramm: That can only be achieved with a certain amount of empathy, a quality that is becoming more and more important. If I want to understand how people tick and how my communication is being received, then I can research everything and prove it with data. But I am still convinced that it won’t work without empathy. A CMO should also have the guts to be able to make certain decisions and think differently. It’s important to keep an open mind. And that includes not being too self-important. I think that this openness and the ability to listen to others are extremely important qualities for someone who works in marketing.

Thank you very much for the interesting interview.

This article first appeared in TWELVE, the Serviceplan Group’s magazine for brands, media and communication. In the seventh issue, you will find further inspiring articles, essays and interviews by and with prominent guest authors and renowned experts centred around the magazine’s theme “Rethink!”.  The e-paper is available here.

Space Rocket

Some people in the digital sector, especially, have ceased to believe in brands. However, I am convinced that in the digital age, more than any other, brands offer precisely what we need in a multi-optional, information-flooded world: orientation. Brands condense a large volume of information into a (hopefully) relevant promise. Of course brands that want to be successful in the future, will also have to adapt to a society in transition. Anyone who takes the following five tenets for the brand management of the future to heart, will have a good chance of achieving this.

1. Viable brands are defined in three dimensions

What is a brand? A logo, a slogan, a value proposition? The appearance and if possible, differentiated positioning are only two dimensions shaping the brand image and consumer perceptions. In the digital age, every brand must prove itself, above all in its direct interaction with people. In order to offer a coherent, self-similar brand experience, the brand must establish rules of conduct which govern how it interacts while defining its stance towards people and the subjects on which it pronounces.

2. Viable brands offer a real benefit

The days when brand communication consisted in stating as loudly as possible why your own brand is so great and why people should buy it, are over. To be noticed for the long term, brands today must not only compete for people’s attention, but also offer content which delivers a noticeable, relevant benefit in the eyes of consumers. Depending on the context and the target market, this can, for example, consist of personalised offers, entertainment, monetary benefits or exclusive information. To enable the brand to develop promising content, the challenge is to put customers and their needs not just at the beginning but at the centre of your own concepts and actions.

3. Viable brands are user-friendly

Our digital devices have accustomed us to getting fast, easy access to everything we need. Usability is the umbrella term for the degree of user-friendliness experienced. This is not primarily about content. From the website via the hotline all the way to local service — every touchpoint with the brand should be intuitively comprehensible, simple to use and capable of being unambiguously implemented.

4. Viable brands communicate personally and in personalised fashion

People in a digitised world expect personal communication and personalised content and offers from their brands. If such offers are tailored to their individual needs, users will reward the brand with above-average response, purchase and loyalty rates. However, it is vital to find the right degree of personalisation: just because it’s technically possible, doesn’t mean it makes sense. Because enthusiasm over the newsletter containing exactly the right offers can quickly turn into a horrified “How do they know that?”.

5. Viable brands offer a consistent, coherent customer experience

Today, people experience brands at many very different touchpoints: in a shop, on the website as well as on social media and through advertising. In the best case, this so-called customer experience will give a consistent, coherent overall image across the various touchpoints. So here is my tip. Place a relevant customer experience at the start and at the centre of your transformation in the marketing sphere. In doing so, you will create a good platform — on the one hand for the greatest possible success today, and on the other, to ensure the viability of your brand tomorrow.

When brands become communicative self-starters without classic advertising. Tesla, MyMüsli or Westwing have shown us how it’s done

At one time, the advertising world was highly predictable. Three things formed the pillars of plannable marketing success: a big budget, extensive reach and clear positioning. This classic mix is certainly not outdated if someone wants to sell, say, gummy bears, toilet paper or beer.

Another approach is that of not making the classic media the exclusive central focus of a campaign – which often works like a charm:  Tesla’s off-the-wall carmakers, for instance, have achieved a brand awareness level of 60 per cent in Germany according to You Gov. Tesla is not a unique case: The breakfast cereal makers at MyMüsli or the furniture shop, Westwing, are brands who have largely achieved their fame by taking completely new routes. At the same time, their products, like their makers, are very different from one another. Nonetheless, they have certain common points that could be noted down in the new textbook for modern brand management:

A good story

A new product must have its own story. But not just any old blah-blah story. It has to be one that grabs the attention, that is different, and that interests people. And, of course, it has to be in touch with the zeitgeist. That means: successful brands pick up on mega trends – but in an unconventional, indeed sometimes even surprising, way. Tesla is surfing the wave of massively increased environmental awareness that has been building over the last few decades. It all makes sense so far. In addition, they are also triggering their very own brand surprise moment. Because in terms of design their cars are the absolute antithesis of accepted eco-style and functional, home-made solar-powered mobility. Their groundbreaking electromobility is housed in an extremely elegant, exceptionally desirable and very expensive car. It’s an elitist product that clearly separates smart ecological awareness from conventional green worthiness.

This game also works if you take it down to a smaller scale. MyMüsli has picked up on the trend for organic foods as its basis. It then fitted that trend with rocket engines, enriching the product with individuality plus convenience. An organic muesli that you can create yourself with online clicks is ornamented with personal fantasy names, and is then delivered by courier directly to your breakfast table.  Pour on the milk and get stuck in. Simply laid-back, tasty and healthy – that’s the way we live and eat today. On top of that, in order to show the maximum achievable, the product developers have got their calculators running red hot: according to the company, there are 566 quadrillion possible muesli variations. No-one can try them all in a single lifetime. You really can’t get more variety than that. It’s a great story that catches the fancy of every muesli maniac, and one that people enjoy sharing. However, since online sales and online marketing alone are not enough, for some years MyMüsli has increasingly been banking on its own shops in busy locations in relevant conurbations, staffed with real-life individual muesli consultants.

Westwing has also picked up on the quick & easy feeling brought to us by the internet. Some of their smart people took a look at what’s happening in our homes. There is hardly any other nation that spends so much money on furnishing their homes than we Germans. In addition, we really love being at home – what is known these days as “cocooning”. So it’s more than logical to find some way of sparing us a journey: the previously unavoidable trip to the gigantic out-of-town furniture megastores.  Instead, this clever start-up conveniently delivers trendy branded furniture and interior accessories to your home. Since furnishings are largely chosen by women, obtaining new armchairs and tables is now no more difficult than buying a pair of high heels from Zalando.

Westwing plays very well on the psychology of consumers. A clock can be seen ticking on the Westwing sale portal. If you don’t order within the remaining time you get kicked out, and can’t get the trendy product anymore. It’s something we’re familiar with from classic retail… only while stocks last. Only after all received orders have been bundled does Westwing order the goods and deliver them. But customers pay upfront.

The stars on the top of the tree

Brands that move people, arouse interest, enthral, turn customers into fans who then become part of the brand. Participation is the new mantra.

Additional help is provided when management has a substantial media presence. Because successful brands and their stories need narrators. And they have to take to the stage. It’s something one has to want and be able to do. Self-marketing was long reviled as personal vanity. Indeed it is still widely considered a dirty word. Those successful individuals who have mastered the high art of personal presentation to perfection couldn’t care less.   They do their thing – and benefit the marketing of their brands. Tesla’s Elon Musk is the virtually ideal protagonist in this regard: A billionaire visionary as the face of the company. A man who not only wants to level e-mobility’s way into the mass market, but who is constantly making headlines in the worldwide press with other sensational projects. Sometimes it’s reusable rockets, another time he’s thinking about colonising Mars, or building a tunnel beneath Los Angeles that will catapult pedestrians from Point A to Point B. A positive madman, but one who delivers perfect storytelling, thus continuously recharging his manufacturer brand.

Although the German counterparts are far more modest, they are just as effective. Both the MyMüsli management troika – all former students from Passau – and Deliah Fischer from Westwing, are being celebrated as showcase founders, and given awards. None of them has any qualms about appearing on talk shows or blowing their own trumpets for their brand in a high-profile way. And they always make a fresh, personable impression. Deliah Fischer, who studied fashion journalism, has certainly contributed the most to Westwing’s high profile to date. A power woman who is well-received, and who is the face of a vision, an idea and, ultimately, of a brand. Those who buy something at Westwing are always buying a little piece of Deliah Fischer’s spirit as well. Just like at Tesla, where the ingenious founder Elon Musk is somehow always there as an invisible front-seat passenger. A really good feeling.

Discover the new possibilities

These days start-ups usually have a different business model and they do their advertising differently too. They are consistently living out the game change in everything they do. And that’s a good thing. Three days after MyMüsli launched in 2007 it already had 16,500 hits on Google. The founders later filmed their first TV ad – entirely on an iPhone – because their funds were limited. In the meantime the company can also afford to invest in classic advertising. However this is often also in the shape of modern, interactive formats.

MyMüsli was a huge media hit because the founders recognised the signs of changing consumer interests and adapted them intelligently. Tesla is a media self-starter, powered by Elon Musk. The marketing experts from Rocket Internet – who know how to promote start-ups online – are behind Westwing.  With the examples of all channels from social media to influencer marketing. It is the art of winning people over without a big budget and without classic advertising. This works exceptionally well on the internet which is why it is often the preferred medium for the new brand marketing.

The agencies too have long since had a rethink. They accompany their clients throughout the entrepreneurial process from strategic product development to integrated, interdisciplinary marketing.