The pioneers leading modern business triumphs know precisely where their
companies are and where they are going - and they’re using marketing as
a map, writes Laura Mazur
What do Virgin’s Richard Branson, Bill Gates of Microsoft and Peter Wood
of Direct Line have in common? Apart from having amassed huge fortunes
from building successful empires, seemingly little.
Look a little deeper, however, and some common traits begin to emerge.
Regardless of background, all three are described using phrases such as
focused, commercially intuitive and innovative. Above all, they are
obsessed with customer satisfaction and service, and skillfully manage
powerful corporate brands.
That perception is reflected in the esteem in which their companies are
held. When the Marketing Council carried out research among UK marketing
professionals last autumn, these three companies topped the list of
companies rated as future marketing stars. They were joined by other
successful and well-regarded groups such as Tesco, Orange, Rover and
Marks & Spencer.
For Rod Street, a partner at Coopers & Lybrand and author of Marketing
at the Crossroads, successful executives operate to a very tightly
worked proposition, one that has been proven to succeed. ‘The Virgin
proposition is an extension of the media personality of Branson and his
philosophy. Direct Line came from a vision by Peter Wood about making it
easier and cheaper to buy insurance by cutting out the middleman.
‘If a business is going to retain its edge, it has to have a very clear
proposition that is relevant and can be adjusted through time. There has
to be a means of delivering that through almost a socialisation
Achieving this is easier for first generation companies, where the
founder is still in control. ‘Virgin, Direct Line, Body Shop and
Microsoft, for instance, are all first-generation,’ says Street. ‘But
companies like Marks & Spencer are several generations on. When a
business is relatively small, it is easier to stamp your personality on
That ability not just to survive but prosper is the yardstick for both
new-generation founders and chief executives such as Asda chief
executive Archie Norman, who came into a relatively moribund company
with a mission to rejuvenate it. Does the business retain its focus over
time? ‘There are things you can do to turn around businesses that are
about stopping the bleeding and strengthening productivity. But to
convert that into a long-run winning proposition can take a lot longer,’
While focus and vision are essential qualities for the chief executives
of future star marketing companies, they will also have to be able to
communicate effectively. ‘One of the reasons we view branding as such an
important business process is that it gives you a visual badge and a
meaning that everyone in the company can buy into,’ Street points out.
‘Almost by osmosis it helps inform decision-making. You can financially
engineer a change but you must still have communicated that vision
effectively enough for people to be able to move the business forward
A clarity of vision
John Stubbs, chief executive of the Marketing Council, believes that the
chief executives of a number of the top companies named in its research
share a broad perspective on customer satisfaction and how to drive the
business towards it.
In other words, regardless of background, these leaders are passionate
about their market in its widest sense. But they also give their
professional marketers a long leash, though maintaining a firm grip.
Sir Ian MacLaurin has developed a strong cadre of professional marketers
that have enabled Tesco to push past competitors such as Sainsbury’s,
which has only recently departed from normal practice by hiring in a
well-regarded marketer from outside.
Sometimes, having a chief executive who has come up through marketing
can be more of a curse than a blessing. Roy Doughty, chairman of CAB
Consulting, has been on both sides of the management fence, as marketing
director and then managing director at Duracell, followed by the senior
marketing post at Mercury One2One. ‘The trouble is that you can bring a
lot of baggage with you,’ he says. ‘It is the arrogance of saying ‘this
is my skill set so I will get involved in more of the discussions and
processes than I need to’.’
Archie Norman, management consultant turned retailer, has at times been
accused of an inability to delegate to his marketing directors and of
too much interference in marketing. The evidence cited is that Asda has
had three marketing directors in less than two years. But his admirers,
of which there are many in the business world, point to Asda’s
impressive record, not only financially but in terms of innovation, as
clear evidence that his hands-on approach works.
According to Stuart Bull, ex-chairman of KHBB, who has now set up
integrated marketing consultancy The Communications Unit, the acid test
of a rising star comes from their ability to tell you exactly what
advertising is running for their company.
‘Bill Gates could tell you exactly which commercials are running
worldwide. Peter Wood at Direct Line undoubtedly knows what the ads are
and will have originally approved the use of the little red telephone.
The same with Ian MacLaurin and the Tesco campaign,’ says Bull.
‘Don’t give them any warning. Turn the lights out, and ask them to
describe their current commercials. If they can’t, then the company
cannot be considered a marketing star of the future because a star by
definition will be customer-oriented and focused at the highest levels.
The chief executives of the rising star will know exactly what their
Marketers at the helm
Andrew Seth, former managing director at Lever Brothers and now non-
executive chairman of The Added Value Company, believes that leaders of
admired and successful companies derive their power from a clarity of
vision and purpose, displaying a strong sense of marketing literacy
whatever their business background.
‘To me the first key issue is that of competitive advantage. Does the
company have a clear idea of what it is, has that been recognised for
some time and at all levels, and is it embedded in the way it does
business? You don’t have competitive advantage if it is not marketing
based,’ says Seth.
He believes that companies such as Virgin, Microsoft, Direct Line, Asda
and the Body Shop all display an understanding of competitive advantage.
‘Then I would ask, are they winning? If they are, a buzz goes through
the business and people become confident and genuinely share the
strategy. It is understood and recognised and it doesn’t matter whether
you ask the brand manager, a financial manager or the board - you will
get comparable answers.’
Developing a process that everybody feels part of is crucial, he
believes. ‘In that sense it is a tremendous advantage to have a
marketing-literate chief executive because he can then be an inspirer
and facilitator, a driver of a very strong team of people who know what
they are doing and are part of that process. Richard Branson, Bill
Gates, Archie Norman at Asda, and Sir Ian MacLaurin at Tesco have done
A vital factor common to the list of rising stars is that they have
shifted emphasis from product to corporate brands. The leveraging power
of the corporate identity is under-utilised by many companies,
concentrating instead on the individual strengths of brands within the
stable. Virgin has exploited the strength of its corporate brand to the
In an era where strategic management of the corporate brand is key,
marketing literacy at the top has never been at such a premium.
It is said that one of the differences between a successful entrepreneur
and an unsuccessful one is that the former picks the right wave to surf.
When Peter Wood, founder and chief executive of Direct Line Insurance,
clambered onto his board in 1985 he blew apart an industry characterised
by complacency and high premiums.
He came up with the sort of simple solution that makes others wonder why
they didn’t think of it first: cut out the middleman, do mass-media
advertising and sell insurance over the phone, based on a well-developed
IT infrastructure. He attracted pounds 20m from the Royal Bank of
Scotland. What really put the company on the map in 1990 were the Wood-
inspired ads using the little red telephone.
His background is in data processing and management services at Levi-
Strauss and then the Alexander Howden group. Although he passes
responsibility for day-to-day product management to senior staff,
overall strategies for marketing, advertising and PR are approved by
him. However, he places great emphasis on coordination of ideas and
activity within the group to make sure the brand values are consistent.
Bill Gates has a simple CV. He is Microsoft, just as Richard Branson is
Virgin. The 19-year-old software company that sells over pounds 4bn
worth of products is his vision and his creation. And he certainly
understands marketing. The launch of Windows 95 last year cost around
pounds 98m and the commotion surrounding it helped Microsoft dominate
headlines around the world.
When Microsoft first began to move internationally, the different units
around the world had a lot of autonomy in deciding what products to
market and how to market them. But the past few years have seen Gates
and his team try to bring a more cohesive approach to the sprawling
empire with a stronger focus to the corporate brand and a more
coordinated marketing structure. His chief operating officer is a 26-
year Procter & Gamble veteran.
He is fallible, of course. His once markedly efficient public relations
operation, in the UK at least, is not what it was. More crucially, it is
said by his (increasingly vocal) competitors that Gates has missed a
step when it comes to the Internet because he underestimated its
potential and pace. But he has moved swiftly to remedy that.
In a radio interview a few years back, Sir Ian MacLaurin said that, for
him, Tesco was more of a hobby than work. That hobby included spending
Saturdays going around the local Tesco. Such is his devotion that when
he isn’t on the golf course topping up his perma-tan he is walking the
He is a retailer who truly considers his shop his brand. And it
highlights the passion of the man who, enticed by the founder Jack
Cohen, joined Tesco in 1959 and began by loading the vans in the
warehouse. Since he rose to the top, he has transformed Tesco’s
downmarket image by turning it from a buying and selling operation into
one characterised by marketing, research and innovation.
He has personally created a culture at Tesco that allows ideas to float
to the top just as much as they trickle down from above.
In his mission to become the UK’s leading food retailer he has been ably
aided by a strong marketing team.
In fact, he will be followed as chief executive when he retires in 1997
by the highly-regarded Terry Leahy who became deputy managing director
in 1995 following a three-year stint as marketing director.
John Towers is chief executive of the Rover Group, the UK’s largest car
manufacturer and vehicle exporter, and now part of BMW. His philosophy
sums up why his company is considered a rising star. A strong proponent
of engineering excellence as the price of entry for the luxury car
market, he believes the winners in the future will be those companies
who apply their engineering energy to the features that truly delight
An engineer by training, he has been with Rover since 1988, joining as
manufacturing director and rising to group managing director in 1991.
Along with his predecessors, Sir Michael Edwards and Sir Graham Day, he
can be credited with making what was once the ailing BL into such a
creditable commercial force that BMW paid pounds 800m for it in 1994.
There remains a determination to be strongly customer-focused. A well-
organised marketing team is charged with translating that vision into
reality by making sure that not only is Rover perceived as a powerful
and distinct global brand, but that the individual brands are tightly
targeted to highly defined customers segments.
This article was first published on Marketing