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The Seven Cs Of Cross-Functional Brand Planning

As more and more organisations have moved to cross-functional and cross-regional involvement in the development of their strategic and operational brand plans, the result has been greater engagement and alignment, with richer outputs – but this approach comes with significant challenges. Jon Bircher distils his experience, learnings and observations about getting the most out of cross-functional teams in the process of brand planning into seven recommendations.
As more and more organisations have moved to cross-functional and cross-regional involvement in the development of their strategic and operational brand plans, the result has been greater engagement and alignment, with richer outputs – but this approach comes with significant challenges.  

The major challenge comes from navigating large and diverse groups of individuals with cross-functional perspectives in what is still largely a commercially-minded activity.  Harnessing differing expertise, expectations and knowledge, and guiding towards clear, relevant and prioritised plans can be extremely tough.  

At Cello Health we have worked with many pharmaceutical and biotech companies over the years.  We have supported, structured, pressure-tested and developed strategic brand plans with teams ranging from five to over 50 people, in global, regional and local organisations.  

We have worked on strategic planning for early assets through to end-of-life brands, both in big pharma and start-up biotechs.  We have attempted to distil our learning into seven easy-to-digest recommendations: The Seven Cs of Cross-Functional Brand Planning, each with a concrete recommendation about how you can ensure your planning process works better.  

1. Calendar
One of the greatest challenges and frustrations we regularly observe is the misalignment in the timing of different planning deliverables.  There is often a lack of natural sequence between each of the components of the plan, and a disconnect between the timings of the global strategic plan and when affiliates are developing their plans.  

Budgets and long-range plan submissions often happen ahead of the ‘thinking’ and the strategic plan development; functional plans sometimes need to be delivered before the overarching brand plan has been completed, and global plans end up being delivered after affiliates have finished their plans.  We have seen this across multiple companies, and are continually amazed that it has not been addressed, even when pointed out year after year.  

We recently supported a global organisation whose brand planning cycle essentially ‘started’ with a long-range plan and forecast submission in March – yet the five year strategic brand plan process only started in February, and was supposed to generate the thinking and cross-functional alignment required to build that plan and forecast.  In essence they had a Long Range Plan and budget process which was disconnected from the cross functional thinking and strategic brand planning cycle.   

The situation was made worse by the fact that the global operational plan needed to be delivered to countries in May, again when the five-year plan was still not completed.  This was further complicated by the fact that individual functional heads were requested to submit their functional plans before the overarching plan was complete, and this overarching strategy was not delivered to affiliates until two months after the countries had started their own individual planning process.  

Recommendation: Ensure the alignment and sequence of your planning cycle makes sense.  This will require significant internal management, senior management direction, and some pain, but if your planning process is genuinely going to add value to everyone cross-functionally and regionally, it is worth going through the organisational change.  

2. Competence
Cross-functional planning is by its nature just that: cross-functional.  That means that not everybody will have the right commercial, marketing and business skills, training and experience to understand and contribute to building a brand plan.  

To get the most out of different functions and their diverse areas of expertise requires some core competence across the group on planning itself.  

I was recently working with a US cross-functional team developing their strategy.  We were in the middle of a series of workshops, and I was constantly being dragged into debate and side conversations with several members of the managed care and medical functions, and it quickly became evident that frustration was building across the group – not because people weren’t buying in to what we were doing, but because they didn’t understand the value of the process to them, the implications of this thinking, and how they could add value.  

This was the same organisation that had decided not to run a ‘marketing excellence:planning 101’ with non-marketers, to ensure base-level competence.  We ended up taking some of the delegates aside for quick 15 minute sessions throughout the days to explain some of the theory, process and basics of developing strategy, after which things went more smoothly.  

Recommendation: Don’t skip the step to train and develop your less commercially-minded, marketing-naive team members (as well as your marketers and commercial teams as required).  It is a false economy and leads to more superficial brand plans, reduced buy-in and a heavier reliance on consultants year after year.  We often build ‘training’ into the planning process, but this takes longer and requires investment and commitment; you might alternatively consider a wider ‘planning excellence training programme’, which is less pointedly aimed at non-marketers, and therefore an easier internal sell.  

3. Consistency
Cross-functional brand teams are made up of people from a variety of experiences and backgrounds; some will have business qualifications such as MBAs, others will have ‘learnt their trade’ - and learnt their process of planning - within other pharma and even non-pharma companies.  So we end up with people who all have different ways of developing a plan.  

The company needs a common and consistent way of planning. Thinking about the plan, the process, how we go about it, the tools and lexicon.  This is as much about language and definitions as it is about planning steps, stages, philosophy and thinking.  It needs to be simple, consistent and meaningful, so that wherever somebody is in the organisation, everybody has the same understanding of what is meant by the process.  

We regularly work with our own Red Thread Planning TM process, language and approach – but often need to adapt it to different company languages and approach, whilst maintaining the core philosophy, challenge and emphasis.  This is vital, because even a small difference in language can jeopardise understanding and engagement.  People then get distracted by terminology and process rather than focusing on building an exceptional plan  

We recently worked with a company which in essence had six different layers of strategy in their plan, which was very confusing for contributors and readers.  Additionally, their planning process was delivering some great thinking, but because they had to ‘force fit’ this thinking into templates which had no resemblance to the thinking process, then it lost its power, its story - and failed to have the desired impact.  

Recommendation: If you already have a planning process in place, make sure there is a clear vocabulary that is understood throughout the organisation, and ensure that the process, approach and final deliverables are all aligned.  If you don’t have a clear process, or if it has evolved over time into something riddled with duplication and inconsistencies, consider bringing in help to build a tailored and relevant process, approach, philosophy and set of tools and templates which is then trained in and embedded across the organisation.  

4. Consequence
This is about senior management endorsement – they need to demonstrate what they believe the expectations are, especially if the process has changed.  My fourth ‘C’ is Consequence, because senior management across all the functions need to stand together and say ‘this is a process we all agree on, a language we subscribe to and a way of working we endorse; we also agree that the  overarching strategic brand plan should be finished across functions, before we ask for your specific functional plans.’  

That means them being involved in decisions around the process, bringing each of the functional heads into a common approach across all business units, geographies and functions.  It should be senior management that helps roll the whole process out – and define the consequences for any lack of engagement or contribution.  

We came across one company where a new process for strategic planning had been embedded, and teams engaged and trained.  They delivered smarter, crisper focussed plans, and the strategy was pressure-tested.  The choices were clear, and the final documents were strategic and well-written.  

Unfortunately once the plans were submitted, it became clear that upper management had not been engaged to the extent they might have been.  They didn’t understand some of the language, they liked the previous way of presenting the data, and they were unnerved by the level of prioritisation, focus and decision-making the teams had made.  This was a good lesson for the cross-functional planning team about the level of effort required to ensure buy-in to a new planning process.  

Recommendation: If you are changing a process, make sure that whoever will be the final reader or will sign off the plan has fully bought into that process early.  But there also has to be a consequence about being engaged and being involved.  If you genuinely want cross-functional teams to contribute, they need to know from senior management consistently that it is important that they are there, they see senior executives leading by example in meetings – and that there are consequences if they don’t engage as much as they need to.  

5. Clarity
In many organisations, the planning process has moved from a small group of commercially-minded marketers locking themselves away to build global strategic brand plans over the course of a week or two (which no-one references or engages with beyond the few who wrote it), to large, unwieldy cross-functional teams of maybe 40 or 50 people, where everyone has to be included in every key meeting, workshop or decision-making session, even if they might not be able to contribute.  

But for clarity of thinking, you need clarity of roles and responsibilities.  Who do you need at which meeting?  Should there be different roles at different times?  For example, you might use smaller groups for making key strategic decisions or where you want to go into deeper prioritisation, but you might use larger groups for bringing fresh knowledge, insights and perspectives, or where it is about engagement, roll-out or buy-in.  

The second part of clarity is about the process which must deliver clarity of plan, clarity of strategy and clarity around the choices you are making.  If you have too many people around the table, it is very difficult to get that real succinct clarity of thinking.  Great plans, cross-functional or not, should deliver a really clear, focussed, sharp plan where the strategy is absolutely crystal clear, where choices have been made so anybody can immediately understand it.  Clarity of process, and clarity of roles and responsibilities in the planning process, will lead to this clarity of the plan itself.  

Think very carefully about who you need to engage at which points.  It is vital to dispel internal beliefs that are based not on fact, but on ‘myths’ which have gained traction over a period of time.  The starting point in the planning process is to bring everybody together to dispel some of those myths, encouraging people to bring different perspectives and experiences – opening up the whole process with everybody contributing.  However, if you want clarity of plan, there need to be regular touch-points and decision/ prioritisation points throughout the planning process where you use smaller groups to your advantage.

6. Contribution
If you are going to bring together a cross-functional team, and ensure that they have the competence to contribute to the planning process, the logical next step is to ensure that you are getting the best out of them during the process.  

Let’s take an example: say you are undertaking situational analysis – perhaps you are doing a deep-dive into particular key planning questions, to really understand the market access challenge, or really understand what the clinical data tells you about the competition.  

In that early stage of discovery, going back to review old plans, reviewing market research, bringing in knowledge from across the team, it is really important to prepare people so that they can contribute.   

Some of this we have covered – they need to understand the process clearly, they are prepared in terms of their own strategic planning knowledge, they are engaged and bought into the process.  But you also need to give them time to do some thinking, to set them questions, so that they come into the process able to provide you with fresh, thought-through insight, and answers to key planning questions.  

You want people to contribute at the right time.  Staging the different steps of the process appropriately means they can have the time to go and do some thinking and research, to be able to come back and contribute again.  

We have worked with a company recently where they start their planning process by identifying the critical questions they need to ask – and by asking those questions at the beginning of the planning process, people from across the functions can come prepared with evidence, knowledge and fresh thinking to bring to the first situational analysis review.   

The feedback from the team was that they felt much better prepared to contribute, because they knew the challenges that they needed to bring information around.  So when everybody was together, it was much more about discussion and debate, rather than finding the evidence.  

Recommendation: it is vital to help people to prepare for key meetings, so that they can contribute and genuinely bring their expertise to the mix. Make sure they know what it is that you want them to contribute, and pose them the right questions to allow them to go away and do the thinking and research necessary to make a really meaningful contribution.  

7. Cohesion
The seventh ‘C’ brings all the others together.  Whether you are an affiliate or sitting in the global team, it is so much better if all of the plans are cohesive – which they should be if you have followed the recommendations in the first six ‘Cs’.  

It is vital that every plan which is developed together is aligned – they are like stories which need to sit together.  If the starting point is about developing an overall strategy for the brand, do the market access plan and the medical plan and the HEOR plan and the sales plan and the marketing plan all feed into, connect with and align with the overarching strategy?   

Do the tactics, the operational plans support the strategy that the overarching plan has suggested, or are you still delivering tactics that you have always delivered, because the medical team doesn’t want to give up a study, or because the marketing team are fearful about pulling a programme which is someone’s ‘baby’?  

We have seen a cross-functional team deliver an overall plan, but when we have looked at the individual functional plans, they don’t seem to hold any resemblance to where the overall strategy is going.  Often they are the same people within the functions who have been part of the cross-functional team, but they are not applying that same thinking to their own functional plans.  In some cases I have seen, they could be different plans written for different companies.  

Cohesive, focussed plans are what this is all about.  They can only happen when those other ‘Cs’ are brought into alignment – and the result is a set of plans which fit together, which allow everybody in the organisation to understand the priorities, choices and areas of focus, and to deliver success right across the board.

The Author Jon Bircher is Global CEO of Cello Health Consulting. Cello Health specialises in supporting companies through its unique Red Thread PlanningTM approach. Jon can be contacted at Twitter: @jonbircher

24th November 2015



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