Project leaders who embrace a brand mindset will be in a stronger position to achieve their goals and deliver on the organization’s business strategy.
Brands. Products have them. Services have them. Organizations have them. Even people have them (think Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey or Frank Gehry). And, we argue, the internal face of every company project needs one as well.
Broadly speaking, a brand can be defined as a unique value proposition expressed in a relevant and differentiated way such that it creates preference and loyalty among key audiences.
So why is project branding important? Because your project can suffer in the absence of a compelling brand.
Consider the project environment at innovation heavyweight 3M. CEO George Buckley recently described the uphill struggle he faces to rally teams and support for seemingly mundane projects not perceived to offer breakthrough potential. For example, there was the recent decision by the 108-year-old company to seek improvements in one of its oldest product lines — industrial-grade sandpaper. The project was strategically important to 3M’s organic growth goals, but employees shied away from it, preferring to put their efforts into more high-profile initiatives. Buckley lamented that projects that R&D teams do not find “sexy” often acquire second-tier status. He found himself propelling such projects forward by brute force, observing that his relentless emphasis on lower-profile projects in 3M labs “basically drove them crazy.”1
The situation at 3M is not unique. And although Buckley as CEO could commandeer project resources, most project managers do not wield that kind of clout. Many operate in authority vacuums where they have little or no formal control over the people on whom they must rely to achieve project goals. What’s more, project leaders, when they are able to rally teams, often focus too narrowly on the work to be done. In their preoccupation with task accomplishment, project leaders frequently overlook the importance of establishing, maintaining and communicating to key stakeholders a clear, consistent and compelling vision of project purpose, goals and benefits. Consequently, they miss important opportunities for gaining support and, in the worst cases, contribute to the untimely deaths of ill-branded projects.
The Leading Question
How can leaders get the right level of attention, resources and support for their projects?
- Project leaders must sequence, time and articulate core messages about their projects to the right audiences.
- Branding the project will make it easier to succeed (at least internally).
- The key is to adapt the principles of traditional brand management to the planning, development, launch and delivery of project initiatives.
Project managers and project sponsors will gain distinct advantage and be in stronger positions to achieve their goals, advance their careers and deliver on the company’s business objectives if they adapt the principles of traditional brand management to the planning, development, launch and delivery of project initiatives.
The Complex World of the Project Leader
As local and global competition intensifies and organizations seek ways to reinvent themselves, the number of project initiatives expands rapidly. For example, initiatives near the bottom of 3M’s innovation pyramid have not replaced more high-profile breakthrough projects but have been added to the activities of the company’s R&D teams.
At the same time, budgets are shrinking and, despite the obvious need to do so, organizations do not always rationally allocate resources across projects according to their strategic value. The result is a dog-eat-dog world where project leaders battle daily to acquire and sustain control over resources. Team members in matrix organizations often juggle multiple projects and responsibilities. While being pulled in several directions, they tend to focus on the projects most interesting to them or most important to their careers (see “Project Image Does Matter”), making gut-level decisions about how and where to allocate their efforts. Moving beyond the traditional matrix structure, emerging organizational forms involving multiple external partnerships and dotted-line internal links require projects to draw on resources through formal and informal channels inside and outside the home enterprise. These configurations require leaders to attend to more complex and geographically far-flung constellations of stakeholders in building and sustaining support for, and engagement in, their projects.
In these demanding environments, project leaders must sequence, time and articulate core messaging about their projects in much the same way a marketing manager would organize an external-customer-facing branding effort to promote a company’s products and services. Just as product branding creates awareness and sustains value in the minds of an organization’s external customers, shareholders and constituents, a brand mindset can empower a project leader to develop strategically timed messages to create visibility and engagement among key targets. Depending on the stage of the project, different project brand audiences may include senior business leaders, project sponsors and team members with primary allegiances to vertical functions, as well as network partners external to the home organization. The savvy project leader will ensure that all parties up, down, across and outside the organization understand, internalize and embrace the promise of the project brand, agree on goals and employ steadfast support for the initiative through its completion.
The 5Ps of Project Branding
Based on more than a decade of research and observation in a wide range of organizations, we have identified five key stages in the project branding life cycle: Pitch, Plan, Platform, Performance, and Payoff. (See “About the Research.”) We depict these sequentially, but the flow is not strictly linear. Moreover, some projects may unfold in ways that involve cycling through one or more of the stages in an iterative way. (See “A Sequential View of the 5Ps of Project Branding.”)
A Sequential View of the 5Ps of Project Branding
The idea behind the 5Ps framework is similar to, and offers many of the same advantages as, a well-organized, external-customer-focused brand campaign. With an understanding of the five branding phases, the project leader will be in a strong position to assess the roles and motivations of specific target audiences and offer a compelling set of relevant benefits to each. Project-specific benefits will include functional elements (e.g., an improved process that better serves customers) as well as emotional elements (e.g., personal satisfaction derived from working as part of a cohesive and energetic project team) that stakeholders can expect to receive if they support a project or participate in its delivery. (See “Making Project Branding Work, From Pitch to Payoff.”)
Use of the 5Ps framework is not a one-time planning exercise but a focused and sustained effort whose aim is to keep the brand alive and relevant from pitch to payoff.
Pitch The pitch represents the project champion’s initial effort to position and sell an idea by persuading key decision makers of the importance of the underlying problem or strategic opportunity the project will address. Without answers to the question “why?” those with approval power will have little interest in the “what.” The success of the pitch determines whether or not the project is sanctioned to move forward and also creates an enduring first impression from which subsequent perceptions about its relevance and value will be judged. This is a critical moment that, if handled without attention to establishing a strong and compelling brand, can dilute a project’s potential to attract enough resources and support or, worse, kill the idea before it has a chance to germinate.
The pitch can occur as a high-level event in a single shot, or it may occur in escalating stages when building momentum and support is necessary. A single-shot pitch typically involves senior-level decision makers as the target audience and is appropriate for projects of major organizational consequence such as facility closures, new product launches or corporate restructuring initiatives. However, in many environments it is more appropriate to start with a softer or slower pitch at a lower level to gain input and garner support from those whose hands-on participation will ultimately determine the project’s success. Such would be the case for ideas that need more germination time or those that involve grassroots-level process improvements. A slow-pitch strategy was the approach of choice for a product manager at a global Internet company. He learned that he had the best chance of selling a project idea to C-suite executives if he first persuaded programmers to use some of their discretionary time (at this company, 15%) to test an idea. His pitch had to be compelling enough to offer intrinsic motivation for the programmers, so he had to make the work itself, as well as the outcome, seem appealing. If the initial work proved promising, senior-level decision makers would be the next stop for a more strategic pitch. (See “A Pitch Gone Awry” for a glimpse of what can go wrong when a project is presented.)
Plan The plan represents the process of clarifying goals, determining what needs to be done and when, anticipating possible risks, assigning responsibilities and developing a communication strategy for delivering the right messages at the right times to the right audiences. The project plan must be developed in an honest and open manner: Authenticity plays a vital role in generating positive visibility and building and maintaining broader stakeholder confidence in the project’s viability. If the planning process is thorough and incorporates careful analysis of risks, involves input from representative individuals and groups and produces a clear, accessible road map, stakeholders will feel a sense of confidence in its feasibility. If the plan is created behind closed doors with little or no input, the project is likely to come out of the gates with a less-than-attractive brand. Even worse, the brand will quickly erode as naysayers and those who feel slighted fill the information void with damaging rumors.
Making Project Branding Work, from Pitch to Payoff
A quick case study makes the point. At a global engineering company, corporate executives decided to merge two work units that had operated separately since a corporate acquisition 10 years previously. The consulting firm hired to develop the project plan held meetings with key stakeholders and requested their input. These individuals appreciated being involved and offered numerous ideas for smoothing the transition. The consultants thanked the participants but then immediately told them how the plan would unfold, signaling that the input process had been merely window dressing. They clearly had no intention of using stakeholder ideas. As of this writing, the merger of the two units has fared poorly, garnering weak support and actually generating some sabotage.
In contrast, consider a project to redesign manufacturing activities at a facility making precision electronics for the defense communications sector. The project leader and his highly representative core design team crafted a project plan that was then shared with a broader set of stakeholder groups, including the plant leadership and support areas (e.g., materials, human resources, information technology). Input from these groups helped the project leader and team to improve the plan and avoid several potential land mines they had not anticipated (e.g., the need to change formal job descriptions). The transparency of the planning process and the efforts undertaken to solicit broad input educated stakeholders about the project and created a favorable project impression right from the beginning. The project was very successful: The redesigned manufacturing processes cut production lead times in half, reduced scrap rates by over 80% and, by the conclusion of the second year after implementation, nearly doubled the monthly dollar volume of production per employee.
Platform The platform is the collection of visible activities that comprise the official project launch. It may take place after only a limited amount of high-level planning, or it may be the culmination of an intensive planning effort. Branding success at the platform stage depends on the way the initiative is legitimized and socialized to the entire organization, not just to direct project participants and higher-level decision makers. It is imperative that key stakeholders view the project as relevant to their business units and function yet also as contributing to the organization’s business strategy.
Every project needs an official and visible starting point. And although not all project launches need to be extravagant, those who touch or are touched by the initiative must recognize that the project is a legitimate reality. The extent of fanfare must be tailored to the project’s strategic significance and to the culture of the organization. (See “Don’t Confuse Project Branding with Overhyping.”) Clearly, a project of limited significance launched from an over-the-top platform will create expectations that cannot be met, no matter how well the project is executed. National culture significantly colors what is considered “overhyping.” For example, Americans are more likely to accept a project launched with a bit of salesmanship, but in Asian cultures a toned-down project initiation event would be more appropriate.
The experience of a heavy-equipment manufacturer engaged in a major enterprisewide restructuring makes the point. The project was officially launched with a grand event broadcast from corporate headquarters to 10 sites in the United States and Canada. Key players were gathered for an elaborate luncheon at venues set up at each site. So far so good, but several things unfolded prior to and during the event that engendered distrust and eroded confidence. Attendees had been asked for input about logos for some of the new work units that would be created, and a request for shirt size suggested that new garments would brand the entities about to be formed. The organization frequently used shirts, hats and other logo-marked clothing as a way of branding project teams, so the expectation that polo-style shirts would be distributed was certainly on the mark. But on the day of the grandly presented launch, there were no shirts, there were no logos and there was no explanation or apology as to why. Much more importantly, the project launch announcements offered vague descriptions about what people should expect to happen as the project unfolded, and there was considerable lack of clarity regarding who would be in charge. Not surprisingly, the senior managers tagged to carry out the reorganization were left with a post-platform clean-up, wondering if the initiative could possibly have gotten off to a worse start. As of this writing, the restructuring has been a sorry failure.
Performance In the context of branding, performance represents the way the leader and team communicate information about delivery of the project’s promise following the official launch. A project brand can be bolstered or diminished during the performance phase, depending on the timing and transparency of progress reporting, interim provision of promised benefits, honesty about setbacks and demonstrations of resiliency in the face of challenges. The project leader must realize the danger of undercommunicating during the performance phase: Any information vacuum will be filled by those with competing interests or doubts.
News stories surrounding the Boeing 787 Dreamliner offer lessons about what not to do during the performance phase of project branding. The airplane project is now years behind schedule and woefully over budget. Since its inception, Boeing public relations staff members have hyped the program in the media in efforts to sustain the project brand with employees, suppliers, customers and stakeholders such as regulatory bodies. But some analysts and business columnists have expressed doubts about the company’s ability to deliver on its promises as dates for major milestones continue to be drawn out into the future.2 When Boeing has come clean with the media, company officials have admitted technical problems were recognized long before they were made public. Recently, Boeing has launched a new corporate-level effort to encourage a more open communication environment where employees feel safe in bringing problems to the surface rather than hiding them.3 However, organizational culture does not change overnight and, so far, the performance phase of project branding has been less than stellar, both internally and externally. There is another lesson here worth mentioning: Avoid project names that might undermine the brand, particularly at the performance phase. The term “Dreamliner” has become fodder for those who quip, “Is it just a dream?”
Payoff Payoff is the culmination of the entire branding effort. It represents an opportunity to solidify, enhance or diminish the perceptions of the project brand created in the earlier stages. Activities include closure celebrations and, in some organizations, failure parties that applaud worthwhile endeavors that did not yield the hoped-for business results. If there is no clear end point, everyone grows frustrated.
The Project Leader’s Branding Toolkit
A project at a large hospital provides a good example. The project was focused on a procedural problem that was affecting patient safety, but it seemed the project leader would never shake it from her “to do” list. As the complicated project dragged on month after month and the organization launched other important initiatives that vied for the same resources, keeping the team engaged became difficult. Team member turnover became an issue as the project developed a negative image. Stakeholders commented on the lack of progress and wondered about the shifting directions of the team’s investigations. This lack of clarity regarding project endgame (Was it a set of recommendations? Was it a fully implemented new process?) reflected a mishandling of the payoff phase of branding. We heard similar stories from project managers in settings ranging from industrial product design to electronics to higher education, and in all cases the project leaders agreed they should have been more assertive in defining closure expectations from the start and in more formally and definitively marking the end of the project. Failing to do so compromised their reputations and detracted from their ability to deliver on the project promise. In the absence of shared expectations about what signifies the end of the project, the project manager’s ability to close the project and communicate delivery of the project’s promise is hamstrung.
In contrast to the hospital project is an example of a closure following a failed political campaign that was branded effectively. A candidate for state attorney general in a western U.S. state lost by a small margin, only a few hundred votes. Instead of retreating and staying out of the limelight, she continued to tactfully keep herself in front of supporters and the broader state constituency by participating in television and newspaper interviews, maintaining her campaign website and communicating with those who contributed to her campaign. In a post-election letter to her financial backers and campaign volunteers, she not only thanked them for their support but also emphasized the closeness of the race and highlighted the key issues she had brought to the public’s attention. She went on to describe how personally rewarding it had been to interact with the citizenry, and she promised to continue crusading for the interests and needs of families in the state. Her letter did not mention future plans to run for political office but conveyed to her supporters that they had made the right decision by advocating for her election. Although she did not use the term “branding” to describe her closure communication strategy, that is exactly what it was.
Each project in an organization’s portfolio has an internal brand — a reputation and status that play major roles in determining the level of support it will receive. Some project brands are better than others. Although the foundation of any project’s brand may rest on its natural attractiveness — its strategic importance, its apparent viability, the reputation of the assigned leader and the client’s profile — these factors are not the sole determinants of a project’s destiny. Project leaders, sponsors and team members all have the power, and the obligation, to create and disseminate brand-related messages that clearly convey the project’s intended promise, garner needed support and report on the delivery of that promise. Concepts from the domain of brand management can be tailored and applied to make this happen during five stages in the project branding life cycle. Project leaders who embrace these ideas will gain distinct advantage and be in stronger positions to achieve their goals, advance their careers and deliver on the company’s business strategy.