How brands can outperform in challenging times

Ian Millner explores what outperforming brands are doing in the face of uncertainty

Ian Millner

Chief Executive Officer Cheil Connec+


In recent years, we’ve seen a new breed of company - brands like Tesla, Alibaba and Crocs, which don’t just survive in turbulent times, but instead manage to thrive, achieving record levels of growth while their competition struggles.

We call these brands ‘Outperformers’, and over the last year or so, we’ve been digging into just what characterises them. What enables certain brands to outperform the entire market during times of political turmoil and economic instability? And how can brands maintain optimism in the face of doom-and-gloom? These were some of the questions we tried to answer at our recent panel event, with expert speakers from Samsung, Beiersdorf, Nibble, carwow and True participating in the discussion.

Just as certain brands were able to make it through the pandemic stronger than ever, it’s evident that certain companies have what it takes to emerge victorious despite the current economic context.

Ian Millner, CEO, Cheil Connec+

We’re currently facing some fairly uncomfortable headwinds that might affect even the most resilient brands, with reduced access to capital, high inflation, and a war for the best talent raging. However, our research has shown that Outperformers aren’t hostage to fortune. Just as certain brands were able to make it through the pandemic stronger than ever, it’s evident that certain companies have what it takes to emerge victorious despite the current economic context.

To inform our study, we spoke to people working in outperforming companies, from start-ups through to large enterprises, to understand just what makes an Outperformer, and we came up with a number of key defining principles.

What Outperformers do well

Firstly, Outperformers demand intensity. They work faster, harder and go further than their peers. They are relentless in their pursuit of growth. As Carol Zhou, Senior VP of Innovation and Investments at Shiseido told us, “Being an outperformer means you're doing the most you can do and getting the most out of what you have and utilising all of your resources and your capacity to the maximum so there’s no wastage.”

We also found that Outperformers are decisive, and take action quickly. They not only have access to more information, they are also able to decide and act faster than their peers.

Outperformers look to stand apart from their competitors, using a combination of disruptive products, routes to market, approaches to pricing and ways to communicate with customers to create new value that looks markedly different to anything their competitors are doing.

And it’s not just the fun, creative stuff that Outperformers do well. They also obsess over operations, knowing that this discipline is what enables their teams to bring new ideas to the table and keep adding scale and complexity. As Janet Lee, SVP and Chief Marketing Officer of Mobile Experience at Samsung, says, “In order to support new initiatives, new ideas, and support teams that move quickly, to bring those new initiatives or ideas to life, you need to have a very solid foundation.”

Outperformers are reinventing the rules of marketing, embedding its role throughout the business, rather than limiting it to communications. When we spoke with John Schoolcraft, Chief Marketing Officer at Oatly, he talked about how their creative department is now dispersed throughout the business, to help solve problems and identify new opportunities.

Data is also key to Outperformers. These brands get the most out of data by ensuring everyone within their organisation has access to it and (most importantly) knows how to interpret it.

Purpose also kept coming up as a major defining characteristic for Outperformers. These companies are guided by their purpose, using it to not only inform their communications, but also to drive decisions throughout the business.

And finally, we found that Outperformers take talent seriously., understanding that an ability to attract and retain the best people is key.

How to strike a balance in today’s economic climate

We found eight defining principles that characterise Outperformers, but what one thing should your brand be focussing on in the face of today’s tough economic context, and how should you strike the balance between optimism and doom-and-gloom? We asked the panel at our event for their recommendations.

Ben Carter, Global CMO at carwow told us it’s all about adapting in the face of change: “Agile smart, outperforming businesses adapt all the time.”

Rosie Bailey, CEO and Co-Founder of Nibble, spoke about the value of scenario planning, telling is that in challenging times, “making different plans instead of one budget makes so much sense”. She also recommended brushing up on your negotiation skills.

For Annika Bizon, Marketing and Omnichannel Strategy Director at Samsung UK & Ireland, it’s about listening to the consumer, and reacting accordingly, as well as not taking things too seriously. “Having a bit of fun in a tough market can make you stand out.”

Echoing this, according to Joe Comiskey, Regional Director of eCommerce for Europe at Beiersdorf, leaning into the consumer is key. “You need to make sure that you’re leaning in with is something that has a benefit for you as a business but has a real consumer benefit as well, and people will thank you for it.”

And if the doom-and-gloom starts to overwhelm you, just remember that today’s challenging conditions won’t be forever. As Matt Truman, Executive Chair and Co-founder at True told us: “It’s going to be a tough two or three years, but recognise that we’ve had a great ten, and there’ll be another great twenty on the other side.”

Until then, we’ll be running diagnostic sessions for anyone looking to operationalize outperformance, by providing marketers with fast, substantiated strategies.

Guest Author

Ian Millner

Chief Executive Officer Cheil Connec+


Ian is CEO of Cheil Connec+, which brings together specialisms from Cheil Worldwide’s network agencies Cheil, Barbarian, BMB, Iris and McKinney in order to answer global client briefs, spanning 53 offices and 6,500 staff. Ian draws on over two decades of close working relations with superstar brands including adidas, Samsung, Starbucks, Diageo, Heineken and Philips. He has in-depth experience of installing a pioneering agency culture at Iris, which he co-found at the turn of the millennium, expanded across 17 offices worldwide and has run for over 20 years, first as Global CEO and now Chairman. In his current role as Cheil Connec+ CEO, Ian is helping clients to achieve ‘tech-level growth’ across time zones and disciplines. He achieves this by advocating a more agile and focused approach to collaboration, intentionally eradicating legacy silos, structures and baggage to make success happen.

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