Marketers have more in common with private-equity firms than they might think

Many marketers fear private-equity backers; however, despite often very different approaches, both parties have the same goal - the strongest possible brand.

Does private equity 'get' brand equity? Marketers learning that their brand is to be acquired by backers unafraid of the term 'capitalist' tend to be seized by grave misgivings, as though their precious brand assets were about to succumb to a Viking act of plunder and lust.

Over the years of working with both private-equity and more conventional brand-ownership structures, my own, less graphic, experience points to a difference between two basic cultural styles. It's nothing to do with understanding the importance of a strong brand; everyone 'gets' that. It's to do with the route that takes you there.

Imagine you wish to embark on a major brand-building initiative and seek approval for an ambitious marketing plan. Either way it's going to feel like a hurdle course, but, depending on ownership structure, it will be of contrasting kinds.

Dealing with private-equity owners, you have one very high hurdle at the outset, then a straight, flat track.

The high hurdle is rigour. The moneymen don't pretend to have a nuanced understanding of marketing; that is why you are standing before them. What they will seek from you are carefully prepared, fact-based answers. You will be expected to know why you want the budget, what is likely to be achieved, and when the returns will accrue.

These encounters can be tough, and woe betide the marketer who goes in with a scant grasp of the maths. All the proxy markers that characterise our discipline, the ones we tend to accept in all their slippery vagueness, will be mercilessly probed. Why does prompted awareness matter? What difference does engagement make? How does net promoter score correlate with sales?

Assuming you clear that high hurdle, however, the course ahead is flat and fast. Far from being held back, you will feel the hot breath of the backers on your shoulder, urging all haste with your plans. It is invigorating and terrifying in equal measure.

Contrast that with the process in more conventional ownership structures. Instead of one high hurdle there are many low ones; the call for rigour is fainter, but the need for consensus greater. This means the marketing journey is easier to embark on, but you find yourself having to present again and again, making small adjustments here and there, as HR, operations and others must all be accommodated.

Overall it is noticeably slower and can induce moments of blunted concentration - which means you can find yourself unprepared for one of those endless low hurdles two-thirds through and come a cropper.

Personally, I prefer the rigour and momentum. It occurs to me, though, that what lies at the root of both is the thing that provokes all the distaste for private-equity backers. They unashamedly have an exit in mind, and need the brand spot-on for that; like property developers, they find themselves unloved for profiting from an asset they do not wish to settle into.

Yet that is not so different from what many marketers seek - an exit from this job, having turned things around, with a bigger role in the next. So if the Vikings land, give them a chance. Your objectives may be more aligned than you think.

Helen Edwards has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand. She is a former PPA business columnist of the year.

Follow her on Twitter: @helenedw


A surprisingly high proportion - $3tn-worth globally - of well-known brands are backed by private equity.

- The most recent example, and the biggest post-crisis private-equity deal, is the acquisition of Dell by a host of funders, including Silver Lake. Michael Dell set up the computer manufacturer in 1984 with a $1000 loan, but the deal now values it at a staggering $24.4bn. Analysts believe Dell can be more nimble as a private company, and has a better chance of turning its fortunes around out of the Wall Street spotlight.

- 'Going private was the best thing that ever happened to us,' Hilton chief executive Christopher Nasetta claimed last year. Blackstone bought the Hilton hotel chain in 2007 for a 40% premium over stock-market value and invested about $6.5bn in the company, helping it to boost building and hiring rates.

- After non-stop attention in the press, few people will be unaware that Findus beef lasagne was found to contain horse - but some may be surprised to hear they contain Lion as well. Lion Capital accounts for the majority of the company's private-equity backing.

- Other well-known private-equity brands include Toys R Us megastores, US clothing retailer J.Crew and restaurant chain Yo! Sushi.

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