Dulled by years of losses, Sharp goes on the offensive

This is ThinkTank, a series in which we quiz brand chiefs and CMOs on where the industry is heading.

Sharp feels dull.

The once-iconic Japanese electronics company has had a trying few years. With a market value of $1.8 billion, the company has been facing falling sales and increased competition in the appliance market from Samsung. In June, Foxconn Technology (also known as Hon Hai Precision Industry) bought a 66 percent stake in the company for $3.5 billion and promptly announced it would close what it calls “inefficient subsidiaries” at the electronics maker.

At the company’s annual shareholder meeting, Foxconn founder Terry Gou said that despite Sharp having “lots of technology,” it isn’t able to market it, which would be a focus for the new owner.

Trying to solve this challenge, Sharp Electronics Marketing Company of America’s  sales and marketing chief Peter Weedfald has enacted a series of internal changes that he hopes will turn the company around. First: his own title. Weedfald is heading both sales and marketing an unusual move in a company this size. Under him, the company’s sales, marketing groups and the assorted groups inside them, from social to CRM to websites, are all operating as one.

Another shift: thinking like a publisher that’s always pushing the brand and its product outward. “I’m a publisher today at Sharp Electronics,” said Weedfald “Everything to me is content. Our microwave ovens are content.”

How exactly an appliance qualifies as “content” is unclear. Still, Weedfald said he is also adding Sharp to the long list of big brands who say they want to operate like “startups.”

That means pretending, at least internally, as if Sharp is small, has no shelf space and has investors demanding returns on their investment within 90 days. That sense of urgency has made his team become more cognizant of the brand’s products — which are considered, despite the company’s troubles, premium. (The Clavis Report recently placed the brand No. 1 in microwave ovens, above competitors including Cuisinart, Frigidaire and Panasonic.)

“As a startup, you have responsibilities,” said Weedfald, who has enacted a series of requirements inside the company’s sales and marketing teams. For one, every salesperson is in charge of both sales and marketing, so if they’re meeting with retailers, like a Best Buy, they are required to meet with everyone, from the site people to the merchants to the marketers, to supply chain, to PR. “These people are going to act like pilots,” said Weedfald.

The company also requires that within a few minutes of the end of the meeting with anyone, the salesperson makes a “connection,” typically via LinkedIn. (In fact, before our interview, Weedfald had sent a LinkedIn request to this reporter, as well.) “Have the passion to use social graces at the speed of sound,” is how Weedfald explains the need to make real human connections.

The brand is also on a “Sharp offense.” Everyone is required to communicate to the rest of the team after any meeting with anyone in what Weedfald calls “the outside world” with a call report that must be submitted in under six hours. That means that everyone in the organization knows who is talking to whom about Sharp and what needs to be done next to build the brand externally.

Experts wonder whether Foxconn can turn Sharp around after it has run up cumulative losses of over a trillion yen in the last four years. But it’s got incentive: In a Wharton case study, professor emeritus of management Marshall Meyers said that ramping up Sharp the brand is absolutely imperative for Foxconn to grow since equipment manufacturing is becoming less profitable. “No one knows who Foxconn is in the U.S.,” Meyer said in the Wharton study.

As part of that push, Sharp this month will roll out a series of videos aimed at retailers about its product leadership in the home appliance sector. It’s also bought out ads on dealer magazines sites like Twice.com and DealerScope.com. “We’re heavying up on our core assets,” said Weedfald. “We’re unleashing capacity.”

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