Archive for the ‘The 3rd Button’ Category


Sterling Buzz…

Wednesday, January 14th, 2015

We’re happy to announce two exciting wins for Sterling Brands and Debbie Millman in the Mobius Awards!

Our Design team has won First Place for the 75th Anniversary Nestle Toll House packaging design, and our head of Design, Debbie Millman has won first place for her book: Self-Portrait As Your Traitor. Additionally, Debbie has been nominated for best of show!



For more info and updates click here:


What’s Your Back-Story?

Wednesday, January 14th, 2015

Almost all my thoughts on culture apply most completely to organizations in which the company and brand are one. But what about the consumer packaged goods category, where organizations are often built around multiple brands? After all, this is the birthplace of brand marketing. Such organizations are driven by management teams, R&D and marketing, not necessarily by the mission of a single and committed business entrepreneur.

Even here, I think there’s a cultural opportunity, but one better characterized as the creation of a back-story.

Consider a Hollywood character actor asking the writer: “What’s my back-story?” This question and answer helps the actor understand the role and properly position the character, an entire life might be created for her to draw from to create that perfect three-second shot. The ultimate goal is that we viewers, after a brief glimpse of a face or hearing a few lines, unconsciously assume an entire life and personality.

A classic example: Lexus and Infiniti

When Lexus and Infiniti were created, only one company was built on a back-story. The Lexus back-story was forged on an obsession with quality. The dealer and ownership experience was built upon the idea of an organization totally committed to quality and attention to detail, and the advertising drove that quality back-story home. Suddenly, established, venerable brands such as BMW and Mercedes discovered that many of the rational underpinnings (i.e., excuses for an emotional and ego-driven brand choice) they relied on to sell cars had been swept out from under them by Lexus.

Infiniti, on the other hand, failed to build a coherent and differentiated back-story. Instead, it created a Zen-like ad campaign, complete with rocks and trees. It was a storyline with no depth, a storyline few could understand. From the start, and despite a great product, Infiniti was destined to finish second in this race.

Cases in the CPG world

In the world of packaged goods, Crest created a successful back-story incorporating medical research and dentist approval. Tylenol did something similar, effectively using hospital and doctor recommendations as the back-story. Snapple marketed its (true) back-story as a small, passionate company as seen through the eyes and personality of its receptionist. Häagen-Dazs created the illusion of European ice cream. And every now and again, Gatorade trots out its real back-story, reinforcing its authenticity as the very first sports drink, one that was created for the University of Florida football team (the Gators) in the 1960s.

So what’s your backstory?

Use this question to give your product or service added depth, texture and personality. And while your back-story needn’t be completely factual, it must ring true. Think of it as the equivalent of Hollywood films that are “based on real-life events.” Not only will a back-story strengthen your brand, it will give your marketers the meat of a story to work with when talking about your brand. Your backstory is the anchor of all your communications. It makes talking about your brand that much simpler, and for consumers, it gives them a real reason to believe.

Austin McGhie is head of Sterling’s Strategy team.


Keep It Real

Friday, January 9th, 2015

Welcome to 2015! We are going to usher in the new year with a few of Austin’s thought on effectively communication your Position. Let’s dive in with a lesson on keeping it real.

People don’t deal well with concepts. They prefer reality. Brand positioning is a good thing so long as it isn’t entirely conceptual. Instead, a brand position must be real, and it must be brought to life through the product or service itself. If there are multiple products under a brand umbrella, find the catalyst- the one that best exemplifies the position and makes it real to the audience.

All this is especially true if you want to change the way people see you. Yeah, maybe you can convince them you’ve changed just by telling them so, but wouldn’t you be more certain of their response if you could present some evidence?

When Oldsmobile told you it was “Not Your Father’s Oldsmobile,” the unspoken response was “Um…yeah, it actually is.” Oldsmobile had a catchy line, a good communication strategy, but didn’t have a product to back up its claims. Cadillac, on the other hand, didn’t need to say a whole lot about its new and younger outlook. It simply showed you the Escalade and- perhaps just as important- who was driving it.

Consider these additional examples:

-Target doesn’t claim to be hip. It just is. No amount of claiming to be chic can substitute for real-life presence of top designers and brands in its stores.

-Sun Microsystems may have been “the dot in dot com,” but it was the Java programming language that brought the company’s Internet-centricity to life, getting Sun into thousands of offices where it was subsequently able to sell a lot of profitable servers.

-You can say you’re in the entertainment business and that intuitive design is important to you. Or you can be Apple and simply introduce the iPod. And then follow it up with the iPhone.

-Motorola called itself Moto and tried to act very, very hip, but it didn’t work until the company launched the Razr. (Unfortunately, although the phone looked great, it didn’t work well, so success was fleeting.)

Just as a picture is worth a thousand words, a real product or service that brings strategy to life is worth millions of marketing communications dollars.

And lately:

The recent increase in ‘environmental branding’ is a testimony to the benefits of keeping it real. Niketown, Levi’s, Disney and Apple stores are all great examples of a brand being brought to life in a controlled retail experience. ‘Pop-up stores’ can also showcase a brand for the same purpose. That purpose, that focus, is almost entirely on creating a great brand experience.

So keep it real. Never forget that a real product and a real brand experience are generally worth more than all the words you write and all the marketing communication money you spend.

Austin McGhie is head of Sterling Strategy


Like to Watch

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014

Watch what I do; ignore what I say.

Watch your customer. Just stand around and quietly observe. Retail expert Paco Underhill (a man worth talking to) has made a very good living out of simply watching people shop, asking a few intelligent questions, mixing in a healthy dose of experience and intuition, and forming conclusions.

Beware of the Hawthorne effect (i.e. once people know they’re being observed they change their behavior). Only after you’ve formed a sense of how people behave should you start asking questions. How their answers match (and don’t match) their behavior is where insights often reside. Why do they say one thing and do another? What can you do to take advantage of this attitudinal gap?

For years, consumer research told Kellogg’s that our customers religiously read the nutritional label when selecting cereal. Does that smell right to you? The real-world approach was to stand in a few aisles and watch the process. Not surprisingly, very few shoppers took the time to even scan the nutritional content. But, of course, they want to be seen as good consumers and parents, so they tell us that they did.

Combined with the notion of “brand as experience,” I think there’s a lot to be gained by regularly watching your customers walk through the experience you’ve created. Watch and learn.

In the same line, television ratings are also a joke. The important question to ask is not “What did you watch,” but “What did you do while you watched?” As we all know, viewers typically flick the channel changer at commercial breaks, making that program’s rating irrelevant to whoever placed ads during that break. These real behaviors matter.

As they search for insight and opportunity, marketers are even daring to go where no one has gone before- into the bathroom. Consider the highly successful extension of Mr. Clean by Procter and Gamble. Ever impressive in their observational work, P&G made sure to observe people first-hand. Researchers were reportedly amazed to learn that people dreaded cleaning the bathroom. They discovered that some people even cleaned their bathrooms in raincoats and boots, just to avoid contact with that specific filth.

Even with a preconceived idea that people dislike cleaning, there was absolutely nothing like seeing the real thing. As a result, Mr. Clean MagicReach was created and the painful experience was alleviated.

So, watch and listen to real people before you interfere with that reality by asking your questions- as insightful as they might be. Get the real story. Read or listen to Paco Underhill for more detail and lots of inspiration on this subject.

As the old aphorism says, look before you leap.

Austin McGhie is head of Sterling Strategy – stay tuned for more of his thoughts on the Customer, Positioning and the Future of all this stuff coming to the 3rd Button in the New Year.


Sterling Buzz…

Thursday, December 11th, 2014

We’re happy to announce Sterling’s win for several of our latest designs in the American Graphic Design Awards!

Click here to see all of our winning designs. For questions and more information on any of Sterling’s designs please reach out to us here.

DVX Identity Design for American Standard - Designers: Kim Berlin, Michael Dabbs, Isabel Babcock

DVX Identity Design for American Standard – Designer Team: Kim Berlin, Michael Dabbs, Isabel Babcock

Clutch-N-Clean design for Kimberly Clark - Design Team: Stephanie Krompier and Gabrielle Cuoccio

Clutch-N-Clean design for Kimberly Clark – Design Team: Stephanie Krompier and Gabrielle Cuoccio

Hershey's Miniatures for The Hershey Company - Design Team: Maliva Baker, Marisa Balmori, Michelle Lee, Michelle Hoffman

Hershey’s Miniatures for The Hershey Company – Design Team: Maliva Baker, Marisa Balmori, Michelle Lee, Michelle Hoffman


Now UP! on Design Matters…

Wednesday, December 10th, 2014

Check out the latest episode of Design Matters where Debbie chats with Ji Lee, communication designer at Facebook and famous creator of the Bubble Project.


Learn more about Ji Lee and listen to the podcast here<<


Introducing On the Future

Thursday, December 4th, 2014


While you may read about a lot of trends as 2014 winds down, we’re happy to introduce On the Future, our first forecast of product and brand trends for 2015 and beyond. As you’ll see, our report is quite different. It goes beyond the coming year to see what brands and products will be up to several years from now. We deliver this in what we call Sterling Futurecasts. Each futurecast in an actual illustration depicting a product, service or item we believe will be brought to life thanks to the convergence of many aspects of our current reality.

Using a cross-section of cultural anthropology, market research, trends observation and forecasting, and industrial and experiential design, some of the Sterling Futurecasts include:

Urban Defense

The over-population of urban environments and the creation of more mega-cities will drive the creation of health and wellness products that help consumers navigate and fight environmental challenges. Sample products include pockets embedded with a silver-based antimicrobial nanotextile that sanitizes your hands on contact.


Wearables that track the steps you take or the food you eat are already falling behind the true potential for the convergence between health and technology. Future products will allow for up-to-the-minute reports on your blood composition in order to recommend changes to your diet and exercise regimen.

Frugeois (pronounced Froo-ZHwa)

Millennials and the generation that follows have each experienced the recent economic recession in their own way, and each has learned that conspicuous consumption and careless spending never ends well. For them, being frugal and finding new ways to reuse and repurpose what they already have is paramount.

We invite you to download the report and let us know what you think the future holds.


The Importance of Why

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014

You know the who, the what, the where and the how, but it all starts with the why.

It seems as if I’ve been running into this kind of situation a lot lately. The marketer has a ton of research on the customer, possibly all the way down to a working CRM model. The marketer also knows, from research that might range from huge segmentation studies to lots of highly creative qualitative work, what the customer thinks- of the product, the brand, the market and the competition.

In other words, the who and the what are well understood- but not the why. To me, the why is all about context- the real-life context into which our products and services must somehow fit.

Why do your customers do what they do, think what they think, and say what they say?

If you really want to get to the bottom of the why, you’ve got to be willing to step into the real lives of your customers, the real lives that will go on whether your brand and business is there or not. You’ve got to understand how these lives are working, how deep-seated attitudes determine how customers approach your product or service. This essential context is the medium within which you must operate- the medium through which your marketing stimulus must travel if it is to create the desired response.

Yes, there are trained psychologists out there with the knowledge and tools to probe the inner workings of your customer’s psyche. Some of them are probably worth their weight in gold. I just haven’t had the pleasure of working with one of them yet. My personal bias is that while I may be missing out on some deep-seated revelation, there’s nothing I can get from a therapist that I couldn’t get from a beer with a few friends. So, with this bias as context, here’s a simple suggestion: Just talk to your customer. Conduct a set of comfortable, natural discussions with your customers, and don’t ask them anything about your business. Just talk about them. Learn about their hopes, fears, ambitions, attitudes and points of view. Just let go and don’t worry about all that marketing crap- save that for a different discussion.

Now that you’ve stepped back and learned about the why, you should be able to link this context to the “what” that you already know. You’ll find yourself much more confident as you move forward, able to leverage how your audience really feels and connecting it to what you need to accomplish in the marketplace. And the consumer, who hopefully in the course of this book became the customer, now becomes a full-dimensional human being.

Stay tuned next time for more thoughts on the Customer from Austin McGhie, Head of Sterling Strategy.


Now UP! on Design Matters…

Thursday, November 20th, 2014
Tune in as Debbie chats-up the founders of The Great Discontent! Now UP on Design Observer.
The Great Discontent is a magazine featuring interviews on beginnings, creativity, and risk. Co-founded by the Essmakers in 2011, editor-in-chief Tina and creative director Ryan have since expanded the magazine to include a print edition and a film series.
Click here to hear the podcast<<


Tune-in as Debbie chats-up the founders of The Great Discontent.

Now UP! on Design Observer.

The Great Discontent is a magazine featuring interviews on beginnings, creativity, and risk. Co-founded by the Essmakers in 2011, editor-in-chief Tina and creative director Ryan have since expanded the magazine to include a print edition and a film series.

Click here to hear the podcast<<


Drowning in Information

Monday, November 17th, 2014

In the words of Rutherford Rogers of Yale: “We’re drowning in information and starving for knowledge.”

Most marketers don’t need more research or more data. They need more insight.

That may seem a small point, or even an obvious one, but I remain astonished by the high ratio of money spent on research that doesn’t lead to action compared to money spent on research that does lead to action.

Information is useless in its own right, and far too many people and organizations are satisfied with spending millions of dollars on useless information. Yes, you need to know what’s going on out there- but only if you are actually going to do something with the knowledge. Only if that information somehow yields competitive advantage.

The missing ingredient can sound trite. Insight is a much-overused term in the world of marketing. But it’s insight that you’re looking for. It’s insight that’s worth paying for- not information.

So try this: review every “research” expenditure you have. Ask the same two questions of each program or project:

-Will it lead to an action?

-Will it lead to insights that will yield competitive advantage?

If the answer is no to both questions, don’t do it. Save the money and- perhaps more important- save the organizational time and focus that can be much better spent on insight generation.

Many companies seem to be so busy processing information that they lose track of its purpose. What if all that processing time and the minds that like to do that type of processing were replaced with insight-generation time and minds that like to create insight? It’s time to find out.

Austin McGhie is head of Sterling’s Strategy team