Archive for the ‘The 3rd Button’ Category


Sterling Buzz…

Thursday, July 24th, 2014

americancraftWe’re excited to share the recent success of the Hillshire Farm’s American Craft brand!

Smart marketing tech coupled with smart packaging is a great recipe for success.

Click here to read the full story on Hillshire’s foray into Beacons mobile technology, and to check out our design work.


Position Narrow, Catch Wide

Monday, July 21st, 2014

I think I first heard the above expression from Alpa Pandya, a colleague of mine at Sterling, and I’m happy to give her full credit for it.

Although obvious to the best marketers, “position narrow, catch wide” seems counterintuitive to nearly everyone else. I means that if you want to appeal to a wide audience you must position yourself in a narrow, specific way. Its corollary is that if you try to be a lot of things to a lot of people, you will be nothing to nobody. A friend read the phrase and told me about an old radio commercial that began: “Men! And that includes you girls.”

Another, similar saying: “Positioning is the art of sacrifice.” In other words, done right, great positioning is subtractive in nature, not additive. The road is filled with tough sacrifices you must make if you are to achieve a narrow focus.

Think of real life. The people we admire most are those who stand for something specific. They have a point of view and it’s simply not negotiable. The people who get the attention of the media (for better and sometimes for worse) are also those with a strong, specific and narrow point of view.

In marketing as well as life, it takes nerve to position narrow, which is perhaps why entrepreneurs are so much more successful at it than professional brand managers. Positioning narrow entails finding your core audience, understanding it and building a sustainable relationship. Once you’ve done that, you can enlist that core to help the rest of the world “discover” you.


Ideally, then, you want a core audience that is inspirational to others. Nike is a great example of this. It’s clear to everyone on the Nike campus and across the marketplace that Nike is a brand for the high-performance, highly competitive athlete. That said, Nike also knows that about 80 percent of its shoes are worn by people like me, often simply to go grocery shopping. Why do we buy high performance shoes if we live low-performance lives? Because we all think we have a bit of that high-performance athlete in us. And because we all feel we need to be ready and equipped to perform, even if we never do.

Nike’s message? Don’t confuse your core customer with your target market.

That said, within the organization, we first want everyone to know we are building our brand for our core customer. This is important because we want every employee to know the people for whom they are designing products, experiences and marketing. Ideally, we want everyone to have a single customer in mind. Why? Because life is so much simpler when you are designing for a solitary person instead of a faceless demographic. Ideally, we want every single employee working on the same product experience to have that same individual in mind. The long term goal, of course, is to have everyone outside the organization also understand the individual we are building for- and we want them to aspire to be more like that person.

Once all of this is in place, we then want to reach out to those who can best help us achieve our objectives. This might be limited to our core audience (remember the need for critical mass), but it might just as easily be directed toward those legions of undecided buyers.

In practice, this means our core audience is unequalled in importance. They are the people we are working for, the people for whom our brand is built. With luck, others aspire to be more like them. But that is a completely separate issue from identifying our target market when it comes to communication. In other words, target narrow, reach wide.

Cadillac New Logo

When Cadillac moved to restage its brand, which was (accurately) stigmatized as being only for old folks, the first thing the company did was design a product that would appeal to younger drivers. Cadillac hit pay dirt when rap stars began snapping up the Escalade, and the marketing team quickly saw the opportunity to position the model as the prestige SUV of the hip-hop set. This opened the door to the brand embarking on a massive shift toward high-performance luxury cars that continues to this day.

googleIn what may be the whopper of all narrow product positions, Google has specialized in and come to own a simple idea: Search. In the early days of Google, lots of “expert” commentators criticized this model as limited and overly specialized. But we’ve all now come to see that Search, by sucking away advertising dollars from every industry (all while appearing completely benign) was the killer application to end all killer applications. as we continue to expand our use of the Internet, search will be the one unifying “tool” that almost all activities pass through.

If Google teaches us anything, it is to not confuse how narrowly you position your offering with the ultimate size of your business. Indeed, it’s often an inverse relationship: the narrower the position, the broader the ultimate audience. Just look to Google- the narrowest and simplest of positions, and the widest of all catches.

Position narrow/ catch wide also applies to corporate communications. Way too much PR, advertising and point-of-sale copy is written with the belief that it is possible to convey complex information to its target audience. It almost never works. Not because the audience isn’t smart enough, but because it isn’t interested enough. Instead, you have to focus the message, whatever that message might be. As I used to tell clients when I worked in advertising- you can say whatever you want, but it’s only what they hear that counts.

Strategy, positioning and communication: in their best forms they are all acts of sacrifice.

Stay tuned- next time Austin shares how to Own your new position


Love Me or Hate Me- Just Don’t Like Me

Monday, July 14th, 2014

Positions polarize.

What you don’t do and what you’re willing to give up is often more important that what you do and keep. Don’t be afraid. The better you are at creating a strong, clear brand position, the more likely you are to find a group of people who really don’t like you. As Bill Cosby once said, “I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.”


The And1 website used to feature an extreme example of this point. Addressing the meaning behind its name, the basketball apparel company announced: “If you don’t know what it means, we don’t want you wearing our shoes.”

It’s like life: the only way to have everyone like you is to avoid taking a controversial stance on anything. If you are willing to be anything to anybody- to surrender your identity and your individuality- no one will have strong feelings about you either way. You won’t stand out to anyone and you won’t offend anyone. You simply won’t matter. Is that the fate you want?

In business, a dull existence means a weak brand. If you want some people to love you, you’ve got to accept that others may hate you. With your company clamoring for new customers and more business, it takes a certain amount of nerve to deliberately ignore people that many within your organization might consider prospects.

After an American took second place in the Olympics, Nike CEO Phil Knight was quoted as saying,”He didn’t win the silver, he lost the gold.” Polarizing? You bet. Clear positioning? Hell yes! Nike is unabashedly a culture built around winning, and if you can’t take the heat you have no business in that kitchen. Maybe it wasn’t the most sensitive thing to say. Perhaps Mr. Knight would like a do-over on that quote. But more likely not.

Can you find fault with this kind of corporate culture? Definitely. Is this a culture for everyone? Definitely not. Do you know exactly where this company and brand stand? Most emphatically yes.


Eastern Mountain Sports (EMS) is an example of a retailer that completely lost its way. EMS started out as a genuinely hardcore outdoor retailer for genuinely hardcore outdoor types. But in an attempt to drive revenue, the thirty-seven-year-old company repositioned itself as a mainstream outdoors retailer, stocking its shelves with lots of soft, fleecy and approachable stuff. Well, no surprise: the new me-too retailing didn’t drive revenue. Enter, in 2003, new CEO Jim Manzer, who described EMS at the time as a “Gap with climbing ropes.”

Manzer understood positioning and he definitely understood the need to be different. In the years since taking over, Manzer has taken the company back to its original position, beginning with restoring the hard-core outdoor culture within the company and creating a much more authentic retail experience. Polarizing? You’d better believe it.

EMS makes me think of a new business pitch we once made to Eddie Bauer when I ran Cole & Weber. The meeting spun out of control when I began arguing with the then-head of marketing. The rest of my pitch team was appalled. We had just made a very strong case for the unique and therefore truly differentiating characteristics of the Eddie Bauer brand. I was informed politely that I didn’t really get retail, and that success could only be found in becoming more like Gap (and other similar retailers). I responded that America already had a Gap and didn’t need another one. In my mind I definitely won the argument, but we most definitely lost the pitch. (Did you know arguing with a potential client is not an approved new-business approach?)

And though I lost the battle, Eddie Bauer ultimately lost the war. Arguing may not work in new-business pitches, but “me-too” doesn’t work in marketing.

Polarization is good. Traveling the middle road, tempting as it may be, is always and unequivocally bad. Like people, brands a defined by the company they keep. But they’re also defined by the company they don’t keep.

Stay tuned for more tips to help hold or pivot your position from Austin McGhie, Sterling Strategy


Invent, Don’t Construct

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

Analysis is great, but creating true differentiation is essentially a leap of faith.

Differentiation is seldom achieved purely through analytical rigor. Analysis and incrementalism still have their place in business, just not in the actual creation of differentiation.

The answer is to know everything. Strive to be more analytically rigorous than your competitors but also assume they’re looking at the same data and probably arriving at very similar conclusions. As heard in the movie The Incredibles: “When everyone is super, no one is.”

So go ahead and build that mountain of information. After that, climb to the summit and look around. Then leap off. Use science to get  you to the top, art to guide your leap.

That which is static and repetitive is boring. That which is dynamic and random is confusing. In between lies art.

John Locke

Two well-known books by Malcolm Gladwell (Blink) and Michael LeGault (Think! Why Crucial Decisions Can’t Be Made in the Blink of an Eye) illustrate this point: you need to think before you blink. You are suicidal if you don’t use every ounce of analytical rigor you have to solve your strategic problem, but you’re delusional if you think that analytical exploration is sufficient for business success. Conversely, anyone who tries to build a business on a “golden gut,” without taking the time to explore actual market data, is a fool.

Information is critical but it’s also ubiquitous. Analysis is a given. True brand differentiation and sustainable advantage can only be found and created in one place: your imagination.

Another weakness of using analysis alone is that it tends to lead you toward so-called red oceans (red because of all the competitive blood being spilled). In other words, when you are led by things you can measure, you tend toward spaces that can be measured- and those spaces are inevitably already overbuilt. Such spaces are almost always red oceans. Blue oceans, on the other hand, are not well measured, and no amount of pure analysis will lead you to them. (Read Blue Ocean Strategy by W.Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne)

This all sounds good, maybe even a bit inspiring. But most marketers operate within large organizations and those organizations aren’t known for following the intuitive leaps of their marketers. Once you’ve made that leap you need to put your analytical hat back on and construct a bridge from the top of that information mountain to wherever you landed. Sorry, but that’s the way it works: to justify your recommended strategy, you will be asked to compare your intended path to paths taken by others- even though the only really successful path with be the one that takes a completely different route (and thus can’t be measured).

To reiterate: analyze the hell out of the situation, make your intuitive leap, and then find the analytical path that connects your landing spot back to wherever you jumped from.

Finally, if you can’t handle paradoxes you may want to stay out of marketing.

Check back in next week for more straight talk on positioning from Austin McGhie, Sterling Strategy


Don’t Be a Prisoner

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014


It’s easy to become a prisoner of your point of view.

Two very smart people from two very different worlds made this crucial point in different ways. Not surprisingly, one was Steve Jobs. In a 2005 interview with Fortune magazine about companies that were (or weren’t) on top of the move to digital music, he noted: “Some companies are prisoners of their point of view.” (Typically Jobs: small statement, big point of view. That’s just one reason he’s already missed so much.) Ted Levitt made more or less the same point in “Marketing Myopia” a renowned Harvard Business Review article published in 1960. In it, Levitt argued that corporations (and sometimes entire industries) are held prisoner by how they define their market.

Early train and bus companies, for example, defined their business in terms of trains and buses rather than transportation and thus missed out on flight. Similarly, old film studios defined their business as movies instead of entertainment and missed out on television. More recently, Barnes & Noble and Borders defined their business as mere bookstores for far too long and were “Amazoned.”

No doubt Jobs had an ulterior motive for his statement (didn’t he always?), in that he needed consumer electronics manufacturers and others to jump on the let’s-make-great-entertainment-products-that-run-off-the-iPod-brain bandwagon. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t right.

Kids today find the idea of buying and carrying around plastic containers filled with CDs remarkably quaint. They also increasingly find the physically buying and renting of movies to be curious behavior. Music and movies will stay digital, and a very large industry is growing up around their storage, discovery, delivery and consumption. Companies that embrace this transformation will prosper, while those in denial will fail.

Blockbuster defined its business as “physically rented movies.” Despite the sheer size of the franchise at its peak, that definition still put Blockbuster on a very short runway to oblivion. On the flip side, if MGM (the casino and entertainment MGM, not the film studio) had limited itself to gambling instead of branching out into other areas of adult entertainment, it would be a much smaller and more vulnerable business than it currently is.

So be careful. The seemingly simple act of defining the business you’re in can have a profound impact on your strategy- from the business model all the way through to brand and marketing strategy. Defining your business serves to define your competitive set. Most people have a tendency to define their business, and therefore their competitive set, too tightly. They then pay the price when their business is “disrupted” by someone they didn’t even consider competition.

Spend time on this most basic question and spend that time early. Don’t wait for a crisis and never leave it to others to determine when you get around to addressing it. Bring in outsiders for the express purpose of torturing the logic of your market definition.

Finally, if you created an apparently successful strategy and you’re still around because it’s been working, task a couple of young Turks to show you why it’s all wrong. I speak from experience- it’s a case of losing objectivity through strategic ownership. Like it or not: if you’re the author of a strategy, you can also become a prisoner of it.

Define your business, and define it carefully. But consider that definition malleable and invite others to challenge it. Listen. Then create an organizational environment where people are rewarded for challenging the status quo. If someone successfully challenges your status quo before an unseen competitor does, he or she may well save the company.

Tune in for the next installment on shaping your brand strategy from Austin McGhie, head of Sterling Strategy


Defining Innovation

Wednesday, June 18th, 2014


In a recent interview over at, Debbie discussed what drives innovation with Senior Curator for the Museum of Modern Art, Paola Antonelli.

Click here to see the interview

And learn all about Sterling’s own Innovation team by clicking here


Creating Powerful Structural Design for Powerful Brands

Monday, June 16th, 2014

Founded in 2010 under the leadership of DeeDee Gordon, the Innovation Group has grown into a substantial team of practitioners, ranging from strategists and researchers to designers and trend experts. DeeDee’s latest addition is a group of brilliant structural and industrial designers. This is a first for Sterling Brands.

“This is a natural evolution of where our practice needed to go, but frankly, it came from client demand. For that reason, we’ve decided to offer a new suite of capabilities,” DeeDee explains.

The structural design process is highly involved, from engaging with clients and finding out what their needs are, to investigating the needs of end users through in-depth consumer research, to creating unique design concepts to handing off plans to engineers.

We’d like to introduce you to our core team:

Erin Jacobs Mays, Bart Haney, Theresa Chiueh and Jonathan Abarbanel.

These dynamic designers and engineers are fully equipped to deliver the smartest solutions in structural design, bringing with them a wide range of experience that they draw from everyday. Everything they do is informed by sharp consumer input, which is harnessed to design products that resonate.

Erin Jacobs Mays (Vice President, Strategy) has 6+ years of experience in leading design strategy and research programs for a broad range of product innovation clients. She holds dual undergraduate degrees in Design and Anthropology from UCLA, and an MBA in Design Strategy from CCA. She received the ISDA 2011 Silver IDEA Award for her S Series With Sweep™Technology hearing aid project. She uses research to identify business opportunities for clients based on consumer needs and market opportunities.

Erin explains the team’s process for creating smart structural design.

“We have all the hardcore, concrete skills to go from concept and pure ideation all the way through to something that can be absolutely manufactured by working with actual manufacture plans and R&D teams.”

Bart Haney (Senior Vice President, Design) is a versatile designer with a breadth of skills across packaging, digital, product, and graphic design. He created brand-building innovations at Yves Behar’s Fuseproject. He’s worked with startups as well as Fortune 500 companies, and teaches Industrial Design at Art Center College of Design.

Bart recognizes that everything the Innovation Group does is highly informed by in-depth consumer research.

“The juicy part for us in the research is not what people tell us, but the gaps between what they tell us, and what we observe. Nobody will tell you a feature they want for something, but when you watch somebody do it and you see this point where they kind of frown or it’s not a good experience, those become places for us to take action.”

Theresa Chiueh (Managing Director) has 20 years of experience in product development and innovation. She holds a BS in Mechanical Engineering from MIT and an MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management. Before joining Sterling Brands, she worked at Continuum, where she co-founded and managed their LA studio.

Theresa knows that the whole team can really flex their creative muscles when presented with technical constraints.

“That makes it a really fun puzzle for us to solve, is how can we convey the newness or update a brand through the actual aesthetic design, and then functionally how can we create a package that works not just for consumers but also for our clients’ manufacturing processes.”

Jonathan Abarbanel (Design Director) has worked as a fine/technical artist, music producer/remixer, industrial designer, and design creative director. He received the IDSA 2006 Gold IDEA Award for his CityBike Amsterdam project.

For Jonathan, every aspect of structural design is a response to what’s discovered in research.

“When I’m leading other designers, I’m totally infused with all the learnings from the research. I use that to guide all of the design work that carries forth, and I make sure that all the features that get in there like switches or a shape or a texture have some reason you can point to in the research. That’s when we’ve done it successfully, when we can do that and the client’s like ‘oh yeah, I get it.’”


The Importance of the Missionary Position

Monday, June 16th, 2014

[Although this chapter is primarily for single of master-branded companies, and less for portfolio companies such as packaged goods firms, I like to think that it has something for everyone]

True differentiation runs deep.

In some companies, the product is seen as the visible reflection of the culture- and, as customers, we sense it.

What we think of as the brand often seems more like a simple lens through which we can experience the tightly focused culture behind it. As customers, we don’t think this cultural connection through very deeply; we just kind of feel it and sense it to be true. Thus, when we sense a culture that we identify with, we also sense a brand we can identify with (and the other way around).

We sense a product or service we want to participate in, not simply buy.

Most important, when we actually do come into contact with this type of culture, the uniqueness and strength of the brand is tangible. You can breathe it; you can almost touch it.

To achieve this, you must build your brand on the inside before connecting with a culture on the outside. Great brands have a sense of mission. They live their mission; they don’t just mouth the words. When you buy the product or service, you are buying into this sense of mission. You are participating with the provider, not just buying from it. These brands have true cultural uniqueness. They have developed ways to “operationalize” this cultural uniqueness and harness it as a competitive advantage in the marketplace.

Consider this manifesto from the Burton Snowboards website:


-We stand sideways.

-We sleep on floors in cramped resort hotel rooms.

-We get up early and go to sleep late.

-We’ve been mocked.

-We’ve been turned away from resorts that won’t have us.

-We are relentless.

-We dream it, we make it, we break it, we fix it.

-We create.

-We destroy.

-We wreck ourselves day in and day out and yet we stomp that one trick or find that one line that keeps us coming back.

-We progress.


Think they know what they’re all about? Burton is an original. As a business and as a culture, Burton is a pure celebration of difference.

It’s easy to look at companies like Burton and think that they’re totally unlike your company- that they are an edgy, passionate business that operates in an edgy, passionate category. As a result, it’s easy to think that your category is just not that exciting. But that is cheating. It’s your job to find the drama. Find the passion and bring it! Find a way to apply it to your category and into the very heart of your company’s culture. It is your job to create and maintain a sense of mission. Granted, your job will be harder than that of your counterpart at Burton, who enjoys a supportive and focused corporate culture, but you can’t give up on it.

As an example, take a look at a software firm called SAS, which is consistently rated one of the best companies to work for in America. CEO Jim Goodnight honestly views the SAS workforce as a family. Extensive employee services, including daycare, education and recreation, are all available at SAS’s North Carolina campus. People who work at SAS appreciate the unique culture they belong to, and many talented people who don’t work there would like to. SAS’s culture and moral compass are what really drive its revenue. Low turnover and high morale also drive the company’s top line- and contribute to the bottom line as well.

The same is true of Costco. Costco treats its people well: It pays them better than others in the industry and provides them with a better benefits package. Happy employees, extremely low turnover and a dynamic growing business with a very loyal customer base- coincidence? Not on your life. A brand built from the inside out? Absolutely.

Put simply, there are no terminally dull categories or products. It’s just a question of determination and imagination- and this is the vitally important point that all marketers need to get into their heads. Sometimes the “idea” or “drama” is right in front of your eyes, and sometimes it may seem impossible to find. But you should always assume it is there. Create your brand’s mission. Build your brand and company culture around it. “Operationalize” it.

If it’s real and if it runs deep, a culture-based competitive advantage will stand the test of time. By comparison, a product- or service-based advantage, while also critical to success, will prove more transitory.

I know, I know. That’s easy to say and hard to do. But at least give it a shot.


Check back for more positioning POV from Austin McGhie, head of Sterling Strategy


Now UP! on Design Matters…

Tuesday, June 10th, 2014

Great conversations with Dani Shapiro and Noah Brier!

design matters

Dani Shapiro is the bestselling author of the memoirs Devotion and Slow Motion, and five novels including Black & White and Family History. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, One Story, Elle, The New York Times Book Review, The Los Angeles Times, and has been widely anthologized.

Noah Brier uses the web to understand the world — every encounter with information is a potential web waiting to be untangled. He is the co-founder of Percolate and was last head of planning and strategy at The Barbarian Group. He’s also the co-founder of creative coffee meet-ups likemind that happen globally, and the builder of many amazing websites.

Check them out here<<


Differentiated Advantage

Wednesday, May 28th, 2014

Without a doubt, positioning your brand starts with difference- but there are many ways to be different. In fact, any idiot can be different. The trick is to be different in a way that is highly relevant to your audience. Different in a way that creates competitive advantage. Advantage that is, over time, as sustainable as possible.

All of which to say- it’s not easy.

You’re playing the game to win. To win, you need to be better than everyone else who is also playing to win. Generally, we marketers get this fact. We’re very prepared to play to win, but we’re not so prepared to be truly different. Why?

Let’s blame the system. Most of us grew up with similar names, dressed in similar clothes, went to similar schools. We ‘manage’ our differences lest our peers find us strange. We make fun of the odd ones. We fit in. This is why most of our highly differentiated brands were created by oddball entrepreneurs. They grew up different. They thought different. There were different. And therefore they created highly differentiated products and services.

But I digress.This is about advantage as much as it is about difference.

Difference + Advantage = Differentiated Advantage.

If you look at Batman, he’s different because he actually went out and built his own powers. He’s a self-made superhero. But does anyone care? Turns out that kids do, in fact, care. As a result, the Batman brand can position itself through differentiated advantage.

Apple is different because of its elegant design fusion of software and hardware. Bill Gates didn’t think people would care enough about this to overcome a superior business model. He saw it as a profound disadvantage, in fact, and he was almost completely correct- but Steve Jobs took that ‘almost’ and ran with it. More, recently, some have questioned whether, in a cloud-based content world, anyone would care about elegantly designed devices. But play with an iPad, then with a Kindle Fire- you’ll care. Apple is different. Apple is better. Apple has differentiated advantage.

It’s great that Dyson carpet cleaners (and now heaters) are different, but they are designed in a way that is both different and better. It’s nice that Virgin Airlines wanted to create a unique flying experience, but it succeeded because that experience was markedly better than that offered by traditional airlines. Hybrids were clearly a different kind of car, but until Prius designed a better kind of car, that difference was without meaning.

In the eyes of your customers, better but not different can still win the race, but it’ll be hard-fought every inch of the way. Different in a way that your customers don’t perceive as better won’t take you very far.

Difference + Advantage = Differentiated Advantage = Great Positioning

Austin McGhie is head of Sterling’s Strategy team and author of Brand is a Four Letter Word. Stay tuned over the coming weeks for more humble advice on the art of positioning.