Archive for the ‘The 3rd Button’ Category


Unboxing a More Beautiful World

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2015

This article first ran in the December 2, 2015 issue of MediaPost’s MarketingDaily.

The plethora of YouTube videos and the celebrity status of popular unboxers has made unboxing a wildly popular topic. But in all the frenzy, and with all the eyeballs on the moment of opening a new product, there’s actually very little attention paid to the shipping box itself.

In today’s world of delivery overload, it’s time we reconsider the ordinary brown cardboard box, giving it a branded life of its own. After all, the moment of unboxing is a highly emotional experience, with anticipation and excitement making it feel like the opening of a very special gift. With growing opportunities in delivery and shipping to consumers this holiday season, shipping boxes could very easily become the last frontier of package design.

Package as “ad space”
The Minions’ Amazon takeover last spring proved this could be a new, viable revenue stream for the retailer, by using the shipping box as one would any other ad space. As an entry point for brands looking to reach a mass audience with ownable packaging, it’s a smart move given the popularity of online shopping. But is selling your box as an ad space to the highest bidder the best way to leverage this untapped blank canvas? The key is not just slapping on any ad willing to pay, but to elevate the role of shipping packaging to what it really is: The ultimate branded gift-wrapping experience.


Branded “wrapping”
Imagine a Chanel handbag arriving in a Karl Lagerfeld-designed shipping box, complete with a personalized note or preview of the new collection, or the next Dollar Shave Club kit arriving in a Shinola-designed box, bringing a new level of craftsmanship to the monthly delivery. The packaging space becomes much more appealing and important when it’s tied to the contents; either by creating a link between two like-minded brands, or by bringing elements of surprise and delight to the customer.

Geo-targeted, personalized packaging
If shipping is the new retail, then why shouldn’t shipping materials become more personal? With the ability to target by region, city and even zip code, a more targeted message can be delivered to areas or individuals. Supermarket deliveries from brands like Fresh Direct or Peapod could be wrapped with information about local events or promotions. Or, in advance of a special occasion like Mother’s Day, you could design the outer package of those chocolates you send to Mom. The trend of customization and personalization should find its way to the outside of your shipping box.

Limited edition packaging
Your shipping orders could even become a venue for special guest wrappers — celebrities, fashion designers, or luxury brands — to create a more premium feel and tap into the idea that anything “limited” is more desirable. Golden foil wrapping for the holidays, brought to you by Beyoncé, or a velvet-textured delivery for that special someone on Valentine’s Day, designed by a Victoria’s Secret Angel. Creating a tactile experience out of a regular cardboard box is one way to ensure the enjoyment of the gift inside.

Repurposed packaging
If you open your mind to the possibilities of design on the outside of a cardboard box, a future where these lovely boxes are repurposed and reused in many ways doesn’t seem so far-fetched. Boxes that have aesthetic appeal can be reused for another shipment, or something playful like a bookend, jewelry box, or even furniture. They could even have a modular function, morphing into various shapes and sizes, giving you endless possibilities, while being more eco-friendly.

While we’re still quite a ways away from eradicating the drab and boring cardboard box we’re all used to, the potential for infusing some design and aesthetic appeal is there. Imagine a world where the standard delivery truck is filled with an assortment of beautifully colored and wrapped gifts, or where garbage day in your local neighborhood suddenly looks like a roadside rainbow of carefully wrapped and branded packaging. I predict the careful reconsideration of the ubiquitous shipping box will bring a little more joy to shippers and receivers, while potentially inspiring less disposal and even more camera time.

Eva Rebek is director of design intelligence in Sterling’s New York office.


Why We Brand, Why We Buy

Friday, August 14th, 2015

Have you ever thought about what drives your desire to buy things? Any thought given to why we brand things? Those are two questions Debbie set out to answer when she began an anthropological quest back in 2005. What got her started? A simple question about the most popular brand on the planet at the time. Check out her recent presentation at Khosla Ventures, one of Silicon Valley’s largest venture capital firms, as she describes her findings.


New Work: Café for Change

Friday, August 14th, 2015

CafeForChange_CoffeeCup-01Did you know that your next cup of coffee could help eradicate poverty in coffee-producing countries? With more than $175 billion of coffee consumed globally every year, the industry generates tens of billions of dollars for their importing countries, but very little of it goes back to the more than 26 million growers. As a result, most of the people that depend directly or indirectly on coffee production live in poverty or extreme poverty, with little hope for change. Even with the best fair trade deals, coffee growers’ share is less than one cent per cup. CafĂ© for Change, an organization founded just last year, is working to change that, and we worked with them to get the brand off the ground. We worked on the brand idea of creating a fair and just world for all producers. The brand identity, featuring a coffee bean, beautifully emphasizes the need for change in the industry. The supporting visual identity system is modular, allowing for the brand to be used digitally, on packaging, and for other similar crops, like tea and chocolate, so they can generate their own movements.


Six Trends Corporations Are Paying Attention To

Thursday, August 6th, 2015

Ever wondered how brands are able to influence business and culture?

PBS Newshour recently spoke with Deedee Gordon, Sterling’s President of Innovation, to better understand how certain trends will shape and reshape the products and services already in our lives. Using insights from On The Future, our 2015 trends report, Deedee discusses how gender fluidity, frugeois and bulklash will shake things up.


If It’s Not Important Enough to Win, You’ll Lose

Monday, June 1st, 2015

Competition is tough and often brutal- it’s not for the faint of heart or politically correct.

In my early days as a packaged goods marketer, I remember the annual high stakes game of writing the marketing plan. We always segmented our plan into the different elements of the marketing mix. If we were smart, we also prepared a section on the competition. The problem was that we tended to report on the competition as if it were an object fixed in time and space. An object with a brain, perhaps, but just not as smart or creative as we were. An object largely built of facts and figures rather than any real understanding and empathy.

One year I wised up. I created three teams to represent our three major competitors. Each team consisted of managers representing finance, sale, R&D, marketing and ad agencies. Each had two weeks to go to school on its designated competitor an learn all it could until it became that competitor. The final task was to outline a ten-point plan to attack our business.

We set up a two part competition: the team that compiled the most interesting and useful information won the first part; and the team that created the best ‘kill our business’ plan won the second part. We made the competition fun because annual planning is never fun.

The results were amazing- I was stunned by how much we had learned. We found out so much that I started to become concerned about legal liability.

The second phase was even more interesting. There is a huge difference between writing a page on a competitor and actually becoming that competitor in a no-holds-barred way. The 10 point plans highlighted some of our key weaknesses on the home front and were very instructive on the steps we needed to take- immediately- to ensure that they weren’t put into place by our competitors.

I believe the brands that succeed look at the marketplace in just this manner.

Here are some historical examples of fierce competition that won:

-Remember Pepsi taste tests? Pepsi’s marketers had limited success with cultured and creative campaigns, so they rolled up their sleeves and took out the brass knuckles with a blind taste test that proved consumers preferred Pepsi on pure taste. Not only did this simple approach bypass expensively produced ads, but it caught Coke completely off-guard and unable to adequately retaliate.

-I love what Budweiser advertising did a few years ago. Miller had introduced an ad campaign featuring football refs taking Bud away from people and replacing it with Miller. Bud promptly countered with ads showing police capturing the refs running away with the stolen Bud, revealing that they planned to drink it themselves. Miller eventually retreated to a less competitive plot. A trivial example, perhaps, but it shows how a dominant brand can make creative use of its power to remind the competition just who is in charge of the game.

In sum, be competitive. Be very competitive. Be like Phil Knight of Nike. Think like Yoda: “Do or Do Not. There is no Try.” The competition want to eat your lunch. Each theirs first.

Austin McGhie is head of Sterling Strategy


Now UP! on Design Matters…

Wednesday, May 27th, 2015


This week, Debbie interviewed illustrator Chris Ware on the podcast!

Tune in here<< to learn about the first cartoonist to win a literary prize and the first cartoonist chosen to regularly serialize in The New York Times Magazine.


Marketing is Judo, Not Karate

Monday, May 4th, 2015

For the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing some general thoughts that I’d like to convey to marketers – let’s call this section ‘Just Thoughts,’ and thanks for indulging me.

-Austin McGhie


Unless you have unlimited resources, lots of time and a penchant for failure, do not fight your marketplace. Figuratively speaking, marketers should always try to avoid using “karate”- that is, fighting force with force. Instead, they should use “judo”- finding the momentum that already exists in the marketplace and using it to their advantage.

How do you practice marketing judo? Fit what you want the customer to think and feel into what the customer already thinks and feels. Anything is better than trying to “convince” a customer to change his or her mind.

Here are a few examples to illustrate my point:

-For years, Kellogg’s spent its marketing dollars on core brands like Corn Flakes. But when the high-fiber craze erupted, money was shifted into All Bran and Raisin Bran. Business went through the roof.

-A few years back, Toyota saw high gas prices in our future. Prius effectively “owns” the hybrid idea because Toyota shifted with the broader “green” shift in customer attitudes just as that wave hit. Meanwhile, many competitors were still trying to push gas-guzzling SUVs and trucks.

Remember that radical new concepts may stimulate the marketer’s imagination, but if they don’t track for the consumer, they won’t track for the business.

For example, TiVo wasted a huge amount of money and time trying to convince us that we wanted some form of media revolution. All we wanted was a simple-to-use digital recorder.

Of course, if judo marketing was easy, everyone would be doing it. In fact, this technique requires that you really know your prospects, what they think and feel, and how they are reacting to the waves flowing through the marketplace. It requires that you know what those waves are and, most important, how to translate them into ideas that can drive your business forward. This takes a real commitment to market research- but research in the field, because it’s hard to spot shifts in the zeitgeist by hanging out at corporate headquarters.

Know your marketplace, know your audience, and know where the momentum lies. Then make your move… before somebody else does.

Austin McGhie is head of Sterling strategy


Market to the Brand Broadcaster: Are you tuned in?

Monday, April 27th, 2015

Marketers talk a lot about people we call influencers. Depending on the industry in which you work, you may hear them referred to as trend leaders, gadget geeks, early adopters/adapters or fashionistas. The implication is that there is a group of people in each market whose knowledge and passion for the category makes them worth more than their weight in gold thanks to the influence they can have on people who are not as “category involved” as they are.

Influencers might lead because of passion and knowledge, or they might lead because of status. Hip-hop artists are huge influencers across all kinds of categories, from cars to liquor to clothes. Movie stars can make or break brands.

These people, and others, influence us because they have access to media. They can easily broadcast their tastes.


But media is quickly being democratized by vehicles that go by such mash-up names as blog, vlog and podcast. Personal playlists can be marketable commodities. In theory at least, everyone can be a broadcaster of some kind. Anyone and everyone can lead- so long as others choose to follow you.

These days, broadcasters are simply people who pass on their thoughts, opinions and passions to others. The number of those others represents the order of magnification these broadcasters can bring to their ideas. They can help you disproportionately, but they can also hurt you to the same order of magnitude.

At some point, perhaps we’ll be assessing media plans on their “cost per broadcaster” as well as their “cost per point of purchase,” having long ago done away with such archaic terms as “cost per thousand.”

In many categories, these citizen broadcasters have become the most important population of influencers. Know what they look like, have someone dedicated to reading their blogs, and realize that broadcasters can work against you as easily as they can work for you.

Austin McGhie is head of Sterling’s strategy team


Now UP! on Design Matters

Friday, April 24th, 2015

There are a slew of new episodes of Design Matters now up at – Most recently, two delectable conversations with Steven Heller (who’s written a new book!) and food specialist Julia Turshen!


>>click here for a full list of episodes


Catch a Virus

Wednesday, April 8th, 2015

Word of mouth has always been the best marketing mechanism. It always will be the best marketing mechanism.

Just take a look at this chart from the UK’s Henley Centre, which puts numbers to something we inherently know.


This is not exactly news. People trust people they know more than people they don’t know. This is particularly true when the people they don’t know have a vested interest. And it is especially true if those people are involved in that nasty business of advertising.

Thanks to technology, word of mouth is on steroids. Technology makes word of mouth- these days called viral marketing- a very potent ally of great products and smart marketers… and a very potent threat to bad products and ham-fisted marketers.

If you look at marketing that goes viral as a bullseye model, you can see that as you move outward you find bigger circles of less influential people. Meanwhile, packed into the center are a group of super-influentials. Depending on your task at hand, these super-influentials might be anyone from a movie star to a rapper to a passionate person with a well-read blog.

beyonceBy definition, a marketing virus must start slowly and while you can start the process, your management of that expansion process ranges from loose to non-existent. Be patient.

A few additional things to always keep in mind:

-Recognize that going viral can be good or bad: Monitor the marketplace vibe. Pay for a good search tool to scan the web to alert you when people start to work against you and your strategy. Get on top of it early and often. Fight back, but softly and from a position of truth. If you try to bullshit someone in this arena, it most definitely will come back to haunt you.

-Understand that this type of marketing effort fits some tasks better than others: Marketing with the aim to go viral has a place within a surprisingly wide range of categories. It’s inexpensive, so go through the process of applying it to your business- then decide whether to actively use it as part of your larger marketing plan. Don’t dismiss it before you’ve fully explored its potential- but don’t ignore the potential harm that can happen if you’re not sufficiently on your guard. This type of marketing is definitely a two-way street.

A great example of a successful viral campaign was one organized by the folks behind the film The Blair Witch Project. The movie was average, at best, but because such a mystique had been built up around it before its premiere, by the time everyone realized what they were watching, it had already made more than $100 million.

Tellingly, there have also been a number of accidental viral marketing events. The television drama 24 had its hero use a specific cell phone number. Hard core fans of the show attempted to dial that number to discover, humorously, that the writers had used one of the crew members’ numbers. As the phone rang ceaselessly, crew and cast took turns answering. It was all very spontaneous, and it felt that way- and because of that, the number spread like wildfire on the web. Now you can find many more planned examples that followed in the footsteps of this happy accident- bridging product and fans with a genuine experience in connectivity.

Take these lessons to heart. Experiment. Be smart and be patient. With some truth and a lot of luck, your efforts will pay off.

Austin McGhie is Sterling’s head of strategy