Posts Tagged ‘advice’


Differentiation: It’s that simple. It’s that difficult.

Friday, April 18th, 2014

Strong products and services are highly differentiated from all other products and services.

Never has a sentence about marketing received more head nods and less true understanding than the sentence above. It’s a statement that has always been an accepted part of marketing lore, and one that became fact when Young & Rubicam actually spent the money, build their “Brand Asset Valuator” and proved it.

Relevant differentiation was found to be a leading indictor. (Any idiot can be different. The tricky part is to be different in a way that is relevant to your audience.) Traditional measures such as knowledge and esteem were found to be lagging indicators. These lagging indicators (the ones we seem to spend so much time and money tracking) degrade slowly and can  be artificially maintained through marketing expenditure or price discounting. Thus, by the time they start to fall off, you might already be in a ton of trouble.

I’ve always found it fascinating that the consumer packaged goods industry is so full of B-word job titles: Brand Directors, Brand Managers, Brand Assistants, etc. At the end of each year a lot of very smart brand people get their report cards. Revenues, cases, market share, profitability, distribution- the list is long and comprehensive. But the most important measures are usually nowhere to be found: Is your product or service differentiated in a way that is meaningful to your audience? And did that difference increase or decrease?

In most companies, astonishingly, differentiation isn’t even tracked. Keep in mind, the people behind all this are brilliant people; some are the superstars of the marketing and management world. Certainly they are smart enough to know that important things get measured- and that those things that are measured tend to show up in their evaluations and determine their bonuses. So if difference isn’t measured and case volume is, guess which one gets priority whenever they come into conflict (such as the end of the accounting year)? “You’ll weaken your brand position” almost always loses out to “If I don’t provide a deep discount and launch that line extension I won’t make my volume forecast.”

Brands are built by intelligent and creative marketing. Marketing is all about positioning. Positioning is all about differentiation. Track that differentiation and you’re able to track the creation and evolution of your brand. But don’t stop there. You should also track specific outcomes. For example, track the premium that people are willing to pay for your product over a generic product, and use the resulting data as a proxy for brand strength and use it- along with all the other business measures. An accurate and trended measure of differentiation can be a great tool (see Y&R about their Brand Asset Valuator), but simple measurement and accountability count most in the end.

When I was at Kellogg’s (pre-Brand Asset Valuator, and so long ago it hurts), we simply measured the value of our brands by comparing them to house brand equivalents. The difference in perceived value was measured once a year and then tracked. We were less interested in the absolute difference than we were in the trend. An upward trend meant good brand stewardship, while a downward trend meant poor brand stewardship and the need for intervention.

It really is that simple.

Tune in next week for more on creating real difference from Austin McGhie.


Sterling Buzz…

Friday, March 28th, 2014

Last night, Debbie was joined together on stage with design and creative influencers from Instagram, Apple and The New York Times at the In-The-House 4 event. The evening discussion gave an inside look on how the digital format has changed the course of design in the scope of culture, connectivity and content, from an in-house design team perspective. These lead creatives also gave valuable insight on the culture ‘in-house’ and getting your foot in the door at your favorite brand-homes.


Derek Scott of Instagram led off with a passionate talk on how pivotal the brand mission is in creating meaningful and follow-able content on a visually-driven platform. He presented an impressive list of membership and viewer stats that should make everyone stand at attention.

Instagram challenges brands to show us how they see the world, and as Derek said, it’s not always easy for brands to take this view of themselves. A few of the success stories he cited were Nike, Patagonia and Michael Kors.

korsFashion brands like Michael Kors jumped on the Instagram platform early, honing years of visual and artistic industry expertise.

Second up was Renda Morton.

Somewhat new to The New York Times, Renda gave up her studio overseas to become the product design lead there, and she strongly encourages you all to Subscribe. Additionally, Renda revealed some of the process behind the NYTimes website redesign in 2011, and then subsequent redesign after that one. The site is now device responsive, in that it adjusts to every format from laptop to tablet.  And just this week, in response to research about news content, the brand has rolled out a new app called NYTNow (read more about it here) that pushes early edition and late edition news briefs to extremely busy readers and also offers non-traditional news and entertainment stories written by a dedicated content staff.

One of the most interesting secrets revealed is that the NYTimes design team recently went through 116 design templates just for the top page of the web version of the paper. Clearly, more thought than ever is being put into presentation that pleases the new digital generation.

nytimes116 templates the New York Times’ digital product team explored for the top page, alone.

nytnowA peek at the new NYTNow app, which will be evolving with feedback from users.

And lastly, Joe Marianek spoke about his valuable experience becoming a ‘company man’ at Apple, and the enthusiasm every individual has for the brand inside the complex at Cupertino. Having worked agency side, in-house and now for himself at his newly established design firm in NYC, Joe gave students aspiring to take the leap into in-house some valuable interview advice.

Joe encouraged designers not to just walk into an interview with a portfolio filled with perfect works, but to also remember to include a design challenge, or even disaster, that struck in their former job or educational experience that they were able to solve. Design is all about problem solving.

joeJoe encouraged in-house designers not to get swept up in the occasional monotony of designing iterations of the same thing; rather to focus on the creativity and individual talents of the people you work with, and constantly find small innovations for more beautiful design solutions.


A Little Story About Strategy…

Thursday, February 27th, 2014


A client recently asked me what I thought was the key to strategy. It was such a nebulous question that I had to really think about it- which meant that I mumbled an acceptable response and then went away and actually pondered it. I called the client later to say I had considered his question further and concluded that the most useful way to think about strategy was as the art of forced choice.

The art of forced choice. What the hell am I talking about?

When forming strategy, we are faced with a set of choices. They may not advertise themselves as choices, but those who are good at strategy see them this way. You have to separate the small decisions from the larger ones, make the small ones quickly, and seriously deliberate over the larger ones. These decisions are choices. There are usually several wrong choices, a few right choices and possibly one game-changing choice. While the time isn’t always right to accept the higher risks inherent to a game-changer, the time is always right to know what those potential game changers might be.

In developing strategy our task is to gather all the input we need to drive strategic choice (otherwise known as research), then ensure that those choices are made in ways that create differentiated advantage. Every great position is the result of forced choice.

But here’s the problem: most people don’t like to make choices. Given the options of black or white, most people select gray. If you assume it’s always better to be gray and part-right than to be white and boldly wrong (though I think we could have an interesting debate on this), you can understand why the middle ground is the strategic space most frequently occupied. Too many managers are afraid to get it wrong. Everyone wants to succeed, but few are bold enough to make their choices with the clarity and courage required to form great strategy.

So here’s what you do: Assemble the choices facing you. Study them. Do whatever you need to make an intelligent decision. Then choose- keeping in mind that gray is an option only if mediocrity is the desired outcome.

Choose. Commit. Don’t look back.

Stay tuned from more from Austin McGhie next week, when he answers: “What the Hell is a Brand Anyway?”


A Plea for Doing Less

Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

It’s a busy world. We’re busy people. The busier we are the more important we must be. Right?

Sadly, pace and workload are connected to importance in too many business minds. Here’s what I’ve found, both in my own work and working with our clients- this is nonsense. Worse, it’s damaging- to people and to the businesses that employ them.

I see companies trying to do too much. That seems like a noble cause, but it’s not. They spread too few resources (people and money) across too many things. In marketing, those things fit many descriptions but, for simplicity, let’s call them “campaigns”.

And here’s what happens in the world of marketing- each of these campaigns is executed fairly well. Each of these campaigns gets some of the budget. Each of these campaigns ALMOST gets noticed by the target audience it’s directed against. These sins are perpetuated every day. Sins, because they are so wasteful. Wasteful of the money that is spent. Wasteful of the labor that goes into them. Wasteful of the pride that people would like to find in their success.

What if you did this?

Simply list all of these campaigns, in an order of priority based on the impact you think they can have on building your business. Then, starting with the first campaign, be ruthlessly honest about the time and money required to execute perfectly, with enough critical marketing mass to grab the attention of a reluctant and generally uninterested audience. Place that time and money against it, then move onto campaign number two and repeat the process. Combine the amounts and move onto number three. And so on, until you run out of time and money. Then STOP. Don’t do anything further. Focus every hour of effort and dollar of spending against executing that smaller number of campaigns perfectly.

You’ll see an immediate and positive impact on your business and culture, because:

1.) What you do will be done better – much better

2.) What you do will actually be noticed – in the real world – by your customer

3.) Your people will work less, but more effectively, and will have much greater pride in their work product

In short, everybody wins.

Try it, you’ll like it!

Austin McGhie, Sterling Strategy


Sterling Buzz…

Thursday, November 8th, 2012


We’re excited to share this great interview of Austin McGhie, our head of Strategy, on Intrepid Radio!

“You cannot brand anything unless you’re a Rancher. You position something and you become a brand…”

Tune in for the full broadcast: HERE

To learn more about Austin’s new book, click here.


My Kinda Sad Portfolio Story

Thursday, October 4th, 2012

This week and next, Imprint is asking the judges of the Print Portfolio Review to tell them about their own portfolios- specifically their first portfolios, and how they helped or hindered their early careers.

Click here to read Debbie’s story and other inspiring tales from great designers.



Sterling Buzz…

Sunday, July 1st, 2012


This past week, Forbes online shared design experts’ advice on crafting the best resume to get you ahead in your graphic design endeavors. Debbie Millman gave some great tips and even shared her resume from 1983!

Read the full story here.


Sterling Buzz…

Monday, June 18th, 2012


Austin McGhie talks with and expounds on the points of his new book: Brand is a Four Letter Word.

Q. What are the biggest mistakes designers make when undertaking a branding project?

A. First, as I say in the book, unless you’re a rancher, there’s no such thing as branding. You can’t just brand something. The idea should never be used as a verb. Brand is the prize. The outcome. It’s a noun. The actual work—the verb, if you will—is positioning.

The biggest mistake designers make is starting any design project without fully understanding that position. Great brands, like great people, have a strong, clear point of view. A world view that is theirs and theirs alone. Understand that POV. Feel it. Explore it.

Then, and only then, go to work.

To read more of this Q and A on how positioning affects marketing and design, click here.


Bringing Real Brand Value to the World

Tuesday, June 12th, 2012

From a global perspective, we’ve all read a lot in recent years about how companies are wrestling with how to best adapt and extend their established brands into the emerging middle class markets in those fast growing economies such as China and India.

At the center of the strategic debate around this issue lie two fundamental questions facing global brand owners:

  1. In an increasingly borderless and interconnected world, how much should the brand be ‘changed’ to meet the needs of this new consumer target without harming business and reputation in established markets?
  2. What are the new rules for operating a global brand with potentially different products and positionings, in a fully transparent world?

From a brand owners point of view, three favored solutions are emerging:

1. The introduction of new products specifically aimed at this new consumer target, for example:the LG Lucid smartphone and the Renault Logan automobile

2. The introduction of smaller sized, modified products with fewer features or ingredients:the Knorr Economica line and single sachets of Nescafé and Nestea.

3. The re-introduction of ‘dormant’ brands: Datsun is being relaunched in China and India in 2014 with a $6,000 vehicle.

And if the brand challenges haven’t been complex enough already, there is new evidence that the situation is going to get exponentially more complicated. Why?

Because, in addition to the slowing down in emerging market growth recently, the continuing economic stagnation in many established markets, especially those in western Europe, has resulted in a significant increase in the number of consumers living near or below the poverty line:

-In the US, this includes 15% of the population (or 46.0 million people)

-In Greece and Spain, the figures are over 20% of their populations

And as this group of financially hard-hit consumers grows in established markets, ironically, their needs and mindsets are beginning to align more closely with those middle classes in emerging markets. And although these two consumer groups come from very different start points, there is no denying that in terms of attitude and behavior, they are beginning to look more similar than different.

See what I mean by things are getting more complicated?

But I hear you say, “There are already a multitude of brands in established markets that are committed to delivering lowest prices…Wal-Mart, Ryanair, Aldi to name but three.” However, it is our belief that the ‘value’ segment in markets such as the US and Europe is about to undergo a revolution. It’s all feeling a bit too comfortable given the extreme economic and market disruptions that we continue to experience.

So what does this mean?

Quite simply that many of the products and services originally designed for those emerging fast growing markets (China/India) will now be targeted at the economically struggling markets (US/Europe).

For example, we all know just how “value-sensitive” the American consumer is and if we needed recent evidence, the J.C.Penney experiment certainly is further proof. So, just looking at the 46 million ‘poverty liners’ in America for a minute:

-Why wouldn’t many of those consumers be interested in a well designed, well equipped smartphone for $99.00?

-Why wouldn’t they be interested in owning a Datsun? For many in this group, a $6,000 car is an affordable proposition.

-Why wouldn’t this group be interested in food and beverage brands that adapt their size and their features or ingredients to the new value consumer?

So where does all this leave the brand owner? With some pretty fundamental marketing questions to answer, namely:

-What is going to happen to the value segment globally? Will the segment align as we predict? Will it develop differently?

-What’s our new value strategy? Do we develop separate value brands or do we adapt our existing brands to meet these new needs?

From my experience, many brand owners are still somewhat in denial and that’s not surprising. They have spent much of the past 20 years focused on ‘trading up’ and many of us drank that particular glass of kool-aid!!

But that was before the rebalancing of the world and the economic crisis that we are still experiencing. We need to change the conversation. We need to think ‘trading down’ and while this has horrible implications for brands, the even worse implications lie in wait for those who don’t act.

Value is being redefined around the world. And the simple fact is that we need the smartest brand brains to be addressing how to meet this new and emerging global phenomenon. It’s a huge challenge but at the same time a huge opportunity for those pioneers and innovators.

Simon Williams


Sterling Buzz…

Wednesday, September 21st, 2011

Debbie shares her advice for young artists with Shutterstock as the first featured Shutterstar!