Posts Tagged ‘advice’


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


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


It Takes a Village to Raise a Brand

Monday, March 16th, 2015

Great brands are built as much (if not more) by their audiences as by their managers. The manager can only create the stimulus; the audience filters that stimulus and provides a response. Only the marketplace can make your product or service into a brand. Participation is key.

What this means is that the brand marketer has to give up some control to his or her ‘community.’ In many categories, the marketer can be highly rewarded if a sense of shared ownership with the community is created.jordan

The Jordan brand is the best basketball shoe available, but that’s not why it’s such big business. It’s big because its community loves it. The community sustains the brand. Go online and tune into that community- you’ll be amazed by its attachment to it and involvement in its journey.

Smart marketers like Nike know they have to work with their community to build the brand. But they also know- though they don’t always like it- that they must give up some control of their destiny to that community. And needless to say, they must never, ever betray the trust of that community.

Your community isn’t naive. It knows you are in business to make money. It just needs to believe that you also have its best interests at heart. It wants to know that you truly share its passion.

communitybrands copy

eBay is a fascinating example of a closely integrated community building a business and brand. Part of the genius of the eBay model was that it had a massive network of unsalaried brand advocates and business strategists, all deliberately or inadvertently dreaming up ways to develop new revenue sources and deepen brand loyalty.

As eBay grew, its community has given way to a loosely aligned eBay ‘nation’ filled with thousands of communities that have built up around specific passion points. This online retail community mentality can and has translated to the successful launch of subsequent businesses- Etsy comes to mind- where brand engagement and brand success are reciprocal, born of participation and innate openness. This is a model integral to success in a technology-based marketplace.

Treat your brand as a village rather than a city. Assume everyone knows everyone else. You need to learn the language in order to be welcome. You need to get to know your brand’s village elders and meet with them. They are wise and passionate, and they love to tell the story of your brand as well as stories of the village.

Most importantly, don’t try to directly influence the community. Listen and learn from their conversations, and continue to share your passion in authentic, meaningful ways. Then watch as the village raises up your brand.

Austin McGhie is head of Sterling’s Strategy team


Assume You’ll Only Get One Shot

Tuesday, February 17th, 2015

“Having lost sight of our objectives, we redoubled our efforts.


If we don’t have the time to get it right up front, how is it that we find the time to fix it later? If there is a single message I hope to impart to you it’s this: don’t say anything, don’t do anything, until you’re convinced that you have everything right. Don’t execute a communications campaign (spending big money on ad space or time) unless you’re sure of your strategy and have perfected your tactics and tools.

Is your advertisement going to cut through the noise? If not, tell your agency the plan is on hold (as is some portion of their compensation) until it’s ready. The same goes for all areas of marketing communication. Needless to say, this approach will also add significant incentive for your communication partners to get it right.

Here’s the important part – the difficult part: Have the nerve to hold back until you feel the campaign/plan is perfect- until you have no reservations about it. There will be forces pushing for you to give the green light. Resist until you are ready.

Which seems like the more intelligent choice: To launch an acceptable campaign in May or launch a great campaign in July? It’s the difference of being invisible or getting noticed in the real world. It’s worth the wait. Try thinking of these as binary choices, between a 0 and a 1, because that’s closer to the reality of market impact than any incrementalist model.

Real marketing communication always does better when it moves from blunt instrument to scalpel. Blunt instruments need too much force behind them to work, whereas a scalpel just needs a perfect cutting edge. Start sharpening, and don’t cut until you find that edge.

Stay tuned for more from Austin McGhie, head of Sterling Strategy, on aligning your strategy with creative execution.


Happy 10 Years, Design Matters!

Thursday, February 5th, 2015


A decade before the so-called golden age of podcasting… Debbie Millman launched the world’s first podcast about design, armed with nothing more than an idea, a telephone line, and ample doggedness.”

This week we celebrate the 10th Birthday for Design Matters with Debbie Millman: a series of sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, always inspiring podcasts on design and the world affected by design.

Above: a portion of the poster Debbie designed, celebrating 10 YEARS of Design Matters

>>click here to keep celebrating


Your Customer is a Cynic

Thursday, October 16th, 2014

As a marketer, you are positioning something to someone. As we speak, that someone is changing his attitude. Changing her outlook. Some of that change is just a result of his or her last conversation with a friend and some is more deeply felt and therefore permanent. One permanent change is that consumers have increasingly adopted the attitude and behavior of professional cynics.

Blame it on the Internet. Blame it on the press or the school system. Blame it on Wall Street. Blame it on marketers who chronically over-promise and under-deliver. You can blame it on the government, too. The undeniable fact is that the modern consumer is a cynic. And this is definitely not a temporary state of affairs, a fleeting reaction to our times. Access to information and a broad range of perspectives is the real breeding ground for this cynicism- as it damn well should be.

People ‘Occupy Wall Street’ because they are losing faith in our institutions. The more they know about big business, the less they seem to like. In the words of GE CEO Jeff Immelt: “Businesses today aren’t admired. Size is not respected. There’s a bigger gulf today between haves and have-nots than ever before. It’s up to us to use our platform to be a good citizen. Because not only is it a nice thing to do, it’s a business imperative.”

Two points:

-The first is that in today’s market, product quality is less in doubt. The range of available quality is tighter. Big is no longer better. Meanwhile, small can mean handcrafted and suggest pride.

-Second, social consciousness is becoming a growing element of any purchase decision. With information availability comes transparency- the ability to see beyond the product and customer service walls of an organization to the values behind them. Share a company’s values and you are more likely to buy its products. Don’t share them and you are less likely to buy. Really dislike those values and you may actively work to convince others not to buy the product.

These days you have to respect and work with the cynicism of the marketplace. Respect the knowledge of your audience, and respect the healthy skepticism with which it views marketing.

To corrupt a much-used quote from David Ogilvy: “The customer is not a moron. The customer is you.”

Austin McGhie is head of Sterling Strategy


Make Yourself Famous

Wednesday, October 1st, 2014

“I’m gonna live forever. Baby, remember my name.” - Irene Cara, Fame

It’s okay; admit it. You’d like to be famous. You want to succeed. You want to make a difference. You want to win.

Well, act like it! I think that anyone with ambition wants to make a difference. That said, for some reason, most of us simply don’t act that way. We’re just not ruthless enough. We let politics, niceties, organizational structure and time itself get in the way of doing what it takes to win. We’ve all seen managers make the easier choice, one that leads to losing, instead of the tough decision that might lead to winning.

Over the course of a year, a senior marketer will face a host of little decisions and only a couple of make-or-break decisions. The trick is to make the small ones quickly and intuitively to only get the majority right- and then fix the minority that prove to be wrong. Bat above .500 on the small stuff and you’ll be just fine.

By comparison, you simply cannot get the big stuff wrong. Here, you have to be completely ruthless. Think about these decisions, but then make them boldly. Make them count for something. Make the big decisions in the right ways, and you could become famous. Always adopt that attitude, even if it’s unlikely that you’ll really become famous.

One illustration close to my heart is found in advertising.

I’m all for ongoing agency of record relationships – but it needs to be based on performance. Once every few years a business needs a brand new campaign, a campaign that could possibly transform the business. You’ve seen it happen in the past:

-McDonald’s turns a few syllables into a more contemporary position

-A real live Jack helps save Jack in the Box

-A gecko transforms the culture of an insurance company

-An introduction to The Most Interesting Man in the World pushes Dos Equis into the spotlight

-A new Old Spice Guy ressurrects a brand on life support

These campaigns can transform a business, but we also know that they are a distinct minority.

So when you arrive at an inflection point and need the campaign to make you famous, you need to be ruthless. For example, offer a couple million dollars to the top three creative agencies in the country. Better still, locate the top three creative teams in the country and make the offer to them directly. Winner take all. Once it successfully runs, thank the creators for their work, pay the winner, and tell your agency of record to get back to work.

On the other hand, if the winning campaign idea is merely good, and not the earthshaking concept you need, do not say yes. Start over, and over- until you are truly ready to make history.

Keep in mind this is an inflection point for the entire business. A chance to elevate. How can you not do everything possible to create this kind of marketplace leverage- including putting your maintenance agency on hold and rewarding one of its competitors for a great idea? Your job is to succeed, not to protect the feelings of your partners. Your partners are smart. They’ll get it, even if they don’t like it.

Austin McGhie is head of Sterling Strategy

Stay tuned as we turn to thoughts on the customer in the coming weeks…


Niche is Not a Four-letter Word

Monday, August 4th, 2014

Whereas the word brand often seems like a spiritual invocation, in many marketing circles the word niche is often spoken with derision and used as a put down.

As far as niche goes, perhaps the most egregious errors of judgement were made in the technology marketplace of the late 90s, when niche became a curse you placed on any idea you wanted to kill or competitor you wanted to insult. Niche companies just weren’t going to make it. Niche start-ups just weren’t going to get the needed venture capital. Niches were for small-time players, the fearful, people with limited vision.

Well, I have always loved niche brands, never forgetting that bigger can indeed be better, particularly in the old economy. Needless to say, however, the Web has changed the way we think.

In 2006, Wired Editor Chris Anderson published The Long Tail, which highlighted how universal Web access meant that even the most thinly sliced niches could still add up to significant business when physical restrictions were taken out of the equation. For example, part of the dominance of big media content has always been physically derived: Limited space on a television channel or with a cable operator. Limited space on your local cinema screen, in a video rental store, in a music store or on a bookshelf. By comparison, digital distribution, universal access and search tools have created unlimited usable space, which has begun to make for an absolutely fascinating media marketplace that will become even more compelling in the years to come.

Niche brands understand the “position narrow, catch wide” axiom of brand strategy. They have built a limited, but fervent following first. They own their segment and enjoy the higher margins that general accrue to smart niche marketers. It’s not a bad place to stay.

Yes, it’s true, businesses are, as the cliche goes, like sharks: If they stop moving forward, they’ll die. But moving forward and getting big are two very different things. Who says you need to be big? A VC will if you’re a start-up, which is why many of those VCs are fully responsible for killing businesses that would have survived their first downturn if they had been rigged to run in niche-mode rather than artificially scaled to run big. Once you’re publicly traded, the street will demand top-line growth- until you teach your shareholders to invest in your consistent profitability rather than your explosive growth.

Owning a highly profitable niche is a thing to be celebrated. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that it is a natural and evolutionary step to move out of that niche and compete on a larger and more competitive stage. For now, at least, you may be much better off staying just where you are. Also, keep in mind that several focused and successful niche plays might well offer the better path to higher revenue, higher margins and less risk exposure than one big, broad play.

Large packaged goods companies offer wonderful lessons about niches. Each year entrepreneurial start-ups create niche products that, either slowly or very quickly, build a loyal and passionate following. Once they get “big enough,” they are acquired by a larger packaged goods company in that category. Interestingly, if that same very successful idea had originally been created within the larger, acquiring company, it would have been deemed too small (or niche) to warrant the investment necessary to take it to market. Often, there isn’t the passion and patience in larger companies to build a niche brand, but there does seem to be the money to pay for that brand once it’s an independent success.

Case in Point:


In my early days of marketing at Kellogg’s, I once sat in a meeting and watched chairman Bill LaMothe get a hard sell on the idea of getting Kellogg’s into the manufacturing of private-label cereal.

He replied, categorically, that they would never do that on his watch. He believed that companies and manufacturing facilities could only accommodate one level of quality. If Kellogg’s were to attempt to make both high and low-quality cereal within the same factory, ultimately both would work their way to the middle. What would Kellogg’s stand for then?

LaMothe was happy to pass up a short-term opportunity to preserve the long-term health of his company. He also passed up a number of opportunities to diversify Kellogg’s through acquisition, taking a lot of criticism from analysts until all those other CPG acquisitions flopped. Bill LaMothe was a visionary. He knew Kellogg’s and its niche better than anyone alive, and the company is so much better today because of the revenue-limiting decisions he made along the way.

Remember, there’s nothing wrong, and a lot of things right, with truly excelling at one thing. Thinking small can actually be the best path to a big result.

Stop back in, next week, as Austin delves into the Joys of Disruption


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