Posts Tagged ‘brand strategy’


Now UP! on Design Matters

Thursday, April 24th, 2014


Michael P. Donovan and Nancye Green are founding partners of Donovan/Green, a brand strategy firm whose partners advise on brand strategy, identify opportunity and develop processes to achieve business objectives. Donovan/Green focuses its expertise on clients in media, real estate development, financial services, technology, consumer products, entertainment and design.

Check out their conversation with Debbie here<<


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.


A Brand is a Response, Not a Stimulus.

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014

Yes, I’ve made this point before, but as we marketers are great believers in repetition, I intend to keep at it.

A brand is a collective marketplace response, hopefully to the stimulus of a well orchestrated, focused and attention-getting marketing program. When you develop a compelling position and an associated strategy, you have gone a long way toward establishing the response that you’d like to elicit from your audience. But you still have to craft the stimulus.

And the stimulus doesn’t work in a vacuum, either. Rather, the stimulus operates in the medium of the customer’s mind, and that medium is in turn impacted by everything from the customer’s long and deeply held beliefs to what he or she had for breakfast an hour ago… So you’d better know them both intimately before you start constructing that stimulus. More on this later, but for now, to know your customers’ beliefs intimately means to know them personally. There’s nothing wrong with that big, quantitative U&A study or with customer segmentation research, but there’s no substitute for personally mixing it up with a few real live customers and prospects.

Once again: You don’t build a brand- your audience does. You don’t give a brand to the marketplace- you get a brand from the marketplace. Until the marketplace says you have a brand, you simply have a product. And there’s nothing wrong with having a great product or service. Just don’t mistake it for a great brand.


Stay tuned next week as Austin delves deeper into the art of Positioning


Want a Great Brand? Build a Great Product.

Monday, March 17th, 2014

You can only sell sizzle for so long. Sooner or later a person’s got to sit down and eat.

Over the course of a year, strategists from Sterling Brands conduct face-to-face interviews with some ten thousand people about brands. In one study in 2005, Sterling talked to teens across the country about which brands they felt were the “coolest.” Actually, the team introduced them as brands, but the teens consistently responded by calling them products. Keep in mind, these teens are some of the smartest consumers to ever walk the planet. They totally understood the concept of brand, but they invariably started with the quality of the product or service.

For example, the Sterling team talked to these teens about Microsoft. Now, if you’re an adult, that particular brand carries baggage. Back in the 90s, Microsoft was perceived as a bully. It cast FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) over the competition, then showed up late with a product in need of improvement. But to teens, Microsoft was about success, ubiquity and utility. For them, Microsoft worked, and it worked well; after all, it made their lives easier. To them- at least early in the new millennium- Microsoft was almost as cool a brand as Apple, but for wildly different reasons.

Then along came the iPod and the iPhone. We’ve literally stopped asking young people questions about which brands are most cool or “get you the most.” The answer is almost always the same: Apple. It gets boring after a while.

Sterling strategists also talked to teens about buying games. In one instance, they asked a boy what might influence him to buy a specific game once he was in the store. The response was, essentially: “You’d have to be an idiot, or an adult, to make your mind up in the store.” Pressed for more detail, the teen explained: “You go online and read reviews, look at a demo, email or IM your friends and then borrow the game if you can. If you can’t, you rent it. Then (and only then) do you put $50 in your pocket and go to the store.”

This chapter could also be called “U is for Utility.” Today’s customer, particularly the younger one, is all about utility. What can it do for me and at what price? Value has always been an implied and personal equation of utility over price. The difference is that today’s information technology makes the equation so much more transparent. Indeed, mobile apps are rapidly transforming information into a new form of entertainment.

With information ubiquitous and accessible from a variety of personal devices, your utility coefficient had better be higher than than of your competitors. Either that or you’d better have the infrastructure essential to support a lower price. You need to pick one road or the other, because information acts to take the middle road away.

To place this in perspective, one study found that just 4 percent of people said they would “stick with a brand if its competitors offered better value at the same price.” Maybe this percentage has always been really low (though I’ll bet it has dropped dramatically in recent years). But the scary fact is that now, whether using their computer at home or their cell phone while standing in the store aisle, customers know the exact price (and utility) difference.

This is critically important, as I still hear people wanting to talk about brand equity or brand essence as if it’s this free-floating construct. Any conversation that isolates the brand, separating it from product or service utility, ignores the realities of the marketplace- and thus risks a tragic outcome.

Stay tuned for more from Austin McGhie next week…


Great Brands Are Built from the Inside

Thursday, March 13th, 2014

If you can’t get it right on the inside, you’ll never get it right on the outside.

The strongest brands are built from the inside out. The brand simply reflects the culture of the organization in a focused way.

Once, when I presented a positioning strategy to a senior manager of a client company, he clearly felt let down. “Where’s the magic?” he asked. “This simply describes the way we are on our best day.” That’s when I told him that I thought his words were the best description of brand positioning and strategy I’d heard in a long time. Suddenly, we both had a better understanding of brand strategy.

So let me state the point more formally:

Your brand position distills, focuses and bottles the essence of who and what you can be on your very best day.

Some brands begin with a clear view of their positioning from within their organization and build their brand strategy on that foundation – but what do you do when it comes time to introduce a new brand strategy into an existing organization? It’s not so easy, especially if you want to do it right. How do you avoid the skeptical (and typical) organizational response that the strategy you’ve spent so much time developing is merely the latest in a long line of marketing initiatives?

Obviously, the best starting point is to have the right strategy. One that seems real. Not only must the strategy be more than right analytically, it also must feel right to people who know. It must be emotionally compelling. And it must seem to have arisen from the culture itself- even as it focuses and drives that culture.

The right brand strategy screams competitive advantage. There may be many places where a company’s internal culture meets the needs of the external customer, but there are few that actually yield competitive advantage. Unfortunately, the customer can’t tell you which ones they are. It’s your job to find the best of those few.

Let’s assume you’ve found the right strategy, that optimal brand position. What’s next?


First, you need to recruit your senior management team. This team must become serious brand advocates or failure is all but assured. Most of all, your CEO must become the brand champion. If he or she cannot channel the brand in a natural way, someone has a lot of work to do.

Don’t worry: most serious marketing organizations do this part of the process pretty well.


The second step is to “operationalize” your strategy. That is, you need to bring the strategy to life in activities that your employees actually do every day. Ask yourself the following questions:

-How does the strategy drive product development and design?

-What about engineering?

-How does the strategy impact the office environment?

-How is the strategy “sold” by the sales force?

-How can HR use the strategy to help hire the right people?

Unlike the first step, not as many organizations handle this second course of action well.


Third, you need to “launch” your strategy to your organization, typically through some combination of a company-wide meeting, departmental presentations, and internal marketing vehicles such as the company’s Intranet, brand books, screen savers, etc. But thinking beyond the launch event, consider an ongoing media plan that targets internally, just as your external media targets your customers.

It’s a psychologically healthy cult, minus the isolation and chanting, but plus the consistency and repetition. Watch out for inconsistencies and stick to your mission.


Take your time. Sell the strategy internally. Build organizational understanding and support. Make the strategy and the brand position a cultural focus inside the organization before using them in the outside world.

Put simply: make it real inside if you want any shot at making it real outside.

Check back next week for Austin’s latest installment on how to build great brands.


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?”


Sterling Buzz…

Wednesday, February 19th, 2014

kingOur own, Deirdre Davi has been featured on the Pixlee blog!

For the latest insights and thought leadership on the personalized visual marketing space, social media, and the new age of brand marketing– look no further than Pixlee. And check out Deirdre’s article on Content Strategy today — right here.


Definitions: Business Model

Wednesday, January 29th, 2014

We throw around a lot of jargon in the business world, but do we truly know what we mean when we talk about ‘Vision’, ‘Business Model’, ‘Position’?

We’re going to talk a lot about Positioning on The 3rd Button in the coming months, but we’ll spend the first few weeks with a clear definition of terms.

Today, we delve into what ‘Business Model’ really means…



-A strong and differentiated business model is the most effective of all marketing tools. If your business is differentiated, your brand will ultimately be differentiated. Obviously, marketers can build highly differentiated brands out of non-differentiated businesses, but the degree of difficulty is so much higher.

-It’s hard to see how you can have a strong and differentiated business model without an equally strong and differentiated sense of vision behind it. On the other hand, a strong vision doesn’t need a highly differentiated business model to succeed.

-Whereas Wal-Mart’s business model is deeply entrenched, highly differentiated and creates differentiated advantage, most packaged goods brands lack this luxury and have to create difference at the product and marketing communication level.


-You can certainly out-communicate Wal-Mart and Southwest, but good luck to you if you think you can compete directly with them when it comes to their business models. While I tend to believe marketing can win any war, these are not competitors I’d like to test my conviction on.

-You can compete with McDonald’s, but unless you can actively “de-position” it in some sustained way, the company’s operational excellence will wear you down over time. Operational excellence doesn’t sound unassailable, but finding an Achilles heel  when it comes to companies like these is a way harder than most people realize.

-Amazon has- relatively quietly- placed itself into a position from which it can attack new markets. That elevated position also means that competitors will have great difficultly scaling the walls of

Stay tuned for our next term as defined by Austin McGhie, Sterling Strategy


Sterling and Zynga: Finding Time

Monday, September 16th, 2013

Recently, Sterling partnered with Zynga to better understand their mobile audience and develop an updated positioning strategy to address their needs. As part of that project, we conducted a qualitative audience exploratory and unearthed some fascinating insights on how people use Found Time and how gaming fits in their lives.

Check out the subsequent advertorial from Zynga that was published in the official guide for Advertising Week (click here for a larger version)

See the full guide to Advertising Week: Here.



Found Time: The mobile killer app

We’ve been lucky enough to work on multiple projects over the last 3 years that all, in some way or another, focus on how people use their mobile devices, what ideal mobile experience are and could be, and what emotions are behind the overwhelming growth in mobile usage.

There’s no denying that mobile phones, and for many of us, tablets too, are convenient.  And that convenience isn’t just on-the-go – mobile devices are used even more at home than they are out and about (see the multiscreen study here).  But “convenient” is one of those words that is just too broad.  What convenient means to you, and to me, is not usually the same.  What we FEEL when something is convenient is even more different.

We decided we’d try to get to the bottom of what people meant when they told us they couldn’t live without their mobile devices because they are so “convenient”….

While convenience does mean things like “lightweight”, “portable”, and “always on”, convenience is about more than just shrinking our computer and being connected.  The convenience that we feel from our mobile devices is about a new version of productivity.  Productivity is another one of those words – while we all want to BE productive, productivity itself just isn’t that fun, or inspiring.  What’s happening with mobile, though, is that getting stuff done IS more accessible, often easier, and definitely more fun.

And more importantly, mobile is convenient because we can utilize the small moments of time in our day….to get something done….whether that something is from our to-do list, or just something entertaining that feels like time well spent.  More often than not, these small moments in which we get something done, regardless of what the “something” is, make us feel more productive – we are doing more, but we aren’t using any more time to do those things.

There is a huge emotional payoff behind that sense that we can get more done – we actually feel like we can FIND time.  In a world that is increasingly fast-paced, the idea that each of us, every day, can capture these moments of Found Time is very powerful.  It gives us back some control over our time and our lives.  It allows us to take a moment of found time to reach out to a friend, or to look up a gift we’ve been meaning to buy, or to order that notebook for our 3rd grader.

Imagine if we could find an extra weekend in our year…on a much smaller scale, mobile devices allow us to feel like we are able to get things done in found time so we have MORE time for the stuff that really matters to us personally.  And while we all wonder about the long-term effects of our dependence on technology, there is no doubt that feeling empowered because we can use our time better, and actually find extra time in the gaps, is the killer app of our mobile devices.

Deirdre Davi, Sterling Strategy


Do Not Read Further If You Are Offended By ‘Self-Help’ Stuff

Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013

The concept of  ’Daymakers’ came up during a recent project.

It stuck with me so I did a little investigation and came across The Daymaker Movement.

“When you realize the difference you can make for others, whether by spending a light-hearted half-hour together, giving them a smile, or simply holding the door open for them, your whole approach to life shifts. Why have random acts of kindness when we can have intentional acts of good will?”

It begs the question how this concept could be applied to brand experiences. For example, imagine how different your next flying experience would be if domestic airlines adopted this idea!

But while the application for service brands is clear – it’s product brands that have much to gain from this type of approach, by punctuating the purchase and usage experience with the touches that quite literally “make your day”.

Whether you found the concept of Daymaking inspiring (as I did) or hokey, as I’m sure some of you will, hopefully David Wagner’s philosophy will make the world a kinder place for us all!

Alpa Pandya, Sterling Strategy

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