Posts Tagged ‘brands’


Introducing On the Future

Thursday, December 4th, 2014


While you may read about a lot of trends as 2014 winds down, we’re happy to introduce On the Future, our first forecast of product and brand trends for 2015 and beyond. As you’ll see, our report is quite different. It goes beyond the coming year to see what brands and products will be up to several years from now. We deliver this in what we call Sterling Futurecasts. Each futurecast in an actual illustration depicting a product, service or item we believe will be brought to life thanks to the convergence of many aspects of our current reality.

Using a cross-section of cultural anthropology, market research, trends observation and forecasting, and industrial and experiential design, some of the Sterling Futurecasts include:

Urban Defense

The over-population of urban environments and the creation of more mega-cities will drive the creation of health and wellness products that help consumers navigate and fight environmental challenges. Sample products include pockets embedded with a silver-based antimicrobial nanotextile that sanitizes your hands on contact.


Wearables that track the steps you take or the food you eat are already falling behind the true potential for the convergence between health and technology. Future products will allow for up-to-the-minute reports on your blood composition in order to recommend changes to your diet and exercise regimen.

Frugeois (pronounced Froo-ZHwa)

Millennials and the generation that follows have each experienced the recent economic recession in their own way, and each has learned that conspicuous consumption and careless spending never ends well. For them, being frugal and finding new ways to reuse and repurpose what they already have is paramount.

We invite you to download the report and let us know what you think the future holds.


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


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


Make Love Stay

Friday, June 21st, 2013


Recently, resident artist and Sterling Designer, Jim Muchmore was commissioned by a friend of Sterling to create a little wall-art on their home. The phrase “Make Love Stay” was from a book that Rachel Weir’s husband read years ago, which continues to inspire their relationship.

Jim was commissioned to do the piece as a surprise and celebration of Weir’s husbands birthday.

The letters were laid out with tape and chalk, then painted with spray paint and acrylic house paint.

Beautiful work, Jim.


Social Media…Pretty Much Like Real Life (a series)

Thursday, August 16th, 2012

Part I:  Good Friends Are Good Listeners

Do you have a friend that you sometimes can’t stand to be around because he steamrolls the conversation – talks so fast, and so much, and so loudly that you want to cover your ears? I do. Actually, I think I might have several.

I’m reminded of these friends when I think about the way a lot of brands behave when it comes to social media.  These brands walk into the Facebook party and become the guy that dominates the conversation.  It makes sense in a way, given that marketers are trained to talk loudly and often to help shape their brand.  But this model doesn’t work within social media.

Why?  Essentially, making friends in social media is akin to making friends in real life – it’s as much about listening and getting to know your friends as it is talking about yourself.  Good listening builds trust, rapport, and openness.

Let’s take a look at some self-aware brands that get this – and through their adapted behavior, have become fluent social butterflies.


Target: Target is all about being the philanthropist.  But Target’s Facebook page doesn’t just shout about the brand’s good-deeding.  Instead, Target asks its fans to share what they care about (charities in past years; now focused on schools) and then makes charitable contributions based on their responses.  Target’s Facebook presence gives the company’s consumers and advocates an actionable voice and enhances Target’s position in the community.

fordFord: Ford loves talking about cars – but it understands that it needs to hear from consumers, too. In fact, Ford is so empathetic that it developed a social site dedicated to soliciting stories from car owners.  Ford’s brilliant approach lets the brand get to know their car owners in a much deeper, more personalized way, which provides inspiration as well as the chance to build long-term relationships with consumers.


Kleenex: Kleenex is listening even when friends don’t realize it.  In December 2011, the brand launched the “Feel Good” campaign, whereby the brand combed through status updates on its page to identify 50  “friends” with colds – and it couriered each of them a get-well kit.  All of them returned the favor by posting the interaction to their FB walls (delivering 650K impressions).   Pop Chips is also known to take this low-key approach– the brand will show-up with unexpected gifts of Pop Chips if they discover hungry Facebook friends.

One red flag: don’t bother initiating dialogue if you don’t really care.  Because no one likes that guy, either.  One online travel company recently asked its community to share stories of their favorite travel souvenirs.  A ton of fans spoke up, but the company took no note of their responses and missed an opportunity to bond and create dialogue.  Brands attempting to listen to their consumers need to follow through on what they hear and learn to start building lucrative relationships.

Sara Linderman, Strategist


Sterling Buzz…

Wednesday, January 18th, 2012

We were totally blown away by the great brand insights from the speakers at last night’s AIGA in the House 2! Stay tuned to the AIGANY site for the full video of this panel discussion and upcoming events that will inspire you too — we’ll see you there!


Check out Sterling’s facebook for more photos and photos from AIGANY!


Our Big Brand Questions for 2012

Friday, January 6th, 2012

As we all settle back into our work routine at the start of yet another New Year, it seemed like a really appropriate time to reflect back on the dominant themes we heard from the marketplace throughout 2011.

This is not intended to be a list of every brand question out there – more a selection of the most interesting, relevant and even provocative questions that every brand should be thinking about right now.

So in no particular order of importance, here goes:

1.) What is your point of view about the consumer’s appetite for spending in your category in 2012? Are you still in recession mode? Are you taking note of all the latest indicators? Without a point of view, there is no point.

2.) What lessons can the rest of us learn from the surging success of the leading technology brands? And can some of their success factors be applied to your brand?

3.) Given the generally stagnant overall marketplace, growth in 2012 will likely be achieved by winning share. So, if you are to win share, then who is going to lose?

4.) How much should you commit your brand to Facebook, not just in dollar terms but in overall exposure? Is Google + a better bet? Remember what happened to Myspace and they were also seen as indomitable at one time!!

5.) The innovators in the marketplace are talking about new concepts such as “brands of meaning” and “brand generosity”. Where do you stand on these and other emerging ideas? Are they a part of your brand chatter?

6.) Should your brand be doing more to help the national unemployment phenomenon (see Starbucks for inspiration)? With an election year government, shouldn’t this be a time for brands to stand up and be counted?

7.) With data equity becoming as important as brand equity, how good is the data used to make decisions on your brand? Do you really have the best data? And more importantly, do you have the best data decoders? If not, you’re missing out.

8.) What would you do with your brand if you weren’t afraid? Or put another way, If it was your company, what would you be recommending for the way forward? And what would you retain, gain and lose from your current strategy?

9.) Really, how different is your brand vs the competition, and more importantly, how relevant and meaningful is that difference to consumers? Is this the time to be finding the new white space?

10.) For the past 5 years, Steve Jobs and Apple have been the primary point of inspiration for all of us  - will that change now? And if so, which brand takes on that role for you for that daily dose of inspiration?

11.) How unadulterated is the feedback you get from your team? Is it cleansed and filtered? Do you see the whole research report or just the executive summary? And if so, is there a risk that many of your brand decisions could be sub-optimal?

12.) Are you really partnering with consumers to build your brand or is co-creation still a question mark in your mind? Are you the barrier to progress in this area? And what will it take to get you to put your toe in the water?

In summary, I suspect that these questions will resonate with some of you and for others they’ll read like gobbledygook. And that’s fine as well. But please remember that we’re out in the marketplace almost every day of the year working with clients and these twelve topics are just some of the consistent themes and discussions that we’ve heard and if nothing else, aren’t we nice people to just want to share them!

Happy new year to you all.

Simon Williams


Salt of the Earth

Thursday, December 8th, 2011

Ever wonder about the Morton Umbrella Girl? Who is this mysterious young lady? Debbie and her students dive into one of the oldest brand characters in this bonus material from the upcoming book- Brand Bible

>>Read On!



Sterling Buzz…

Tuesday, November 8th, 2011

Communication Arts magazine queried Debbie inside the back cover of their latest issue (the advertising annual):

“What new challenges will brands face in the future?” (more…)