Posts Tagged ‘consumer’


Research is Reality Television for Marketers

Wednesday, November 5th, 2014

tvAs I’ve said before, only idiots and crazed entrepreneurs make decisions without research. A few of those entrepreneurs are legendary, precisely because they defied business or marketing logic and did what research told them not to do. This is how truly differentiated businesses are built and how many truly differentiated brands have been devised. This is why those legendary entrepreneurs were so wildly successful. But this is also why they are so few in number.

Smart marketers play the odds. On the occasions when they bravely ignore the odds, they do so at least knowing what those odds are. Smart marketers do their homework. They’re not bound by it or held hostage by it, but they do it. You’re not an idiot when you defy logic; you’re only an idiot when you don’t know what that logic is.

You must give a high priority to getting as close as possible to the real world. Participate personally. Get hands-on as much as possible. Stay in touch with your customer.

In the US, marketers and their agencies tend to live in cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco. They tend not to shop at Wal-Mart, not to ride the No. 2 bus to work and not to consider Denny’s a big night out. In other words, they tend to be out of touch with their average consumer.

At the 2004 Academy Awards, held in March 2005, host Chris Rock did a remarkable thing. He took the television audience away from the beautiful people in the theater audience and to a nearby Cineplex, where he interviewed real moviegoers. None of these people had seen any of the best movie nominees, and most of them cited Saw, Barbershop and White Chicks as the best films of 2004. You can fight reality if you’re on a mission to raise the entertainment bar, but you’d better embrace reality if you’re a marketer.

So what to do?

Hire a company to conduct ethnographic-style fieldwork for you, and insist on coming along. Spend time with people in their homes, at work, on shopping trips. Our strategists often like to talk to people in “friendship pairs,” so they’re more comfortable with the process and more likely to call BS on each other. (There’s at least as much BS in reality-based marketing research as there is in reality TV.)

And do not- do not- mistake focus groups for real life. Recruiting a bunch of people from a database and setting them in a room with strangers, a moderator and a two-way mirror is about as far from reality as any of us will ever get without pharmaceuticals. People who agree to do this for money cannot be considered representative.

For reality you need to get back out into the real world. The closer you get to reality- to real customers moving through real lives with real feelings, fears and desires- the closer you are to the kind of insights that can really make a difference.

Austin McGhie is head of Sterling Strategy – stay tuned next week for more on the difference between data and insight.


Sterling Buzz…

Friday, October 24th, 2014

Screen Shot 2014-10-24 at 3.19.11 PM

We’re happy to share the findings of some fascinating research conducted by Google in partnership with Ipsos and Sterling Brands! Now we can say without a doubt, that digital research has become more important than ever in combination with in-store shopping and linking consumers to local stores.

“Eighty-seven percent of shoppers research before visiting a store, 79% search during their visit and 35% look after, according to research released today by Google, based on an online survey of 6,000 smartphone users conducted in partnership with Ipsos MediaCT and Sterling Brands.” -AdAge

Click here to read the full findings from the study

And in a related story published by AdAge, retailer Macy’s has used these Google digital search findings to bolster local inventory ads to highlight what’s in local stores for shoppers who use devices to plan and complete a purchase. Read more on that story here<<


Customers Not Marketing Advisors

Monday, October 20th, 2014

There is a critically important and logical order implied when it comes to strategy development, a priority that is often ignored by marketers, strategy consultants and (especially) communication agencies. It is a simple syllogism that goes like this:

-Know where your differentiated advantages lie

-Know what you need to do to win the game

-Then go to your customer and find out how to win

Rely on business strategy, competitive advantage and marketplace dynamics to tell you what to do, not the customer. Instead, the customer should tell you how to do it.

To find your strategy, there a number of things you must do, and an order in which customer feedback comes into play:

1.) Look Inside. Based on the vision and core capabilities of your organization, your competitive advantage and what you see as prevailing marketplace trends, determine  the strategic alternative or alternatives that are best for you from a long-term, bottom-line perspective. I’m making this sound easy, but finding the strategy that brings all of this together in one idea is a real art.

2.) Determine which strategy is best. It’s OK to talk to your customer to determine how to refine that strategy. Will they give you permission? Where does that permission start and where does it end? What sort of stimulus do you need to get the response that they’ve indicated they’re capable of?

3.) Find the easiest path to implement your strategy. Customer research is all about finding the easiest path, in that it allows you to find natural marketplace momentum and use it to your advantage.

To put it simply, don’t ask the customer – “Do you like this ad?” Ask them “Does this motivate you to do/buy X?” Customers are not marketing advisors, but they will tell you what they will or wont do.

Norwegian Cruise Lines once embarked on a beautiful, award-winning advertising campaign designed to entice young people to take cruises. The company essentially ignored the competitive realities of its own business. Surveys found that young people loved the ads- and so the campaign went full steam ahead.

But “Do you like the ads?” was the wrong question. “Will you go on a cruise?” was the right question. An even more critical question should have been posed to the older people who really do go on cruises, and that was: “Will this ad campaign scare you away?” Unfortunately, the answer was: yes. Older folks stayed away from Norwegian in droves while only a trickle of young people took the plunge. Bad for Norwegian. Good for its competitors, who had stuck to marketing to those older cruise takers.

Remember to develop yours strategy first, then go to marketing. And, if you are going to talk to your customer, ask the right questions.

Austin McGhie is Sterling’s head of Strategy

Next week we take a deeper look at research and its rightful role in support of brand strategy.


The Consumer is Dead

Monday, October 6th, 2014

For what it’s worth, the term ‘consumer’ really irritates me. I still use it to make myself understood, but it bugs me. With time, I’ve concluded that the word bugs me for strategic reasons- not just because I don’t like the word itself.

‘Consumer’ conjures up a mass of people ready to blindly ‘consume’ my product. By comparison, the word ‘customer’ seems more singular and implies a relationship of some kind. Consumers consume. Customers purchase- if they are treated right. Consumers are the way of the past. Customers are the wave of the future.

This makes a difference on a couple of fronts. Right now, retailers have customers and most of their suppliers have consumers. For structural reasons, but also because of this schizoid mindset, the retailer often has a much stronger relationship with that person than does the manufacturer. Over time, this almost always leads the retailer to become a more trusted ‘guarantor’ of product quality than the manufacturer. Ultimately, this means that the retailer can source products and build brands that the customer trusts more than those from the manufacturer- and they’ll be cheaper for many of the same structural reasons.

I believe everyone needs to build a real, working customer relationship management (CRM) strategy. Forget the software for now; just embrace the theory. In the old world, terms like 1:1 marketing, segmentation and mass marketing were too often viewed as distinct alternatives. The fact is, for many marketers, inside their customer database reside customers who deserve to be handled 1:1 and can be profitably marketed to this way, customers who can be approached on a segment basis, and customers who can only be profitable if they’re treated en masse.

Depending on your business, you may even be able to determine the unprofitable customer- and although all consumers may seem like they are worth having, some are definitely best sent over to your competition.

So, let’s stop thinking about the people buying our products and services as consumers and promote them to the exalted status of customer… and then we can all go back to fighting over them.

If you’re a manufacturer and this creates confusion with intermediates such as retailers, who you currently call customers, I have another suggestion. Call them partners and treat them accordingly.

Austin McGhie is head of Sterling Strategy. Stay tuned for a continued, in-depth take on the customer all month long.


Build an Experience

Wednesday, September 24th, 2014

A brand is a promise of a customer experience.

This definition should be fairly obvious when you look at immersive or experiential brands such as retailers (and many services). But it is also at play in a more subtle way in even the simplest product categories.

In these more subtle cases, you may have to shift your mindset from that of a consumer buying your product to that of a consumer experiencing your brand. In order to do this, try walking through a real shopping experience, from start to finish, with an assortment of your customers. Map the ‘experience trail’ for each. Where are the highs? The magic moments? How can you take advantage of them? Showcase them? Where are the lows? The dissatisfiers? How can you fix them?

A great example is when I once walked through a bunch of department stores with a group of women shopping for apparel. Stores like these still separate their apparel into departments with anachronistic titles from the 1950s, such as ‘misses,’ ‘petites,’ ‘juniors,’ and ‘women’s.’ The conversations you hear in these walk throughs are a complete downer, as women describe one section as meant for ‘older, bigger women,’ and wistfully recall the days they fit into anything from the colorful, ‘junior’s’ department. The worst thing about this scenario is that just down the mall corridor are specialty stores such as the Gap, where all women are treated exactly the same, regardless of their size.

Walk throughs like these almost always yield surprises, and often, it’s not those seemingly more critical parts of the process that please or piss off your customer, but the trivial stuff that you might have over-looked— and you can fix.

Okay, so you’ve mapped out the shopping experience step by step and you know where the issues and opportunities lie. Some questions you should now ask yourself:

-How does each step in the experience hook into the next?

-How do you maximize the efficiency of the transition from one step to the next and thereby minimize the odds of competitive intervention?

-How can you deliver each step in a way that ensures that the trail consistently delivers the desired brand experience?

The next step is to map out your competitor’s brand experience. Where are their customers most vulnerable? What are their competitive strengths? What are the weaknesses you can exploit?

Look at your brand as an experience rather than a product or service. See it through the eyes of your customer. Pull that experience apart, get it right- both step by step and as a whole- and then put it back together again.

Austin McGhie is head of Sterling Brands’ Strategy team


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


How to Beat the Start-Up Fatigue

Thursday, August 29th, 2013

Start-ups are everywhere, “entrepreneur” is the new cool-guy job, and Ashton Kutcher is doing his Steve Jobs impersonation on movie screens all over America. Even though it’s an exciting time for business and a really exciting time to be a consumer, it’s hard not to have some kind of start-up fatigue.

Branding and brand strategy are essential tools that can help fledgling companies cut through the clutter. We all know that big, established companies have a lot to learn from start-ups in terms of staying nimble, driving innovation, and thinking about things differently. But start-ups can learn a lot from big companies, too.


What kind of brand do you want to be? If you are a tech start-up, the brand values that might come to mind are intuitive, optimistic, straightforward, and maybe a bit cheeky. But you are not alone in identifying with those values – these have become category conventions. They are assumptions, not equities. To live in the hearts & minds of consumers, your brand must stand for something unique. Tuckernuck, an online boutique, feels like a real-world brand because it has identified its college-prepster voice and speaks it unapologetically. Figure out what is unique and true about your company upfront, and all your creative decisions will become a lot easier.



Even if you are working in technology, your brand no doubt stands for functional and emotional benefits that live in 360 degrees (not just on someone’s iPhone). So decide what those values look like in the real world. It helps to think visually. Color, for example, is an essential brand tool. If your company was a store, what would it look like? What makes it look different than the stores around it? What can you own? Warby Parker didn’t just create a smarter way to buy eyeglasses, they created a modern library. Don’t forget to build in these essential visual brand cues.


I imagine that one of the best things about entrepreneurship is being able to invest your energy in products or services that really matter to you. If you wouldn’t personally use the output of your efforts, you probably wouldn’t be there. That’s why it is worth reminding all entrepreneurs that you – and people with similar attitudes, behaviors, and means – are not necessarily your target audience. Your target may include you, but it doesn’t have to be limited to you. So you can’t rely only on your personal intuition when developing and branding your product, you must work to define your target, work to get their feedback, and work to listen to them on as many decisions as possible.

Big CPG companies require qualitative and quantitative consumer verification on almost every product decision, from basic product concepts that will never see the light of day to marketing executions. We can’t expect consumers to validate all of our decisions, and we are braver and better companies if we manage to take consumer feedback with a grain of salt. But expecting branding to be entirely intuitive is short-sighted at best. Do people actually want what you are selling, or are you talking to yourself?


Many startups invest in a lifestyle brand approach, which means they build in non-essential components like shareable editorial content and feel-good charitable partnerships. Buy a sock, send a sock! It’s important to understand the role of these investments in driving your brand – if they are startup clichés, they are category antes, not differentiators. Activities you have to do to even get in the game are not activities that are going to set you apart. You may need some new tricks if you want to attract the attention of publicists, and consumers too.

Sarah Birnbaum, Sterling Design Intelligence


Content Strategy: Feeding the Beast

Wednesday, April 17th, 2013

In a recent post (that began with our anticipation for the start of Mad Men season 6, which by the way, was as good as we wanted it to be), we talked about the importance of going beyond the “click” (or “Like”) to develop brand stories that create authentic engagement with customers.

There is no longer (if there ever was) a linear path between awareness, acquisition, loyalty, and retention.  With our access to information, all of these decisions and actions are happening in real-time, so we need to keep customers (and potential customers) engaged all the time.

The brands that best go “beyond first click” have done more than good social media. They have changed the core of how they approach marketing. They plan and execute a content strategy – thinking like creators, rather than like advertisers. They are creating content that builds a single brand story, across all platforms, in the real and digital worlds, in a way that appears seamless to the consumer.

Those that are braving this new approach have had a lot to overcome.  In our last post we noted the organizational challenges.  But building a content strategy is also challenging for how marketers think about their business.   Advertising goes in campaigns, and there are planning and review and revision and execution times.  Content doesn’t – content is 24/7, a relentless beast that needs to be fed consistently.

To feed the beast, marketers have to live with imperfection and uncertainty more than ever before.  They need to be making new, relevant and interesting content all the time, every day, related to what their brand stands for, and what their brand is doing.  When faced with creating content, we all wonder what to say, and how to make sure what we’re creating is good enough. The real challenge with a content strategy isn’t so much that the beast needs to be fed, it’s more about overcoming the fear of our ability to create, uncertainty about what works, and doubt about whether anyone is listening. The cool part about this new world of content strategy is that we have the opportunity to see over time what people find compelling, what breaks through and what might actually motivate customers to act.

There are FIVE THINGS to think about when cooking up food for the beast:

1.) You are making content so people will not only engage with it but share it, and that means it has to have value for them – so make it FOR them rather than ABOUT you.

A great example is the latest from the Dove Real Beauty campaign:

2.) Variety is more important than consistency – you never know what will get people’s attention.

3.) Some of the most engaging content is not professionally produced – the bar is high for what’s compelling, but lower than you think for how it’s made.

4.) Creating something quickly that reflects/comments/plays off of current events can make your brand relevant, even when a connection isn’t obvious.

5.) And most importantly, don’t try to do everything yourself – the best case scenario is to involve your customers in creating content about your brand, and then finding ways (and confidence) to use what they create.

The book on best practices in content strategy is being written right now by brands that are brave enough to open their minds to what and where great content can come from.  One of the best examples of content strategy as marketing strategy is coming from GoPro.  Yes, they create cameras – a product that lends itself to storytelling a bit easier to content than foot cream or socks.  But they recognize how valuable content is, whether they create it or their customers do.  Instead of shying away from that “non-premium user-generated stuff”, they encouraged it.   They are engaging their customers to participate in building the story of the brand, which is therefore building their brand authentically based on how customers use their products (rather than a set of proof points and details, like we might see in an ad campaign).

The content beast is here, and here to stay as one of the primary ways to authentically connect with your customers, cut through the noise and go beyond the “click”.  It’s up to you to decide if your brand is willing to feed the beast, even if it requires an approach to marketing that is a little scary, and a little uncomfortable. What can you do in 2013 to build the story of your brand through content that will engage your customer, rather than simply trying to persuade them through advertising?

Deirdre Davi, Sterling Strategy


Beyond First Clicks

Wednesday, March 27th, 2013

The new season of Mad Men starts soon, where we get to see Don, Peggy and the team once again tell consumers a brand story via advertising (in print, and perhaps even on TV!) that they expect will influence behavior.

But like secretaries and 3 martini lunches, we in brand marketing know that those days are long gone.  We want more that just a captive listening audience. We want “engagement.” Any one who has responsibility for growing a brand needs to not just get potential customers to see their messages, but for them to “engage” with their product or brand.  And marketers are actively tapping into digital media to make this happen.  But we sense that it’s time to reconsider how we think about “engagement”.

In the early days of digital marketing, it was all about the click, and businesses were grown from tracking that all-powerful click.  Even more recently, marketers are defining engagement as the number of “Likes” a brand can get on Facebook.   But really, it’s still just a click, and like many clicks, there is no “there” there after the Like.   Do I know any more about a brand when I click or Like?   Am I more likely to buy or use that brand?  Do I care more about that brand than I did before? The answer to these questions is an unenthusiastic maybe.


Just like many of us need more than one coffee date to bond with another person, we need more than one click or Like to commit to a brand.  As marketers, we need to tell (and build) a brand story over time.

Of course one way to have these ongoing interactions is through social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest, all of which bring customers and brands closer.  But smart marketers have always known that commitment is a journey, not a click.  I think the marketing community at large is just starting to come around to the idea that we simply can’t think about marketing as digital and traditional, because that first response (the impression, the click, or the Like) isn’t enough – we need to look beyond that response.  It’s about creating content that builds a brand’s story across all platforms, in the real world and the digital world.

This of course is a blinding glimpse of the obvious – but is surprisingly difficult to execute in the real world.  Why? Because doing it involves marketers across all different functions who just aren’t used to playing well with each other.   Building a compelling and cohesive cross-platform content strategy is organizationally challenged – different platforms, different lead times, different agencies, different approval processes.  It’s hard but it’s critical to get right.  And it means marketers can’t think in media or platform silos (TV, radio, banner, video, ….) but have to think of how to create engagement across platforms – exactly how their customers interact with the world.

One example we most admire right now comes from an unlikely source – packaged goods.  We recently spoke with the brand manager of Reynolds (yup, the aluminum foil) in a marketer discussion and were impressed by how fully he has embraced the potential of engagement.  He’s not thinking about how to explain why one food-wrapping foil is better than another – instead, he is working to tell his brand story through the food that Reynolds wraps, and the role it plays in sharing meals, family time, great events, and fun.   Reynolds is telling the story of their brand in a way that their customers will want to follow over time.  They are creating real engagement – with a product that is anything but what we’d traditionally think of as engaging.

The brands that don’t get it will still talk at us, and do it in a disjointed way. One group will talk to the brand agency about the big TV idea, another will plan the digital campaign, another will do something in “social media”, and the PR team might even get in on the action. They are creating a lot of impressions (and even those clicks), but not engagement.  What can you do in 2013 to plan and activate a cross-platform approach that will truly create engagement?

Deirdre Davi, Sterling Strategy


Google + Sterling

Wednesday, March 20th, 2013
“Sterling is proud to have participated in two new pilot studies with consumers, conducted entirely through the G+ social media platform!
Together with Google, we spoke to two distinct groups: First Time Dads and New Smartphone Users. Using the myriad techniques offered by the G+ platform, we asked these two groups to share about their needs and motivations for relevant purchases and pull critical insights for marketers.
Find out more about the First Time Dad’s Study here.
Find out more about the New Smartphone Users here.
And stay tuned for more!”


Sterling is proud to have participated in two new pilot studies with consumers, conducted entirely through the Google+ social media platform!

Together with Google, we spoke to two distinct groups: New Dads and New Smartphone Users. Using the myriad techniques offered by the Google+ platform, we asked these two groups to share about their needs and motivations for relevant purchases and pull critical insights for marketers.

Find out more about the New Dads Study here.

Find out more about the New Smartphone Users here.

And stay tuned for more!