Posts Tagged ‘difference’


The Dollar Value of Creativity

Monday, February 2nd, 2015

Here’s the thing about strategy. The people who matter, your customers, never see it.

Real people experience your product or service- the see, feel and touch your tactics- but they never, ever see your strategy. The corollary of this observation is that it can only be great strategy if it makes for great tactics. This one’s worth repeating:

It’s only great strategy if it makes for great tactics.

When I worked in the ad business, every now and then I’d hear people both inside and outside the agency say something along the lines of “Yeah, I know the strategy’s a bit flat, but the creative team will bring it to life.” That is dangerously lazy and wrong thinking.

Great positioning strategies are creative in their own right. When the strategy is great, it ends up being something fun and easy to communicate just as an idea. You will know that idea will provoke, maybe even disrupt. That idea will demand a response from the target audience- even when it’s still a raw idea, before it becomes a beautifully finished piece of communication. When you have a great strategy, you can already see the advertising, events and promotions falling into place.

When someone in a long-ago meeting suggested positioning 7-Up as “The Uncola,” everyone there knew that a breakthrough had been made, and that powerful communication programs would be an inevitable outcome. Similarly, Sterling Brands helped the Dove brand team create the “Real Beauty” strategy that has guided their brand so effectively, and Ogilvy & Mather (and others) created the communications programs that made it count.

Great positions are themselves marketable ideas. If you can’t immediately see the path from a positioning strategy to its tactics, you’ve probably got some work left to do on the strategy itself.

Creativity has greater dollar value in the marketplace today than ever before. The creativity that later lends itself to effective tactics, to the amplified effects of people sharing your ads around the Internet, to an event or experience that feels ‘just right’ to your target audience- all begins in your positioning. And in an Internet-based global economy, creativity has become the competitive differentiator.

For brands this means that you should seek out partners and people who are truly creative, but also smart enough to get strategy. They are few and far in between, so treat them well. They are the few who will make a difference in this new marketplace – and that difference is only going to get bigger.

Austin McGhie is head of Sterling Strategy


Don’t Be a Prisoner

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014


It’s easy to become a prisoner of your point of view.

Two very smart people from two very different worlds made this crucial point in different ways. Not surprisingly, one was Steve Jobs. In a 2005 interview with Fortune magazine about companies that were (or weren’t) on top of the move to digital music, he noted: “Some companies are prisoners of their point of view.” (Typically Jobs: small statement, big point of view. That’s just one reason he’s already missed so much.) Ted Levitt made more or less the same point in “Marketing Myopia” a renowned Harvard Business Review article published in 1960. In it, Levitt argued that corporations (and sometimes entire industries) are held prisoner by how they define their market.

Early train and bus companies, for example, defined their business in terms of trains and buses rather than transportation and thus missed out on flight. Similarly, old film studios defined their business as movies instead of entertainment and missed out on television. More recently, Barnes & Noble and Borders defined their business as mere bookstores for far too long and were “Amazoned.”

No doubt Jobs had an ulterior motive for his statement (didn’t he always?), in that he needed consumer electronics manufacturers and others to jump on the let’s-make-great-entertainment-products-that-run-off-the-iPod-brain bandwagon. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t right.

Kids today find the idea of buying and carrying around plastic containers filled with CDs remarkably quaint. They also increasingly find the physically buying and renting of movies to be curious behavior. Music and movies will stay digital, and a very large industry is growing up around their storage, discovery, delivery and consumption. Companies that embrace this transformation will prosper, while those in denial will fail.

Blockbuster defined its business as “physically rented movies.” Despite the sheer size of the franchise at its peak, that definition still put Blockbuster on a very short runway to oblivion. On the flip side, if MGM (the casino and entertainment MGM, not the film studio) had limited itself to gambling instead of branching out into other areas of adult entertainment, it would be a much smaller and more vulnerable business than it currently is.

So be careful. The seemingly simple act of defining the business you’re in can have a profound impact on your strategy- from the business model all the way through to brand and marketing strategy. Defining your business serves to define your competitive set. Most people have a tendency to define their business, and therefore their competitive set, too tightly. They then pay the price when their business is “disrupted” by someone they didn’t even consider competition.

Spend time on this most basic question and spend that time early. Don’t wait for a crisis and never leave it to others to determine when you get around to addressing it. Bring in outsiders for the express purpose of torturing the logic of your market definition.

Finally, if you created an apparently successful strategy and you’re still around because it’s been working, task a couple of young Turks to show you why it’s all wrong. I speak from experience- it’s a case of losing objectivity through strategic ownership. Like it or not: if you’re the author of a strategy, you can also become a prisoner of it.

Define your business, and define it carefully. But consider that definition malleable and invite others to challenge it. Listen. Then create an organizational environment where people are rewarded for challenging the status quo. If someone successfully challenges your status quo before an unseen competitor does, he or she may well save the company.

Tune in for the next installment on shaping your brand strategy from Austin McGhie, head of Sterling Strategy


Differentiated Advantage

Wednesday, May 28th, 2014

Without a doubt, positioning your brand starts with difference- but there are many ways to be different. In fact, any idiot can be different. The trick is to be different in a way that is highly relevant to your audience. Different in a way that creates competitive advantage. Advantage that is, over time, as sustainable as possible.

All of which to say- it’s not easy.

You’re playing the game to win. To win, you need to be better than everyone else who is also playing to win. Generally, we marketers get this fact. We’re very prepared to play to win, but we’re not so prepared to be truly different. Why?

Let’s blame the system. Most of us grew up with similar names, dressed in similar clothes, went to similar schools. We ‘manage’ our differences lest our peers find us strange. We make fun of the odd ones. We fit in. This is why most of our highly differentiated brands were created by oddball entrepreneurs. They grew up different. They thought different. There were different. And therefore they created highly differentiated products and services.

But I digress.This is about advantage as much as it is about difference.

Difference + Advantage = Differentiated Advantage.

If you look at Batman, he’s different because he actually went out and built his own powers. He’s a self-made superhero. But does anyone care? Turns out that kids do, in fact, care. As a result, the Batman brand can position itself through differentiated advantage.

Apple is different because of its elegant design fusion of software and hardware. Bill Gates didn’t think people would care enough about this to overcome a superior business model. He saw it as a profound disadvantage, in fact, and he was almost completely correct- but Steve Jobs took that ‘almost’ and ran with it. More, recently, some have questioned whether, in a cloud-based content world, anyone would care about elegantly designed devices. But play with an iPad, then with a Kindle Fire- you’ll care. Apple is different. Apple is better. Apple has differentiated advantage.

It’s great that Dyson carpet cleaners (and now heaters) are different, but they are designed in a way that is both different and better. It’s nice that Virgin Airlines wanted to create a unique flying experience, but it succeeded because that experience was markedly better than that offered by traditional airlines. Hybrids were clearly a different kind of car, but until Prius designed a better kind of car, that difference was without meaning.

In the eyes of your customers, better but not different can still win the race, but it’ll be hard-fought every inch of the way. Different in a way that your customers don’t perceive as better won’t take you very far.

Difference + Advantage = Differentiated Advantage = Great Positioning

Austin McGhie is head of Sterling’s Strategy team and author of Brand is a Four Letter Word. Stay tuned over the coming weeks for more humble advice on the art of positioning.


Eccentricity Rules

Thursday, May 8th, 2014

Differentiation or eccentricity- you can’t just paste it onto your business with the glue of marketing communication. It needs to be solidly baked into the business. It needs to be real.

Now we move on to my call for a more extreme approach to differentiation. In today’s volatile, global economy it is no longer enough to be different. You now need to be eccentric.

Many of our favorite brands are eccentric. Not surprisingly, their eccentricity often grows out of the fact that many were built by determined and equally eccentric entrepreneurs. Richard Branson of Virgin. Herb Kelleher of Southwest. Howard Schultz of Starbucks. Phil Knight of Nike. Jeff Bezos of Amazon. Charles Schwab. Sergey Brin and Larry Page of Google. Steve Jobs of Apple and Pixar. Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. Sam Walton of Wal-Mart. Jake Burton of Burton Snowboards. Ben and Jerry.

We need to go to school on these people.

These people were (and in many cases still are) eccentric, but they’re also leaders in the best sense of the word. Perhaps they weren’t always the best managers, but let’s not confuse management with leadership. And let’s not confuse planning with vision.

Each of their businesses have more than a clear position; they also have a strong and heartfelt point of view. A point of view considered downright eccentric by some. In addition, the people who work for these leaders have a real passion for what they are creating. They have a sense of mission for which they are willing to make enormous sacrifices.

As customers, we picked up on the missions. We joined the movements and we felt a sense of ownership- and we happily urged our friends to join us.

These leaders had an elemental need to build something different. They started something different, hired like-minded people to help them, and then stuck around to ensure that what they built remained different. We also know from their biographies that each one of these leaders were told in no uncertain terms by people supposedly more expert than they that the thing they wanted to build could not be built. They listened and then they did it anyway.

“Doing it anyway” is eccentric.

Most who follow this path actually fail, but the few who succeed become famous- and very rich. Let’s face it: most of us lack the nerve and sheer willpower to be one of these people. But we can learn from them- particularly when it comes to marketing.

In many ways, things are so much harder for entrepreneurs. Using their own money and their own sweat- their passion is on the line. They are all in.

In other ways, professional marketers have the more difficult job. They don’t have the luxury of starting with a group that is committed to their vision. They must convince an entire organization to do something that no on else is doing. They have a harder case to make because truly differentiated positions, while built on logic and analysis, almost always require an intuitive leap of some kind. Once the case is made, that case has to be successful.

True differentiation is a lonely road. It’s not for the faint of heart. But it’s worth it.

Stay tuned for more on the advantages of difference from Austin McGhie


Definitions: Business Strategy and Marketing Strategy

Monday, February 3rd, 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, let’s get our strategies straight…

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, let’s get our strategies straight…



-Driven by the vision and business model, the business strategy is the blueprint that outlines how you will go to market.

-Exactly how will you deploy the business model in a way that creates sustainable competitive advantage? How will you create and deploy products and services? How will you support that deployment?


-Driven by the vision, business model and strategy, the best way to compete in the marketplace is through the intelligent use of marketing. If, by analogy, your business model and strategy are your Order of Battle (i.e. your army, its resources and how you will deploy your troops) your marketing strategy is closer to the territory over which you will fight, whom you will fight and how you will take that fight to them in order to win.

-Keep in mind that building a brand is not mandatory. Building a brand is a strategy, not an objective.


-ESPN wrote the book on this one. Combine a niche you can own with an attitude that shows you own it. Stay true to your strategy and keep it fresh-year after year. While this is easy to say, it’s remarkably hard to do.

-Starbucks built itself as a ‘third place’ rather than a coffee retailer. It also understood the importance of a happy barista. The rest is history.

-Target knew it couldn’t assail Wal-Mart on price, so it introduced a line of name designers dedicated to creating ‘cheap-chic.’

-When Fox News decided to focus on an audience that perceived itself as underserved when it came to media, it became an opinion leader for the right. You may not love the network’s politics, but you have to admire its marketing savvy.

-Pepsi just couldn’t beat Coke- until someone realized Pepsi was sweeter and could beat Coke in a blind taste test. The ‘Pepsi Taste Test’ made history, partly because it was smart marketing strategy and partly because the other guy blinked.

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


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


Brand Positioning- Time to Turn Up the Volume

Friday, February 11th, 2011


Almost all agencies worth their salt include it as one of their core competencies. Almost every client of any sophistication acknowledges its importance. And yet, it seems to me, as an avid brand follower, that the topic of brand positioning and the accompanying benefit to the end user of meaningful difference, is totally absent from the everyday debate and chatter about brands.

Big question:  If brand positioning is that important and if it is so widely practiced, why the silence?

In my view, there are a number of reasons:

1.    The business of positioning is a fundamentally strategic exercise and over the past 10 years at least, the marketing community has become more and more interested and focused on the executional aspects of branding. Strategy, while appreciated, just doesn’t have the same sex appeal.

2. This point has been further exacerbated by what I call the “manliness factor” that still pervades many agencies today. A typical response would be along the following lines– “of course we can do positioning…I mean it’s strategic. That’s what we are, that’s what we do, isn’t it?”

3. More recently, we’ve all become (understandably) obsessed by digital and social media and these two together have turned up the volume so loud that almost every other topic in the marketing arena has suffered.

4. The topic of positioning has been further diluted by the absence of a champion. Many of us still remember the Ries & Trout book on positioning that was published in 1981, yes 1981. That’s 30 years ago. And the book is still in print and still being read. For a few years in the ‘90’s, Tom Peters took up the cause but since then, nobody has become famous talking about positioning.

What makes this situation even stranger is that consumers really value the importance of difference in a brand and in a 2010 research study that we undertook at Sterling Brands among 4000 US consumers, many were able to articulate the nuances between brands. They saw Pixar, Wii, Apple, Lego and Google as being very different. At the other extreme, they saw Citi, Bank of America, Capitol One and Chase as being almost totally interchangeable. The point here is that difference (aka positioning) continues to be important to every audience, whether it be agency, brand owner or end-user.

With no common standards and no agreed definition of what it means, everyone has set up their own version of positioning. And the result is exactly what one would expect…chaos! It is common in our work with clients to be handed historical or current positioning documents and this is where the problem can be seen more clearly. For example:

- on many occasions, positioning work authored by advertising agencies is not so much brand positioning but more communications positioning and yet it is referred to as ‘brand’ positioning

- when we see the work of digital agencies, positioning is often focused on just the digital opportunity, not the broader brand opportunity

- when we see the work from some other agencies, we sometimes see tag lines presented as positioning

- and sometimes clients conduct their own positioning and guess what, it’s often done by committee and the 300 words that go to make up the final prose often end up in inactionable jargon

Now please do not take this ranting as criticism of any of our competitors or any of our clients. That’s not the point. The real issue here is that positioning is a critical step in building successful brands and yet there is no single agreed approach that is contemporary and relevant to the times in which we live. With so much lack of consistency, we feel it’s time to bring some rigor and some discipline and some innovative thinking to positioning development. This would be good for everyone involved because it would level the playing field and the real leaders in positioning would emerge naturally from the marketplace and the faux ‘positioners’ would also naturally disappear.

It will take some sort of revolution to make this happen and it may not happen anytime soon but we’re ready, willing and able to be at the forefront of this positioning revolution. Anybody else like to join us?

Simon Williams


Off-the-beaten-path, On-brand-Initiative: Well Done, Volkswagen.

Friday, July 9th, 2010


As consumer pressure for corporate responsibility rises, many companies are scrambling to find their cause.  (more…)


Elevating the Thinking on Difference

Thursday, June 10th, 2010


I am not usually asked to review books and I wasn’t this time either!! But I spotted Professor Youngme Moon’s new book entitled “Different – Escaping the Competitive Herd” at an airport bookstand and the minute I saw it and held it in my hand, I knew it was going to be a good reading experience. (more…)


10 Brands that are Beating the Recession… Big Time.

Friday, October 9th, 2009

When we launched this blog, one of the objectives was to keep things focused on the positive. So, with the help of other sterling-ites, this week I put some concentrated thought into creating a list of major brands that, in our view, have beaten the recession…at least so far!! (more…)