Posts Tagged ‘marketing’


Six Trends Corporations Are Paying Attention To

Thursday, August 6th, 2015

Ever wondered how brands are able to influence business and culture?

PBS Newshour recently spoke with Deedee Gordon, Sterling’s President of Innovation, to better understand how certain trends will shape and reshape the products and services already in our lives. Using insights from On The Future, our 2015 trends report, Deedee discusses how gender fluidity, frugeois and bulklash will shake things up.


If It’s Not Important Enough to Win, You’ll Lose

Monday, June 1st, 2015

Competition is tough and often brutal- it’s not for the faint of heart or politically correct.

In my early days as a packaged goods marketer, I remember the annual high stakes game of writing the marketing plan. We always segmented our plan into the different elements of the marketing mix. If we were smart, we also prepared a section on the competition. The problem was that we tended to report on the competition as if it were an object fixed in time and space. An object with a brain, perhaps, but just not as smart or creative as we were. An object largely built of facts and figures rather than any real understanding and empathy.

One year I wised up. I created three teams to represent our three major competitors. Each team consisted of managers representing finance, sale, R&D, marketing and ad agencies. Each had two weeks to go to school on its designated competitor an learn all it could until it became that competitor. The final task was to outline a ten-point plan to attack our business.

We set up a two part competition: the team that compiled the most interesting and useful information won the first part; and the team that created the best ‘kill our business’ plan won the second part. We made the competition fun because annual planning is never fun.

The results were amazing- I was stunned by how much we had learned. We found out so much that I started to become concerned about legal liability.

The second phase was even more interesting. There is a huge difference between writing a page on a competitor and actually becoming that competitor in a no-holds-barred way. The 10 point plans highlighted some of our key weaknesses on the home front and were very instructive on the steps we needed to take- immediately- to ensure that they weren’t put into place by our competitors.

I believe the brands that succeed look at the marketplace in just this manner.

Here are some historical examples of fierce competition that won:

-Remember Pepsi taste tests? Pepsi’s marketers had limited success with cultured and creative campaigns, so they rolled up their sleeves and took out the brass knuckles with a blind taste test that proved consumers preferred Pepsi on pure taste. Not only did this simple approach bypass expensively produced ads, but it caught Coke completely off-guard and unable to adequately retaliate.

-I love what Budweiser advertising did a few years ago. Miller had introduced an ad campaign featuring football refs taking Bud away from people and replacing it with Miller. Bud promptly countered with ads showing police capturing the refs running away with the stolen Bud, revealing that they planned to drink it themselves. Miller eventually retreated to a less competitive plot. A trivial example, perhaps, but it shows how a dominant brand can make creative use of its power to remind the competition just who is in charge of the game.

In sum, be competitive. Be very competitive. Be like Phil Knight of Nike. Think like Yoda: “Do or Do Not. There is no Try.” The competition want to eat your lunch. Each theirs first.

Austin McGhie is head of Sterling Strategy


Marketing is Judo, Not Karate

Monday, May 4th, 2015

For the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing some general thoughts that I’d like to convey to marketers – let’s call this section ‘Just Thoughts,’ and thanks for indulging me.

-Austin McGhie


Unless you have unlimited resources, lots of time and a penchant for failure, do not fight your marketplace. Figuratively speaking, marketers should always try to avoid using “karate”- that is, fighting force with force. Instead, they should use “judo”- finding the momentum that already exists in the marketplace and using it to their advantage.

How do you practice marketing judo? Fit what you want the customer to think and feel into what the customer already thinks and feels. Anything is better than trying to “convince” a customer to change his or her mind.

Here are a few examples to illustrate my point:

-For years, Kellogg’s spent its marketing dollars on core brands like Corn Flakes. But when the high-fiber craze erupted, money was shifted into All Bran and Raisin Bran. Business went through the roof.

-A few years back, Toyota saw high gas prices in our future. Prius effectively “owns” the hybrid idea because Toyota shifted with the broader “green” shift in customer attitudes just as that wave hit. Meanwhile, many competitors were still trying to push gas-guzzling SUVs and trucks.

Remember that radical new concepts may stimulate the marketer’s imagination, but if they don’t track for the consumer, they won’t track for the business.

For example, TiVo wasted a huge amount of money and time trying to convince us that we wanted some form of media revolution. All we wanted was a simple-to-use digital recorder.

Of course, if judo marketing was easy, everyone would be doing it. In fact, this technique requires that you really know your prospects, what they think and feel, and how they are reacting to the waves flowing through the marketplace. It requires that you know what those waves are and, most important, how to translate them into ideas that can drive your business forward. This takes a real commitment to market research- but research in the field, because it’s hard to spot shifts in the zeitgeist by hanging out at corporate headquarters.

Know your marketplace, know your audience, and know where the momentum lies. Then make your move… before somebody else does.

Austin McGhie is head of Sterling strategy


Market to the Brand Broadcaster: Are you tuned in?

Monday, April 27th, 2015

Marketers talk a lot about people we call influencers. Depending on the industry in which you work, you may hear them referred to as trend leaders, gadget geeks, early adopters/adapters or fashionistas. The implication is that there is a group of people in each market whose knowledge and passion for the category makes them worth more than their weight in gold thanks to the influence they can have on people who are not as “category involved” as they are.

Influencers might lead because of passion and knowledge, or they might lead because of status. Hip-hop artists are huge influencers across all kinds of categories, from cars to liquor to clothes. Movie stars can make or break brands.

These people, and others, influence us because they have access to media. They can easily broadcast their tastes.


But media is quickly being democratized by vehicles that go by such mash-up names as blog, vlog and podcast. Personal playlists can be marketable commodities. In theory at least, everyone can be a broadcaster of some kind. Anyone and everyone can lead- so long as others choose to follow you.

These days, broadcasters are simply people who pass on their thoughts, opinions and passions to others. The number of those others represents the order of magnification these broadcasters can bring to their ideas. They can help you disproportionately, but they can also hurt you to the same order of magnitude.

At some point, perhaps we’ll be assessing media plans on their “cost per broadcaster” as well as their “cost per point of purchase,” having long ago done away with such archaic terms as “cost per thousand.”

In many categories, these citizen broadcasters have become the most important population of influencers. Know what they look like, have someone dedicated to reading their blogs, and realize that broadcasters can work against you as easily as they can work for you.

Austin McGhie is head of Sterling’s strategy team


Catch a Virus

Wednesday, April 8th, 2015

Word of mouth has always been the best marketing mechanism. It always will be the best marketing mechanism.

Just take a look at this chart from the UK’s Henley Centre, which puts numbers to something we inherently know.


This is not exactly news. People trust people they know more than people they don’t know. This is particularly true when the people they don’t know have a vested interest. And it is especially true if those people are involved in that nasty business of advertising.

Thanks to technology, word of mouth is on steroids. Technology makes word of mouth- these days called viral marketing- a very potent ally of great products and smart marketers… and a very potent threat to bad products and ham-fisted marketers.

If you look at marketing that goes viral as a bullseye model, you can see that as you move outward you find bigger circles of less influential people. Meanwhile, packed into the center are a group of super-influentials. Depending on your task at hand, these super-influentials might be anyone from a movie star to a rapper to a passionate person with a well-read blog.

beyonceBy definition, a marketing virus must start slowly and while you can start the process, your management of that expansion process ranges from loose to non-existent. Be patient.

A few additional things to always keep in mind:

-Recognize that going viral can be good or bad: Monitor the marketplace vibe. Pay for a good search tool to scan the web to alert you when people start to work against you and your strategy. Get on top of it early and often. Fight back, but softly and from a position of truth. If you try to bullshit someone in this arena, it most definitely will come back to haunt you.

-Understand that this type of marketing effort fits some tasks better than others: Marketing with the aim to go viral has a place within a surprisingly wide range of categories. It’s inexpensive, so go through the process of applying it to your business- then decide whether to actively use it as part of your larger marketing plan. Don’t dismiss it before you’ve fully explored its potential- but don’t ignore the potential harm that can happen if you’re not sufficiently on your guard. This type of marketing is definitely a two-way street.

A great example of a successful viral campaign was one organized by the folks behind the film The Blair Witch Project. The movie was average, at best, but because such a mystique had been built up around it before its premiere, by the time everyone realized what they were watching, it had already made more than $100 million.

Tellingly, there have also been a number of accidental viral marketing events. The television drama 24 had its hero use a specific cell phone number. Hard core fans of the show attempted to dial that number to discover, humorously, that the writers had used one of the crew members’ numbers. As the phone rang ceaselessly, crew and cast took turns answering. It was all very spontaneous, and it felt that way- and because of that, the number spread like wildfire on the web. Now you can find many more planned examples that followed in the footsteps of this happy accident- bridging product and fans with a genuine experience in connectivity.

Take these lessons to heart. Experiment. Be smart and be patient. With some truth and a lot of luck, your efforts will pay off.

Austin McGhie is Sterling’s head of strategy


The Truth Will Win Out – Sooner Not Later

Tuesday, March 24th, 2015

Immediate access to the world’s information means a bit of retraining for those of us who grew up in the one-way persuasion school of marketing. The task before us is to adjust to the much more challenging “interactive-objective” school of marketing.

Today, our claims cannot simply be louder than our competitors to win out. Our customers can easily find out how our product or service actually performs- and trust me, if it’s at all important to them, they’ll be checking. If you’ve misled them through your claims in any way, they’ll know. If you’ve mislead them, they’ll leave- and they won’t be back.

This last ‘they’re not coming back’ observation is important. Too often, marketers act as if there are only two possible outcomes to an activity on their part- it works or it doesn’t- a one or a zero. If only life were that simple and binary. The reality is that if you set up an expectation you can’t meet or, worse, you actively mislead, you may never see those customers again. No matter what you say or do, they will be lost to you forever- and even the quietest of them will take a few friends with them on their way out.

It is critical to your success to make the most of this new reality of open access to information. Use truth as a marketing tool.

A few years ago a BMW die-hard compared the official BMW website to his favorite BMW enthusiast site. At the time, the BMW site was recognized as being at the leading edge of the art. But this person’s perspective was different. He liked the corporate site, but found it too one-sided, too perfect and too sleek. By comparison, the enthusiast site was more ‘real,’ more down to earth. The contributors loved the brand, but they loved it in its entirety- warts and all. They didn’t shy away from the imperfections, but celebrated them. The net result was a much more honest, emotionally engaging and deeper conversation about the BMW brand.

There is nothing wrong with perfection, but don’t allow it to blind you to passion. Embrace the truth in your brand, allowing your customer to believe you and incite an honest passion.

Austin McGhie is head of Sterling strategy


It Takes a Village to Raise a Brand

Monday, March 16th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

communitybrands copy

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

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

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

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

Austin McGhie is head of Sterling’s Strategy team


Marketing in a World of Ubiquitous Information

Tuesday, March 10th, 2015

The information on brands that is now available via the Internet brings with it a new approach to marketing. As marketers we must now actively manage noise, recognize and deal with lies, we must actively promote the truth- but ultimately, we must abandon the traditional, one-sided model of marketing known as “persuasion.” Product performance claims will be increasingly transparent to prospective customers. And once the truth is known, those customers will feel betrayed if they are lied to… and they will never return.


Whether it’s a new car or a pair of jeans, shopping is just an equation that balances degree of importance against ease of information access. Soon no one will buy a durable good without first doing a little homework. Customers will do the online research and use digital channels to tell their friends. Transparency becomes assumed, and not making this assumption invites difficulty.


Your product doesn’t perform? Your service sucks? Before you know it a quiet buzz will be felt on the Internet. This type of buzz could leak onto influential blogs and with a day- hell even within hours- a lot of hard work and good thinking will be completely undone by the very people you were counting on to build your business.

On a positive note, if you product delights the customer or your service over-delivers, you’ll quickly find the tide of information working on your behalf. This is not a new phenomenon. Word of mouth has always been the most powerful marketing mechanism, but now it’s accelerated and universal. We have more “friends” than we ever dreamed of having, and we are instantly connected to information, opinion and expertise, wherever and whenever we want.

These days, your customers are knocking on your door and you have to let them in- and they’d better like what they see. We’ve always understood outbound marketing, but the best practices of inbound marketing are still unfolding before our eyes.

Marketing is good. Persuasion is good. Brands count. But also know that the facts will matter. Those facts, as seen from several different vantage points, will be applied ruthlessly and at great speed.

Be ready.

Austin McGhie is head of Sterling’s strategy team


Assume You’ll Only Get One Shot

Tuesday, February 17th, 2015

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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