Posts Tagged ‘marketing’

divider

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

divider

Change

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014

Change is good. Change is essential.

The marketplace is a downward-moving escalator. If you stand still you go down. You only go up by running- hard.

Last year, on behalf of your brand, you executed a marketing plan. It worked well and the brand grew. But now that is old news. What will you do this year? Theoretically, if you do more of the same, you might hope at least to hold steady- but that hope assumes the marketplace itself hasn’t changed and begun to work against you. The escalator is moving down.

So what’s new in your plan?

If you’ve written a marketing plan, put it through the change filter. That is, ask yourself what is the one significant change you’ve created that will grab the attention of the target audience? That one difference that will cut through all the other ‘change clutter’ in the marketplace? Change can be good.

However, change has a dangerous flip side, particularly within organizations with short-tenured brand managers (such as packaged goods companies). There’s a need, sometimes perceived, sometimes very real, to do something different- anything different- rather than stick for one extra second with the status quo, even when it is successful.

To do change right, get to know your brand inside and out, and pick one thing to focus upon. Find the one thing that will really make a difference- the one thing that will make you and your brand famous. Build critical marketing mass behind it, execute it flawlessly and then move on to the Next Big Marketing Idea.

Beware the small changes to strategy. Before you know it, they can add up and throw the brand off track. Change with a specific purpose and a planned impact is the type of change you want.

Case in point:

A great example of change-gone-wrong can be drawn from my days as a very young brand assistant working on a ‘luxury’ cat food. We had just replaced one ingredient with another, cheaper ingredient. Like good little brand managers, we’d done due diligence and knew that the taste trade-off was minimal. Yet as soon as we made the switch, we started getting complaints from cat owners. As is always the case, it’s your most loyal customers who notice first, your best customers who write to you first. But how could they possibly have noticed something so small?

Checking back into the brand history files, we discovered our little change, wasn’t the first. In fact, we were just the latest in a long line of similar, ‘insignificant’ trade-offs. We just happened to be the ones who pushed the ‘tipping point’ and fell flat on our face.

As customers, we’ve all experienced this phenomenon. That is, we can’t quite put our finger on what’s happened, but somehow the product or service just isn’t what it used to be- an we quietly move on. No call. No letter. No purchase.

When all is said is done, change is just change. Good change builds. Bad change destroys. The trick is to recognize the difference before it’s too late.

Austin McGhie, Sterling Strategy


divider

Building Critical Marketing Mass

Wednesday, August 20th, 2014

building

“If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. If it can’t be done well, it’s not worth doing at all.” -Proverb

Imagine placing fifty cents into millions of vending machines, all of which require a dollar before you can get anything out of them. In the end, you’ve spent a fortune and absolutely nothing to show for it. You wouldn’t do anything this foolish with your money- right?

But in business, we’re all guilty of doing just that. We spend countless hours writing marketing plans and brainstorming tactics, sometimes even coming up with something both original and brilliant. That original and brilliant idea then goes into the plan with all of the other brilliant initiatives the budget is spread out across all of these smart things we think we need to do.

The problem is that none of these initiatives has any chance of reaching critical mass.

Why? Imagine a line that moves through time. Above this imaginary line you capture your audience’s attention, below this line you don’t. It really can be this absolute, since there is no such thing as almost getting noticed. I always preferred to run well below the line for most of the year, which allowed me to focus my resources and take at least one really strong leap above the line annually.

Limited opportunity for attention means that you need to take each of your tactics or marketing initiatives and prioritize them based on such criteria as strategic importance, marketplace impact and expected cost efficiency. Next, calculate the ‘cost of success’  for each of these initiatives. The ‘cost of success’ should be a real, honest assessment of what it will take for this initiative to work in the marketplace. It’s easy to underestimate how much it takes to get attention from real people out in the real world.

Now, determine how many of your priorities you can afford before you budget runs out. These should be the only projects that get the green light. Do it to effect or don’t do it at all needs to be your guiding philosophy. Once again, be absolutely ruthless with your priority setting. You’ll end up doing less, but you’ll do better.

All of this is just common sense. So why is it so hard to do?

Answer: politics and organizational structure. Different groups want their slice of the budget and it’s hard to say no. A leading retailer with whom I worked with many years ago had a marketing budget in excess of $500 million. Lots of potential for critical mass there. But by the time it was divided amongst every department, critical mass was nowhere to be found.

This is exactly the wrong approach, because for all that money spent, no single initiative ever rose above that invisible attention-getting line. Had the company focused the budget on a smaller number of high priority marketing programs, it could have had a huge marketplace impact throughout the year.

The task, then, is to create critical mass, somehow, somewhere, sometime. This may seem like a dream to some marketers, but that’s an error of perspective. It’s far better to get noticed by one person than to get almost noticed by thousands. Should we be content to forever fall short? It’s the CFO’s fault- right?

So how do you actively create critical mass?

-Believe in what you’ve just read here and apply it ruthlessly

-Limit your core audience

-Limit your geography

-Limit the time frame

-Limit the media mix

-Limit the vehicles used within the selected medium, even if it means advertising in a single television program. (But own that show!)

In other words, always own a slice of a communications channel- and therefore of your prospect’s attention- no matter how thin that slice might be. Then use success on that narrow front to gain a bigger budget and thicker slice.

Meanwhile, it’s good practice to test a few of the proposed initiatives that didn’t make the cut. Test them in a limited geography, time frame or against a limited audience. Once you have a sense of their positive potential, flag those initiatives for next year’s critical mass priority.

Tune in next week when Austin lures us back into the proverbial ‘box’ and gets your brand back on strategy.

divider

Niche is Not a Four-letter Word

Monday, August 4th, 2014

Whereas the word brand often seems like a spiritual invocation, in many marketing circles the word niche is often spoken with derision and used as a put down.

As far as niche goes, perhaps the most egregious errors of judgement were made in the technology marketplace of the late 90s, when niche became a curse you placed on any idea you wanted to kill or competitor you wanted to insult. Niche companies just weren’t going to make it. Niche start-ups just weren’t going to get the needed venture capital. Niches were for small-time players, the fearful, people with limited vision.

Well, I have always loved niche brands, never forgetting that bigger can indeed be better, particularly in the old economy. Needless to say, however, the Web has changed the way we think.

In 2006, Wired Editor Chris Anderson published The Long Tail, which highlighted how universal Web access meant that even the most thinly sliced niches could still add up to significant business when physical restrictions were taken out of the equation. For example, part of the dominance of big media content has always been physically derived: Limited space on a television channel or with a cable operator. Limited space on your local cinema screen, in a video rental store, in a music store or on a bookshelf. By comparison, digital distribution, universal access and search tools have created unlimited usable space, which has begun to make for an absolutely fascinating media marketplace that will become even more compelling in the years to come.

Niche brands understand the “position narrow, catch wide” axiom of brand strategy. They have built a limited, but fervent following first. They own their segment and enjoy the higher margins that general accrue to smart niche marketers. It’s not a bad place to stay.

Yes, it’s true, businesses are, as the cliche goes, like sharks: If they stop moving forward, they’ll die. But moving forward and getting big are two very different things. Who says you need to be big? A VC will if you’re a start-up, which is why many of those VCs are fully responsible for killing businesses that would have survived their first downturn if they had been rigged to run in niche-mode rather than artificially scaled to run big. Once you’re publicly traded, the street will demand top-line growth- until you teach your shareholders to invest in your consistent profitability rather than your explosive growth.

Owning a highly profitable niche is a thing to be celebrated. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that it is a natural and evolutionary step to move out of that niche and compete on a larger and more competitive stage. For now, at least, you may be much better off staying just where you are. Also, keep in mind that several focused and successful niche plays might well offer the better path to higher revenue, higher margins and less risk exposure than one big, broad play.

Large packaged goods companies offer wonderful lessons about niches. Each year entrepreneurial start-ups create niche products that, either slowly or very quickly, build a loyal and passionate following. Once they get “big enough,” they are acquired by a larger packaged goods company in that category. Interestingly, if that same very successful idea had originally been created within the larger, acquiring company, it would have been deemed too small (or niche) to warrant the investment necessary to take it to market. Often, there isn’t the passion and patience in larger companies to build a niche brand, but there does seem to be the money to pay for that brand once it’s an independent success.

Case in Point:

kelloggs

In my early days of marketing at Kellogg’s, I once sat in a meeting and watched chairman Bill LaMothe get a hard sell on the idea of getting Kellogg’s into the manufacturing of private-label cereal.

He replied, categorically, that they would never do that on his watch. He believed that companies and manufacturing facilities could only accommodate one level of quality. If Kellogg’s were to attempt to make both high and low-quality cereal within the same factory, ultimately both would work their way to the middle. What would Kellogg’s stand for then?

LaMothe was happy to pass up a short-term opportunity to preserve the long-term health of his company. He also passed up a number of opportunities to diversify Kellogg’s through acquisition, taking a lot of criticism from analysts until all those other CPG acquisitions flopped. Bill LaMothe was a visionary. He knew Kellogg’s and its niche better than anyone alive, and the company is so much better today because of the revenue-limiting decisions he made along the way.

Remember, there’s nothing wrong, and a lot of things right, with truly excelling at one thing. Thinking small can actually be the best path to a big result.

Stop back in, next week, as Austin delves into the Joys of Disruption

divider

Sterling Buzz…

Thursday, July 24th, 2014

americancraftWe’re excited to share the recent success of the Hillshire Farm’s American Craft brand!

Smart marketing tech coupled with smart packaging is a great recipe for success.

Click here to read the full story on Hillshire’s foray into Beacons mobile technology, and to check out our design work.

divider

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.

nike

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

divider

Invent, Don’t Construct

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

Analysis is great, but creating true differentiation is essentially a leap of faith.

Differentiation is seldom achieved purely through analytical rigor. Analysis and incrementalism still have their place in business, just not in the actual creation of differentiation.

The answer is to know everything. Strive to be more analytically rigorous than your competitors but also assume they’re looking at the same data and probably arriving at very similar conclusions. As heard in the movie The Incredibles: “When everyone is super, no one is.”

So go ahead and build that mountain of information. After that, climb to the summit and look around. Then leap off. Use science to get  you to the top, art to guide your leap.

That which is static and repetitive is boring. That which is dynamic and random is confusing. In between lies art.

John Locke

Two well-known books by Malcolm Gladwell (Blink) and Michael LeGault (Think! Why Crucial Decisions Can’t Be Made in the Blink of an Eye) illustrate this point: you need to think before you blink. You are suicidal if you don’t use every ounce of analytical rigor you have to solve your strategic problem, but you’re delusional if you think that analytical exploration is sufficient for business success. Conversely, anyone who tries to build a business on a “golden gut,” without taking the time to explore actual market data, is a fool.

Information is critical but it’s also ubiquitous. Analysis is a given. True brand differentiation and sustainable advantage can only be found and created in one place: your imagination.

Another weakness of using analysis alone is that it tends to lead you toward so-called red oceans (red because of all the competitive blood being spilled). In other words, when you are led by things you can measure, you tend toward spaces that can be measured- and those spaces are inevitably already overbuilt. Such spaces are almost always red oceans. Blue oceans, on the other hand, are not well measured, and no amount of pure analysis will lead you to them. (Read Blue Ocean Strategy by W.Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne)

This all sounds good, maybe even a bit inspiring. But most marketers operate within large organizations and those organizations aren’t known for following the intuitive leaps of their marketers. Once you’ve made that leap you need to put your analytical hat back on and construct a bridge from the top of that information mountain to wherever you landed. Sorry, but that’s the way it works: to justify your recommended strategy, you will be asked to compare your intended path to paths taken by others- even though the only really successful path with be the one that takes a completely different route (and thus can’t be measured).

To reiterate: analyze the hell out of the situation, make your intuitive leap, and then find the analytical path that connects your landing spot back to wherever you jumped from.

Finally, if you can’t handle paradoxes you may want to stay out of marketing.

Check back in next week for more straight talk on positioning from Austin McGhie, Sterling Strategy

divider

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

divider

A Brand is a Response, Not a Stimulus.

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014

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

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

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

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

——-

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

divider

Want a Great Brand? Build a Great Product.

Monday, March 17th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned for more from Austin McGhie next week…