Posts Tagged ‘Strategy’


Drowning in Information

Monday, November 17th, 2014

In the words of Rutherford Rogers of Yale: “We’re drowning in information and starving for knowledge.”

Most marketers don’t need more research or more data. They need more insight.

That may seem a small point, or even an obvious one, but I remain astonished by the high ratio of money spent on research that doesn’t lead to action compared to money spent on research that does lead to action.

Information is useless in its own right, and far too many people and organizations are satisfied with spending millions of dollars on useless information. Yes, you need to know what’s going on out there- but only if you are actually going to do something with the knowledge. Only if that information somehow yields competitive advantage.

The missing ingredient can sound trite. Insight is a much-overused term in the world of marketing. But it’s insight that you’re looking for. It’s insight that’s worth paying for- not information.

So try this: review every “research” expenditure you have. Ask the same two questions of each program or project:

-Will it lead to an action?

-Will it lead to insights that will yield competitive advantage?

If the answer is no to both questions, don’t do it. Save the money and- perhaps more important- save the organizational time and focus that can be much better spent on insight generation.

Many companies seem to be so busy processing information that they lose track of its purpose. What if all that processing time and the minds that like to do that type of processing were replaced with insight-generation time and minds that like to create insight? It’s time to find out.

Austin McGhie is head of Sterling’s Strategy team


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.


Building Critical Marketing Mass

Wednesday, August 20th, 2014


“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.


What the Hell is a Brand Anyway?

Monday, March 3rd, 2014

“A brand is something that won’t come off in the wash.” - Cowboy’s adage

Now that we’ve driven the B word into a box, let’s look inside that box.

Charles Revson, who founded and built Revlon, is often quoted as saying: “In the factory we make cosmetics, but in the drugstore we sell hope.” In other words, companies and products build intellectual relationships while brands build emotional relationships. Consumers buy products but become emotionally invested in brands. Put yet another way, once consumers are emotionally vested, you have a brand.

Let’s remind ourselves once again: A brand is a marketplace response, not a marketer’s stimulus. You can’t brand something. You can only position it:

-If you manage to create a position that is compelling, different and competitively advantageous, you’re off to a good start

-If your organization has the ability to consistently execute that position, you have a shot at becoming a successful brand

-If that position can stand the test of time, you have a shot at becoming a strong brand

-If that execution stays on strategy, is simple yet powerful, and is somehow kept fresh and surprising over time, you have a shot at becoming a great brand

-If you can do all of this better than your competition, your brand will win

Those are a lot of “ifs,” but no one said this marketing thing is easy- and at the very start of that chain of “ifs”  is the notion of the right positioning. So how do you know if you’ve found the right position?

You know you’ve found the right position when your position is built around a single idea that:

-Is highly differentiated

-Creates competitive advantage

-Guides and inspires your organization and your audience

-Is sustainable over time

-Is provocative, even disruptive to the marketplace status quo

-Can be consistently executed over time, but in ways that evolve and stay fresh

That’s a daunting list and few companies pull it off, which is why we all tend to use the same limited set of case studies (e.g. Apple, Nike, ESPN, Google, Starbucks). Marketing is positioning. Great marketing is positioning that fits all these criteria (and probably a few others I haven’t articulated). Great marketing is the exception rather than the rule.

And you will need to work your but off to become that exception.

Stay tuned next week when Austin explains how Great Brands are Built from the Inside, out.


Sterling Buzz…

Monday, February 24th, 2014

designthinkersEach year, some of the biggest influencers in design gather at the Design Thinkers conference in Toronto, combining insights from design, advertising and business to discuss industry trends, strategies and predict what will inspire the next year in design.

This past fall, we were proud to send Austin McGhie to talk about what it means to be a brand, and how ‘branding’ doesn’t mean a thing.

Click here to view his presentation on why Brand is a Four Letter Word

Thanks to RGD for hosting the video!


Definitions: Communication

Tuesday, February 18th, 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 talk Communication…



-Presenting your position to your audience in a way that assures its attention is more difficult than many marketers seem to realize. It’s easy to communicate an idea to someone who is paying attention. It’s remarkably tough to accurately communicate an idea in a way that captures the attention of someone who doesn’t care. And by and large, you have to assume that your customers do not care.

-As we’ll discuss, position drives communication. Communication is a stimulus designed to operate in a cultural medium in order to elicit a desired response. The desired response is the position. A simple closed loop- except for one critical factor. People process that stimulus in wildly different ways. What you say is seldom what they actually hear.


-Corona’s ongoing campaign to find new and interesting ways to take us to the beach has done a remarkable job of selling the brand. The “Most Interesting Man in the World” campaign  has done the same for Dos Equis.

-As the Old Spice Guy, ex-NFL player and actor Isaiah Mustafa has actually made Old Spice cool for the first time in its life.

-But for ongoing communication excellence, it’s hard to get past Nike and its ad agency, Wieden+Kennedy. Time after time, they have managed to hit the creative ball out of the park, all the while maintaining that consistent thread you need to hold a brand together.

-And let’s not forget Apple’s “1984.” One great ad, placed just once, and still being talked about to this day.


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


Definitions: Position

Monday, February 10th, 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 we help you understand the importance of your Position…



-This is the one idea, or perspective, that you must champion through everything that you do, both internally and externally. It is the idea that will represent you in the marketplace. And whereas you don’t have to have a brand to succeed, you must have a position to do so.

-Needless to say, there’s a lot of pressure on how you position yourself. A position must represent the vision of the company and it must leverage the business model. It must be a distilled representation of the marketing strategy. It must stay true to the customer experience. And most of all, it must be an idea that can guide and inspire the organization, as well as guide and inspire your audience.

-The more your position is driven by a credible sense of mission the better. People may buy brands that don’t have a sense of mission, but they will participate in brands that do.


-Dove and Axe, both owned by Unilever, are great examples of style over substance- and I mean this as a compliment to their marketers. Dove saw that women were sick and tired of the lookalike (read: beautiful and waif-like) models used to promote beauty brands, and presented us with “Real Beauty.” I’m very proud that Sterling Brands helped the brand get there but I would be the first to admit that “there” wouldn’t be nearly as significant if Ogilvy hasn’t absolutely nailed the communications side of things. Similarly, Axe grokked young men and built a highly successful brand out of thin air by simply bringing the teen male to life in every dimension of its brand communication mix.

-In the 1970s, 7-Up successfully positioned itself as “The Uncola,” only to switch agencies and completely lose the script. It confused position with execution, and instead of keeping the position and freshening the execution, dumped the baby out with the bathwater.

-On the other hand, Levi’s continues to want to deny who it is. Its mantra seems to be: “Young people don’t find us cool and they wouldn’t be caught dead in most of the retailers that carry us- but let’s make them our marketing focus anyway.” And while Levi’s fights this uphill battle, Lee and Wrangler walk away with Middle America.

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


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


Definitions: Vision

Thursday, January 23rd, 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.

Don’t be shy to use this as a refresher, and of course we’ll provide examples to guide you through.

Today we start of with ‘Vision’….



-The idea that drives the organization. Vision is the reason a company’s employees come to work every day. This vision must work actively to imbue the organization- and by extension, its strategy- with a clear sense of purpose. Better still, with a sense of mission. This vision must also have utility. It must inform all decision-making, including marketing strategy and, therefore, positioning.

-Must be deeply internalized. Most people don’t spend nearly enough time ensuring their vision paints a clear picture for their people.

-Weak vision = weak brand. Smart and creative marketing may delay the inevitable, but a business without a strong vision is ultimately a brand fighting to stay afloat.

-What business are you in? It all starts with that disarmingly simple question. Apple’s answer to this question transformed the company, while Yahoo! still has to answer this question if it is to have any hope of success.


-Visa has been working hard to replace paper with plastic; ultimately, it wants to replace both with smart devices.  Everyone wins in the world Visa hopes to create- consumers, banks and, of course, Visa itself.

-While consumer electronics companies are scrambling to harness technology, Apple has moved from technology to entertainment, from fascinating computers to irreplaceable and constant companions. Its vision (devices matter) is increasingly in direct conflict with the Amazon vision (intelligence in the cloud), and while both can still prosper, only one worldview can be right.

-Google  wants to organize the world’s information. How’s that for a vision?

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


A Plea for Doing Less

Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

It’s a busy world. We’re busy people. The busier we are the more important we must be. Right?

Sadly, pace and workload are connected to importance in too many business minds. Here’s what I’ve found, both in my own work and working with our clients- this is nonsense. Worse, it’s damaging- to people and to the businesses that employ them.

I see companies trying to do too much. That seems like a noble cause, but it’s not. They spread too few resources (people and money) across too many things. In marketing, those things fit many descriptions but, for simplicity, let’s call them “campaigns”.

And here’s what happens in the world of marketing- each of these campaigns is executed fairly well. Each of these campaigns gets some of the budget. Each of these campaigns ALMOST gets noticed by the target audience it’s directed against. These sins are perpetuated every day. Sins, because they are so wasteful. Wasteful of the money that is spent. Wasteful of the labor that goes into them. Wasteful of the pride that people would like to find in their success.

What if you did this?

Simply list all of these campaigns, in an order of priority based on the impact you think they can have on building your business. Then, starting with the first campaign, be ruthlessly honest about the time and money required to execute perfectly, with enough critical marketing mass to grab the attention of a reluctant and generally uninterested audience. Place that time and money against it, then move onto campaign number two and repeat the process. Combine the amounts and move onto number three. And so on, until you run out of time and money. Then STOP. Don’t do anything further. Focus every hour of effort and dollar of spending against executing that smaller number of campaigns perfectly.

You’ll see an immediate and positive impact on your business and culture, because:

1.) What you do will be done better – much better

2.) What you do will actually be noticed – in the real world – by your customer

3.) Your people will work less, but more effectively, and will have much greater pride in their work product

In short, everybody wins.

Try it, you’ll like it!

Austin McGhie, Sterling Strategy