long & short of it

Curiosity Solved The Challenge

At the heart of what marketing agencies do is find solutions to challenges their clients present to them.  Every client has a problem or a challenge – otherwise, they would be content with the status quo. The problem with being comfortable with the status quo is that the rest of the world will leave you behind and your company will soon find itself being irrelevant.

No company can thrive unless they are continuously evolving and adapting to the ever-changing market, customer attitudes, and competitive pressures.

 Call it a problem or a challenge, but companies are at point A and they need to get to point B - whether it’s a brand challenge, customer acquisition strategy, or coming up with new ideas. Often, companies come to an agency with either a predetermined notion of what they need, such as a new website or they just want a solution such as, “more sales.”  The worst thing an agency can do is to just say yes.  Whether the agency is full service or specializes in a certain field, the temptation to apply their expertise and get the work started, often overrides the requirement to get curious, assess the situation, and understand the core challenge before presenting a potential approach to a solution. 

At the heart of solving any challenge is curiosity, objectiveness, and critical thinking.

 Regardless of the challenge, the fundamental process has three basic steps:

 Investigate - Why?  Defining the challenge is the first step and often the most difficult.  Asking why, what if, or how might we, is a great place to start.  Search for the root cause.  Clearly articulate the problem or challenge you are solving for. Try not to combine a number of challenges together. This gets everyone on the same page and establishes a conversation and a common goal.

 Illuminate - What?  Now it’s time to get smart.  Ask yourself these four questions.  What information do you need to solve the challenge?  What do you know?  What don’t you know?  And how will you fill those gaps?  This can be done by simply creating 4 columns with each of these questions at the top. Research leads to insights. Insights provide the clarity and focus - they help tell the story as well as arming you with the information you need to develop a strategy or plan on how to get from point A to point B.

 Integrate - How?  The plan now needs to be put into action.  The details matter here – this is the step where the tactics are developed.  It includes the specific actions, along with timing, budget, metrics, and responsibilities that ladder up to the strategy.  It may sound strange, but often, many companies will start here and entirely skip the first two steps.  If they succeed, it may have just been luck.

 What’s truly awesome about beginning with a curious mind and then letting the process lead you to the answer is that you will find new possibilities and solutions that you may have never discovered.  At our firm, this is what we love more than anything – knowing that in the process of working with our clients, we will not only find a way to solve their challenge, but discover new possibilities, inspiration, and entirely new ideas as an outcome of the process.

 Your plan is like a journey, and while your company or team is travelling down the path, the terrain will change and you will discover new or different things along the way.  Unlike in physics, the most direct path from point A to point B is not necessarily a straight line.  So, be ready to adjust as needed, but never lose focus of the objective.

Demographics Are Outdated

Using demographics to identify and target your audience is increasingly ineffective.

While demographics still have value, they shouldn’t be the sole or primary criteria for identifying your audience and determining the best message to deliver. As our reliance on demographics fades, so too is the effectiveness of classifying people in broad categories, such as Gen Xers and Millennials.

Demographics alone won’t tell you the most important thing you need to know about your audience, which is what they value. The emphasis on understanding what people like and how they share experiences creates new tribes and new ways to segment your audience.

During a study we conducted for a financial institution that wanted to attract Millennials, it became clear that how they felt about money and savings had largely to do with whether or not they lived with their parents. A 21-year-old working her first job and sharing an apartment with roommates has more in common with a 35-year-old in a similar situation than a peer living at home with mom and dad. This is common sense, but it is surprising how companies continue to use generic targeting schemes based on the faulty premise that everyone born between the early 1980s and 2000s will respond as a single homogeneous cohort. Trust me, I’ve seen enough RFPs come through.

This coming together around common values is related to how we access content, increasing urbanization and the growing popularity of authentic brands aligned with our values.

Our ability to access content anywhere at anytime, along with social media platforms that let us share that content, create new opportunities to interact with like-minded people — often in ways that shatter demographic boundaries.

In a 2014 interview, BBC Radio’s George Ergatoudis said, “If you look at the list of the 1,000 favorite artists for 60-year-olds and the 1,000 favorite artists for 13-year-olds, there is a 40% overlap, and if you take 30- to 39-year-olds and 13- to 19-year-olds, over 50% of their favorite artists are the same.” Can you imagine listening to 60% of the same music your parents or grandparents did when you were 13? I validated this when my 14-year-old son said he listens to Green Day, Led Zeppelin and the Stones. Cool.

Our increasingly urbanized society allows us to interact more closely while being exposed to a greater variety of cultures, ideas and experiences. According to a 2015 McKinsey Global Institute study, urban populations are growing by 65 million people every year — that’s seven new Chicagos a year, a mind-blowing statistic.

This growth leads to increasing economic spend, and brands that play on this global stage respond, not based on demographics, but in shared value experiences and by meeting individual expectations. This is why Starbucks has no stated demographic only target audience; it has created environments that allow people to share experiences. The company understands its power comes from how consumers feel when they interact with it. And when they love it, they will share it. Starbucks is one of the most popular brands shared on social media; it has more Instagram tags than Apple, McDonald’s and Coke combined.

Living in a society that allows us to connect with people and ideas in ever-expanding ways, virtually and physically, lets people more fully express themselves as individuals. Knowledge, technology and choice allow freedom of expression to blossom. It’s why consumers flock to brands that allow them to express who they are or who they want to be. We see this in fair trade coffee, Tesla and handmade crafts on Etsy. Brands allow consumers to do what they want, how they want, while feeling good about themselves. The Swedish clothing company Uniforms For The Dedicated has launched an initiative called the Rag Bag. It allows customers, once they take their new clothing out of the company shopping bag, to turn the bag inside out and place a donated item inside. Once reversed, the bag turns into a printed and pre-paid package that can be sealed and dropped in the mail. It effectively renders shopping guilt-free, even virtuous.

To more precisely target and meet the needs of your audience, look well past the demographics.

They are important, but to be truly effective in your marketing, study audience psychographics. Understand what they value, how they feel about your category, what is important to them and, above all, stay authentic. Like the old adage goes, say what you mean, and do what you say – and never stop listening to and studying your audience.

Can You Trust Your Mind?

1962 was a peak year in market share for GM, with 52% of the U.S. car market.  Today they stand at 18%.  The decline was not sudden nor should it have been unexpected. There were rumblings of change all around them, beginning with the rise in oil prices in the 1970’s, but they were ignored. By the 80’s they finally realized that the Japanese could not only make better cars, but also make them more efficiently, and they were popular with the U.S. market. What took the leadership so long to realize this? Part of the answer is the mental models they operated within. 

Peter Seng, in his book, “The Fifth Discipline”, defined mental models as, “deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures or images that influence how we understand the worlds and how we take action. Very often, we are not consciously aware of our mental models or the effect they have on our behavior.” This is not new. The idea of mental models was first postulated by the American philosopher, Charles Sanders Peirce in 1896.

The assumption under which GM functioned were never written down, but, the following were obtained from interviews of retired former senior GM executives:

1.      GM is in the business of making money, not just cars

2.    Success flows from rapid adaptation, not technological leadership (automatic transmission was last major innovation)

3.    Cars are primarily status symbols:  people want to upgrade

4.    The U.S. car market is isolated from the rest of the world

5.    Fossil fuels (oil) will remain cheap and abundant

6.    The government is an enemy and so are unions

7.    Planned obsolescence works (quality less important)

8.    Efficiency of mass production beats other approaches

9.    Bigger is better – we can manage anything

Imagine how these filters and perceptions of the world affected the decisions GM was making. Mental models are subtle, yet very powerful. And not all models are bad, in fact, they help us organize and navigate our lives. For the most part, they have helped us survive. The issue is that they can influence our behaviors without us even being aware. In fact, they can at times cause a collective herd mentality that in the case of GM, had disastrous effects. 

What are the unwritten rules or mental models in your company? It’s the stuff you talk about that is not in your employee handbook, or the bits of wisdom you provide to new employees to help them adjust to your culture. Are the mental models of your most senior executives different from the rest of the staff? How are your individual or corporate wide mental models affecting your decision-making? How are they possibly blinding you from growth opportunities, competitive threats, or changes in your target audience purchase patterns?

Take the time to reflect and write down your unwritten rules – whether in your company or in any other aspect of your life. Question them. How do you know them to be true? Are they helping or in actuality, limiting beliefs? Share your mental models with others in your company and look to get to the data behind them and see if they can really stack up or if they are just assumptions that filter your thinking and actions.

Being consciously aware of your mental models and intentionally managing them can not only free up your thinking to new possibilities, but also shed light upon blind-spots.

Why Innovation Teams Fail

I recently received my latest and greatest credit card with the chip. It reminded me of when our innovation team pitched the leadership of our large credit card firm on how to transform our industry with this technology.  The company was looking for an innovative approach to help take a leadership position in the U.S. credit card market. 

The capabilities and security advantages of chip technology over magnetic stripes were already being put to use throughout Europe and Asia. Along with consumer benefits, there would however, be significant cost implications. Though, it was apparent that this was where the entire industry was headed and the benefits to the customer along with a reduction in fraud were clear. Not to mention the new applications, discoveries, and innovations that could be built upon the technology. We had an opportunity to make a bold and disruptive move in the U.S. card market.  That was in 1996. More on that later.

Unless a company has integrated innovative thinking into the fabric of the organization, they may fall prey to the idea that they can set up a separate group to come up with great new ideas to deliver to the market. 

Coming up with new or groundbreaking ideas is often not the greatest challenge. Delivering the ideas into the market is where things begin to fall apart. 

Organizations may come to the realization that they lack either the culture or know-how to develop innovative products or services and successfully get them into market. They may take the easy path and decide to set up a team, give some folks a new title, or even physically locate them away from the rest of the employees and dub them the “innovation team.” 

This will often prove ineffective and may backfire on two fronts. The primary issue is not that the team won’t come up with great ideas, but they will then have to take their magnificent concepts and introduce them into the very same system and organization that admittedly stated they were not good at innovating. A study of MIT technology transfer over 16 years, found that when a large company licensed a technology from MIT and introduced it into their development systems, the idea never even got to market 80% of the time.

The second issue is one of negative cultural impact, which is exactly the opposite of what leaders would expect to happen. The concept of demonstrating their commitment to innovation must surely boost confidence in the company. But exactly how would you feel if you were not selected or even asked to participate in the innovation efforts? There is the real threat of fostering animosity from existing employees who know they have great ideas and want to contribute, but can’t or were never given the option. Or worse - ask the employees to submit their ideas, and foster excitement, only to have little feedback on what happened with their ideas and inevitably, see the tiniest percentage ever see the light of day, if that.

Back to that pitch to our CEO two decades ago. We had our challenge. We completed our research and we even had pilot programs up and running. After a good hour long presentation, the CEO, with a very thoughtful expression on his face, leaned back and said, “couldn’t we just paint a chip on the card and make believe it did something, when in actuality, it just used our same mag stripe infrastructure?” Awkward silence followed. And here we are 20 years later finally implementing the technology in the U.S. And a bit too late, as more innovative companies are already moving us beyond chip technology with mobile payment systems and enhanced security features.

Innovation is not the job of a select few. Innovation is a mindset, supported by senior leadership, with systems, education and tools that empower all employees.

Before pursuing innovation in your organization, take the time to step back and consider the entire system, not just one component, such as generating ideas. Take stock in your culture, your leadership, your commitment, and your innovation capabilities before investing in tools, teams, or titles. As in any endeavor, the time taken up front to plan and prepare, will help yield better results on the back-end, where it matters.

How Strong Is Your Employer Brand?

Attracting and keeping top talent is one of the biggest challenges for most companies. In a recent study by the National Center for the Middle Market, staffing is the number one issue these companies have as they look forward over the next 12 months. Harris Allied’s Tech Hiring & Retention survey similarly found (for the 4th straight year) that hiring top talent was the number one concern for tech companies. 

Over 60% of CEO’s interviewed in a Harvard Business Review study stated that talent related issues were their top concern.

So, if you want to attract the top talent, what do you think these prospective employees think about your company? What is your company’s reputation or Employer Brand? Even though the term Employer Brand was coined in the 1990’s, few companies are doing an effective job at managing a unified brand – a brand platform that is universally applied internally as well as externally.

The same brand management principles applied to your customers, such as being authentic, consistent, and having a clear value proposition, need to be applied internally. Yet, companies often struggle with developing a unified brand.

Only Going To Get Harder

The changing employee landscape is only going to increase the need to be clearer about what it means to work at your company. The rise of social media and entrance of millennials not only into the mainstream workforce, but increasingly holding senior level positions, is transforming companies and sometimes forcing them to become more transparent, whether they like it or not. 

What it’s like to truly work in a company is an important consideration for any prospective employee, and easy to find out.  Just as companies increasingly use social media in the hiring process, prospective employees are using sites like LinkedIn, Glassdoor, and profiles on The Muse to get a sense of what a company culture is really like as they conduct their due diligence.

Internal Brand Management

When companies think about their brand, they often focus on the external facing element of how customers perceive their brand. However, that is only part of what it takes to effectively manage your brand. In a similar fashion to how a company has a value proposition for its customers (or why should I give you my money and time), a company needs to develop and apply a clear value proposition for their employees.

The good news is that a company doesn’t need to rebrand themselves or put any extra time and effort in redefining their brand – they just need to ensure that they apply the same brand management principles internally as they do externally. 

Authenticity is key to attracting and keeping top employees as much as it is to finding and keeping customers.


Things To Do

·      Start with the basics and find out how well your employees understand your company’s mission, vision, and most importantly, values. How well are new employees on-boarded and how well do current employees live the brand?

·      Does your company have an employee value proposition? If not – think about what image your company wants to portray externally as a place to work. Also consider what your company needs to do to help promote that image. Social media is not only critical in these efforts, but should be a mandatory tool to help promote your Employer Brand.

·      Investigate how well your employees make value-based decisions. In other words, if one of your top values is putting the client first, how is this value applied in every interaction with your customers? Or if work/life balance is a value, what is your company doing to communicate and manage to this value?  If your values are fully incorporated into how your employees work every day, they shouldn’t have to pull out an employee handbook to figure out what to do. It will be instinctual, because, “this is just how we do things around here.”

·      Don’t leave this responsibility solely in the hands of the HR team. It’s important that defining the Employer Brand begins with the CEO and is just as much a responsibility for the leaders of the organization and marketing as it is for HR.

At the end of the day, having a clear employee value proposition is just plain good for business. 

It should be a no brainer that attracting and keeping top talent will only lead to better financial results in the long term. The Middle Market study, further showed that companies with a clear employee value proposition had nearly a 3:1 top line revenue performance difference compared to companies that didn’t have one. 

And finally, it will only strengthen your brand overall. When your employees understand your brand, and if your brand is consistently applied internally as well as externally, employees will deliver upon your mission, vision, and values in every interaction with your customers. It’s simply a win for everyone and worth every effort required to make it happen.