Monthly Archives: February 2009

Oh Brave New World (of neurological focus groups)!

I like Martin Lindstrom. He’s an out there kind of guy, which is clearly demonstrated in his newish book, Buy.ology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy. Maybe it’s because he shares my skepticism about traditional market research techniques, especially focus groups. Maybe because he understands how to build a good case for what is essentially scientific mind-reading. ( Lindstrom is a pioneer in the development of a technique that measures electrical activity in the brain in reaction to a stimulus, gathered through means of a sensory transmitter that looks like a swimming cap. It’s not what you SAY, he believes, but WHAT YOUR NEURONS DO that matters. 

In brief, Lindstrom’s thesis is that when it comes to brands and marketing:

  1. Emotion is stronger than logic. Yup, proven time and again
  2. Consumers, consciously or un-consciously, mis-state their opinions in market research studies. Uh huh. 8 out of 10 new products fail. See my post on Tropicana. 
  3. The way forward is to focus on what does or does not light up consumers’ prefrontal cortex.  Hmmmm.

Although he fears that the reader might connect all this to an Orwellian world of mind control, my fertile brain went straight to Aldous Huxley, specifically Brave New World. Follow me on this one. In Brave New World, humans spend a lot of time blissed out on a legal substance known as soma. Lindstrom paves a logical and thought-provoking path to the importance of somatic markers. Somatic markers are “a…bookmark or shortcut in our brain [that] shepherd us toward a decision that we know will yield the best, least painful outcome.”

If you follow Lindstrom’s thesis, then branding and related marketing activities are about triggering the most “blissful” response (or at least not a negative one) in the mind of the consumer, thus leading to purchase and preference. I personally buy into this. How many of us, through endless focus groups or one on one interviews or blindness inducing quantitative data analysis, are trying to find the holy grail of the ultimate brand “delighter” or “preference driver”? 

There is much, much more in buy.ology that I don’t have time or patience to cover in this post. Lindstrom can be a little grandiose, and in a few instances seemingly self-contradictory, but mostly he had me in general agreement with his concepts.   And lest you think this neurology stuff is all theory, apparently Frito-Lay is a believer–they have developed an ad campaign and snack food repackaging based on validation from neurological testing.

I question, though, whether brain scans will become so very commonplace. It’s great if you are a mass marketer with the budget and patience to develop prototype ads as stimuli. It’s a lot harder at the brand strategy or product innovation level when you are dealing in abstract concepts or the unknown. 

For someone like me, who is so lopsidedly right brained, it’s always sweet to see proof of the power of emotion and intuition over formula and algorithm. And until there is a real-world soma, then I’m happy to be blissed out by brands.



Filed under Brand strategy, Market Research

The Freedom of a Tight Brief

Less is more. Not to beat a dead horse, but writing about Arnell and the rationale for the new Pepsi logo got me going on what a brief is all about. It is not a multi-page bloviation on gravitational pull. I have seen many over the years, and most aren’t worth the paper they are written on. Disclaimer–I have never worked in an advertising agency. Maybe it’s different in the ad world.

For those of us in Brand-land, we are either provided with a brief from our client or the strategy team must compose one for the creatives based on an immersion in the corporate or product strategy. (And every firm I have worked for has a different way of writing a brief). Briefs are used for logo design, naming, visual systems and they are critical tools for any creative team. If we create one internally, we forward it to the client for approval. Sadly, many clients don’t know what to do with it. In the worst and most common case, the client approves it, without realizing the this becomes our the touchstone by which we judge our work. Chaos ensues when they don’t like said work, and we defend it fiercely as being “on brief.”

I’m not beating up on clients, because I was one too. I remember an endless battle with the head of my company, who didn’t like a proposed ad campaign. I went over the rationale and explained how the ads visually and verbally supported the position and personality we had adopted. He didn’t get it. Finally, I showed him the brief we had given to the agency, which he had contributed to and had approved. Oops. Well, he “had seen the document, but didn’t understand what it was for, and he still didn’t like the campaign…”

What makes a good brief? I don’t know if I buy the concept that it is a fill-in-the-blank form. It’s one of those “I’ll know it when I see it” things, because the type of information that is relevant and necessary for a consumer product is different for business to business or corporate.

What I really love is the story I read in Ad Age today about a new campaign by McCann for Nescafe. Maybe they started with a complicated, multi-layered, everything but the kitchen sink brief. But you know what it got boiled down to?


How cool is that? That’s what I mean by “the freedom of a tight brief”.

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The CMO and The Curse of Sibling Rivalry

Information is power. Turf is even more powerful. I worked long enough in corporate America to know that to be absolutely true.

I recently read about a CMO Council study that found that marketers “don’t know how to use customer input to improve operations, products and processes.” Not all that surprising. My inside experience–and outside observations as a consultant–suggests that most CMOs are pretty far removed from grass-roots customer data. And, as the study suggests, customer data gathering is an increasingly fragmented process. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that even if a CMO has excellent input about customer perceptions, s/he is blocked from acting on it by the other sibling in the corporate family.

Examples? I have seen:

  • A customer service unit that was “owned” by Operations, with the same call metrics for consumers and for businesses. By the way, business customers have much more complex issues, but the call center was operating under a re-engineered approach that rewarded call brevity, not understanding of the business. 
  • A Human Resources department reject an employee recognition program that rewards on-brand customer service because it “owned” recognition awards, and had no desire to change what was already in place
  • Valid, insightful customer research fielded within a line of business that was dismissed by Corporate Marketing because it wasn’t a part of the Voice of the Customer program

In short, many corporations have have a perfect storm of information hoarding PLUS turf protection that can result in a pretty poor outcome for the customer.

What’s a CMO to do? Perhaps not to claim the title of “Chief Customer Officer”, which is what the CMO Council suggests. Any company with a strong brand should understand that every single employee has the potential of being a chief customer officer. Centralizing the responsibility just gives other departments an excuse not to feel responsible.

In this difficult competitive environment, Benjamin Franklin’s statement is truer than ever: “We must indeed all hang together, or most assuredly, we will hang separately”.

Instead of bemoaning the lack of budget to go out and advertise, promote, and conduct new research, now may be the perfect opportunity to team up with your brethren and share and/or collect customer data together. Then, create ways to act on the information!

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On Cheerleading and Employee Engagement

My 17 year old daughter is a varsity cheerleader on her high school’s competitive team. Cheerleading has changed dramatically since I was in high school. It is now increasingly popular and fiercely competitive, on track to become an Olympics sport sometime in the future.

The sport has become so high profile that job recruiters, particularly in the pharmaceutical industry, seek out former cheerleaders as high potential salespeople. (See more in this article from The New York Times).

The UCA National high school cheerleading finals took place in 2010 on February 12–14 in Orlando at Disney World. This was my third visit as a “cheer Mom”. The first time I went, I was struck by what a perfect metaphor modern cheerleading is for brand advocacy (sometimes known as  employee brand engagement). In fact, I gave a speech shortly thereafter, that drew heavily on that experience.  I even included snapshots that I had taken during the competition to illustrate what I meant. My point of view has not changed.

Corporations today know that engaged employees lead to better efficiency, higher profits and an all-round better brand. But from my observation, the attempts at creating “engagement” are hampered by the lack of a holistic perspective. Not so among today’s cheerleaders. These teams are cross-trained to create a fabulous routine. Throughout the season, practice is supplemented by work with professional choreographers, formal gymnastics instruction, drills and, of course, cheering. A successful routine includes all of these elements, executed flawlessly, and completed in exactly two and one-half minutes. The higher degree of difficulty, the better the score.

How many corporations have employees that meet this kind of standard? Exactly the ones that are known for their strong brands: Starbucks, Apple, Nordstrom, Southwest Airlines, etc. In the rest of the business world, these attempts to “engage” their employees all too often become:

  • Superficial–poster campaigns, unnecessary town halls, inauthentic newsletters
  • Opportunities for sibling rivalry–Human Resources wants to create an “employer brand”, Marketing wants to develop brand advocacy based on the external brand, Corporate Training wants to take charge of educating employees and Internal Communications want to control all the communication channels
  • Bottoms up programs–doomed to fail because there is no senior executive sponsorship or behavioral models

A major missing element of many traditional engagement programs is the company brand. Let me suggest that the key to true brand advocacy is a clear focus on the outside world. And that focus results from understanding the brand. Competitive cheerleaders know exactly what the judges are looking for. Certain stunts win extra points for difficulty, and errors like stepping off the mat result in a lower score. In the same way, employees must understand how customers and prospects judge, purchase and ultimately prefer a company’s product.

Over the past three years, cheerleading has become even more competitive. The stunts and tumbling have reached an amazing level. It’s not unlike the constantly escalating level of competition in the business world. What makes it different is that I have seen true innovation in routines, and I have seen enthusiastic support for building to higher difficulty.

Employees may not have to do a standing back handspring like a varsity cheerleader, but a well-coordinated and unified understanding of the brand can make the difference in a transparent and competitive world.

P.S. My daughter’s team won 5th place at the Nationals.

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(Brand) Closet Cleaning

I love to clean out closets. It’s generally a manageable task, and one that I can complete in a day. (This timeframe does not, of course, apply to the closets of my two teenage daughters.)

As I survey the wreckage of the economy we face today, I can’t help but think that a little brand closet cleaning is not a bad thing at all. Some of this has happened already, with the demise of well-known retailers such as Linens N Things, Circuit City, and others. Another category that is shrinking rapidly is what I call “bling brands”, which grew along with all the other wretched excess that we saw in the years leading up to our latest downturn.

Unlike authentic, luxury brands, which have staying power, bling brands are created in a bubble. I consider luxury brands to include Tiffany, Hermes, BMW, Rolex, Ritz-Carlton, Chanel, among many others. Bling, on the other hand, makes me think of Hummer, an endless supply of $6,000 designer handbags with no recognizable or distinctive style, diamond encrusted watches, platinum cell phone cases, and celebrity perfumes. The stock market calls a certain investment trend during tough times “a flight to quality” and the same is true for high-end consumer/luxury brands. They may experience a dip in volume, but authenticity and reliable, unmatched quality is what lasts.

Finally, what about the endless line extensions and unnecessary variations that have sprung from the feverish imaginations of brand managers. How many flavors of vodka or rum are really necessary? How many varieties of cell phones? Or types of credit cards? Yes, I know, the name of the consumer marketing game has been to dominate shelf space. But in a time when the focus is on essentials, your marketing dollars have to work much harder. I think now is a wonderful opportunity to take a long hard look at the real value of an overstuffed product portfolio. 

So one of my New Year’s wishes is for marketers to clean out all the worn-out, poorly-fitting, faddish, or dated clothes–oops, brands–in their closets. It’s amazing what a little extra room on the clothing rod can do for the spirit. It actually inspires fresh new thinking and may lead to true product innovation

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Filed under Brand architecture