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Strategies that Cut to the Chase

For one reason or another, I’ve been keeping closer-than-usual tabs on the news lately. Some of the most appalling things I’ve been reading about are the strategies and tactics large companies and governments are using to turn the situation in their favor. This is what I mean:

Fast Company revealed how Republican congressmen led efforts nationwide to create laws that make it harder for young people to vote. Those laws center around requiring proof-of-residence documents such as driver licenses and restricting last minute registration. It seems reasonable until the article points out that the states where these laws are being debated are key states that the Republican lost during the last elections because of the youth vote.

Another example comes from the HB Gary debacle with Anonymous. Part of the leaks revealed that companies are investing in “persona management” software that allows a small team of people to manage a ton of personas. The goal is to use those personas to influence conversations online.

And the latest example is in Wisconsin where Forbes revealed that Governor Walker’s efforts to kill public unions are actually driven by the Koch Brothers; the sibling duo that manages Koch industries, a conglomerate with companies such as: Brawny, Dixie, Vanity Fair and many others. Unions are bad for business so the Koch Brothers found ways to fund the politician that would kill them on their behalf.

My initial reaction to these cases was shock, due to the blatant evilness of their intentions. Then it shifted to pity as those ideas are ham-fisted and fly in the face of the authenticity and transparency trends that seem so important these days. But now, I’m very impressed.

There is something about their ability to pinpoint the exact spot they need to target. It’s like finding that one Jenga piece that will cause the whole tower to fall. I think I do something similar where I want to find that single thought that can spring a strategy. But the difference is that I don’t think I’ve ever thought to frame a problem as a tower that I’m trying to take down with a single stroke. I think the key here is to understand the interconnectedness of the situation at hand. Then you’ll understand the structure of the tower and the weakest point to attack.

The second thing that’s very interesting is the actual tactic they’ve taken to solve the problem. It comes in all shapes and sizes and does different things. I realize that in our business we try to encourage the same things as well, but I’d argue all the ideas we produce end up trying to persuade or convince the customer to believe or do something. What these examples opened my eyes to is that an idea doesn’t have to address the customer or end user at all and it might be more effective to target a part of their environment using tactics such as interference, confusion, sabotage and others.

This is interesting to me because I work at a place where we believe that brands are more effective when they do things, rather than communicating things. So far, we’ve focused on helping brands do things with or for their customers to solve business problems. What these case studies are starting to open up for me is the idea of a brand doing things in the market to solve business problems with or without the customers.

An example of this can be found in this month’s HBR. There’s an interview with A.G. Lafley where he described how P&G tried to get into the bleach business and wanted to do a test market in Maine to avoid getting noticed by their rivals at Clorox. Well, Clorox found out and flooded the test market with free samples and it effectively put an end to P&G’s expansion. Problem solved.

I certainly don’t know whether I have something or not. But, what it is doing for me is opening up my mind a little about strategy being more tactical. The way I’m doing it now (and I’m assuming how most brand strategist do it) is still very conceptual, meaning we think about strategies as frameworks and ideas that may imply tactics but are not tactics themselves. The reason why this type of thinking is attractive to me is that it cuts to the chase. Conceptually-driven strategies feels like a very roundabout way to achieve what you want. There’s a lot of pomp and circumstance when creating and then unveiling the solution, hoping that customers will get involved and play along with your marketing scheme. Tactically driven strategies have a sense of focus that seems to be much more efficient.

I think the next step is to keep an eye out for things that are happening out in the marketing world that are more tactically driven and perhaps looking for opportunities to test this thinking out. The latter is a little tricky since branding is an inherently conceptual exercise. But if we believe that modern brands achieve more by doing rather than saying, then it’s worth a shot to consider the possibilities.

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Better Research Experience = Better Insights?

I’m hearing that some of my friends have received their stickers for Project Like. Some people sounded pretty excited to figure out what to “like.” I’m happy that this will be a fun experience for people.

One of the things I’m trying to figure out is a way to make market research interesting for the participants. I’ve been in too many awkward one-on-ones, strained focus groups and painful man-on-the-street interviews to know that there has to be a better way. It’s not like the insights are bad, but can we get even better ones when people are having fun?

My thinking is inspired by a breakout session from a Planningness conference. It was run by the guy who helped create an ARG about life without oil. Among the many interesting things he talked about, the most interesting one was how uninhibited people are when they are in play mode. Strangers become very animated and expressive; they shout at each other and laugh.

I think being in play mode creates some sense of trust and familiarity that allows people to open up. Secondly, being in play mode can potentially allow people to express themselves in different ways. We know we all communicate differently, but a lot of our market research is generally geared toward collecting spoken and written evidence. In play mode, behaviors can reveal intentions that are often times unspoken. I don’t have any evidence for this, it’s more of a hypothesis that I hope to be answered.

That being said, hopefully something I can take away from this experiment is how to design an interesting experience for people that can yield rich insights. I’m thinking of coming up with a cool phrase for it, maybe something like: research as an experience? Progressive research? Experience-based research?

Modern Capitalism Based on Shared Values

Goddamn that Alex Bogusky is inspiring.

I finally had a chance to watch his presentation for the newest project from Fearless – the open source brand called “Common” for socially minded businesses (for lack of a better term). One of the biggest hypocrisies of my life is the fact that I work in brand strategy consulting while maintaining a very cynical view of big businesses and capitalism in general. My friend affectionately calls me a corporate whore and there’s nothing I can do but resignedly sigh in agreement.

Part of me feels like the concept has always existed, but it wasn’t of an interest until big businesses figured out how to make money from it. The HBR podcast titled “How to save capitalism” makes a compelling point about how current CSR programs are a huge waste of money. They’re essentially giving money away to random third parties who aren’t even part of the stakeholders group. Sure, it looks generous but it’s also horribly neglectful. It’s like buying dinner for someone else instead of your family. Smart CSR programs would try to evenly distribute value between all the stakeholders to promote mutual success.

My friend mentioned that idea is reaching it’s tipping point because it’s gotten so much heat lately. I’d say it’s a pretty cutting edge idea because if a business wants to implement the model, they’re going to have to defy business logic. But I realized that I’m probably too cynical about things for my own good.

I realized is a situation that represents this shared value concept is the Antoine Dodson story. If you’ve already forgotten, he’s the bed intruder guy. He got famous off of a song that someone else wrote about him. The creator of the song shared the proceeds of the iTunes sales with Dodson. Dodson also made money off of ringtones and TV appearances and was able to get himself and his family out of the projects. Under the old model of capitalism, Dodson wouldn’t have made a cent unless he sued. People would see that the value was created by the guy who wrote the song. But in this “shared value’ capitalism, Dodson would be seen has having contributed to the song and ultimately its success.

And to be fair, that’s one of those weird stories that happen on the internet were it’s all kind of a fairy tale (or nightmare depending on how your perspective). How does this work for a big business where it’s extremely tough to change course?

I was watching Stephen Colbert last night and saw the segment with Wal-Mart’s vice president talking about a program they created with the U.S. government to sell lower priced fruits and vegetables in their stores. That’s pretty amazing right? They are the largest retailer in the U.S. and are in the position to affect behaviors on a grand scale. And then you think about how they are buying their groceries from local farmers. They are forcing their supplies to adopt green practices (in the past they’ve also forced suppliers to adopt crazy inventory systems). They’ve switched to a fluorescent lighting to save energy.

For a big evil company, they’ve done a lot of good. And the good isn’t that stupid, wasteful-throw-money-at-a-random-cause good, it’s a sustainable action and an investment in their stakeholders. In this case, their stakeholders are their customers (the cheaper produce and vegetables, local and organic farmers) and the environment. And investing in both these stakeholders, Wal-Mart stands to gain big as well. Going green with the lights saved them tons of money. Offering organic and local foods allows them to strategically leap ahead of grocery stores (who are slowly figuring it out) to capture market share. This is assuming that they are betting that local/organic foods is the next evolution of grocery products.

I think there’s a little bit of greater awareness of how other parts of the system adds value, but I’d like to think that we’re slowly becoming nicer to each other and more mindful of how our actions affect others around us.

Positive Reinforcement to Dissuade Bad Behaviors

A persistent problem of working for a client whose business is hijacked by pirates is how to convince people to pay more for the authentic product. There is no quick and easy answer, but the one we lean on the most is to admonish the possibility of using a counterfeit. So we end up with big campaigns slamming competitors or focusing on the dangers of not going for the real thing – which is a terribly predictable strategy and doesn’t give the creatives enough meat to work with.

I’m thinking of taking the opposite route and focusing the campaign on the positive reinforcement of the desired behavior. Of course there are marketing programs such as loyalty programs, frequent buyer discounts and promotions, but those fall outside of the scope of the ad agency.

Ideally, there would be little brand experiences that reward the consumer here and there for their decision. Maybe there can be subtle reminders of how much more they’re getting or the higher quality of the experience. Some brands have turned the authentication piece into status symbols like labels you get for designer jeans. Or maybe something like the Mini Cooper decoder that worked for a billboard.

The idea is that there are some loyal customers regardless and it might be worth it to pay more attention to them first and then use the ad campaign as a broader cover for the concept. Your best customers will be your biggest advocates. And since piracy is so rampant we’re tempted to win back our share through big gains, but it’s a harder culture/habit to break than we think.

Consider an Inside/Out Approach for Brand Repositioning

I’ve had the privilege to work on some pitches last year and it dawned on me that every big idea we come to the table with was consumer facing. In fact, in school we were trained to do that too, perhaps borrowing from the geometry rule that the short distance between point A and B is a straight line. However, I would beg to differ and say that while a straight line is the shortest distance, it may not be the more efficient or effective route.

I think it’s old hat to say that there are a gazillion touchpoints for a brand to influence in their favor, but it’s true. And the one we forget the most are the employees.

I believe that a brand’s most powerful advocates are the employees. I live with a roommate who works at Youtube and he’s probably the biggest Google fanboy you’ll meet, which means that I get personal recommendations and detailed arguments for why Google is so great every night I come home. Sure, this argument only has a very casual example as proof. But I know for sure that the employees are the easiest people to turn into brand advocates because there is a genuine shared interest and relationship that makes it easier to do so. After you get them, it becomes a word of mouth exercise to trickle into the public at large. I think this applies for larger companies who seem to have lost their way.

I don’t think this is a substitute for a communication campaign of some sort. But I think it’s a crucial first step that can be a more valuable and more effective investment of the money spent on repositioning a brand than a huge media buy upfront. With a solid evangelism within the company, we can give the ad campaign a tighter focus instead of trying to make it do more than it actually is designed to do (the result of which are those horrible anthem-ish commercial from the likes of giant tech and energy companies that read like an unfocused poem written by a space cadet).

TL:DR: Instead of asking: “what can get people excited about my brand?” it should be “what can I do to get my employees excited about sharing the company with their friends?”

New Media Again

I think MAGE left an interesting thought on my last post about new media – “now. As slow as media companies have been to use the new media, business have been slower to understand it,” – that got me thinking about media companies in general.

I agree that media companies are slow about using new media. We had Tata Sato of Mindshare visit our class this semester and the question of new media came up. And if I remember correctly, her response to it was that they don’t do anything that hasn’t been proven to work. One reason why media companies are making a killing is because they have the greatest handle on metrics and ROI – something clients love hearing about. I think the problem with new media is that there are no established case studies that the media company can use to make the suggestion to their clients.

Some of the shops that can get away with making new media recommendations are more creative or innovation types of companies. Or simply companies that create things, not messaging – Anomaly, Zeus Jones, Poke, etc. Those things that they create go on to become a media channel of sorts. And I say “media channels of sorts” because I know some agencies prefer to create tools or useful experiences where no content is being delivered.

Popular Opinion v. Expert Opinion

During a meeting, a friend and I stumbled upon the idea of popular opinion versus the expert opinion

Current thinking on this is that popular opinion is where it’s at with UGC, comments on Amazon and that creepy Beacon thing on Facebook. The opinion of the people is to be trusted more than whatever the authority figures try to dictate.

However, I do know that in the area of web search, Google is the conclusive authority on which websites are the most relevant.

But consider this.

I don’t think it is common knowledge that the way Google ranks websites is more social than we think it is. Its popularity, while based on a lot of things, is highly influenced by links, visits and content – things that are controlled by people. I remember an old co-worker telling me this story about an SEO contest and the winner being the person who just published their thoughts on the contest. So really, we decide what should come up first when you say Google “bowling balls”. But the process to make that happened has been branded under Google and its algorithm.

Similarly with Amazon, the recommendations that it makes is presented in such a way that it feels like the company is drawing the connections for you. However, a lot of that is based on what you’ve purchased before, what other people have purchased before and what you’ve browsed for. You made that recommendation to yourself.

These two are examples of companies that are very successful because of their ability to serve their customers. How do they know what their customers want? They’ve already told them! So as brands/companies/experts are sweating these details, there may be some sort of judo move that allows them to reclaim their stature.