The next best thing to customer market research…

July 28, 2010

Market research has always been my favorite part of marketing.  The idea of using research to uncover what is in the minds of your target customers — their beliefs, their needs, their ways of thinking — to create better products or stronger messages really excites me.  I’ve always viewed research as the key to solving a complex puzzle of customer needs and a brand’s benefits.

With this perspective, it is probably no surprise that I am often recommending to my clients that they conduct customer research when they are facing marketing challenges or decisions.  Research, when done well, will typically help them find the answers they are seeking.  Most of my clients agree with my recommendation, but budgets or timing tend to get in the way for some clients and prevent the research from taking place.

In those cases, I often help my clients search for the next best source of information and ask, “Well, what do the rest of your employees believe?  What does your employee research tell you?”  And, most of the time, I get a blank stare and a reply something along the lines of “I don’t know.  We’ve never asked them.”

In theory, this response surprises me.  It would seem so easy for organizations to leverage their employees to understand their perspectives on the organization’s brand, products/services, messages, and positioning since the employees work with customers and understand the business.  However, in practice, I can’t say that this is unexpected.  After many years working in marketing for a variety of companies, I don’t think I ever completed or fielded brand market research as an employee.  The fact that conducting employee market research is a rare practice should not imply that it isn’t valid or valuable.  For organizations that are unable to complete customer research to inform their marketing decisions, employee research is the next best option because it can be done very quickly, inexpensively, and it can provide real insights.

Two arguments for not conducting employee market research are:

  1. The employees are biased because they are so close to the business.
  2. The employees may not be honest in the research for fear that their comments will impact their jobs.

However, I believe that the biggest reason why organizations don’t conduct employee research is that they simply do not think of it.  As for the two arguments listed above, they can be address with the following:

  1. While employees do have a unique and perhaps biased perspective, those who deal with customers regularly most likely have a good understand of what customers are thinking and what they need.  This perspective is valuable to understand.
  2. Creating an anonymous or “safe” process to conduct research with employees so that they feel comfortable providing their thoughts does not have to be complex.  Anonymous surveys through online tools such as Zoomerang or SurveyMonkey or the use of external moderators are simple and budget friendly ways to ensure employees feel enabled to share their true thoughts and feelings.

With all of this in mind, I would even recommend that organizations that do conduct customer market research regularly also consider conducting employee research periodically.  The two pieces of research together will yield very powerful findings that will likely lead to better recommendations and decisions overall than if just one form of research was completed.

Employee research is certainly no perfect substitute for customer market research, but it nevertheless is a very important tool that organizations can easily and should employ to help them make better marketing decisions.  Especially in cases where an organization is deciding between employee research or no research at all, the organization should leverage employee research.  In the absence of customer market research, the cost of not leveraging the employees’ perspective will likely exceed the basic costs of conducting the in-house employee research.

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A marketing analysis of LeBron’s decision

July 12, 2010

I feel that I should state up front that this post will be a bit different from the typical posts that I write for this blog.  Most of the time, I try to write posts that give some hints and tips to help marketers improve their brand management and marketing.  This post doesn’t follow this pattern.  Being an Akron, Ohio native, and a devoted Cleveland sports fan, I can’t help but comment on LeBron’s “decision” this week to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers after 7 years and join the Miami Heat.  I know that there have been many analyses, articles, and posts over the last four days regarding LeBron’s decision (and it seems most of these have not been in favor of the decision), but I would like to think that my perspectives on his decision will be a little bit different.  I am not going to analyze if his decision was a good one for his career in terms of his chances of winning a championship, ever being an MVP again, or being considered one of basketball’s greatest stars in the long run.  I know that there are a lot of opinions already published regarding these topics.  Instead, I’d like to offer my opinions on his decision from a marketing perspective, both for the LeBron James “brand” and for his many sponsors.  Given my ties to Cleveland, I’ll admit that my analysis isn’t entirely objective, so feel free to take it with a grain or two of salt.

For the LeBron James brand, I’m afraid that his decision to leave the Cavaliers and join the Miami Heat has significantly destroyed its value. Unfortunately for LeBron, I don’t think that he received much counsel in terms of protecting his personal brand while he was weighing his options (I wish I could have had a chance to talk with him about this!). The backlash against LeBron that has come from all areas of the country (not just Cleveland, Chicago, and New York), with the exception of Miami, has been staggering — and not just among sports fans.  It seems that the general sentiment towards LeBron and his decision is one of disgust.  I believe that there are two issues that have caused this reaction:

  1. People are angered that he didn’t stay loyal to his hometown team and that he chose to embarrass Cleveland so publicly on a special ESPN program.
  2. They are shocked that he did not choose to try to become a legend and win a championship on his own.  Instead, he chose to try to win one with the help of his “buddies” in South Beach.  Because of his choice to join forces with two other great players, his unique talent will no longer be center stage – it will be diluted as he becomes one of three key players on the Heat.

One week ago, LeBron was arguably one of the most loved and respected athletes in the U.S.  Today, he is mocked for his immaturity and despised.  This is such a sudden and dramatic shift in sentiment — and one that I do not think LeBron will be able to ever entirely overcome.  No matter how well he plays in the future, he will never have the brand power that he had before 9pm EST on June 8th, and I believe he significantly curtailed his future sponsorship opportunities as a result of his brand value destruction this past week.  I know that people are arguing that it is good that LeBron didn’t make his decisions based on money, but I wonder if he thought about how much he might be limiting his future earning potential for additional sponsorships, based on his decision to “take his talents to South Beach”.

With respect to LeBron’s existing sponsors like Nike and Coca-Cola (who owns Vitaminwater), I am very curious to know their overall reactions to LeBron’s decision is at this time.  If I were a brand manager for any of LeBron’s existing sponsors at the moment, I would be having emergency meetings with my advertising and PR partners to determine my strategy moving forward.  Given that the general public’s sentiment toward LeBron has completely reversed so quickly, I would be very extremely hesitant to continue or launch any significant campaigns featuring LeBron at this time.  Associating my brand with his devalued brand would not be something I would be focusing on.  I am very interested to see if LeBron is de-emphasized from his current sponsors’ campaigns and if, over time, these existing sponsorship deals are not renewed quietly.  I suppose only time will tell, but I have a hunch that there are a lot of LeBron’s sponsors out there who are not very happy with his decision or with the way he decided to announce it.

So those are my two cents on why LeBron’s decision might not have been the best one from a brand and sponsorship perspective.  Again, I admit that I might not be the most objective person to analyze the situation given my roots — so I’d love to hear your perspectives if you have any.  From a marketing perspective, do you think LeBron’s decision was a good one?


Measuring a good client/agency relationship

June 15, 2010

Most people would agree that building relationships takes work.  We know from our personal experiences that identifying with whom we want to have relationships, building these relationships, and then maintaining them over time takes consideration, effort, and communication (among other things).

While we acknowledge and accept this for our personal relationships, I think it is very interesting that many of us can forget about these requirements when it comes to professional relationships, and more specifically the client/marketing agency relationships.  When it comes to these relationships, many of us on the client side assume that because a project request for proposal is issued and responded to and a scope of work is submitted and signed, these act as sufficient substitutes for the effort required to build an effective relationship with our agency partners.  My experience as a marketing/brand manager for many years, as well as my observations of my clients’ experiences with agency relationships indicate that these are not adequate substitutes and that client/agency relationships take as much work to build, if not more, than our personal relationships.  The amount of trust, collaboration, and reconciliation of ideas that is required in a very short period of time requires more effort initially than many other relationships.

To help build and navigate this type of challenging relationship, as a client, I started using a tool with each of my agencies.  I now recommend it to many of my clients to help them manage their own agency relationships. It is an agency scorecard.  This is typically a document that clearly states the client’s expectations for what the agency will deliver (the work), how the agency will deliver the work (timing, collaboration process, team members responsible, etc.), a set of grades or metrics that the client will use to assess the agency’s performance on each expectation, and clear definitions for each grade level.  Some scorecards also include a ‘weighting’ system — to give performance on certain expectations more weight than others for an overall agency ranking.

There are three areas in the client/agency relationship when I have found the scorecard to be particularly useful:

  1. Identifying the right agency with whom to build a relationship. The agency scorecard is a terrific tool for aligning the members of the client team who are responsible for choosing the agency.  The scorecard should be constructed by the team before the agency evaluation process occurs, and the team should use this scorecard to select its agency. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for team members to be swayed by factors that are not critical to the project or selection process, and a less than optimal agency can be selected for irrelevant reasons — simply because a team member was vocal and forceful in his opinion.  With a scorecard, this is much less likely to happen.  The team as a group decides what should be considered in the overall process and the selection of an agency can only be made based on the objective factors.  Each agency is evaluated in the same way, so that the agency that best fits the expectations of the team is identified.
  2. Holding the agency accountable. Once an agency is selected, the scorecard can be used as a checklist or guide to ensure that everything the agency included in its proposal or plan is executed.  It helps the client manage the project and the agency to meet its expectations and needs.  There are situations when timelines and budgets are tight, and agencies may unintentionally focus on certain aspects of an engagement while becoming distracted from fulfilling all of the expectations that they initially set.  The scorecard is an excellent reference point for the client to ensure that the agency delivers on each commitment made during the evaluation and proposal process.
  3. Improving the relationship. The scorecard can serve as an ongoing communication tool between the client and the agency.  Agencies want to maintain relationships with their clients, and they want to ensure that their clients are pleased with what they deliver.  The scorecard can provide agencies with much desired feedback on their performance so that they can improve the relationship in the future.  The client should share the scorecard with the agency at the beginning of the relationship, and then schedule feedback sessions periodically using the scorecard.  The client scores the agency on each of the key areas of focus (expectations/needs) and then has a face to face meeting with the agency to explain each grade and the rationale behind it.  The candid feedback enabled by the scorecard is generally much appreciated by the agencies and leads to much stronger, better relationships in the future.

Are there other tools that you have used to manage and improve your relationships with your clients or agency partners?  If so, please share them.  If you would like to find out more about constructing a scorecard for your relationships, feel free to send me a note.  I’d be happy to share some examples and more specific guidance.


9 Questions Every Brand Should Ask Its Customers Regularly

May 18, 2010

In my experience with organizations of various sizes and types, market research is most commonly used when the organization has a specific question to answer.  The specific question can vary significantly, but some of the more common ones deal with the appeal of a new product idea or the interest in a new positioning or in a new creative marketing message.

While it is absolutely correct to field research to help answer these specific questions, organizations would benefit from performing market research on a more regular, ongoing basis to answer some brand questions repeatedly, over time. This would help to monitor customer perceptions and behaviors consistently — not just when a specific marketing project question arises.  If organizations only complete research when they have specific initiative-based questions, they run the risks of missing shifts in customer perceptions of their brand, failing to spot new trends in how their product/service is being used, or even misdiagnosing who their customers really are.

I should note that many organizations do routinely field customer satisfaction or product/service performance surveys, and while these are very important, this isn’t the type of research to which I am referring.  I am suggesting that organizations also implement a program to regularly understand how customers are thinking about the brand, based on the collection of all of their experiences with the brand over time.

The implementation of ongoing brand research does not have to be complex or expensive.  Some organizations make a significant investment in brand tracking, and it becomes a major initiative. However, for most others, it can be as simple as fielding a few customer focus groups or interviews every six months or even distributing an online survey among their customer base regularly.  The method of research can vary depending on the size of the organization, its customer base, and the category/industry of the organization.  Most importantly this research should be done frequently (at the very least annually), consistently, the results should be reviewed and tracked over time, the organization must be willing to adapt its marketing strategies based on the results, and the questions should focus on the target customers and their brand perceptions.

With all of this in mind, for those of you interested in initiating a brand research program for your organization, I’ve developed a general list of questions for you to incorporate into your research among your target customers. Listening to how your customers respond and tracking how these responses change over time will unearth some significant opportunities for better understanding who your customers are and what motivates them, adjusting your marketing messages to your customers, and strengthening your brand in the minds of your customers.

Here is the list of 9 questions that every organization should consistently ask its customers about its brand:

  1. When you think of the brand (insert brand name here), what are the first words that come to mind?
  2. When and why did you first become a customer of the brand?
  3. Why do you continue to be a customer of the brand?
  4. Who do you consider to be competitors of the brand?
  5. How is the brand different from its competitors (in terms of being both better and worse)?
  6. How is the brand the same as its competitors?
  7. How can the customer experience of the brand be improved?
  8. Do you anticipate that you will be a customer of the brand in the future?
  9. If you were describing the brand to others, what would you say, and would you recommend it?

For those of you who already ask your target customers about their perceptions of your organization’s brand regularly, are their other general questions that you always ask?  Let me know!  I’d like to incorporate them into the list.


The Open Chair

May 4, 2010

This past week, I spent a few days meeting with one of my clients to kick off a new project.  My client had hired me to help them develop an organized marketing strategy for the next 18 months, and our meeting was focused on helping me understand their organization’s overarching objectives and goals, as well as their target customer markets.

While the purpose of the kick off sessions was to give me the proper background and understanding of the direction and challenges facing the company, I knew that the sessions would also be very beneficial to my client.  Many of the key organization leaders participated in the meeting, along with their marketing and sales leaders.   All of them were there to explain their visions of the future and where they needed the organization to focus and grow.  Unfortunately, but realistically, the opportunity to have this type of strategic conversation does not happen frequently in their organization (this is probably the case for many organizations), because the teams are typically too consumed by “fire fighting” and reacting quickly to customer needs or market developments.  It was my presence as an educated but objective outsider who was asking the “who, what, why, and how” questions to understand the background and needs to inform the marketing strategy that got the various team members sharing their plans and rationale. It was my asking these questions that helped the organization uncover some conflicting views as to who were its target customers and realize that perhaps some of the marketing activities that it had been doing for quite some time were not targeted to any of its core customers.  I know that if I hadn’t been asking these questions as an outsider, my client would not have recognized and resolved these critical issues.  My presence helped bring these issues to light.

After the sessions, I thought that it was interesting that an outside perspective helped uncover some strategic issues needing to be addressed, but I did not really think about how this could become a formalized practice.  However, later in the week, I met with a woman who has years of experience in brand management and advertising. In our conversation, she happened to mention that she had just started implementing the “open chair” policy with her current agency — a practice that she had used extensively with other companies over the years.  She explained that the open chair policy was the practice of leaving an “open chair” in key strategic meetings.  This chair could be filled with an external subject matter expert or individual who is not directly involved with the project or issue at hand, but has some experience or perspective that enables him or her to ask thoughtful questions or add ideas to the discussion.  The role of the open chair individual is to provide a different perspective from the rest of the group to help the group come to an optimal decision or resolution.

As my acquaintance explained all of this to me, I realized that I had served as the open chair participant in my client’s discussion earlier in the week, and I recognized the value that this brought to my client.  It got me to thinking that this type of practice could be a very useful tool for all sorts of organizations facing many different issues.  Sometimes the day to day pressures and work load  force teams to make assumptions about what everyone knows, or thinks, or agrees on, and it takes an outsider with a slightly different perspective to question these assumptions.  It is when these assumptions are questioned that significant break-throughs can be made.

Is the open chair policy something that you could try to implement as you face your next decision or challenge?  Is it something you are already doing?  Let me know if you are using it and how it is working.


6 Lessons Learned from a Year of Crisis

February 23, 2010

Dictionary.com defines the word “crisis” as: a stage in a sequence of events at which the trend of all future events, esp. for better or for worse, is determined; turning point.

Last week marked the one year anniversary of my personal crisis.  I thought I would take the opportunity to reflect on some of the lessons I have learned during this turning point, in case any of you out there are considering making a significant change, or if you are at the beginning stages of going through one.

Background

Prior to the last 52 weeks, my higher education and career had gone largely to plan; every step I took from high school to college to my first job to graduate school to my career in brand management was thoughtfully planned and executed.  Then, in February of 2009, I was laid off — taking my career on a very unplanned course.

My immediate reaction to this crisis was a negative one, but I quickly came to embrace it as an opportunity to take my career and life on a whole new trajectory.  I went into business for myself as a branding and marketing consultant — using my experience and skills in understanding customer insights to help others build stronger brands, products, and customer connections.

The Lessons I’ve Learned

Over the course of this year, I’ve found that people are very interested in and almost envious of the decision I made to do things on my own. I know that for many, being an independent consultant sounds liberating and ideal, and sometimes it is.  Sometimes it is far from it. One of the most important factors for me was timing.  In order for me to chart my new course successfully, I had to rely heavily on my previous experience and credibility in brand management, my network of colleagues in the industry, and my own personal maturity to remain dedicated and focused.  For anyone who is curious about the path I have taken, here are the lessons that I have to offer:

  1. Reading has never been so important.  On average, I now spend 2-3 hours a day reading about marketing — the latest marketing news, marketing thought leadership, marketing blogs.  When I worked for other organizations, I didn’t focus on external marketing information like I do now.  It is now my job to be ‘in the know’ about the latest books or the latest technology, and so I spend so much time absorbing the information on a daily basis.
  2. Befriending your competition is key. In the world of freelancers and consultants, your competition is an invaluable source of support, helpful resources, and potential projects.  I have been gratified by the amount of help and information that my direct competitors are willing to share with me.  We realize that we are all better off with comraderie and the opportunity for collaboration than if we operated separately.
  3. Celebrate your successes. In any time of significant adaptation or change, it will take a while to get some momentum behind you. At times, this can feel very frustrating, and it makes all the difference when you recognize the steps forward that you have taken along the way.  Celebrating even your smallest steps forward, and having a group of people who can remind you of these steps can motivate you to keep going.
  4. Develop thick skin. This lesson has taken a while for me to learn. I’ve always been the person who people called back or wanted to talk to when it came to my work.  I never got ‘blown off.’ Suddenly, as I switched gears and had to establish myself in a new identity, at times I was no longer treated with the same regard.  I took this very personally for the first few months, but eventually it got easier as my skin got tougher.  Thick skin gave me the armor to persevere, and this is the key to getting through a crisis.
  5. Developing self discipline is a requirement. Luckily for me, self-discipline has always been a strength.  However, it has been challenged more in the last year than ever before.  It takes an enormous amount of self-discipline to keep pursuing your goal day after day when you aren’t seeing immediate results.  It takes self-discipline to stop doubting yourself when those thoughts inevitably cross your mind.  In my consulting situation, it takes more self-discipline than I realized to power through very long days of work at home alone, when you could so easily be distracted by other things around you.  It also takes self-discipline to finally turn it all off when it is time to focus on your other priorities like your family.
  6. You are the one who is in control. This lesson is particularly ironic, because while it was the #1 reason I chose to forge my own path, many times in the last year, it felt like I was the only one without control.  I was always waiting for someone to get back to me or waiting for someone to accept a proposal.  But then I remembered that I was the one who was in control of how many people I met, how many proposals I submitted, and how I sold myself.  I controlled those things.  Once I came to that realization, I started to make real progress.

I hope that some of these lessons are helpful to anyone who is considering making a change or who is currently going through one.  I imagine that many of these lessons are applicable to all kinds of turning points such as a starting a new role, working for a new organization, or even reporting to a new boss.  If you have any questions about these lessons, or what to discuss further, submit a comment.  I’d love to hear from you.


Marketing & Branding Mistake to Avoid #3: Focusing on the Sale

December 14, 2009

Once upon a time, companies who measured the profit coming from each transaction, product line, or customer segment were considered to be first in class.  Over time this best practice of measuring profitability has evolved from focusing on individual transactions to focusing on the profitability of the total customer experience. Unfortunately, some organizations have not adapted to this new approach.

In today’s highly connected world, customers are seeking to build relationships with brands, and they do not view marketing activities and transactions independently.  Each of these are just different types of  touch points that a customer has with a brand, and the customer does not really distinguish between them.  For example, a great purchase experience is a superior marketing tactic that will drive future purchases.   For the customer, the overall experience that he has with a brand (which includes all types of touch points) impacts his future relationship (and likelihood of additional purchases) with the brand.

Since customers are evaluating a brand based on their total experience, companies should also focus on this total experience. From a measurement and analysis standpoint, instead of trying to maximize profits for any given product line or transaction type, companies should try to maximize profitability over their total customer experience. As a result, this might mean that a company should lower its price (and profitability) on some products that introduce a customer to the brand in order to maximize the total number of products that a customer purchases over the lifetime of the relationship with the brand.  It also might mean that a company should heavily invest in certain marketing programs with existing loyal customers, if it will help customers recommend the brand to others.

The key to successfully maximizing the value of the total brand experience is understanding the role each transaction and touch point plays in the development of the experience.  Once a company stops focusing only on the sale, but instead on the long term relationship, it will unlock long term profit potential.