Why Should I Believe You? The case for Reasons to Believe.

April 5, 2010

A couple of weeks ago, I received my qualitative research moderator certification from the Burke Institute in Cincinnati.  The Burke Institute is a renowned market research education institution, and its qualitative research certification process includes participating in two week-long intensive (and not inexpensive) courses.

While I enjoyed the courses thoroughly, the primary reason I attended the courses was to be able to say that I am a certified focus group moderator.  Prior to attending the certification courses, I had quite a bit of experience moderating focus groups and using the results from focus groups to inform decisions for my brands, but I did not have very much “proof” of my skill sets outside of some client referrals.  I knew that if I wanted to augment the qualitative research part of my business, I needed to provide my prospective clients with some proof or a “reason to believe” that supported my claim that I could deliver objective and insightful research results.  The fact that I am now a certified qualitative research moderator provides my brand stronger credibility that I can deliver the benefits of well-executed qualitative research.

Just as having a set of compelling brand benefits and a brand character are critical components to a well-defined brand, having reasons for your target customers to believe that your brand can deliver its benefits is equally important.  Reasons to believe are facts that provide credibility to your brand as they explain how or why your brand delivers its benefits.  Therefore, every brand benefit should have a corresponding reason to believe to support it.  Additionally, as with all other brand building components, reasons to believe are strongest when they are relevant to the target customer in some way.  Here is where customer research and understanding continue to be a key input into the brand development process.

Aside from providing believability and authenticity to your brand, reasons to believe differentiate your brand from competitors.  Most brands that have similar benefits do not have the same reasons to believe, and even if they do share some proof points, the total package of reasons to believe for each brand is sure to be unique.

With all of this said, I find it intriguing that many organizations fail to focus on or communicate their reasons to believe to their target customers.  Many brands have strong supporting evidence of their benefits such as a dedicated history in the industry or an unmatched emphasis on quality, but they do not communicate it.  Other brands need to invest in creating proof to support their benefits such as utilizing spokespeople or attaining some form of accreditation/endorsement.  In either case, leaders of brands should spend some time thinking through their brand’s reasons to believe and how to effectively communicate them as emphasizing a brand’s reasons to believe will lead to a more credible and differentiated story for selling the brand’s benefits.

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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.


New product assessment of Starbucks Via: 5 things to consider when launching a new product

October 1, 2009

Over the past couple of days, there has been a lot of buzz surrounding the new product launch from Starbucks known as Via Ready Brew (instant coffee).  Much of the buzz is being generated by Starbucks itself, but there is also a lot of chatter coming from people (customers, analysts, competitors, marketers, etc.), and many of them are questioning Starbuck’s rationale for launching the product.

Since I am a passionate brand supporter and former Starbucks marketing manager, I thought that this well loved brand and highly publicized launch would be a great example to illustrate some key questions marketers should consider when they are thinking about a new product introduction.  Below is my checklist of questions that any marketer can use when considering a new product or service launch, applied to Starbucks Via.

New product idea assessment checklist

  1. Does the product meet an unmet need? In my experience with product launches, this is the most fundamental question to consider.  New products that address and fulfill an otherwise unmet need for their target customer have a great chance of bringing more customers into the category and revolutionizing the category’s segmentation.  In Starbucks’ case, it claims that Via is meeting two needs:  portability & value.  I have to admit I am not sure that both of these really are significant unmet needs of their customer targets.  I am assuming that Starbucks has two target customers for this product:  existing Starbucks customers and ‘instant’ coffee drinkers.   With that in mind, from my previous experience working in the coffee category, I don’t recall ‘portability’ of coffee being something with which customers struggled (in fact they generally seemed to think Starbucks had become ubiquitous).  As for value, there probably is a need for a more ‘value priced’ coffee that is still high quality. My biggest concern with this, however, is that Via costs about $1 per serving.  This still seems a bit pricey for a cup of coffee to be considered a real value offering, especially among current instant coffee drinkers.
  2. Is the unmet need large enough to sustain the new product? Sometimes, even when a product does a great job of meeting an unmet need, the market size of the need is too small to really pursue.  At Campbell Soup, we used to joke that if we were considering a product launch that would perfectly meet the needs of campers, then the product shouldn’t move forward (because the market was too small to support the investment that a company the size of Campbell would make to launch the product).  With that in mind, I couldn’t help but cringe when I read that Starbucks was selling Via in REI.  Aside from that, my other concern for Starbucks is the size of the need for premium but good value instant coffee.  I am sure there are people who would really like this, but I am concerned about how many of them are out there who will become sustained customers.
  3. How differentiated is the new product from alternatives? For many unmet needs, a lot of customers find alternatives or ‘work arounds’ to try to fulfill what they are lacking.  A new product that is truly differentiated from and performs better than these alternatives has a tremendous chance for success.  This is one of the areas where Via is strong.  It is truly differentiated from every other coffee ‘solution’ out there.  It definitely provides a unique set of benefits.
  4. How much incremental sales will the new product generate? This question is always a hard one to estimate, and it often is the one that stops new products from getting to market.  New products can often make existing products obsolete, or at least considerably cannibalize existing sales if the new products do not appeal to a wider set of customers overall.  This is the issue I am most concerned about for Via.  Because it is a good value alternative to Starbucks coffee, and because it is being sold to customers who have already made the decision to go into a Starbucks store, it could significantly cannibalize the sales of both the beans and the beverages in the store.  To try to counteract this, I would suggest that Starbucks not target its existing customer base by selling Via in its store, but focus more on appealing to the instant coffee drinkers and focus distribution only in grocery stores and other retail venues where Via will not compete ‘head to head’ with Starbucks’ existing products.
  5. Do the product’s benefits fit with the core essence of the brand? This question is critical to ensure that the product continues to be brand building with its customers.  If the new product doesn’t fit with the brand’s core essence (what the brand ultimately stands for), this will hurt both the new product and the existing brand by confusing (or perhaps even disappointing) customers.  In Starbucks’ case, the core essence is about providing an excellent coffee experience.  Via’s benefits fit with this core essence, and so the launch of Via makes sense from this standpoint.

Based on this quick assessment of Starbucks Via against these questions, it appears that the new product has some key strengths, but its prospects aren’t entirely clear.  There are a few things that Starbucks might consider changing to increase its chances of success such as pricing the product at an even greater value to really make the benefit more meaningful and selling the product only in grocery and other retail channels (not its own stores).  Of course, the launch of successful new products is as much an art as it is a science, and so despite some weaknesses, the product may be a home run.

Hopefully these questions spark some thoughts for those of you who are currently considering new product ideas.  This list isn’t exhaustive, but it gives some good  ones to consider.   Are there others you might also add to this list?  Let me know and also how Starbucks Via would stack up against them.


What’s your story?

August 18, 2009

This past week, while on my summer vacation, I had the chance to watch the morning news, and I saw a piece that really excited me.  It was about a small business in Chicago that had managed to create a compelling and differentiated brand for a seemingly undifferentiated product, because it had an interesting story.  The story explained why the business came into being, and how it operationalized its values to differentiate its product.  This was the story of Felony Franks.

Felony Franks is a local hot dog business in Chicago that makes and sells ‘food so good, it’s criminal’ according to its tagline.  Now I don’t know that the hot dogs themselves are all that different from other hot dogs, but they have a different story.  Felony Franks opened to give ex-offenders a chance at their first job as they try to re-assimilate into society after serving time in jail.  Because of its unique hiring practice and its focus on assisting ex-offenders get back on their feet, Felony Franks isn’t just another hot dog vendor.  It has a story, and it is using it to create an interesting and memorable brand to set its hot dogs apart from the rest.

While I do find the mission of Felony Franks to be appealing, there are two reasons why I found this news piece to be exciting:

  1. It highlights a business that understands that a strong brand helps it be more successful.  Felony Franks knows it needs to differentiate itself, and this differentiation is contributing to its success to date. 
  2. It is a great example of how even a small business can establish a strong brand.  The brand is so strong because its values are embedded in the organization.  The business used its inherent story to create the brand.  It didn’t just choose an cute name or unique decor to try to create a brand.  It leveraged the core of its business and its culture to create its brand.

Over the last few years, I have encountered quite a few organizations that do not understand how a brand can really make a difference to their business, and therefore do not choose to invest in it (instead focusing on the product/service features or price).  I have also come across organizations that don’t know where to start if they try to build a brand or believe that a name and a logo is sufficient.  I hope that this example of Felony Franks illuminates some new possibilities.

For those leaders who are wondering if it really is worth investing in a brand for their product or service, I hope that this example persuades you to more seriously consider it.  Product and service differentiators and price advantages often slip away over time, leaving you with an undifferentiated product (like just another hot dog from a local hot dog vendor).  Your brand, if it is a strong one, will ultimately be the defining factor when customers are making their choices.

For those leaders who want to build a brand, but aren’t sure how to begin, I encourage you to think about your story.  Why was your organization established?  How does your organization’s mission live in the organization?  How does this story resonate with your target customer?  What does your organization stand for?  The answers to these questions are part of the building blocks to creating a differentiated, ownable, and integrated brand for your organization.

To sum it up simply, the story of Felony Franks illustrates the point that your organization’s story sets it apart and defines what it stands for.  No other organization has the exact same story.  Using this story to build a strong brand could differentiate and elevate your product or service in the mind of your customer.  This unique position may eventually make all of the difference for your business.


7 free tools every brand or marketing manager should use daily

July 16, 2009

As I have been making the transition from being a brand manager for a large company to being a brand strategy consultant in the last few months, I have had a thirst for information in a way I never had before.  As part of my quest to become a better, more informed, and up to date resource for my clients, I have been leveraging a lot of free information and tools.  Some of these tools (such as newsletters), I collected in my inbox for years while I was a brand manager and rarely opened.  Other tools are ones that people have introduced to me in the last several months.

Recently, some of my friends in brand or marketing roles for companies have been asking me how I seem to be so ‘in the know’ about marketing trends, new products, or the latest technologies.  They know that this is information that they should and would like to know, but they don’t think that they have the time it would take to stay on top of it.  They are too bogged down in managing their brand projects and fighting daily fires, and they don’t know where to begin.  If this sounds a little like you, read on. 

Below is a list of 7 free tools any marketing or brand person at any company should use on a daily basis. 

  1. Marketing Daily News– Email newsletter every weekday that summarizes breaking news across industries in branding & marketing.  Published by MediaPost which also has many other free newsletters for various industries, targets, trends, technologies, and types of marketing professionals.  I subscribe to about 8 or 9 in total from this source.
  2. Brandweek Daily Insider – Email newsletter every weekday summarizing new brand campaigns, new products, latest research across many industries.
  3. GMA Smartbrief – Email newsletter every weekday summarizing top news in the Consumer Packaged Goods industry.  Even though it is focused on the CPG space, there is still a lot of learning to be leveraged from this publication for all marketers.
  4. Adweek Creative — Email newsletter weekly covering all news and trends in advertising content and messages.
  5. Google Alerts— Monitor your own brand and company as well as your competitors in the news and in blogs using this tool.  You receive an email with all of the clips daily, weekly, or as they happen.  Set this up under Google News.
  6. Use an RSS feed like Google Reader for blogs– Set this up to monitor your favorite marketing, industry, or customer target blogs.  In a future post, I will have a list of my favorite marketing and brand blogs to subscribe to.
  7. Twitter Search and an RSS feed — Monitor what people are saying about your brand, company, competition, industry, and category by setting up searches in Twitter.  Once you set these up, you can have them come into your RSS feed.

Going through this list will probably take about an hour to get through per day. 

I know that this big time investment, but I guarantee that the time investment will generate a positive ROI for the brand and your career.   You’ll naturally leverage new case studies and best practices in your marketing plans.  You’ll be better positioned to preempt the competition.  When your competition does act, you will be able to respond more quickly.  You’ll have a better idea of what is going on with your customer.  You’ll be the first to bring new ideas to the table.  You’ll be considered very well informed and a thought leader.

Try out these tools and let me know what you think.  And if you stumble across any other tools that you find useful that should be added to this list, please post a comment.  I’m still learning too.