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.

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Top 5 Marketing Reading Recommendations 1/11-1/24

January 25, 2010

Two weeks ago, I published a list of some of my favorite marketing articles that I had read over the previous several weeks.  I got a lot of great feedback that this list was very helpful to fellow marketers, and so I’ve decided to make it a regular post.  So with that, here’s a list of marketing related articles from 1/11-1/24 that I recommend you take a look at. Enjoy!

  1. Is Your Brand a Beacon or a Spotlight? (Ad Age). The article explains that while many brands are based on understanding their customers and their customer’s current needs, it is important for brands to stand for more than this.  Brands should also have an aspirational component to them to make them especially compelling to their customers.  This article is a great argument for brands to have a defined brand vision.
  2. Build Your Customer Experience Roadmap (Forbes).  This article summarizes the findings from a recent report from Forrester Research that ranks brands in terms of the overall customer experience that they provide.  The article highlights examples of brands in several categories that are providing excellent customer experiences, and then it provides ‘Three Golden Rules of Customer Experience.’  This article is definitely worth a read for anyone who is interested in improving the experiences that customers have with a brand, or anyone who is interested in improving customer loyalty for a brand.
  3. The Cost of Not Branding (MediaPost Online Metrics Insider). This post is a refreshing reminder that not investing in marketing or branding has a cost associated with it, and it mentions a couple of examples of how one could calculate the cost of not investing in branding.  For individuals who often find themselves in a position where they have to justify their marketing budgets, they will find this post very helpful.
  4. More CPG Players Embrace E-Commerce (Ad Age). This is an interesting article that describes how CPG companies are seizing a new opportunity to sell products to and better understand their consumers through e-commerce. For marketers in the consumer packaged goods industry who are not yet exploring e-commerce as a channel, this article is a good thought-starter.
  5. A New Rung on the Social Technographics Ladder (Forrester). For those of you who have read or are familiar with the book Groundswell, you know about the different technographic profiles that your customers may have when it comes to social media — these are the creators, the critics, the joiners, etc.  In a new report, Forrester Research unveils a new social technographic, the Conversationalist, and explains why this is a group that brands will want to watch closely.

Marketing & Branding Mistake to Avoid #2: No well-defined brand vision

November 24, 2009

One of the first questions I ask organizations that I work with is “What is your brand’s vision?”  I ask this question because if the organization has a vision for its brand, then I can begin to understand where and how I can help them. Unfortunately, most of the time, I get a blank stare in response to my question, or something along the lines of “Well, we aren’t really sure.”

Not having a brand vision but trying to do marketing and brand building is like jumping into a car and driving to go somewhere without knowing what or where the destination is.  How do you know if you are headed in the right direction?  If you don’t know where you are going, how do you even know that a car can get you there?

Before an organization can start to tackle challenges like growing a brand with existing customers, extending a brand into new categories or driving awareness and interest with new customers, it needs to be clear on its long-term brand vision. The brand vision is the destination for the brand that the organization should be striving to reach.  As a result, a well-defined vision helps the organization narrow its focus to the critical objectives, strategies, and tactics that will ultimately help the organization achieve what it is trying to accomplish.  Additionally, when it is communicated, embraced, and reinforced in the organization, it is a valuable tool that aligns all of the brand stakeholders to working towards the same goals.

The components of a brand vision are in theory straightforward, but can be very challenging to formulate and assemble into a complete brand vision.  The components are:

  1. The brand’s core essence.  This is what the brand ultimately stands for or its ‘reason for being’
  2. The key functional and emotional benefits that the brand provides.  (For more detail on benefits, check out Marketing & Branding Mistake to Avoid #1: Communicating Features Instead of Benefits)
  3. What the brand will be known for in the future.  This is also where critical goals and metrics should be incorporated such as, “Brand X will be a Million Dollar brand by 2015”, or “Brand Y will be present in half of the households in the U.S. by 2020”.
  4. The brand character.  This is the personality of the brand.

The components are challenging to develop because ideally an organization should designate a group of internal brand stakeholders (a brand team) to devote a great deal of time, thought, and discussion to make the vision as strong as possible.  Typically organizations do not prioritize brand vision development for these reasons.  However, if an organization can devote resources to and prioritize the development of a vision, it will be in a much stronger, more productive, and successful position moving forward.  The resulting brand vision becomes a powerful guide post that aligns the organization, making the marketing decisions and challenges it faces much easier to navigate because the organization knows where it wants to go.