The Simple Art of Solving Problems

The famed inventor and the head of research for GM, Charles Kettering, once said “a problem well-stated is half-solved.” How many of us in the marketing / media / communications industry really care to heed this simple observation?Question words

We often come across many professionals, who are quite kind and quick enough to suggest solutions first. These could be as simple as from generating awareness, to as complex as kick-starting a growth for the brand through revenue generation. Most probably, the simple logic is that unless you’re able to offer solutions, nobody listens or respects you. Or sometimes, it could even be motivated by a wish to explore free-of-cost ideas from media / advertising / creative professionals.

The solutions in most of these cases, arguably, are driven by new business development objectives of the idea proposer, which justifies his time costs. While all this may continue, the whole process itself is a bit flawed! It fails to heed the rigour and vigour that characterize the Art of Defining the Problem.

A typical Case…

One of my prospective clients – then the national marketing head of a famous insurance brand – once called in the senior team members for a briefing. The one line brief was to launch an image campaign on TV within 3 months.

Naturally, asked about the need for such a campaign, and why TV only! What was the business / marketing problem he was facing? It turned out that his half-yearly accounts closing was round the corner, yet he was still far off from the target, in generating new buyers.

So far so good! But why did he think an image campaign on TV would accelerate sales? Because, he felt that a top of mind recall on a mass media like satellite TV will help in driving sales.

Now, insurance is a high involvement category. It’s usually is a matter of solicitation, and for this to happen, one really needs to work deeper, develop “assurance” values of the brand. It cannot (and should not) be treated like a toothpaste or a snacks brand, where top-of-mind recall at the shop level gains high priority.

Therefore we tried probing further, asking questions about its hero products, competitive advantages / disadvantages, the process of selling / mobilizing them through various channels, the core values of the brand and and above all its differentiator in the market. As expected, the director did not have the time (or most probably the necessary patience) for delving deeper into this.

Back in our office, on careful in-depth analysis, we discovered that in the past, the brand had experimented with every type of approach, to develop assurances of dependability. However, one or the other competitor was able to neutralize each of these approaches! As a result there was no specific differentiator available for the brand!

So the communication problem was clearly defined as a case of gradual loss of Identity within insurance category!

Once defined, the solution approach was very easy – i.e. developing a strong differentiator founded upon the core values of the brand, which would transcend competition, time, market forces, and would be very unique for the brand. Needless to add, when we presented our strategy, our esteemed client could not find any way to challenge our direction.

The Take Out

It’s a fact that while every advertising problem starts as a business problem, not every business problem ends up with an advertising solution. Therefore for any marketing or advertising to be truly doing its job, it’s very important to dedicate some time and energies into the first step of Strategy Development – i.e. Defining the Business Problem.

This problem is not just restricted to an “attitudinal” or an “image” issue – but there’s a commercial reason associated with it. While working on it, one needs to be a detective – i.e. sequentially following the analytical rigour – as well as be a doctor – i.e. utilizing the value of experience while marrying the analytical with the imaginative skills.

One needs to be assertive, asking probing questions on all fronts, to cross analyse, extrapolate and then synthesize data. Only then one would be able to truly identify the problem. Needless to say solutions follow fast! This is what I call “Art of defining a Solution”

“Beyond Expectations”

We live in very dynamic environments these days. Come to think of it – each moment of our existence and each activity that we do within those moments, are faster than experienced 10 years ago! Like it or not, our action and reaction times have come to be weighed in nano-seconds! Instant call receiving, responding and forwarding, instant sending and receiving text messages, instant responding browsing and responding on internet and esp. on social media platforms,  instant delivery and service expectations for all the products and services we buy, etc. are just a few examples.

This “nanosecond existence” could be attributed to drastic impact of technology on our lives in the last few years. As a result perhaps, our general attitudes and expectations from life has changed too. We tend to expect “more” in terms of speed, efficiencies, rewards, conversions, etc. Our gadgets continue to deliver better by each passing quarter, exceeding our expectations. Newer silicon chips continue to offer more than you’d perhaps need within your lifetime! Newer cameras offer more megapixel, newer phone models offer more speed, more features, more connectivity options, and what not!

Not surprisingly therefore, we too have come to expect more and more of everything, every time –  something that goes beyond our expectations – so that we’re comfortable in exclaiming “It’s awesome bro!” or “It’s fabulous dude!” or “It’s incredible pal!” or “It’s phenomenal, gal!”. A cursory attention to the conversation of young people , would give you these phrases in abundance.

Likewise, perhaps some of our institutions have also followed suit. Even though it’s not a very new phrase that you hear from them, yet all the regular institutions – schools, colleges, business houses, manufacturing units, marketing firms, etc. have caught on to this more virulently than ever – asking for “instant”; asking for “more”! You would listen to some oft-repeated clichéd phrases frequently in these places:

  • “We want your child to exceed our expectations…”
  • “Your son need to break all records…”
  • “We expect this year’s growth to exceed all records….”
  • “The production must outshine the averages of the past 8 months…”
  • “We must see this launch breaking all past product launches…”
  • “Your sales team’s performance must exceed our expectations…”

No wonder that the hiring process in these institutions too should speak the same language! It’s very common to see the online and offline recruitment postings clearly seek out profiles that look for preferably “extremely talented” or “extremely smart and outgoing” or “ready to exceed target expectations” or “ready to outperform market trends” etc. etc.

One common reason given by Economics pundits for this kind of “more” and “instant” expectations is “growth”. It’s true that we definitely need to keep moving forward, and only thing that seems to keep the momentum intact, is to keep on expecting more each time, and that too faster! In some ways, that’s a natural phenomenon!

However, shouldn’t there be a corollary too? Shouldn’t there be reverse expectations in each sector and scenarios we mentioned above? How many times have we heard a school management telling the parents:

“We don’t expect anything from you; we’d  ensure the best possible ways to transform your child!”

How many times (except in fiction and films) have we heard the companies say:

  • “We’d make sure that you exceed your career expectations here” or
  • “Don’t worry, our offer will exceed your expectations” or
  • “We have exceeded your service expectations”

I’m sure very few of the readers would find these answers practical, because our whole system and existence patterns have been scripted to “expect more” and “promise less”. That’s one way traffic! A customer cannot keep on expecting more and more instantly, unless and until he/she is ready to pay more! Similarly, one cannot keep on expecting more out of any person or service unless there’s a reverse promise too.

Further, this very script goes beyond the laws of nature. If one expects to draw out more and more from a farm-land and that too faster, one has to offer fodder, fertilizer and improvements in farming methods. Likewise, if any company or institution wishes to expect something beyond expectations, then it also needs to first make sure that it’s ready to shell-out something equal in exchange. For example, when a company offers a package that’s little beyond the candidate’s expectations, a reverse process triggers in within the candidate, which encourages him to give out that extra effort every time.

Even the new social media, which has become an inseparable part of our lives, too follows the nature’s democratic laws. Unless one gives in form of “LIKEs”, “Shares” or “Comments” upon any content produced by a fellow user, one cannot build long-term credibility and followers online. One needs to genuinely offer comments, encouragements, references and help first, before one gets reciprocated. This behaviour cuts across people, groups, companies and institutions too.

The future businesses will be increasingly dependent on technology and its characteristics – especially in form of speed, flexibility, quality and quantity expectations of the people who would run them. These people are the ones who have grown with these characteristics, and as such would deliver better when get something first before giving something more in return!

Therefore the next time you come across a situation where you’re on the tip of demanding something beyond ordinary, pause and do your best to first offer something that’s simply beyond the receiver’s expectations – even if it’s just a small honest promise!

How do customers respond to your Brand?

I have always held a strong belief that Brands behave just like human beings do! As such an interaction of a customer with a brand follows exactly a similar pattern of interaction of one person to another unrelated person.

Let’s say a person X hopes to have a relationship with person Y. Every person does this from his own social behavior status, which could be broadly divided into 3 levels: (a) Acceptance (b) Association (c) Adoption

3 Response Levels (image copyright - one%inspiration)

Preliminary contact / hand-shake happen when each interacting person Accepts the other person’s invitation. This happens quite frequently, regardless of space, time or context. None of the participants have long-term intentions of carrying on; hence the relationship is superficial, and open.

When these persons meet again, there’s an existing element of recognition or identification between them, which breeds conversations, interactions and occasional dependencies. This stage is known as Association. There’s overt / covert liking of each other’s qualities, but linkages are not strong. There’s also a general agreement to meet / interact again, and often this behavior stays for a long time.

At the 3rd level the association solidifies into a firm relationship, which slowly gets deep-rooted. The belief and motivations of one person gets internalized in multiple ways into that of the other person, leading either of the persons to adopt the other’s belief, principles and attitudes. Strong and sustainable bonding is the outcome of such adoption processes.

Likewise, a customer’s response to a brand also follows a similar pattern:

Acceptance happens when a brand pulls a customer through instant promotions; e.g. “Buy One. Get One Free”; “50% Discount before 30th July”; “More you buy, more points you win.” etc. Garnier may launch a sachet pack of its shampoo variants, to woo customers into using the brand. Many consumer electronics brands also use the method to clear their inventories, by giving “Bundled offers” during festive seasons. Although behaviors vary from brand to brand, customers have a general tendency to claim these deals, with little or no regard to the Brand or its values. Additionally, customers tend to shift the moment another brand offers a better deal.

On a longer term this method follows the law of diminishing returns, and hence should not be used too often, unless the Brand itself symbolizes “Discounts” or “Value”. Many retail stores, have followed this method to great success – by making sure that returns are higher than the inventory cost.

Association happens when a brand pulls customers by appealing to their needs – whether emotional or social or rational. As a result customers start identifying themselves with the brands, and hence differentiation occurs between competing brands. When Garnier promotes Fructis shampoo, it’s appealing a customer’s rational need to have stronger hair. It’s not necessary that the customer, even after using the shampoo, will keep on using it forever. Needs might change, or another brand may offer the same need packaged with another one. The linkages here are not strong; therefore constant interactions and experiences are needed to sustain association and convert into long-term Adoption.

ADOPTION happens when the customer looks forward to the same brand to meet multiple needs. Let’s say that the Garnier Fructis shampoo customer had a few experiences with the brand, and has decided to use other variants of Garnier shampoo that meets her other hair care needs – e.g. shiny hair, damaged hair, etc. PLUS starts looking for Garnier for other grooming needs – e.g. skin care, hair color, eye care, etc. A combination of meeting needs in all the above cases, would makes her believe Garnier’s message of “Take Care”.

Adoption is a permanent and deep-rooted experience between a customer and a brand, especially since a customer’s belief about the brand strongly links with their own belief-system – emotionally, socially and rationally. If Innovation is what a customer looks for, repeated associations and interactions with Apple will definitely believe that the brand stands for emotion.

For a brand to be strong, a combination of all the 3 level processes is perhaps needed in some proportions.  Even though the first 2 levels are temporary, there are many ways to develop permanency through these stages. For example, while using Garnier for hair care, a customer discovers that the brand stands for “No Animal Testing”. This realization may motivate the customer to continue with not only the shampoo brand, but also with other Garnier products.

Therefore for a Branding effort to succeed, strategic efforts are needed to develop the relationship at each level, esp. since, like a relationship between 2 individuals, Branding also is a social process, where change is the element that keeps the relationship fresh.

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