Actionability - A criterion underserved by strategy.

We are quite used to seeing strategy as something governed by its impact on the consumer or in the market. We seek solutions that are Relevant & Credible for consumers and Differentiating against competition. Such criteria are almost automatically used when we try to come up with or to judge positionings, creative ideas, etc.

But is the strategy good for the communicators?
Strategic consumer orientation is certainly absolutely justified but it's important to highlight the company/agency side of the coin, too.

Such an internal perspective on a strategy evokes a different set of criteria among which Actionability is the one I would like to talk about here.

Actionability means that
a) there actually are obvious actions/solutions you can derive from that strategy/idea
b) the strategy/idea helps managing and coordinating the company’s/agency’s activities.

Basically you could say: "You should be able do make more great stuff more easily with this strategy or idea in mind." You could also call it the Fertility of an idea or strategy. (

To support this notion, let me quote what Sarah Watson, CSO at BBH in NY says about the role of a brand essence: "The real question is whether the brand short hands we work with contain a sufficiently nourishing narrative for those working with them to create something good. I always remember Tom Ford describing how he was able to simultaneously design for Yves St Laurent and Gucci; 'one is Audrey Hepburn, the other Sophia Loren'. A quick shorthand but one that had enough vividness and depth for him to create collections and communications season after season."

While this seems obvious it gets often forgotten by planners. The result are often so called "not well executed strategies" which in reality might have been not very actionable ones.

Creative Fertility: 
In creative terms planners often have strategies of limited or even negative creative impact. E.g. highly "psychological" ideas that are often very hard to be depicted (typically in print media). Or ideas that lead to very stereotypical expressions in all kinds of media. Let's say you come up with something like "self-efficacy" as the brand benefit - it often leads to claims such as "You decide". Which seems OK, but how do you show that you decide yourself - let's say in print? But isn't it hard to show "decisions" ... and even more hard: decisions you make yourself as opposed to not yourself? Another example is one of my most hated type of ideas: those built around "Individualism". In 9 of 10 cases this ends up in showing "our weird customers" (= motorcycle bikers or girls with punk-like haircuts) to make clear that they are "individuals". That's awful.

Sufficiently broad communication platforms:
Another important issue that has to do with Actionability is the question "How broad and open should a positioning or idea be?" An actionable positioning / idea should be narrow enough to spark off clear and distinctive executions. On the other hand brand management needs platforms to allow for multiple actions now and in the future - in dozens of channels. So actually, breadth is often vital too. Just think of Coke and their "Happiness" - which is as broad as can be. Old school planning insisted strongly on narrow ideas with little ambiguity. I believe that real Actionability is about maximizing both: absolute clarity of direction AND a sufficient breadth for a whole array of possible actions. This is less contradictory than it sounds. Another example of this is "Good Food deserves Lurpak":

There is certainly more to say about the Actionability of a strategy but I'd rather leave it on that note and maybe revisit the issue someday with some fresh thoughts and examples.

Why smart people struggle with strategy

"The problem with smart people is that they are used to seeking and finding the right answer; unfortunately, in strategy there is no single right answer to find. Strategy requires making choices about an uncertain future. It is not possible, no matter how much of the ocean you boil, to discover the one right answer. There isn’t one. In fact, even after the fact, there is no way to determine that one’s strategy choice was “right,” because there is no way to judge the relative quality of any path against all the paths not actually chosen. There are no double-blind experiments in strategy."
Read mor here:

Think negative!

Have you ever experienced the reluctancy of colleagues and clients to react positively to questions, thoughts or propositions that use words like "confront", "oppose", "counter-", "vs", "non-", "problem" etc.?

Using "negative" terms or terms that negate something is even considered somewhat unprofessional. As if we were in politics. (Which we probably are. Maybe writing planning blogs is motivated by the wish to create a planners’ world beyond micropolitics, but that's another story.)

Imagine the following piece of conversation:

Strategist: "Let me clarify what you just said: When you say 'evidence-based marketing' - what kind of practice you would like to contrast it with? Or let's put it this way: Which very concrete problems will be solved by evidence-based marketing that cannot be solved by existing marketing practices?"

Client, slightly annoyed: "I would not say 'problem', it's rather about enabling the organization to deliver marketing performance through modern technologies. We should not be occupied by thinking about what we want to avoid but the great opportunities we have."

In the made-up conversation above the consultant tries to understand what the client is talking about by asking him to describe the opposite of the buzzword he is using. It is probably the best method to find out what your counterpart might be thinking of when using certain terms - since most people simply are not willing and able to give a definition.

But the Strategist doesn't get an answer to his question. Instead, the Client is paraphrasing his buzz word in an even unclearer manner; now, even involving sacrosanct vocabulary like "opportunities" or "modern".

Note that the tabu concerning thinking about things by using negations is so dominant that the Client even takes the risk of the agency simply not understanding his briefing. Instead, he elevates the issue on an even higher level of "positive spirit" where it becomes something that cannot be questioned or discussed at all. The agency has to back up, retreat and hypothesize what the meaning of the brief might be.


While "negative" talk seems to violate certain codes of conduct in enterprises it can nevertheless be very useful for a strategist's thinking. Let me describe 3 techniques of what we provocatively could call "negative thinking".

1) The Clarifying Juxtaposition.

Technique: Juxtapose A with B in order to grasp what A is all about.

Example 1: When a brand has three brand values, one of them being "Britishness" you could try to find out which attributes of competing countries of origin your "Britishness" opposes. E.g. it is more understated than Italian brands, it is wittier than German brands, etc.

Example 2: You could juxtapose the whole category of interest to another one in order to find out more about the essential category drivers. E.g. you could think of cats and dogs as opposites to uncover insights for your cat food brand.
While dogs seem irrelevant to a cat food brand at a first glance - the second glance shows that by contrasting cat ownership with dog ownership you can better understand what is so special about having a cat, how cat owners see themselves etc. Indeed, cats are loved for their independent spirit while dogs are loved for their unconditional fidelity. Certainly, You could have arrived there without the juxtaposition but it is a shortcut to getting there - simply because it is more concrete than asking the overarching "What is it like to have a cat?".
Consider which other juxtapositions you could apply here to find out more about the category "living with a cat":
- living with cats vs. living with children
- my cat vs. other people's cat
- living with a cat baby vs. grown-up cat
- my old dead cat vs. getting a new cat, etc.

2) The Enemy.

Technique: (Re-)Define who or what you are against.

Example 1: Often products help people fight something. This is not only the case when it comes to obvious problem-solver categories like tooth paste or vacuum cleaners. Let's take Clayton Christensen's famous milkshake example which shows how milkshakes are used as boredom killers for commuters and less so as as anything primarily nutritional or taste-related.

Example 2: You could exchange the usual enemy for another one. For instance, Omo stopped the detergents’ ancient war against dirt and decided to attack parents’ fear of dirt. Again, they could have gotten there on a different path - without "enemy kind of thinking" - but the enemy framing is one of the ways to get there.

3) The Problem.

Technique: Clearly define what you are about to solve before going into positive solutions.

This is probably the most important "negative thinking" tool: Strategy as overcoming barriers and solving problems.

Example 1: Jon Steel reports a case from Porsche who found out that the main barrier to buying a Porsche was the user image normal people had of Porsche drivers. So their strategy was to show that Porsche drivers drive Porsche not to show-off but because they really love driving - like all car lovers do.

Instead of giving you further examples let me rather show you some further content from strategists who also stress the importance of problems as the pivots of strategy.

Why mission statements (& SWOTs) are weak instruments

"Unfortunately, you can’t nail down your vision/mission statement (or what I refer to as your Winning Aspiration) without having made your where-to-play/how-to-win (WTP/HTW) choice. Spending time wordsmithing a vision/mission statement before making a WTP/HTW choice is a colossal waste of time."
Check out this short but insightful article: 

The WRAP rules for better decisions.

1. You encounter a choice. But narrow framing makes you miss options. So … Widen Your Options. How can you expand your sent of choices? …
2. You analyze your options. But the confirmation bias leads you to gather self-serving information. So …Reality-Test Your Assumptions. How can you get outside your head and collect information you can trust? …
3. You make a choice. But short-term emotion will often tempt you to make the wrong one. So … Attain Distance Before Deciding. How can you overcome short-term emotion and conflicted feelings to make better choices? …
4. Then you live with it. But you’ll often be overconfident about how the future will unfold. So … Prepare to Be Wrong. How can we plan for an uncertain future so that we give our decisions the best chance to succeed? …

The nature of an insight - in less than 7 words.

I stumbled upon a very simple expression that might help understanding what an insight is. And goes like this:

"We woke up to the fact that ..."

I believe that's it. If you can say this about your idea than there has been an insight behind it.