What do percentages tell us?

Oh dear, this one is so hard to talk about. There's so much to say and so little fun to talk about it. Boring it is. But not to me. And maybe someone else cares. So let me pick one aspect that especially drives me mad. 
What really puzzles me is the interpretation of the typical bar chart that is supposed to help understand consumers' motives. They go somewhat like this:

Consumers get asked what is "important to them, when it comes to XYZ".  Let's leave aside that this is a very naive question. What I want to talk about is just the numbers and what those quantities tell us.
What happens almost all the time is that we go: "Quality is most important, "Knowledgeable Stuff is second", "Selection seems to be least important." Right? Again, forget about the stupid variables, just go by the numbers. Quality is more important than Selection, right?

Well I don't get that. How can those bars tell this kind of story? The questionnaire obviously must have worked this way: "Tel us how important the following blabla are ... etc" and then each variable could be rated (not ranked, unfortunately!). Now, 80% of the respondents said Yes, or have chosen the Top-2-Boxes when it came to the Quality factor and 50% did that when it came to the Selection factor. But how do we know that for each person, or even for most of the them that the Quality factor is more important than the Selection factor? We have never asked them! What we have measured is not the relative importance but the distribution of high importance of each factor in the population. This tells us that salience of Quality is more frequently found, not that it is literally "higher" than that of Selection. 

You see, we just do not know by looking at those bars how many percent of the 80% "Quality Seekers" also find Selection very important. There might be up to 50 percent points of them among those Quality Seekers. So probably most of the people who find Quality important would find Selection just as important. Both factors are rather equally important to most of the respondents! How can we than say that Quality was more important, then?

What could it probably mean "Quality is more important?". What they mean is: if you improve your quality perception this would appeal to more people than when you improve your perceived selection. So the underlying assumption behind that kind of bar chart is: "The more people you target the more successful you will be." Thus, the primary imperative is Reach. You can easily evaluate if your task at hand is in-line with this imperative. If it is - than there's nothing wrong about those bars and their interpretation. 

Let me give you three examples:
Task 1) "Differentiate our brand from the competitors in the industry."
Task 2) "Create more loyalty for our brand. Raise the re-purchase rate."
Task 3) "Position our new product as the first of its kind and leverage first-mover advantages fully."
Which of these tasks is the one that is in-line with the assumption "The more people you target the more successful you will be"? Give it a try!
Obviously, it's Task 3. Being the first mover means grasping and owning the most popular, most obvious factors. Task 2 is not primarily about reach because it is rather about depth. Task 1 is not primarily about reach because it's rather about partitioning. Of course, in the sub-segments you are sort of aiming for reach, you could argue. But even that doesn't always have to be true: loyalty could very much be about individual, not popular priorities. Differentiation could is probably more focused on less popular yet energetic, unoccupied territories to make them popular. E.g. Axe/Lynx occupied "smell" probably not because it is the most "important" factor in terms of it's statistical distribution in the total population. But it makes a stronger brand positioning than going for "antiperspirant effect" which probably is slightly more frequently rated as "important".

The most important bias at work when looking at those percentage bar diagrams is a visual one. We are automatically attracted to the longer bar. To us it seems more potent, thus more effective etc.
And we all make use of this bias. Especially because planners often rather abuse than use data. They abuse them "to make the point" = to soothe clients' worries = to make them think less.

Instead of making us think more data - especially simple descriptive percentages - make us think less. That's a pity. We should think much more about what data tell us. Not exactly because this would always make us read more out of the data. In the stupid case above - the very first pic I found on the Net - there's not much to be read. It's not very useful. All planners know that. But we should think more about data e.g. in order to learn how to design better surveys. I would start with the question: "How can we measure how important one thing is compared to another?" and "What needs to be known before we can measure that?". But maybe we just can't know what's important?

A very entertaining but sound talk on how content vs. advertising works

David Ogilvy’s Oysters Ad

Down below you will find a really a wonderful talk given by Paul Feldwick on several very interesting topics.

Among others you can hear and learn about:
  • an anecdote about David Ogilvy’s first ad idea (the oysters ad)
  • a taxonomy of advertising effectiveness models
  • a definition what content really is
  • a discussion why content is NOT the opposite of advertising
  • and some more.

I really recommend to watch it. Enjoy!


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. (http://account-planning-confessions.blogspot.de/2013/04/on-creative-fertility-of-idea.html)

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."   http://www.contagiousmagazine.com/2013/10/a_safe_distance.php

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: