Planning as problem solving? Brands as tension resolvers?


In an earlier post I wondered if problem-centered thinking really is the best description of how planning works or even should work. You can find that article here & here's Mark Pollard's article that triggered my doubts back then. Let me quote some of the doubts I've had: Do we need a Big Problem to arrive at a Big Idea? Can a lasting brand positioning always be built based on an actual problem the brand has right now? Or take another example: do we need a problem to outline a christmas promotion? Or when a brand is not there yet, its problem is so to say that it doesn't exist, yet. Is this really helpful to find the Big Insight into a Human Truth?
My answer to all that tended to be "no".


In recent times my thinking about those questions evolved further. Two things changed in my mind: 
1) I stopped understanding "problem" as just our client's problem but involved consumers' problems as well.
2) I stopped calling it "problem" and tend to call it "tension" - though I'm still looking for a better term.


At the moment I seem to believe that we really could frame any useful information used for strategy as a tension - a.k.a. problem. Firstly, there are client problems communication is supposed to solve. You could also call them "objectives" and that is the way they are codified most of the time. (Let's postpone the discussion if a "negative" framing is better than the "positive".) Secondly, there are consumer motivation phenomena which in Mark Pollards infographic are rather called "Insight". Well, my main point is that those again can all be framed as tensions - a.k.a. problems, although the word problems works less neatly. 


Some insights and ideas are tension-driven in a very obvious way:
- "Real Beauty" is built on the tension between what women look like and what society/advertising wants them to look like. 
- "Dirt is good" is built on the tension between parents' laissez-faire vs tidiness motivations. Or put it less intellectually, every detergent brand is somehow built on the dirt induced tension: "I want it to go away somehow". 
- Avis's classic positioning was built on the tension between being second in the market and people thinking that the Nr.1 is always better than Nr. 2. 
Problem! Dilemma! We need a Solution with a capital S!


But for months and even years I have been struggling with other great insights/ideas/positionings that seemed to be of no problem-centric nature at all. Examples of those stubbornly "positive" insights/ideas are: 
- "Johnnie Walker. Keep walking."
- "Felix cat food. For cats with character"
- "Ebay. 3-2-1-mine" (the latter being built around the thrill of auction shopping). 
There are many more examples out there. Actually more of this "positive" type than of the obviously tension-centric type. So how can we deal with this? Could these positive framings be re-framed in a tension-centric way?  Would this help in any way if they could?


What I found out is: these "positive" insights/ideas are not built upon lines of tectonic tensions but they always derive their value from tensions. Simply because there is no value without deficit and no meaning without opposition


Let's take "Johnnie Walker. Keep Walking." Very obviously, the idea came from the brand name. Probably most of the psychology around it has been made up in retrospective. But that doesn't matter on the level of Truth. (It really doesn't matter if Truth has been discovered in a "proper" linear-chronological, methodical way or accidentally or even in retrospective. Actually, it always happens accidentally, but that's another story.)   Back to "Keep Walking". It's an expression of an attractive psychological proposition: probably it's something like Personal Development or Life Success, maybe even Societal Development or Human Progress. Well if every person would develop herself to the max there wouldn't be any value in personal development. If all societies got better anyway there again wouldn't be any value in referring to it. So the value of "Keep Walking" lies in the scarcity of progress - thus in Human Inertia! 
Ha! I like it. So maybe we don't exactly need a Big Problem to arrive at a Big Idea but the presence of a Big Problem reassures us that our Idea actually is Big.


Ok, where does the value in "Cats with Character" come from? You see, this is the trickiest one! And again - it doesn't matter how those ad guys actually arrived at that idea - probably by having an Old-Fashioned at the bar. The question is rather - where does the power of the idea reside? My feeling is - and this might sound weird - that the true power of the "Cats with Character" idea lies in the opposition to dogs. Character is what dogs lack if you ask cat lovers. The value of having a cat and not a dog lies in the cat's independence and weirdness. 
On the other hand you actually do not need the opposition to dogs to get to that notion. You could really get there in a very straight way: "What do you like about cats?" or "What kind of love relation is there between you and your cat?". But my point is not how you get there but what makes a notion a real issue, a really significant notion. And the issue here is: I'm a cat lover. Cat lovers nurture character not devotedness - as dog lovers do. And here you have your tension. The tricky thing is: the tension seems to be outside the category, somewhere you wouldn't have thought of. Who thinks of dogs when he works on a cat account? Well I do now. I try to look for oppositions - even if there are no obvious oppositions involved. Oppositions constitute meaning. Cats vs dogs? Old cats vs young cats? Cat vs cat owner? Having cats vs having children? It's less a motivational tension, it's more of a tension in terms of "meaning". (Also read my older post about "meaning" as something to be found between two poles here.)


Let's try to apply this oppositional thinking to Johnnie Walker. You could start of by asking yourself: What's the difference between Whisky and Vodka. One of the answers will be: maturity issues. Maturity of the product and maturity of the drinker. Well, that's already quite close to Personal Development or Life Success, isn't it? Fascinating stuff.


The main question remains: Does all this help us planners? I actually believe that almost none of those ideas has actually been derived or discussed that way. They have not been discussing Human Inertia before the idea of "Keep Walking" was there, have they. Once it was there - they might have. Though probably not - managers tend to be allergic to negative formulations. Most people are. 


Well you see - I don't care if they had talked about it. Their brains had processed it that way anyhow. "Tension = interesting. No Tension = less interesting." It doesn't matter if others use these patterns explicitly - maybe you could. So, keep it secret and practice a bit. 


Tension here: if it doesn't work I shouldn't tell anyone about it. If it works... maybe I shouldn't tell anybody?


Also read this text here about problems as primary objects of good planning by Martin Weigl.