Does Your Agency Have a Brand Commissary?

A Great Pitch Can't Emerge Just From Focus Groups and Studies

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I'm talking to brand managers, brand, stewards, consultants -- anyone who is responsible for maximizing your company ad agency's efforts on behalf of your brands. Don't let your agency have an academic relationship with the product you are selling.

We all know the academic relationship. It revolves around sexy charts, research, case studies, infographics, word clouds, focus groups. The client says to the agency, "Make consumers understand the full, comprehensive robust experience of our brand … and if the agency people get a chance to have that experience on their own time, that'd be kind of neat."

The problem is that a consumer's relationship with a product should not, cannot, be understood at such a distance. You can't have your agency successfully selling consumers on the idea of sky diving if the creative team has experienced it themselves only on TV. Picture the agency developing concepts and saying, "It's the most memorable, visceral experience you'll ever have. Or at least it looks like it." Not the strongest position for your brand's biggest advocates to be in.

Academics know that you can't understand something from arm's distance. That's why a historian might sleep right where George Washington did to try to better our first president. Or retrace Sir Ernest Shackleton's journey in the same type of boat and clothing, to get a better idea of man's endurance.

A product is best understood by use and reuse. At the beginning of a product/agency relationship you want your team to cannonball into a pool of the product. And if you sell pools, you literally want them to cannonball, or jackknife, or belly flop into your product.

Don't give your biggest advocates a grocery-store-size sample of your brand; build a commissary so the agency staff can truly taste the whole thing. This will take a line item of budget to happen, but these will be the most valuable samples of your product you will ever give out.

And include your competitors' products in the sampling. Why? Because some consumers have tried the competition and maybe found it better. Or worse. Or equal, dependent on price. How can the agench team know the differences that can be best everaged and amplified? Your detergent cleans 12 percent better than a competitor? Sounds good. It means more when someone on your team is wearing a shirt laundered clean by your brand.

The commissary approach isn't a gift or a token; it's an investment. Your agency can and should meet you halfway on your plan, but know that it's to create a team that sells your experience because they've felt your experience.

Get as creative as your agency in finding ways to make interactions with your brand happen, no matter what you sell or rent, produce or recycle. Here are six ways to make the commissary real:

The setting matters. Don't let your agency sample the product in a conference room -- unless you sell conference-room furniture.

Extend exclusivity. Exclusive products should provide exclusive access. Give a loaner to all levels, not just the top.

The more niche, the more vital. Niche products like medical equipment should demand a walk-in-the-shoes of the end user.

A literal brand journey. Not everything can be had in a big city, despite what New Yorkers think. Export your team to where they can use the product. Sell lawn mowers? Send the team to a place where grass trumps sidewalks.

Price of admission. Don't let any agency person touch your business who has not experienced your product more than once.

Test the agency, seriously. Pop quiz your agency on the last time they used your product. The old consumer offer says, "Try before you buy." It's about time we heard, "Try before you sell."

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