Whatever Your Problem, Fix It First, Then Advertise (Not the Other Way Around)

We Spend Too Much Time on Execution, Not Enough on Identifying What's Wrong

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Patrick Hanlon
Patrick Hanlon
In Moscow, a group of Europeans and Americans are sitting in a small, chilly room with headphones on. An interpreter drones through the headsets, relating what young people are telling a research moderator on the other side of the glass. What the respondents are saying is insightful, stunning and bad news. As participants in the new Russian free market economy, these young Moscovite men and women declare, they do not want to be office drones. They want to be jet-setting billionaires, with limousines and jewels and romp all night with attractive models.

All of which makes the advertising our client has been airing -- the punchline being two office schlumps giving each other high-fives over their office-cube wall -- terribly wrong.

Of course, the fact that we've discovered this within the first hour of talking to consumers makes the disconnect more egregious.

And that double clicks on the real problem.

We spend so much time and money and meetings micromanaging execution, but inversely not nearly enough time focusing on what we will call Problem ID -- identifying the true problem or opportunity.

Examples abound. Gap's recent new logo debacle was hardly solving for their real problem of being relevant in a world of similar choices. (The logo refresh may have been the introduction of a Brand New Gap with better organization, design and merchandising, but now we'll never know.)

Harley-Davidson zealously markets its choppers, when the sad fact is that its baby boomer bikes just don't appeal to younger generations born to be wild on Japanese rockets.

Then there's the story of the beer company that tried to get into the Chicago market. They launched their big ad campaign and had major first trial, but zero repeat business. Turns out the refrigerator cars on the Chicago-bound train went out and skunked the beer. Skunk happens.

There are (at least) two reasons for this. The first is that product and marketing managers rotate between brand groups at an alarming rate. Hitting the ground running, new managers are often unable to put in the upfront time and resources to identify the right problem to execute against. Instead, they get a new agency. They get a new campaign. They invest in social media. They tweet.

The second is that everyone everywhere is overtasked. We have at least three meetings we could be at during any day part. And forget about lunch.

Where to focus?

The answer is in problem ID. Drill down to identify the real problem or opportunity you are working to solve.

Part of the answer may be in those stacks of consumer studies your predecessor left behind. The answer may be out in the streets. But if you're new to the post and have a fire to put out in Bentonville, and Target is considering thinning your SKUs, it's easy to get distracted.

Problem ID may be a simple reframing. Turn the problem on its head. As Sir Ken Robinson says, "Imagine if the paperclip is made of foam rubber!" Or, to borrow from design thinking, how many marketers does it take to screw in a light bulb? Why a light bulb?

Your problem may be service, pricing, distribution, the sales team or even the product itself. (Recall Toyota.)

Another answer in problem ID might be soul. Discovering the deep-skin emotional attachments people have (or don't have) toward your product or service is not just insightful, it's inspirational, even revelatory. "We never knew that!" are four words always thrilling to hear, because now we're not just problem-solving, we are leapfrogging to brand reawakening and fresh opportunities. There's a new there out there.

When problem ID solves right, sales follow. Once Domino's identified their real problem, that their pizzas sucked -- and (bold move) they admitted it -- they gave themselves a fresh perspective and renewed vision. Today they have some very saucy sales figures.

Zappos takes the tactile indecision out of internet shopping and famously gives female shoe shoppers the ability to try on different styles, just like real-world Fifth Ave. (The inside secret? Order five pairs and return the ones you don't like. Free shipping is awesome!)

AT&T identified that their service sucked -- so they countered that with a buzzworthy exclusivity pact with Apple iPhone. (AT&T may have to problem ID again very soon when we can all get both an iPhone and opt for Verizon's state-of-the-art service.)

Digging in and uncovering the real problem takes mammoth concentration and often new discovery tools. But finding the right solution propels the entire sales force forward -- and not just the brand team, but also regional salespeople, people sourcing product, upper management, your consumers and everyone in between. And sometimes, like in the Domino's case, it takes some hard and honest evaluation. But it's worth it. And definitely better than spending millions, only to find you've been running down a rabbit hole.

Identify the problem first -- then deploy your resources to help solve it. Now that's a solid reason to high-five your co-workers over the office-cube wall.

Patrick Hanlon is author of "Primal Branding: Create Zealots For Your Brand, Your Company And Your Future," which has been translated into five languages. CEO-founder of branding consultancy Thinktopia, he shepherds a roving troupe of research analysts, trend spotters, social anthropologists, cultural enthographers, new-venture catalysts, graphic designers, urban planners, innovation experts, videographers, stylists, retail experientialists, cool hunters, forensic researchers and futurists.
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