What to Do When Your Client Is Ignoring Reality

How to Diagnose and Cure Brand Grandiosity

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Curt Hanke
Curt Hanke
It's an ongoing war, really. A daily cage match that never ends. And it's going on within each of us -- every man, woman and child -- each and every day.

Social psychology tells us that there are two fundamental human needs engaged in this epic, ongoing conflict. In one corner, we find Reality -- the need for each of us to see the world as it actually is, to accurately and rationally understand and engage with "the facts" as best we can discern them through our own unique perspective. In the other corner, Self-Promotion -- the need for each of us to see ourselves in a good light, as "right and knowledgeable," to protect our identity and sense of well-being, which are rooted in our deep-seated sense of survival.

Thus, the title card reads: Reality vs. Self-Promotion. Doing battle every day, in every situation, constantly fighting for control over the way we look at the world.

Now, while I could certainly ruminate on the implications of this inner turmoil for us as individuals walking the earth together, my topic for this column is actually what this tug-of-war often means for us in defining our premises -- and building solutions -- with and for our clients.

The Big Problem
By and large, almost any client, in any category, thinks about his or her brand more in a single week than the average consumer will in a year -- or perhaps an entire lifetime, for that matter. So whether we're talking toothpaste, apparel or even motorcycles, it's understandable how difficult it is for our clients to see the proverbial forest for the trees.

This, in turn, leads to the big problem. Given that our clients eat, breathe, live and even sleep their brands -- and because their job description and paycheck require that they champion their brands -- it can often lead to them cheering themselves into a stilted version of reality. One in which self-promotion pummels reality with more than a few haymakers. A situation that we refer to as "Brand Grandiosity."

So whether we're working with a category leader or a startup, this battle often leads to a flawed -- and overly inflated -- sense of consumer perceptions. "Everyone loves us!" "We're known as the up-and-comer!" "We are a dominant brand in that market!" (This, from a brand with single-digit market share and unaided awareness in the teens.)

In quantifying Brand Grandiosity, we often find that clients have anywhere between a doubled to quintupled inflation of their brand's awareness -- this, even with research numbers in front of them. ("I don't believe this research!") And when it comes to brand perceptions, it can be even worse with a wildly overblown sense of their brand's performance on a wide range of attributes.

So in the context of the psychological struggle painted above, self-promotion is kicking reality's metaphorical butt.

The Challenges of Brand Grandiosity
In many ways, I admire Brand Grandiosity. After all, clients work hard every day, finding white spaces, mining for opportunities, and chasing victory for their brands. With this passion -- this very literal "self-promotion" -- it is very understandable how this can lead to an inaccurate sense of their brand's "reality."

That said, it certainly presents challenges. If you think your brand is perceived (or known) better than it is, this will have serious implications on every part of your marketing and brand strategy. Investment framework. Competitive frame of reference. Positioning levers. Sales activity. Customer service. Brand substantiation. Bottom line, the way we fundamentally define our brand's problems (and opportunities) will have a significant impact on the solutions that we develop. And if we're starting in the wrong place, the odds that we will end up in the right one are, quite frankly, not great.

How to Cure Brand Grandiosity
As with almost anything, acknowledging that there is a problem is the first step. As an external partner, part of the role of an agency must always be providing the wide-angle lens for our clients. To help call BS when necessary. Or to at least poke, prod and encourage that together we continue to look at the marketplace with fresh (and accurate) eyes.

Now, this isn't always easy. As Mark Twain once said, "Education is the path from cocky ignorance to miserable uncertainty." Nevertheless, at minimum, our responsibility is to initiate a conversation.

Obviously, research is often a vital prescription. For clients who are unwilling to invest in qualitative or quantitative insights -- and when we are fairly certain that Brand Grandiosity is taking place -- we will go so far as to "bet" our fees on the research outcomes. Meaning that if after the research is complete, there is not a consensus on a case of Brand Grandiosity, we'll write off all of our time. In 10 years, this is a bet we've never lost.

Last, when you just can't find a way to make formal research happen, roll up your sleeves and hit the pavement. Pick up the phone. Visit with consumers and prospects where they live. Dig deep into the myriad issues facing your brand. While this method is far from perfect, spending time in the marketplace will always provide a new way of looking at the situation.

Brand Grandiosity comes from a good place -- true passion and advocacy on behalf of a client's cause. But it can also be a significant barrier to creating a brighter reality for a brand. As such, being ever vigilant is critical, because as we all know, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Curt Hanke is the co-founder and account director of Shine, a 32-person advertising and interactive agency headquartered in Madison, WI, serving clients such as Harley-Davidson Motor Co., Carver Yachts, Wisconsin Cheese, Kaplan and Winston Fly Rods.
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