Brand Planning: the bridge from strategy to action

If you’re a marketeer in one of the many businesses, who, courtesy of HMRC, are approaching your year end at the end of March, you’re now thinking about brand planning. Brand planning is a vital building block of all business as well as marketing, but it is often treated as something that ‘just happens’, for which common sense alone is good enough to do an adequate job, and gets steered by finance or strategy.

Unless marketeers apply greater rigour and ownership to the discipline of planning, we will limit our ability to deliver the primary aim of brand building companies, to positive impact target customers to effect successful change. And if we can’t do this, we won’t be taken seriously by others in the business.

As it is, sadly, most brand plans don’t get implemented. Why?

Confusing tactics with strategy. Getting excited by and jumping straight to the things you want to do. “Strategy” is an amplifying word, added to other terms to give them a sense of greater importance. Planning embraces three phases, each with a specific goal, sequentially linked and each distinct.

  1. Diagnosis: understanding the situation the brand (or company) is in, and why.
  2. Decide: working out how do we deal with the situation we face. Where do we want to be? What are the options for getting there cognisant of our competitive situation? This is the strategy.
  3. Do: the plans or tactics. Working out what the few, high impact, activities are that we need to execute in order to achieve our strategy. Being clear on what the distractions are.

Getting the diagnosis wrong based on the situational analysis, likely caused by data gaps, overbearing opinions or underplaying owned strengths of the brand or a competitor

Derailed process due to misalignment. Mid-way through the process an intervention from a senior leader questions the work so far, losing momentum and bursting the precious bubble of confidence that had been created.

Choosing the wrong competitive strategy e.g. not leveraging a real strength or perhaps taking on a competitor in the wrong way.

Failing to unite, align or enthuse key stakeholders involved in signing off or implementing.

In response to these issues, we have developed ‘Hourglass’ brand planning, reflecting the shape of the process planning needs to follow. Starting broad, narrow at the centre when focusing on the needs of the customer and the business and then flowing out again to the actions.

Hourglass planning is built off a small number of critical foundations, themselves rooted in the insight that cause planning to trip up:

  • Start by going broad in analysis; not just in terms of the content and approach to gathering data and making sense of it, but also in listening to the perspectives, opinions or strongly held views of key stakeholders in the process.
  • Make sense and choose what’s important. There are lots of tools available to aid with situational analysis but what’s missed is the human act of sensemaking and choice. You don’t want to end up with a very comprehensive but utterly useless synthesis of the current state. It’s what you choose to pull out and take action on that’s important. You’re looking for company or brand strengths that are distinctive, defensible, ownable, leverageable or competitor weakness that are the same. Boil it all down. Focus on the few enablers and blockers of growth because these will be at the heart of your action plan.
  • Be clear on who you’re competing for and evaluate and test everything through their lens.
  • Ensure you have long term foundations in place. Purpose, mission, vision are not interchangeable. You need to know the role of each and how it helps you make clear decisions that more often than not, are right.
  • small number of action platforms that flow directly out of the diagnosis. If you can’t see the insight threads from the diagnosis at the top of the process to the actions at the end, then your plan is likely misdirected and you’ll struggle to get buy in and engagement.
  • Brand activities that deliver against the essentials: we have yet to see an effective brand plan that does not deal with three themes: the brand’s ‘mental availability’, its ‘physical availability’ and bridge between the two, trial & repeat. The 4P’s fit here.
  • Great brand plans sacrifice. Don’t confuse this with prioritisation. Too often, prioritisation is a pretence that some things are more important but, through sleight of hand, we can still do everything. You can’t. Kill stuff properly and just focus on what’s really important.

Our experience in brand planning is built from both client side and agency experience. If we can help you with your planning challenge, get in touch.

David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that helps brands find a direct route to long lasting success.; +44 (0) 1283 295100;; @crowflieshigh. © The Crow Flies, 2022

Market research… and the holiday spirit

And so the holiday season draws to a close and as we return to work, most marketeers are struck by the same thought: why don’t I become a pool cleaner and then I can be on holiday the whole year around? For most of us, this is swiftly followed by the realisation that we don’t know anything about cleaning swimming pools and so instead we focus on two very important tasks: planning the big projects that are going to step-change brand performance and planning the next family holiday to a pool somewhere sunny.

AUGUST HOLIDAY CROW 2Let’s be honest, as we get our feet back under the table at work, the latter often takes precedence and the first thing we do is to immerse ourselves in the research for it. Every source and anyone of value to the decision is engaged: friends and family, consumer reviews, pricing comparisons – the lot. By using them, we maximise our chances of finding the perfect holiday and minimise the risk of disappointment and wasted money.

Yet ironically, and increasingly, for big marketing projects research is questioned. It may be because of experience of researching a project to death (which inevitably leads to inaction) or receiving an overly researchy, non-commercial answer (which often leads to a recommendation to do more research!) or just a general sense that the research has merely described the past. It’s so easy to listen to the research naysayers who belittle its value and instead advocate riding with the white knights of ‘big data’, off-the-shelf industry reports, or frankly, personal intuition and a survey cobbled together on Twitter.

At The Crow Flies we’re not curmudgeons, advocating that you should simply do what you’ve always done and damn the consequences. But at its best, we see the value in well constructed research, when engaged consumers and engaged clients are brought together over the right questions to uncover commercial solutions to commercial opportunities.

The Crow approach to managing research powerfully is to think about The Nest and The Egg…. ‘The Nest’ is the research framework. Neither too broad in scope nor too shallow in depth and focused on fuelling decision making. ‘The Egg’ is how research participants and client stakeholders are immersed, involved and fully engaged in incubating the project to deliver results that can be leveraged with scale and impact.

Get this balance right and research can significantly increase your chance of delivering commercial success on those next big projects before you head off on that very well researched family holiday…

The Nest focused, usable, scalable

  1. The critical 5%
    Research is typically around 5% of your budget – but it’s the most critical 5%, everything else hangs off it. Give it focus; give it attention, immerse yourself in it and it will deliver.
  1. Ask for your answer
    Too many research projects don’t go far enough. Uncovering consumers’ unmet needs is only the start. Finding out how your brand can solve them should be the output – which brings us on to…
  1. focus on the interface
    Brands are not built on research alone, nor on research strategy, planning or innovation…they are built at the interface of the four. Set-up your research and all the parties involved to ensure the outputs directly inform action.
  1. Methodology blah blah
    We know people find new research techniques interesting and exciting but often they promise more than they deliver. Focus your brief first and foremost on finding the unmet consumer needs that unlock commercial success and don’t fret about the technique.
  1. Usable utility
    Elaborate videos & complex segmentation models are of no use if they don’t build shared understanding & uncover new, usable insights. Prioritise outputs that will help the marketing team to make decisions and the sales team to scale up your brands, profitably

The Egg immersive, informal, impactful

  1. De-objectify the process
    Consumers are real people. They’ll only tell you what they really think if they feel comfortable & relaxed. Informal is the new formal and releases real truths.
  1. Go long
    Longitudinal and dialogue techniques will cast light on how consumers actually behave over time. These fresh perspectives can unlock real value.
  1. Get engaged
    Time is short & attention spans ever shorter. Put engagement at the heart of the process – give quant studies personality, reduce the length of interviews. Focus on what’s essential to learn.
  1. Raw not just scrambled
    There’s a role for the formal debrief but raw can be better. ‘Live’ debriefs the night of research, open dialogue & discussion for big opportunities at pace.
  1. Sunny side up
    Consumers are marketing savvy and love to get creative. Don’t just ask them to tell you their frustrations, involve them in creating the solutions. It’s amazing what they come up with

It’s time to reconsider the very real commercial value that research can unlock and to be a little more sceptical about research naysayers – ultimately there’s an agenda behind it. For a different approach to market research and brand building that maximises your chances of delivering commercial success, get in touch.

 Rob Parker is a Partner at The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that helps discover the direct route to success for brands and businesses.; +44 (0) 1283 295100.

© The Crow Flies, 2017

A Black Friday indeed

When you start your own business, one of the factors you underestimate is the time and organisation required to do the mundane tasks that the corporate world largely take away for you: for example, servicing the car or getting an MOT (if indeed, your company allows your car to get to three years old). So it was, that on this fine Friday morning, I found myself dropping off my car at a local garage before holing up in Costa Coffee in a Tesco for a good dose of (de)caffeine, free wifi – and the retail madness of “Black Friday”.

What does it say about our society and fundamental human behaviour that an imported, fabricated retail ‘event’ can cause (a) queues outside stores at 7am and (b) two men fighting outside a Tesco, of all places, to get the ‘bargains’ inside – as Mama Goat said, ‘I kid you not’?   This is most definitely ‘a consumer response’ and as such I find myself quite intrigued by events like ‘Black Friday’ and similar ones like Halloween a few weeks earlier. As retailers have given Black Friday more focus in recent years, it has crept furtively, unwillingly, into my consciousness. Yet, whilst I know little of its origins other than the link to the day after Thanksgiving in America, this year, the tipping point was hit: adverts and break bumpers awash with retailer adverts announcing their fabulous offers. Even John Lewis getting in on the act – indeed, like our scrapping shoppers their website was punch-drunk and floored by the amount of traffic it received. Blimey.

But how successful are these fabricated ‘events’?

Let’s consider the shopper angle first. Witness this (slightly paraphrased but genuine) conversation I overheard in the café:

Woman 1, “I hate all this Black Friday nonsense. I mean it’s just an American thing. We’re just copying their culture”.
Woman 2: ‘But there are some real bargains to be had. Are you coming?”
Woman 1. “Oh yes!”

What seems to explain this is, more than anything else, is habit – habitual shopping behaviours and responses that we have learnt since our early years. In fact, despite one of the emergent societal hypotheses being that consumers in the developed markets are moving increasingly away from a consume more model to one of consume more responsibly, Black Friday shows that the ‘old’ paradigm isn’t dead. Far from it in fact: this habit of shopping, for bargains, is powerfully ingrained, visceral. It demands a response, a response which is embedded deep within our autopilot systems. These ladies chose to shop not out of desire so much, but habit – the opportunity, the slim chance of catching a snip of a deal – only with greater odds of winning than the lottery. What’s to lose?

Cute retailers are benefiting from these habits. The disciplined ones are adopting a ‘when it’s gone it’s gone’ approach: “Here’s some stuff. We’ve hacked the price. Get it before it’s gone”. Amazon advertising 80% cuts is a good example. Louis Vuitton, 60%.   But many aren’t adopting this discipline. “Come into store for our Black Friday weekend event” (where you’ll enjoy savings of up to 15%) So that’ll be Black Long Weekend then? Doesn’t have quite the same sizzle to it, does it? And look at the January sales: they’ve moved to December – at first starting on the 27th, but now encroaching on Boxing Day – you know what’s next…

Event based marketing isn’t new but it’s gathering pace. A friend of mine, a Brit currently living in Canada, believes that Halloween could soon be a bigger shopping event than Christmas – a bold claim, but his logic is sound. It’s a unique event, it’s a relatively quiet ‘retail’ time of the year, it’s a real and traditional event that involves the whole family and indeed the community (if you count trick or treating your elderly neighbours and tipping over their plant pots if they don’t comply).  Halloween I get. Easter too. Valentine’s (at a push). But at what point do we have so many events that they become meaningless. At what point do we Brits start celebrating Cinco de Mayo or Labor Day? At what point does the whole retail landscape changes to one of constant discounting, of ‘everyday low prices’ and an erosion of the few special events that make shopping interesting, fun?   The lesson seems to be, if you’re going to benefit from events, ensure they’re real, have a connection with your audience and you have the discipline to know when to stop.

And it raises the question too: do events like Black Friday increase sales, or just alter their shape? Perhaps the food and drink industry needs to get behind these events in a more focused way as they are (more of) an expandable commodity: but TV sets? Tablets? DVDs? My hunch is the sales are pulled forward to move the pain elsewhere.

Anyway, I’d better finish there – the police want to interview me down the station. Apparently I landed a real beauty on his face.

Slide1David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that helps brands find a direct route to long lasting success.; +44 (0) 7885 408367;; @crowflieshigh.