Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Villages not Focus Groups

Not only Malcom Gladwell (see ) is striving to kill the concept of focus groups and its still significant influence on marketing strategies. I am meeting more and more strategic planners with similar thoughts; individuals like Rich Kellerman, strategic planner at Draft in Chicago, who inspired this posting. They are arguing strongly for the disappearance of this seemingly antiquated tool. All opposing parties are stressing similar reasons for its dislike:

  • The artificial context of focus group situation which puts consumers in a more rational mind set than normal. Consumers decide much more emotionally and significantly faster than any focus group situation can simulate
  • The Team set up of gathering a group of strangers does not reflect the real network of decision and opinion influencers that most consumers experience, mainly with their family and friends.
  • Consumers are not deciding or thinking within 90 minutes of scheduled time slots but are fragmenting their thoughts and decisions about brands throughout the whole day, at any possible time and location. The isolated location and scheduled time slot fully of focus groups corrupts any real consumer insight.

Despite this strong push for the disappearance of focus groups, I haven’t seen too many applications or research methodologies that would replace focus groups and its limited but still powerful insight potential. It seems that any replacing methodology or applications will need to include several key elements to really substitute for focus groups:

  • Maximizing the natural and non-artificial context and set-up of the research realm. It’s all about being as close as possible to real life as possible
  • Increasing the time of observed behavior. It’s a 24/7 world and we marketers should observe the consumers in this new context not only in a predefined time slot that is convenient, but does not reflect today’s consumer behavior
  • Integrating as many media capturing devices as possible to reflect the multiple ways of how consumers express their path of forming brand attitudes and purchase decisions

I call this to be designed research methodology “The village” since its core value proposition returns to the origin of anthropological studies. In the forming stages of anthropology the researcher traveled to the far away village, observes the villagers behavior day and night for years with as little obstruction and influence as possible. Despite the fact that these early pioneers have actively changed the villagers behavior (despite their claim of attempting to minimize their culture changing influence), they have acted much more sensitively than any market researcher who gathers focus groups to derive insights. Imagine the early anthropologists who would have invited the village inhabitants to focus group gatherings outside of their village context, with very limited time, and in a round table like discussion with complete strangers from other villages. It would have been an absolute disaster withoutmeaningful insights.

In my suggested concept of “The village” we would combine the passion of early anthropologists like Levi-Strauss but we would limit the researcher’s influence. We would enable the research object (=the customer) to capture his or her behavior, thoughts, and spoken words across all media vehicles that we have access to in today’s world: Starting from self shot videos, blogs, photos, etc. This multi media self recording and producing research methodology, driven by the consumer and moderated by the marketer, combines the over 150 year old wisdoms of early anthropology with our changed consumer and marketing world.

Now, we just need to find the marketers and planners who translate this concept into real applications. We are definitely only at the beginning of replacing focus groups with more sensitive and insightful research methodologies but this development path will be full of breakthrough research and initial failures. I can’t wait to see it happen.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Who own's the brand?

While writing the last posting about Tim O’Reilly’s concept of “Architecture of Participation” and its relevance for brand communication, I realized that most marketers underestimate the different groups of brand owners. They continue to solely focus on the consumer. Let me try to suggest an extension beyond this single group.

There are three additional owner groups that are vastly neglected. In some cases their brand perception can reach the importance of consumer perception.

  • Company’s employees: While an increasing number of brand centric firms realize that their employees are the living embodiment of the brand, most companies still don’t consider their employees not just as simple brand advocates but the physical representation of a brand personality. Best example is the hospitality and travel industry, where only a few brands live this concept with significant success like Singapore Airlines, or Riz Carlton. Most other providers in this industry prefer to spend significant marketing dollars in TV centric programs with no plausible linkage to their employee base
  • Company’s supplier and partner network: Surprisingly most marketers don’t consider a company’s supplier and partner network as potentially very strong or very harmful brand advocates. A company’s procurement department focuses mostly on cost containment (which is their job) but marketers can significantly influence the brand perception of their partners. In cases like Wal-Mart these supplier and partner networks represent millions of individuals.
  • Company’s competitors: Brand perception by competitors can be a very useful weapon in defining a company’s identity as well as the competitor’s self perception. Any holistic brand strategy needs to include the element of how it influences the competitor’s perception of the brand.

The outlined extension of brand owners to more groups stresses not only the increasing complexity of managing large brands but it provides us marketers with additional audiences for whom we have to build brand strategies. In the future I would love to see a brand strategy developed not only for the consumer but for this extended audience. Such a well designed and truly holistic multi-audience brand strategy will significantly strengthen the brand reach and its relevance.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Architecture of Participation

A couple of months ago Tim O’Reilly coined the term “Architecture of Participation” ( , describing how innovative companies implement an easy to use structure in which every employee can contribute his or her best ideas, concepts, innovative breakthroughs. He outlines how a company’s internal open and “merit-based” Online Network can be one of the best models to build a long lasting innovative advantage.

This concept of unlocking the creative and innovative power of employees has been recently transferred to the marketing space. Marketers involve stronger and stronger the consumer in building dialog enabled brands. More and more marketing programs enable consumers to create their own brand oriented marketing devices (eg TV spots, Taglines, Messages), all based on the premise of utilizinge consumer generated content as an additional push to increase consumer engagement.

The significant difference between Tim O’Reilly’s concept of innovation focused “Architecture of Participation” and the dialog oriented consumer marketing approach is its intent: on the one hand the drive to utilize the power of a merits based innovation network (very similar to Open Source software projects), on the other hand the consumer driven brand creation by contributing consumer created marketing vehicles back to the brand owner, the company.
Both applications of Tim O’Reilly’s concept can learn from its counterpart. But in both cases the break through power of “Architecture of Participation” lies fundamentally in allowing individuals to contribute their creations. Successfully implemented concepts seem to share similar traits and best practices rules:

  • Provide easy to use contribution systems: The contributor does not spend a lot of time to learn the contribution application but spends his or her time on creating something interesting and personally relevant
  • Control and police contributions as little as possible: Contributors realize very fast if the contribution system is primarily a marketing gimmick with very tight central controls or if it’s really a system with extensive freedoms
  • Enrich the contributor’s experience: The contribution recipient (employer or brand owner) has to offer an additional experiential benefit beyond the simple fact of allowing his or her contribution. This benefit can be a recognition element or real influence on the brand itself.

This accelerating trend demonstrates that Marketers realize once again: Brands are ultimately not owned by the legal brand owner, the company, but by the diffuse and often disconnected community of consumers. The marketer should not be surprised that a well executed “Architecture of Participation” concept strengthens the consumer ownership of a brand, with either positive or negative consequences. It’s not easy for us marketers to not only give up control over the brand, but to enable and accelerate the control transformation to the consumer.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Lazy Reinventions

Why do marketers have the constant need of reinventing themselves? Is our consumer world changing that fast so that consumer marketing as well as the discipline of marketing has to reinvent itself constantly? Or is the marketer just the most fickle consumer of his own story, so that a weekly repacking or repositioning of his own work seems like a good idea? Is the constant drive for reinvention just a successful marketing tactic to sell himself his own marketing concept?

If I would just know the answer! Let me try to circle around this topic by analyzing the root causes for this reinvention fever. As mentioned above one can distinguish between two different types of company’s reinvention: on the one hand a truly reinvented business model with fundamental organizational, capability, and cultural changes, on the other hand a pure change in the high level sales pitch of explaining a company’s business model with some new and smartly sounding terms. My guess is that 95% of all claimed reinventions are in the second area of purely cosmetic modifications without seriously diving into the DNA of a given business model.

It seems that this phenomena of superficial or lazy reinventions are happen very often in the marketing field, mainly due to the high competitive pressure amongst the leading service agencies and the increasing difficulty of truly competitive distinction. Marketing Service provider often behave like manufacturer of highly fashionable consumer goods that need seasonal trends with the preposterous claim of total seasonal fashion reinvention. Hey, someone has to buy the new pants, or?

So, what are the key indicators of lazy reinventions? Let me suggest the following indicators:

  • No real Product or Service Change: The visible output of the company is not significantly changing; it might have a different color, a different name but the key value benefit remains the same as before
  • No customer change: The core customer segment remains the same as before the claimed reinvention. Any real reinvention would enable the company to reach new customers and convert prospects into buying customer that beforehand just remained curious prospects
  • No internal talent change: Most people believe that the C-level executive team has to radically change to enable a true reinvention. I am stressing the importance of change at the direct report level of all C-executives. These executives are the real drivers of true innovation. Just hiring another CEO is too often the begin of just another lazy reinvention

These indicators should help in unmasking lazy reinventions. Let the unmasking begin!