Yellowstone’s Wolves and Reintroducing a Brand

Two decades ago, Yellowstone National Park was suffering. It was the victim of defoliation, erosion, and an unbalanced ecosystem. But in 1995, everything changed. That was the year wolves were reintroduced to the park.

Prior to the return of wolves, deer, elk, and bison populations had increased substantially, resulting in overgrazing, particularly of willows and other vegetation important to soil and riverbank structure. This left the landscape vulnerable to erosion. Without wolves, the entire ecosystem of the park suffered.

When wolves were brought back to the park, they changed their prey’s behavior patterns. The herbivores started to avoid areas like valleys and gorges where they could be easily hunted by predators. And those areas began to regenerate. Species such as birds, beavers, mice, and bears returned. Plant life once again thrived along the riverbanks and erosion decreased significantly. Perhaps most remarkable, the stabilization of the riverbanks actually made the rivers and streams change course. The entire landscape of the park transformed.

Brands aren’t that dissimilar. They exist as part of a broader ecosystem and when they are removed, that ecosystem changes. Now, to be fair, “ecosystem” is admittedly an industry buzz word that’s been around for years, including the branding world. Most focus on the integration of social media, digital marketing, and consumer data. And they usually employ traditional means of brand communication. Every brand is part of a larger, interconnected cultural system. Not just the culture of the people inside the company, but its partners, customers, non-customers, and even competitors. It has history, mythology, functions, and forms. Every action results in a reaction.  

So, when a brand is reintroduced or reinvented, it does so in the context of a deeply interconnected set of variables. When ta brand is reintroduced or reinvented, it change the system. The burden of a brand revivalist, then, is to rewrite and reshape not only the brand itself, but the ecosystem in which it operates. No matter what the reason is for your brand relaunch, this means it needs to be specific and backed up by a concrete plan. The first step in the process is understanding where it fits in the ecosystem, what role it plays, and then deciding which aspects of the brand need to be retooled.  This, of course, requires a thorough evaluation of the core brand identity across all of its various components.

The second and perhaps more important step is to fully understand how the brand shapes the broader cultural patterns that impact its consumers/customer/users. Most situations involving a brand relaunch are going to be long-term affairs, and the planning stages need to be informed not only so the reintroduction itself will have maximum impact, but also so that it positively effects the system of which it is part, both sort and long-term.

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Planning Content

“Content” is one of the most talked-about industry buzzwords, but it tends to lack clear definition. To my mind, content is information and communication directed toward an end-user. Broad, yes, it speaks to the very point that content is simply about the transfer of information. Most people associate content with social media although it also includes a larger list of tactics across owned and earned media channels – white papers, video, quizzes, surveys, etc. Conceptually, content should attract, not interrupt.

The focus of content should be to tell compelling stories that help inspire and empower prospects and customers to take additional action with a service or organization. It is (or should be) the approach of creating and distributing valuable and consistent content to a targeted audience, with the objective of driving some action.

And not all content is of equal value, nor should it be viewed as such. A powerful new case study may seem like a silver bullet, but without the supporting storyline and tools, it’s just another proud moment to celebrate. Furthermore, content must be developed across the entire brand engagement customer journey—and starts from a solid understanding of your task-based personas who give you insight into the audience and is the driving force behind a successful lead nurturing program. So, how do you develop “good” content?

In an increasingly speed-obsessed world, people want to consume as much information as they can in as little amount of time as possible (Demand Gen Report’s 2014 Content Preferences Survey). The survey went on to note that while white papers provide the most detailed information of any content type available, they involve a much greater investment than most videos, infographics, etc. But context and need obviously shape how and why people engage with content. Complexity and social capital can and do influence the way we consume.

The best content strategies start by asking a series of questions, both from an internal and external perspective. By asking questions, you can begin to frame up the way customers typically start their search for a solution. Build a checklist for evaluating a new content opportunity that includes the following questions:

  • What is the story we want to tell?
  • What pain point does it solve for a prospect or customer? How does it encourage positive action?
  • What marketing channels are best for the type of content?
  • What moment in the customer journey will the content support? What investment is required to produce the content?
  • What format should the content take?

When determining the appropriate areas to invest in content production, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is the revenue potential?
  • Is this a budgeted opportunity?
  • Are we willing to invest and if so, how much?
  • What does the end user need?

In addition to questions as a means to test the viability of content development efforts, content teams should meet regularly to compile and update a comprehensive list of all submitted questions to your company. If applicable, customer support emails and customer support calls can also be fertile ground for collecting insights. Comb message boards, forums, communities and other places where your key audiences seek out advice and information.

Once you have your questions mapped out and agreed upon, start to group them by frequency. From there, have an open discussion about your company’s ability to answer the large pools of questions and how those relate to the stages of the buying cycle: Is there content that exists that can quickly and easily resolve a customer question? Is your customer able to access the information across all channels?

Once the questions are answered, it’s time to build a model. Content experts are great at making content, while subject matter experts within the organization are critically important to ensuring content accuracy (concerning facts, but also the application to the marketplace). There needs to be a partnership between the groups to ensure the content being developed satisfies all parties, with particular attention focused on solving customer issues.

Combining current sales profiles, personas, and other customer models the company has become the tools you can use to profile customer segments to improve the relevance and effectiveness of your content marketing efforts. The key to building the right segments is to identify customer needs and pain points, group the needs and pains points by roles or audiences (task-based is our preferred model), and then use that data to profile top customer segments. It is important to evaluate task flows on a frequent basis to ensure accuracy, response to industry change, and data feedback loops.

Once the buying journey is fully defined and key customer profiles are highlighted, the editorial team can create content that will successfully resonate.

 

Getting at the Heart of Consumer Understanding: Cheap, Fast and Tactical Isn’t the Answer

Sitting in a meeting not long ago, I couldn’t help overhearing someone comment that the presentation of the rationale for a campaign they had just sat through was too “academic”.  What struck me was the distinction he made between academics and “real businessmen” like himself.  The word “academic” is, of course, loaded but one of the underlying meanings to so many would-be paragons of business is that “academic” means complicated, useless or detached.  Now, while I would be the first to agree that people with an “academic” bent to their work can be prone to laying the jargon on fairly thick at times or wanting to give details that some people might feel aren’t needed, the ones that gain recognition and traction in their field and across disciplines (including business) are anything but detached or lacking in their ability to articulate game-changing product and business solutions.  The practical and the academic are NOT mutually exclusive and indeed, there is a desperate need to start incorporating some of that “academic” approach back into businesses.

These days, there’s a fixation on returning to surface-level research in marketing. Cheap. Fast. Tactical.  Strangely, being obtuse is frequently presented as being savvy.  Stupidity masked as brilliance.  What defines current research demands will not work in a market still defined by mass extinction. Change is needed and change doesn’t come from shallow understanding. If a company is going to be successful, if a company is not just looking to survive but prosper into brand prominence, it has to do more than quantify and type its constituents. Above all, it must really understand the consumer. Truly understand its consumer at a deep level. Of course, the people in most companies would argue that they do just that; they have reams of data to prove it. They’ve spent countless hours and countless cups of coffee in focus groups asking people for their opinions. They’ve stopped shoppers in the mall, watched them at the check out and run survey after survey. They have tapped into Big Data and can tell you that 67% of Prius owners in Cleveland also buy 7.4 ounces of coffee on Tuesdays at 10:17 a.m. And if you propose something requiring a bit more depth, it is often  “too academic” – I have to wonder if “too academic” would applying if they were talking to their cardiologist.  “Sorry doctor, running all those CAT scans before putting in that stint seems too academic.  Just stick that fucker in there and it will probably be ok.  It’s just my heart, it’s not that complicated.”  This isn’t too say that finding and insight don’t need to find simplicity and clarity, or that jargon should be minimized.  But is to say that simply dismissing good methods, information and insights because they don’t fit easily into a bullet point or that they require more than a few moments of thought is dangerous to legitimate innovation. 

The problem is that meaningful understanding doesn’t come through focus groups, surveys or mall intercepts. And while Big Data is great for getting at what is going on, it rarely points to why. Understanding doesn’t come from one-on-one interviews, hidden cameras or diaries. These things, like participant observation, are all part of the tool kits used by a range of researchers to talk to consumers but talking is not understanding. Sorry to say this to my business brethren, but sometimes good work does indeed require deep thinking, complex ideas and time.  Not everything need be the fast food solution to developing insights.  Nor should it. So what does it mean to understand our customers?

Admittedly, it’s difficult to define “understanding.” It’s convenient to use an operational or behavioral definition where we begin with the maxim that somebody who reacts appropriately to X understands X. For example, one could be said to “understand” Japanese if one correctly obeys basic commands given in Japanese. But in context, this is a terrible inadequate definition. A person can execute the command, but may miss the fact that it was given in sarcasm. If a native English speaker tells another native speaker to jump off a cliff, they understand they subtext of the phrase, but a non-native speaker may not pick up on that. This is why idioms and metaphorical language are usually the last linguistic concepts to ingest when learning a new language. Understanding implies a much deeper ability to interpret and create, especially in a foreign or unknown context.  And it’s this interpretive element that defines “understanding” and what real consumer/users understanding means for a brand.

“Understanding” is an ability to reason from an inductive perspective and pull together seemingly disparate bits of information into something cohesive. An inductive researcher approaches the analysis of data and examination of practice problems within their own context rather than from a predetermined theoretical basis. The approach moves from the specific to the general, which means that the research team looks at things in a completely fresh and unbiased way. Anthropology is built on this fundamental principle and goes beyond providing a company with the raw understanding of human behavior, innate responses and bio-social needs. It provides a richer method for understanding how these pieces fit together and, more importantly, how people craft these pieces in a given context.  Because anthropologists take an inductive approach, it means they learn as they react and are taught about what is important by the people with whom they work.

For businesses that are attempting to pull themselves out of the muck of the economy over the last seven years, now is the time to start thinking in terms other than one-to-one ROI and short-term sustainability.  Now is the time to start thinking about how to change and define what’s next, not just what’s happening this quarter.  Human beings are complex, absurdly complex. These complexities are amplified by a postmodern condition where speed, mutability and fusillade of advertising bombardments are the hallmarks of existence. It simply isn’t enough anymore to know that family X prefers crunchy or smooth.  Companies need to understand “why.”  Take something as simple as peanut butter. They need to understand how people shop for food in general. They need to understand how people cook with it peanut butter.  They need to understand the changing conceptualization of food as it relates to a sense of identity in a social network. They need to understand the changing landscape of the family meal. In other words, rather than thinking about incremental change and upticks of 2% in their specific category, they need to think big, be bold, and look for real insights. They need to get beyond the numbers, which are safe, bland and devoid of meaning, and get at the stuff that really matters.

Too academic?  Maybe.  On the other hand, Honda and Toyota changed the nature of perceptions about cars in America because they took the time to learn.  Their brands became synonymous with quality and efficiency even as others created increasingly problematic gas-guzzlers.  Why didn’t’ Ford fall into that category?  Because Ford, in the middle of a hugely successful brand turn-around, took the time to explore that “too academic” work and apply the findings in new, creative, genuinely innovative ways. Why did Subaru gain market share and increased loyalty when others lost ground (other than building terrific cars)? Because they launched a campaign that spoke to bigger human issues and ignored mediocrity.

The point is that opportunities do not lie in the obvious, they lie on the outskirts and it is up to us to knit together the relevant pieces.  Armed with this depth of understanding – real understanding – businesses can develop products and brands that do more than produce small incremental profits.  They can develop brand loyalty and brand advocates. They can transform their businesses and become iconic.  They must, because as we know, the basic rule of evolution is simple: adapt or die.

 

Innovation Is Creative Thinking With Purpose

Innovation is creativity with a purpose. It is the creation and use of knowledge with intent. It is not only creating new ideas but creating with a specific intention and with plans to take those ideas and make something that will find purpose the world. Innovation is ideas in action, not the ideas themselves. Innovation is also a word that gets thrown about, often without really considering the reality that it is, in fact, damn hard work. What makes it hard work isn’t the generation of new ideas, but the fact that turning complexities into simple, clear realities can be excruciatingly difficult, but that is precisely what needs to be done to make innovation useful. Simplicity and clarity are tough to do.

Innovation, whether we’re talking about product design or a marketing plan, should be simple, understandable, and open for a wide range of people. Innovation is becoming more of an open process, or it should be. The days of the closed-door R&D session is gone as we incorporate more engagement of users, customers, stakeholders, subject matter experts, and employees in the process. Most companies are very good at launching, promoting and selling their products and services, but they often struggle with the front end of the innovation process, those stages dealing with turning research and brainstorming insights into new ideas.  The creating, analyzing, and developing side of things is often murky or done in a haphazard way. Articulating a simple system with clearly defined activities is central to bringing innovation to life and involving a wide variety of stakeholders and collaborators who can understand and engage in making the beginning stage of the innovation process less confused. It is as much art as it is science.

Easier said than done – you need a starting point. The simplest and most obvious element in this is to begin with a system of innovation best practices. You would typically generate multiple ideas and then synthesize relevant multiple ideas logically together in the form of a well-developed concept. This is the no-holds-barred side of the idea generation process and allows for people to begin exploring multiple trajectories. The key is to make sure the ideas don’t remain in a vacuum, but are open to everyone. With that in mind, it is extremely important to ensure that ideas are captured and stored in one place, whether electronically or on a wall (literally) dedicated to the task. Truly breakthrough innovations are not solitary work, they are part of a shared experience where ideas build on each other. They are the result of collaboration. This means that the work involves others to help you generate ideas, develop concepts, and communicate the concepts in meaningful and memorable ways. The more open the process, the more likely it is to get buy-in as people engage directly in the innovation process.

Next, make sure people have access to all the information available to them. Research around a problem or a people is often lost once the report is handed over and the presentation of findings complete. Central to the success of an innovation project is to make sure themes and experiences are captured and easily available to the people tasked with generating ideas. So make it visible, make it simple and make sure people are returning to the research (and researchers) again and again. This is about more than posting personas on boards around a room. It involves thinking about and articulating cultural practices in such a way that they are visible, clear and upfront. As people think and create they should constantly be reminded of the people and contexts for which they are creating.

Once the stage is set, the problem and hopeful outcomes need to be made clear. This is fairly obvious, but it’s easy to drift away from the goals as ideas emerge and people have time to simply forget why we’re innovating (or attempting to innovate ate any rate). So make them real, crystallize the problems and challenges. Make them visible at every step of the process.  In addition to posting the goals, be sure to have space to pose questions that are grounded in the problems or opportunities for innovation. Categorize the types of questions and ask that people visit them every step of the way to ensure the process stays on track and is grounded in the goals of the project. Categories of question types to consider might include:

  • How Will This Impact the Community: How can we help people, build communities and reflect the cultures and practices for which we are designing?
  • What is the Opportunity: How can we create something that provides a better life for the intended users?
  • Is It New or are We Simply Tweaking Something: How can the thing we’re creating change the current situation or are we simply creating a variation on an established theme?
  • How Will It Be Interpreted: What challenges do we face in getting people to accept the concepts and what cultural or psychological barriers do we need to overcome?

These are just a few examples, but they represent some of the ideas that might emerge when thinking of new designs, models and messaging strategies. They will, of course, vary depending on the goals of the organization. If your goal is to build a new delivery system for medications or if it is to do something as broad as change the way people eat, then the questions will change. The point is to have a space that opens up the dialog, not just a space to throw out ideas.

The point to all this is that in order to innovate, you need to clarify a simple system that all the various contributors can use. Establish a system and stick to it. Identify and write down the areas you would like to innovate in, get all the parties who will contribute involved and make sure they engage in an open environment. Create questions to ask and areas of exploration. Do that and you will move from a complex mess to something that can be acted upon.

From Personas to Stories: Creating Better Tools for Design and Marketing

Design ethnography takes the position than human behavior and the ways in which people construct meaning of their lives are contextually mitigated, highly variable and culturally specific. on the central premise of ethnography is that it assumes that we must first discover what people actually do and why they do it before we can assign to their actions and behaviors to design changes or innovation. The ultimate goal is to uncover pertinent insights about a population’s experience and translate their actions, goals, worldview and perspectives as they directly relate to a brand, object or activity, and the role that these pieces play with regards to interactions with their environment. Often, the information results in a large-scale, broad document, but it also often results in the development of personas.

The idea is that personas bring customer research to life and make it actionable, ensuring the right decisions are made by a design or marketing team based on the right information. The approach to persona development typically draws from both quantitative and qualitative tools and methodologies, but because of the very personal nature of ethnography, the methodology often leads the charge. The use of ethnographic research helps the creation of a number of archetype (fictions, in the most positive sense) that can be used to develop products that deliver positive user experiences. They personalize the information and allow designers and marketers to think about creating around specific individuals.

But there are problems with personas. Don’t get me wrong, I believe personas can be useful and help design teams. But I also believe they can reduce the human condition to a series of attributes and lose the spirit of what personas are designed to do. First, in terms of scientific logic, because personas are fictional, they have no clear relationship to real customers and therefore cannot be considered scientific. So much for the science.

For practical implementation, personas often distance a team from engagement with real users and their needs by reducing them to a series of parts. The personas, then, do the opposite of what they are intended to, forcing design teams down a path that gives the illusion of user-centricity while actually reflecting the interpretations or the individual designers. Creating hypothetical users with real names, stories and personalities may seem unserious and whimsical to some teams within an organization and be, consequently, dismissed as so much fluff. But by far, the biggest problem, at least to my way of seeing things, is that while we want to use personas to humanize potential customers and users, we in fact reduce them to objects and a laundry list of actions, personality quirks and minimalist descriptions.

I’m not advocating the dismissal of personas, but I am suggesting that perhaps there are alternatives. One place to start is to admit we are writing fiction when we construct these tools and expand upon that notion. We should be adding to the mix humanistic narratives. Customer novellas, so to speak. It requires more time and effort, both on the part of the person/people creating them as well as those using them, but it also gives greater depth and insight into the needs, beliefs and practices of the people for whom we design and to whom we market. Rather than relying exclusively on a dry report or a poster with a list of attributes.  In this model, the idea is to create a short story in which actors (the eventual personas) engage with each other, a wider range of people, and a range of contexts. Doing so allows us to see interactions and situations that lead to greater insights. It allows us to look at symbolic and functional relationships and tease out elements that get at the heart of the fictional characters we create.

Why is that important? Because it does precisely what personas are meant to do but typically fail at – provide depth and characterization, establish a sense of personal connection between designers and users and provide breakthrough insight and inspiration. Anyone who has read history vs. historical novels is familiar with the idea. It is easy to reduce Julius Caesar to a series of exploits and personality traits, but in doing so we lose the feel for who the man was. A historical novel, in contrast, adds flavor by injecting conversation, feelings, motivations and interactions. We walk away with a feeling for who he was and what affect he had on others, good and bad.

Imagine developing a persona for Frodo from The Lord of the Rings. We could say the following and attribute it to all Hobbits: Frodo is enamored by adventure but frightened by it. He loves mushrooms, has no wife, is extremely loyal to his friends and will work at any task he is given until it is done, regardless of the difficulty or potential for personal harm. He disdains shoes and has a love of waist coats.

There’s nothing wrong with this description, but for anyone who had read the trilogy or even seen the movies, the shortcomings are obvious. We miss the bulk of Frodo’s personality. In exploring the novel, we come to develop a rich understanding of Frodo, a deep understanding of his motivations and personality and his relationship with other members of the party, including the Ring.

For the literalists out there, I am not suggesting we create anything as vast as a novel, particularly one as expansive as The Lord of the Rings, but I am suggesting that we move beyond attributes and create stories that more fully develop the people behind the personas. Several pages of engaging writing is sufficient. Not only does it provide deeper insights, but it engages the reader more fully, inspiring them to go beyond the “data” and explore a wider array of design, brand and marketing options. Again, it isn’t meant to replace personas (or the research report), but to add to it. It requires more effort and time on the part of the person creating it as well as the person consuming it, something people are often disinclined to do, but the end result is better design, greater innovation and a more complete vision of what could be.

Symbolism of Color and Web Design

When thinking about how the study of symbols and signs can factor into interface design (whether for the traditional web or a mobile environment) two questions come to mind.  First, up to which level of a semiotic sign – iconic, index, and symbolic sign – should symbolic meaning be dealt with in eBranding?  Second, how are aspects of color and texture as a semiotic signs related to the purposes of 1) increased brand awareness, 2) enhanced brand loyalty, and 3) cause to purchase/commit?

I’m characterizing the different modes of reference of color application through Pierce’s model distinguishing iconic, index and symbolic signs.  Especially iconic and indexical signs seem to structure representation in a new way from the design. The sign may refer as an icon, an index, or a symbol to its object (X). Color may represent icon index, and symbol by the viewer’s interpretation. So, color of the webpage may function as an iconic sign when it refers to another thing with a similar color or texture.  Tan may, for example, refer to limestone even though there is no real limestone imagery used.

An indexical unit draws attention by being existent and not similar as does the iconic item. The cultural and social background of the person interpreting the site’s images and colors the third level of “symbol”.  This means symbols are more subject to variation in response and reaction than icons, icons more so than indexes. Returning to the use of tan, it may reflect a sense of the exotic by tying it to underlying associations with the desert and the Western construction of mythical representations of the Middle East. The point is that color is more than we think and can be remarkably powerful in helping establish connections with the user. It is a symbol and symbols have tremendous value.

Signs do not function separately, but form multilayered references.  The complexity of a sign is increased because the references are not stable or fixed qualities of the product.  Since references of the sign can be interpreted differently at different times and contexts, it means they display greater variability when not grounded in iconic and indexical messages.

So how do we use this when developing a site? Execution means integration, resemblance, and metaphor:

  • Colors can integrate, that is they create a visual unity of the elements shown.
  • Color can make objects and scenes resemble very closely what they look like in reality.
  • Through symbolic metaphors, colors, images, and textures address themselves to the imaginary and imply comparisons.  Identity is transferred from one object to another (i.e. website to prospective consumer).