My job includes developing the skills of the agency’s junior planners. I’ve been having daily one-on-one mentoring sessions with them, and I’m rewriting the teaching material into a series of blog posts. This is the second installment.
In the previous post, we discussed the most fundamental principle of communication planning: communication is about stimulus and response. I also hope I have convinced you the importance of starting from the desired response, and asking, “What do we want the audience to remember?” instead of “What do we want to say?”
In this post, I will answer the question of “How do we decide what the desired response should be?” I’ll take you back to the example from my previous post. Let’s assume I’m in the situation where I need to convince new acquaintances that I’m a funny person. “Mita is funny” is therefore the desired response.
The most immediate question you may have is why I want them to believe I’m funny. Why should “Mita is funny?” be the desired response? The answer is, “I can solve my problem if they see me that I’m funny.” Another possible variation is, “Because being seen as funny by these people helps me achieve something.”
If you can only remember one thing from this post, it should be this: determining the desired response is about solving a problem.
Advertising (in its most general sense, including direct marketing, activation, and social-digital channels) exists to solve a problem —mostly for commercial purposes, but also for social ones. Of course advertising can’t solve all problems. But solving problems is the reason why advertising exists.
Determining the desired response is about solving problems. A problem is defined as a difference between things as perceived and things as desired[i]. “Things as perceived” connote where we are now. “Things as desired” signify where we could be.
Strategy is the practice of figuring out the best way to get from where we are now to where we could be[ii]. This is why determining the desired response is at the heart of communication strategy.
When planning communication strategy, there are 5 big questions we need to answer:
- Where are we now?
- Where could we be?
- What stands in between here and there?
- What’s the chosen approach to get there?
- What are the actions we must take to go from here to there?
I will cover each question in more detail. The context I’m using is planning communication strategy for brand marketing.
First question: where are we now?
Answering this question is about gathering the information so we can really understand the situation we are in now. This is akin to a doctor collecting data from listening to the patient’s complaints, reading laboratory tests, conducting physical examinations, etc.
If we plan strategy for marketing communication, these are the places I will look for data and information:
- The market size and its dynamics:
- How big is the size of the market? Is it big compared to adjacent categories or similar countries?
- How big is the growth of the category? Are there any brands that grow (decline) faster than the category? Do we know what drives the growth (decline)?
- How is the market share divided, in terms of value and volume? Where is our brand’s position?
- Consumers’ attitude and behavior:
- Who are the buyers of the category? Are they the same with the end-users? Are they different from the buyers or end-users of our brand?
- When do normally buyers or end-users realize they need the category? Are there significant differences across brands?
- Where is the category usually purchased? Where is it usually used? Are there significant differences across brands?
- What are the perceptions towards the category? What are the perceptions towards our brand? Are there important differences across brands?
- Which brands are consumers mostly aware of?
- How do buyers go about making decisions about the brand they’ll eventually purchase from the category?
- How is the category used or consumed? Are there important differences across brands?
- How do buyers or end-users behave post-purchase or post-consumption? Are there significant differences across brands?
- The marketing communication context
- How are normally brands in the category supported by marketing communication? Are there important differences across brands?
- Who is the biggest spender in marketing communication? Do we know the position of our brands?
- What are the clichés of the category?
Second question: where could we be?
This question is about clarifying the objective. In my experience, in a growing economy most of the time the brand’s objective is about growth. Meanwhile in a stagnant economy arresting market share’s decline is quite a common objective.
In stating where we could be, always aim to:
- Be precise on what we’d like to achieve (specific).
- Be precise on how much we like to achieve (measurable).
- Be precise on how much time we have to achieve it (time-based).
- Be realistic. Achieving an objective requires money, time, and people.
Third question: what stands in between?
Another way to ask this question is, “Why are we here, instead of in the place we want to be?”
In this phase, we are trying to formulate the problem. There is a famous adage, “A problem well-formulated is a problem half-solved”.
Here’s one example from one famous urban legend. It happened in the 1960s during the space war between Soviet and USA. NASA astronauts discovered that their pens did not work in zero gravity. They went to work and designed a wonder pen and spent millions of dollars along the way. They managed to invent the wonder pen that worked upside down and in zero gravity. Meanwhile the Russians used pencils.
This urban legend turned out to be a myth, but the moral of the story remains relevant. NASA defined the problem as “Regular pens don’t work in zero gravity” while the Russians stated, “We need to write in zero gravity”.
Another classic example: the tenants of a high-rise office building complained endlessly about that the elevator service being too slow. Not surprisingly, the proprietor initially defined the problem as “the elevator service is too slow” and they investigated ways to speed them up. Unfortunately speeding them up would take lots of money and time. They thought adding the number of elevators, but the construction didn’t allow them to build additional shafts for the elevators.
It seemed like a dead-end, but somebody was smart enough to define the problem as “the users’ waiting time is too long”. Defining the problem this way, the proprietor could easily solve it by installing mirrors on the walls of the elevator row.
Both examples show that
- How a problem is defined influences how it is going to be solved
- A problem can be defined in many different ways
- Some definitions will lead us to better (more effective or more efficient) solutions than others
Since a problem can be defined in many different ways, it’s imperative to employ many different points of view when we’re trying to figure out what stands in between the things as perceived vs. the things as desired.
When planning brand communication strategy, I usually use the following points of view:
- The classic marketing 4P: product, price, place (distribution), and promotion (communication)
- Consumers’ attitude and behavior towards the category and brand
- Socio-cultural context
Remember, at this stage we should attempt to generate as many alternatives of problem definitions as possible. Don’t try to edit and select yet —that’s what we’re going to do in the next stage.
Fourth question: what’s our chosen approach to get there?
We have generated all the alternatives of problem definition. In essence, they are our hypotheses on what stands between where we are and where we could be. We need to choose one from the bunch.
These are the steps I usually take:
- Write down each alternative of the problem definition into a sticky note. One definition, one sticky note.
- Draw a diagram made of two axes. The first axis is “potential impact”. The second one is “feasibility to be addressed by communication”. See the diagram below.
- Map all the sticky notes into the diagram. Be very strict in questioning if each note is put on the right place.
- Choose one sticky note that is located on the top-right corner of the diagram (in the quadrant of “high potential impact + high feasibility to be addressed by communication”)
- Rewrite the problem definition into a statement that begins with “To…” and indicates an effort to change something. This statement will be the core of our strategy, or in fancier term our strategic intent.
|Campaign||Strategic intent||Problem definition|
|“Truth” anti-smoking campaign||To make youth see that non-smoking is an act of rebellion.||Young people see smoking as an act of rebellion and this make anti-smoking campaign that highlights the bad side of smoking futile.|
|“Small Business Saturday” from American Express||To encourage shoppers to buy small business for their holiday shopping.||During holiday time, shoppers focus only on big retailers on Black Friday and online retailers on Cyber Monday.|
|“Run London” from Nike||To make running a collective cultural activity.||Running is seen as solitary activity that’s suitable only for certain kind of people.|
Fifth question: what are the actions we must take to go from here to there?
This is the stage where we break down the strategic intent into several courses of action. It’s important to cover all the needed actions and requirements for each one of them, and also get the sequence right.
I usually start from the end and move backward. What must happen right before we get to where we want to? Do we need anything for that? What needs to happen before that?
In the context of communication strategy, this is the part where we complete the campaign plan. We break down the strategy into stages. For each stage we determine the desired response and the communication channel.
Normally this is where I find working together with other specialists (media planner, digital planner, activation planner, PR strategist, etc) really valuable.
This has been a long and extensive blog post. I don’t expect you to remember all the steps and the tips. If you can afford to remember one thing, it’s that determining the desired response is about solving a problem.
Having covered thoroughly about determining the desired response, I will discuss on the stimulus side of communication in the next post.
Let’s end our discussion by my favorite quote:
“It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer .” — Albert Einstein.