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3 Ways To Make The Most Of Your Brand’s Social Capital

Posted on November 30, 2015
Written by Hunter Thurman

Social Capital

Every brand has a ‘social business model’ – whether marketers recognize it or not.

In my work with both big brands and startups alike, a common question is pondered in strategy sessions and hallway chats, alike: “Should we consider a social business model?”

What we marketers mean by this, of course, is should we do what brands like Tom’s, Ethos, or Patagonia have done (and done with great success) and make ‘doing good’ part of our brand. But what marketers should really be pondering is more like…

“What is the social business model of OUR brand?”

Because there’s already a social role your brand is playing – you have no choice. It harkens to the adage we’ve all heard that “humans are fundamentally social beings.” While that’s usually interpreted to mean that people prefer the company of other people to isolation, there’s far deeper relevance, and it’s likely the basis of whether a person does or does not identify with your brand and products.

This comes down to the human hard-wiring ingrained within us, and is explained by evolutionary psychology. Basic survival instincts compel a person to join a tribe for safety, security, and access to mates to carry on the biological mandate of procreation. Once positioned in that tribe, he or she is compelled to elevate his or her status for ever-improving safety, security, and choice of mates.

It’s easy to observe in everyday life. The whole of first-world societies around the globe revolve around the individual mandate to elevate one’s status within the tribe. Whether it’s excelling in the boardroom, on the sports field, or in the neighborhood parent’s group, we’re driven by the requirement to build our social capital.

So your audience of would-be buyers is steeped in social capital no matter how your brand is positioned, who uses it, or when they use it. Sage marketers will leverage this simple human truth to their advantage. It’s not easy, but there are some simple questions to ask yourself in order to define your brand’s unique social capital…

1. In the situations in which your brand is used, what social capital is most relevant?

What’s the use case you envision for your brand? As evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller would say, this situational consideration relates to the conspicuous consumption the user displays to his or her tribe.

If you’re making a new energy drink to help young professionals stay in-the-zone at the office, the social capital she or he is seeking is to appear to be an up-and-coming ass-kicker. NOT the best skater in the skate park. Design and position your brand accordingly.

2. To whom around the user is your brand most relevant?

How will your brand help build social relevance for the user? While many marketers think about what benefit their products can provide for the user, fewer ask themselves the more relevant question: what benefit will this product allow the user to provide to his or her tribe?

Will your laundry detergent empower users to show others how well-pressed and put-together they are, or will it help parents show their kids love and affection with a warm sensory embrace every time they get dressed? THAT’s what matters to the user, so THAT’s the social role of your brand.

3. How does the user benefit from your brand’s social capital?

Spoiler: the answer is almost always in how it makes others perceive him or her.

Even for more altruistic brands, the actual benefit the user derives from using the brand is likely different from the altruistic or otherwise benevolent attributes of the product. When a person buys a pair of Warby Parker glasses, someone in need gets a pair gratis. However, the actual purchaser of the glasses doesn’t benefit from THAT. Instead, she benefits from the appeal that others in her social tribe perceive about her: that she is the kind of person who buys sunglasses with a cause.

Likewise, a person who buys a high performance car that gets abysmal gas mileage does not benefit from the low MPG’s of his new ride. Rather, he benefits from the capital afforded by his identifying as a gear-head dedicated to performance – appealing among the fellow tribe of gear-heads on whom he’s more than happy to spend a little social capital.

Your brand has a crucially relevant social role to play for every potential user. The challenge lies not in realizing this, but rather determining what that role will be.

Can Grocery Store Food Keep Up With Fast Casual?

Posted on October 20, 2015
Written by Hunter Thurman

3 ways to elevate from offering mere products to creating valued experiences

It’s official – the U.S. Commerce Department confirms that, for the first time ever, consumers now spend more at restaurants than in traditional grocery store outlets. This unprecedented turn is no doubt driven in large part by the fickle darlings of the marketing universe: Millennials.

Does this spell the end for packaged food and beverage brands? No. But it emphasizes a truth we marketers all know, yet seldom apply boldly in our businesses: people (Millennials, in particular) have no interest in products. Rather, they seek rewarding experiences.

But how can an off-the-shelf (or out of the cooler) brand compete with the multi-dimensional, immersive experience of actually visiting a physical environment? Brands can re-invigorate the role they play with these up-and-coming consumers by recognizing three core components to an appealing experience (and, yes, they form a handy little acronym): Participation, Exploration, and Tension.

1. Participation

Simply put, a consumer expects to be a PART of each thing she consumes – not merely a subject to it.

Take the example of Warby Parker glasses. It’s widely know that a person can encounter a minimum of 3 Sunglass Hut stores within any given mall in the United States. In other words, sunglasses are not scarce. And yet, every-Millennial who’s any-Millennial is lining up to order Warby Parkers. Why? Because you don’t merely buy them; you become part of the Warby Parker identity.

If I ran a personal care brand, I’d be decoding all the ways in which a consumer could participate in my brand’s unique style, rather than merely becoming purchasers of it…

2. Exploration

Basic neuroscience dictates that one of two ways to command a person’s attention is to teach him something; hence the foodie craze of discovering new flavors and textures. Simply put, beverage and food brands should provide the exploration we crave at the most basic human level.

Take the recently-launched Panera bowls… Most people can certainly wrap their minds around a “noodle bowl,” but Panera elevated the experience: Soba buckwheat noodles. Umami soy-miso broth. These are not ingredients one merely consumes. They provide something to discover.

Foods and drinks should certainly perform the functions associated with sensory satisfaction. But those that teach and help their users explore will stand out from the pack…

3. Tension

Beyond teaching something through exploration, the other surefire way to get the brain to pay attention is to scare a person – albeit, just a little. After all, that which does not kill us but pretends to, is thrilling (like riding a rollercoaster).

This ‘positive fear’ explains the continual popularity (and recent sriracha-fueled spike) in spicy food. Spice is one of the few gustatory sensations one does not taste, but rather feels via pain receptors. So, it turns out that spicy food actually hurts, and is thus more exciting.

Can packaged goods – from foods to household care products – provide a dose of healthy fear? They certainly can if they understand the buttons to push in the human psyche, as well as the sensory perspective (and lots of established neuroscience can form a great guide).

So, while foodservice is currently winning the growth game, the playing field is level. And the opportunity is ripe for packaged goods brands to make a mere trip to the store much more than that – it can be a discovery worth seeking out.

What Can Your Facebook Friends Teach You About Brand Innovation Strategy?

Posted on January 12, 2016
Written by Hunter Thurman

Brand Innovation Strategy

How many friends do you have on Facebook? Now how many do you really consider “friends?”

While the majority of your contacts are old classmates who moved across the country after graduation, or your cousin’s coworker that you chatted with at her July 4th party last year, those individuals play a key role in your circle. These are what we call ‘weak ties,’ and they’re the people you might email for a professional introduction, but not call just to chat. They’re connected to you, but are not a visible or obvious presence in your daily life.

How, then, does this relate to consumer insights and innovation strategy?

Think for a moment about garage brands—pioneered by the most savvy, bootstrapping, entrepreneurs out there. For these cash-strapped start-ups, traditional media is much too expensive. Instead, one can trace their success to the use of social media and their leverage of weak ties, where every shared post, hashtag, and check-in adds up quickly.

So how can weak ties bring leverage to the big brand space? Instead of looking at your customers’ ties, let’s examine their activities matrix instead. What activities are their “friends” –– those that are not omnipresent in their lives, but still on the radar? Which activities are important or impactful, just not everyday occurrences? What is happening around their core activities?

Swiffer utilized weak ties while looking for a way to position their dusters. Consumer research revealed that strong ties included housework, cleaning, and taking care of the family. While panning out from that strict focus, Swiffer recognized that more efficient cleaning led to more time for the individual, and their commercial depicted the Swiffer user – a mom – actually taking “me” time to read a book. This message was different from other housecleaning products, and resonated with the consumer in an innovative way.

Don’t simply ask or observe what your shoppers do in your category; investigate what they do in their lives BECAUSE of your category to find the weak ties your consumers have created that you’d never imagined.

Check out more thoughts like this from my book, Brand Be Nimble.

If You Can Solve This Equation,You’re Ready To Build Your Brand

Posted on March 17, 2014
Written by Hunter Thurman

Driving brand innovation is not easy, but it is simple – solve the innovation equation and your brand will grow.

This article originally appeared in Fast Company

Imagine it’s 8th-grade homeroom: the bell rings, and you take your seat. Written on the board is the following:

X+Y+ Z = $

The teacher walks in and announces that solving this equation is your assignment. Teen angst – even more than usual – ensues. That’s because this equation can’t be solved. Why? Because there’s no constant. The above equation is one that marketers encounter each day. But instead of cardigan clad teachers, these professionals answer to hardened CMOs and investors who aren’t in a position to gently walk them through it. Brands need to grow, and this equation must be solved – now!

Enter The Innovation Equation

There are three factors – X, Y, and Z – to account for in order to drive brand innovation. They aren’t easy to obtain, but they certainly are simple. And it all starts with assigning a constant. To form a true strategic platform, one must have X – an audience or target, Y – a felt need or desired benefit, and Z – design DNA or capability. Often, larger organizations are bereft of all three of these, so much so that it can cause paralysis of choice. Startups, on the other hand, often only have one constant to which they cling.

Whether it’s an engineer applying physics to make a new heart valve (Z), a coder writing an algorithm for a new diet app (Y), or a mom-preneur looking to social media as a way for moms to meet other moms (X), their constant is the key to solving for the other two variables. Big brands should identify the constant they know the most about, then work to develop the other two variables in order to create meaty platforms. It’s one of the true keys to making efficient progress, and to quickly pressure-testing for failure points before getting too far down the road. Here’s a look at how to break down the process to find your constant:

X – Is the AUDIENCE your constant?

Do you know your audience? Can you describe them like you would a friend? Can you explain their tastes, fears, likes, dislikes, and characteristics? Or, do you at least know about them? Can you explain how old they are, where they shop, in which type of community they reside? For example, if you know them, you may be working from a fresh segmentation study that really puts a face on a given consumer group. If you know about them, you may be interested in growing your brand’s market share with Millennials. Either is a suitable constant from which to work.

Y – Is the FELT NEED your constant?

This territory becomes a bit more nuanced, but the simple summary of it falls within the following two questions:

1. What does the marketplace need?
2. What is scarce?

If you’ve identified a felt need and have a pretty good answer to those questions, you’ve probably found your constant here. For example, it’s easy to observe that people need energy. It’s also easy to observe that energy drinks are not scarce. So, you may observe that people need energy in a way that won’t leave them feeling jittery. Alright, now you probably have a constant from which to work. You can now set about identifying who most needs this, and how you’ll uniquely deliver it.

Z – Is Design DNA your constant?

A great example of this is when the R&D team shows up with a new, patent-pending technology. Now you have the Design DNA – the capability – as your constant, and your job becomes determining who needs it, and which felt needs it solves. Any of these three are viable constants and a surefire way to lead your teams beyond the churn that often comes with big brand innovation. Simply identifying your constant will not only ensure you create substantive innovation platforms, but that you lead your team towards growth with the best, most competitive foot forward.

The principle in real life

The Innovation Equation comes to life in a new brand example like Chobani and its founder Hamdi Ulukaya. As Ulukaya tells it, he was running a struggling cheese brand when he literally pulled a direct mail piece advertising a tired old yogurt factory from his trash can and decided to take a look on a whim. Ulukaya’s constant fell in his lap (or, more accurately, his trash can). He had the Design DNA (Z) that would ultimately enable his breakthrough: the dormant yogurt plant. He spent two more years after that fateful factory tour figuring out whom he would serve (X), and why his new product had a right to exist (Y). The Innovation Equation that drove Greek yogurt from less than 1% of the category to nearly 60%, and continues to drive double-digit year-over-year growth, was born.

[Image: Flickr user ansik]

Run to Space – Finding Territory in Crowded Markets

Posted on December 10, 2013
Written by Hunter Thurman

Brand Innovation

My sport growing up was soccer. I even thought about playing in college until I discovered that playing Ultimate Frisbee and watching The Price is Right were pastimes better suited to my social agenda. But in my soccer glory days, I remember a key lesson our coaches would hammer home time after time: run to space.

Anyone who’s ever noticed the contrast between a peewee soccer game and a World Cup game has seen this principle in action. In peewee, the instinct to which all 22 players on the field (yes, sometimes the goalies, too) succumb is to hoard around the ball. After all, if you’re not right where the action is, what chance do you have?

Cut to the big time. The players use every inch of space on the field to their advantage. It’s not about where the ball is, it’s about where you can put it to advance down the field. And it’s not just about spreading out, either. If they did that, the players from the other team would just go stand next to them.

So expert players don’t just stand in a static grid and kick it around. And they resist the temptation to hoard. They find space and run to it, constantly shifting the game and uncovering new channels by which to advance towards victory.

I love this analogy when thinking about innovation. Just walking a grocery store can reveal entire sections where brands from all around are hoarding around the poor, unwitting shopper, being shouted at and jockeyed-for from all sides. After all, where success lies, the instinct is to hoard. And sometimes entering an established space with something better – something that breaks consumer tension in more relevant ways – is the key. But, particularly with big, established categories and brands, true innovation often means running to space.

When we look at projects in this way, there are three additional soccer analogies that apply to uncover those new open spaces of opportunity:

1. Spread the field

This is all about finding space within the confines of the existing field. Put simply: spread out. Look at traditional retailers: big boxes with all sorts of established sections and a generally established traffic flow. When you think about the retail environment through your brand lens, chances are a very clear set of conventions pops to mind; your aisle, your competitive set, the range of price points, established shopper behavior and drivers, etc….

But step back and look at ways to spread the field. How can you sidestep the hoard and run to spaces with sleepy traffic, sections with healthy margins but low turns, aisles where you can disrupt the conventional. This is spreading the field and these are the propositions that make retailers buy in the first meeting.

2. Give-and-go

Within the give-and-go principle, soccer coaches often yell from the sidelines “TALK!!!” – meaning “communicate with your team.” Open channels (and no, I don’t mean focus groups) to solicit input and inspiration from your consumers. Make progress together. Give-and-go.

3. Play indoor

The principle here is to find completely new places to play soccer altogether, as you hone your skills in a different environment. In the New Mexico winter (yes, it gets cold and snows there), you play indoors. You have to play differently. You use a different ball, different shoes, a smaller goal, and you throw your orange rinds in a trashcan instead of the bushes.

This is one of my favorite pursuits in brand innovation. Find completely new channels where you can dramatically reframe what’s possible and own the consumer relationship. Adapt your product and operations as needed to boldly create whole new pipelines. When you can’t make the sale to retailers a no-brainer, chances are you may need to find a new place to play altogether. And to rack up victories by running to space.

Special thanks to coaches Pendleton, Weilen, Herman, Rubin, Gonzales, Becker, DiCicco, Gardner, Parsons, and Sharp.

Brands Behaving Bravely

Posted on September 17, 2013
Written by Hunter Thurman

Beyond size, there is a dynamic difference between big brands versus startups – that is bigger brands have the option of doing something extraordinary, while start-ups only hope. Yet in recent years, start-ups have out-innovated the nation’s largest consumer brands. Why? For the big brands, they have a much greater resource pool, but often legacy processes, red tape and paralysis of choice get in the way of creating successful brand innovation.

Meanwhile, many start-up brands occupy a unique space as freewheeling innovators, the nimble, the brave, and the cutting edge. This is the environment that breeds disruptive innovation. So this begs the question…how do you bring the start-up mentality to big business?

The answer comes to life in the standout juggernaut new brand in recent years: Chobani. The origin story of Chobani, and its founder Hamdi Ulukaya, is the stuff of business legend and a rags-to-riches story that’s as implausible as it is inspiring. While it’s easy to report on what Chobani did, understanding why it became such a success is quite instructive to big brands everywhere to replicate that meteoric rise.

Innovation requires “a constant” to move forward

As Ulukaya tells it, he was running a struggling cheese brand when he literally pulled a direct mail-piece advertising a tired old yogurt factory from his trash can, and decided to take a look on a whim. His “constant” fell into his lap.

Those of us looking after big brands have to work harder to identify “the constant” that will unlock innovation gold. And while innovation is not easy, it is simple.

To design brand innovation, one must identify three critical components:

• An audience – A group of humans (that’s the who)
• A felt need – A problem that needs solving (that’s the why)
• Design DNA – A capability you uniquely have (that’s the how)

Most brands struggle in the attempt to articulate all three at once – therein lies the mistake and the paralysis of choice (a.k.a. “boiling the ocean”). Instead, innovation teams should work to identify just one – their constant – and solve from there. Just like with an algebra problem, if you go into brand reinvention with only variables, you set yourself up for period of wandering followed by frustration ending in not coming up with an answer to the problem.

Ulukaya’s constant fell in his lap (or, more accurately, his trash can). He had the Design DNA that would ultimately enable his breakthrough: the dormant yogurt plant. He spent two more years after that fateful factory tour figuring out whom he would serve (his audience), and why his new product had a right to exist (his felt needs). The innovation that drove Greek yogurt from less than 1% of the category to nearly 60%, and continues to drive double-digit year-over-year growth, was born.

Big brand innovators can leverage this example by recognizing the three potential constants to start an innovation cycle, and working to identify just one. By Ulukaya’s own admission, he did not have it all figured out from the get-go. But he started with his Design DNA constant – the ability to make yogurt of some kind – and solved for the remaining variables from there (in his case, over the next 5 years).

So choose a constant and jump! Your constant should be what you know the most about. If you end up choosing the wrong one, there is always the choice to pivot and choose again. You will have made more progress than you’d think and will be right on track to find brand growth that just might land you alongside Hamdi Ulakay at some upcoming innovation panel discussion.

Using it tomorrow: 5 tips to help big brands drive nimble innovation

1. Big brands have the luxury of lots of options. Which is also a curse, in that it can drive paralysis of choice. Don’t get overwhelmed with possibilities. Focus on one constant and build around the asset that you have at the moment.

2. Successful brand innovation is creating organization out of chaos. To identify your constant, clearly write down what you know about your audience, your felt needs, and your Design DNA. Pursue the constant you know the most about.

3. If you have nothing else, choose an audience. Use your existing data, or just an aspiration (millennials wouldn’t be a bad start). Choosing the “who” gives visible next steps. Innovation is the purest (and most practical) form of empathy. We all know that shopper and consumer empathy is at the core of great new ideas. Inject human empathy in the right ways, and you’ll find a new level of untapped innovation.

4. Design should be a guide, not a stage. In most start-ups the person that knows how to make the product is also ultimately the one responsible for successfully marketing it. Taking a page from this playbook, big brand innovators should demand more from the design process and incorporate it from the inception of the project, rather than waiting to brief the design team.

5. As you consider strategies and specific ideas, deploy a sniff-test guided by the “cave man” brain to integrate enthusiasm. Experienced innovators know all the business challenges that lurk and may simply talk themselves out of the challenge before it begins. This drives the infamous missed opportunity for greatness because listening to inner education isn’t as important as listening to the inner Neanderthal (or those of your consumers, for that matter). If something evokes passion in you and your users, that’s your cave dweller brain calling. Listen to it, just like Hamdi Ulukaya did.

If Everyone’s A Non-Conformist…

Posted on December 14, 2012
Written by Hunter Thurman

Non-Conformist

Sociologists, psychologists, authors, marketers, analysts, and parents everywhere agree that contemporary young adults and teens embody some consistent traits: focus on self, a sense of entitlement, and a general opinion that they are each truly unique and special.

As just one example, the chorus in Katy Perry’s Fingerprints is:

I wanna break the mold
Wanna break the stereotype
Fist in the air
I’m not going down without a fight

So the simple anthropological question I’ve been pondering is: if everyone is bucking conformity, then who’s conforming? Without a critical mass of faceless, loathsome Wally Cleavers, one’s own daring non-conformity suddenly lacks the reference point on which it relies.

In other words, whom is Katy proposing to fight?

The Empathetic Consumer

Another crucial component of these consumers is that they are cause-empathetic. This broad generation – enabled by constant interconnectivity – rallies behind a cause. Lots of causes, in fact. And, these people have a much broader appreciation for global cultures and diverse lifestyles than their predecessors.

Bearing all this in mind, a tide will turn as the massive center of this consumer group heads towards 30. They will realize that they’ve all been so busy being different, that they must once again establish cultural subsets so as to even have a construct from which to rebel.

These consumers will once again group around everything from gripping social issues to tastes in entertainment. Savvy brands will read the sign posts of this group’s collective history and create foresight of what these rallying points will be to place themselves right where they should be, right when these re-congregations occur (we’d be happy to explain how we do this at Thriveplan via our Origin Stories technique). Depending on your definition, there are roughly 80 million of these people in the United States alone—about one in four Americans. So, big opportunity exists for brands that skate where the puck is going.

Social Starts the Innovation Revolution

Posted on July 12, 2012
Written by Hunter Thurman

Innovation Revolution

So reads many a headline of late to describe social change, political aspiration, and human progress overall. But this headline is equally apt in the world of brand innovation.

Our job is to help top global brands create new products that drive growth. Even the most sophisticated companies represent a wide range of approaches to innovation – from formulaic processes to the wild west of trial and error. To consistently create strong results, a company should reside somewhere in the middle where disciplined processes maintain a foundation on which inspiration can hatch.

Most innovation strategies and new product ideas are created by the innovation / brand / insights / product development teams and their agencies – communications agencies, specialty firms like ThrivePlan, or, most often, a team with members from all of the above. It makes perfect sense that new ideas be co-created by the people that will ultimately launch them considering that any new product idea will eventually have to be explained in consumer communications.

Naturally, in recent decades of mass media advertising, the discipline around innovation has evolved under the regime of 30-second TV. Until just the past few years (and even still in for some brands), all roads led to the beloved :30. Even the concept boards that visualize and explain new product ideas in their early phases are predicated on the assumption that each will one day be communicated in a TV commercial.

Meanwhile, most businesses are working feverishly to leverage social media, be liked on Facebook, and tweet to the masses, not quite sure where it will all end up (and certainly not quite sure how to measure it). Likewise, while TV remains a valuable pillar in the communications acropolis, many brands are diverting attention and investment away from TV, towards these other relevant media.

And so, the innovation space is ripe for a revolution.

This revolution, like so many others, will be fueled by the empowered masses, galvanized by our familiar-yet-elusive favorite: social media. While most brands currently view social media as a means to deployment of a message, we see the other side of this precious coin. We believe social media dynamics and technologies represent ever-expanding potential to forge new insights and ideas to create innovative growth for brands ranging from packaged goods to financial services. And because they are born from consumers via social media, these ideas will one day become quite sticky in those same spaces.

There are countless technologies available to us on which we’re building innovative new ways of working with our consumers. We’re leading the way with our client and agency partners in making ongoing innovation a part of the fabric that defines new media.

Viva la revolución.