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January 11th, 2017

What does success look like?

Obvious…and overlooked

We conduct these things we call “Brand Impact Sessions” for companies and organizations. We invested some grey matter into what to actually call these sessions, but really the name isn’t that important. We’ve called them three or four different things over the past few years. Most agencies have their own “proprietary” brand planning process with a tre-cool moniker. One large agency titles their process “360-degree branding.” Another big firm labels theirs “Full Circle branding” (see the difference???). Regardless of how cool the name is, or how many infographics you can compose to explain the process, it is my experience that the effectiveness of these brand development exercises has less to do with the structure of the process and is much more impacted by the talent of those participating in the exercise. Any by “talent” I mean both on the client and the agency sides.

So in conducting these sessions we leave the process basically free-flowing. We talk about objective brand criteria, subjective likes and dislikes, target audiences, obstacles, points of pride, etc. After a few years of participating in these planning sessions, something of an epiphany hit me. Most people – client and agency – don’t begin with the single simple, obvious, and ultimately crucial question: What does success look like?


If you don’t know what success looks like, you won’t know when you’ve reached it…or if you’re going in the wrong direction.”


This question may be “obvious,” but it is also misinterpreted. I’ll bring up the “success” question in a planning session, and it is typically greeted with someone saying “to make a lot of money,” and subsequently yucks break out around the room (while I’m thinking to myself, ‘haven’t heard THAT one before’). Seriously, the talk will usually center around either revenue projections, market share goals, or (in the case of non-profits) effecting some benchmark statistic. All well and good, and something that we shouldn’t be spending a lot of time on, right? I mean, success is OBVIOUS, right?

Well, in a manner of speaking, yes, success is obvious. But remember, clients are coming to us to help build a brand. So I look at success metrics from the standpoint of brand development. You can achieve revenue goals by slashing the quality of your product and/or gouging consumers via price hikes (I’m looking at you, Pharma Bro …). That’s an extreme and ludicrous example, but one that demonstrates that the idea of what brand success and business success “look like” are complimentary but not identical. Therefore, it is necessary to spend time thinking about what success actually looks like from the brand viewpoint.

If nothing else, this is an exercise in evaluating guidelines for marketing efficiency. If you don’t know what success looks like, you won’t know when you’ve reached it…or if you’re going in the wrong direction. What is the impact this has for your company? Well, wasted marketing dollars for one. I always use the example of the moonshot. NASA doesn’t wait until a spacecraft is 238,900 miles away from Earth’s surface before checking to see if their course was set correctly. They make small measurements all along the journey to ensure the lunar trajectory is on course. If they waited, it would take a HECK of a lot more time, effort, and expensive rocket fuel to steer the ship back to its intended destination. The same thought process should be applied to brand evaluation. Of course this is impossible if you set out on your journey and don’t know where your moon is in the first place!

Three Simple Steps

Just the other night I spoke to a group of students who are involved in Spark-o-Matican MWB-affliliated program that tudors kids in digital literacy and digital creation platforms. I was asked to talk about “strategy.” I explained that “strategy” is just another way of defining “the best way to get someone to do what you want them to do.” I iterated to these kids the basic way that you develop a “strategy” to define success:

      1. Determine who you are trying to get to take an action. Often the answer to this is “everybody.” And sometimes “everybody” is a reasonable answer. Mostly, it is not. We ad people like to call this a “target audience,” a term I find too clinical and limiting. “Target audience” often infers parameters like demographics or even often limiting psychographics. I prefer to think of the “who” more like Arsenio Hall used to refer to “those people over there…”

Simply meaning that, the more specific you can get, the more directed your marketing can be and the more you can determine success. Being “specific” in many instances means going beyond the obvious demographics to define unique combinations of behaviors and mindsets. Rather than targeting “Caucasian males, married age 25 – 54 with $50,000+ income,” think in terms of “men who work in creative industries who like to write blogs and listen to podcasts and play recreational sports and participate in March Madness bracket pools (may or may not be left-handed : ).” Thinking beyond demographics (and even psychographics) will help more precisely determine the “who.”

2. Determine what action you want them to take. I know…I know… “buy my product/service.” But is this really the case? Is success achieved – or optimized – when the purchase is made? The best brands in the world will tell you that purchase is much closer to the beginning of the journey to success than the end. The strongest brands will testify that the real action you want your “who” to take is to integrate your brand into their lifestyle. This means becoming both an ambassador and advocate for your brand, not merely just a consumer. And this action can be passive, active, or both. We have always said that a huge win for a brand is when someone wears a T-shirt displaying the brand. A person has identified enough with the brand to incorporate it into something as personal and visible as an article of clothing=WIN. Identifying these kinds of goals in the beginning of brand development is another step in defining what actual success looks like.

3. Determine how is the best way to reach your “who” to encourage your “what.” Channels. Media. Reach. Touchpoints. Whatever you call it, the outreach platforms available to us today allow a brand to reach virtually everyone on the planet more efficiently than ever before. The trick is to figure out which “how” makes the most sense. This is a balance evaluation among costs, time investment, and engagement. The “cost” of course being self explanatory. TV airtime is expensive. Effective? Yes, for some messages to some peeps. Is it worth it for your brand? “Time investment” is often used as a substitute for hard dollar costs. You can distribute your message organically via social media platforms for a fraction of the out of pocket costs of paid media. But is the trade off of sweat equity and the time it takes to build an audience organically worth it? #TimeSuck. In some instances yes, and in others, no. “Engagement” simply means is there involvement with your platforms beyond simple impressions? Your “who” may see your brand, but do the platforms you’re using allow for and encourage deeper levels of interaction?


…effectiveness of brand development exercises have less to do with the structure of the process and more to do with the talent of those participating…


I guess to sum up, I’m not advising against investing in a brand planning process. Actually quite the opposite – I do advise it, and advise you do it with MWB : ). But the bigger point here is to guard against allowing the mystique of the process impede defining the obvious: what success looks like for your brand. And in corollary, don’t let what you think are the obvious business answers to success substitute for what is branding success. Ask the right questions, determine the right answers, and watch your branded moonshot find success.

Tim Mask

Tim Mask

Vice President/Brand Planning & Development
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