All great marketing solutions start with a well and accurately defined problem and a correct diagnosis of the course of action that needs to be followed. So I thought I’d talk a little about this to kick the new year off in a back to basics style.

There is a very basic diagnostic tool I want to share with you that works a treat at the very start of a project and ensures that you are directing your efforts in the right and most profitable direction.

It involves asking whether you think the real problem that needs to be solved, the blockage that needs to be opened up, is a product, brand or communications problem.

And the starting point is to scrutinise the product, service or occasionally business – to ask whether the problem lies at the product level.

A problem with the product is pretty fundamental. This indicates that in some way what the consumer is being presented doesn’t work for them – whether because of performance, pricing, distribution/accessibility. It may well be that you can’t do much about this – certainly in the short term but it is nonetheless valuable to know as you try to put your plans in place that they will always be compromised because you are not bringing the right product to the consumer. I worked on Pot Noodle for a while in the early part of the last decade. While magnificent work has been done at both brand and communications levels to help Pot Noodle the fundamental problem is at a product level. It’s not that some people don’t love Pot Noodle – they do – but the market for dehydrated soya protein snacks is literally drying up. The product needs re-formulating if it’s not to die out altogether.

If there appears to be no fundamental product issue it is time to move on to the brand. Is there something about the brand and specifically people’s relationship with or beliefs about that brand that are holding sales back. Many perfectly good products are compromised by unhelpful brand associations that ensure their popularity is not far greater with predictable effects on sales. One of the classic examples of this in the automotive category was, of course, Skoda. Under new ownership product quality had been transformed, however perceptions of the brand dated back to the cold war era. Or to be specific brand associations amongst Skoda buyers had been improved through experience but the jokes about the brand persisted in the wider group of influencers and this was having a detrimental effect on sales. Skoda had to deal with the brand problem first and foremost.

And finally if it’s not a product or brand problem it’s probably a communications problem – that the communications for the brand are not telling the right story, working in the right way or targeting the right people. In a sense this is to be welcomed as it’s a damn site easier to sort out a brand’s comms than the brand itself the product or business at it’s core. In the first half of the last decade Cadbury weren’t doing particularly well. This had nothing to do with the product (people adored the taste of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk) though that didn’t stop them spending time, energy and valuable distribution on NPD. And quite obviously there wasn’t really a brand problem either – Cadbury’s place in the affections of the nation was secure and the nature of its brand associations rich and robust. Its problem was with its communications – they were simply failing to inspire people and successfully communication the joy at the heart of the brand. That all changed in August 2007 thanks to that drumming Gorilla. Of course the communications solution required may not be about or only about the content you create. It could well be the audience you are targeting, the channels that you are using or the brief at the root of your campaigns – the selling idea that you are employing. If the requirement is to create behaviour change finding the trigger for change is often at the heart of the matter – I’m still a big fan of the Metropolitan Police campaign that set out to recruit high calibre candidates by communicating that 999 out of 1000 people could never be police officers.

Now, you might find all this simplistic, old hat or old fashioned. But it doesn’t half help me right up front to understand and show where the problem lies. I used it at the beginning of our journey on WeightWatchers to show that there was no fundamental product problem at hand and that while its communications could be better they were quite successful for what they were. What was holding WeightWatchers back as a business were perceptions of the brand among people that had never tried the programme, and that is what they needed to sort out.

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