The Goldilocks Process: are you paying for too much or too little?

In the early ‘90s, when pharmaceutical advances in pain and inflammation were taking shape for the first time in a decade, I was working on the identity of a blockbuster Cox-II inhibitor. The company had hired a major marketing firm to conduct research and develop strategy. It cost the client around $2 million and the effort took 18 months. When they were done, they presented their findings, among which was a patient segmentation that featured 28 different segments—28 distinctly different pools of customers, they argued, that would need to be targeted in specific ways. The brand director turned to me and said: “what they hell am I supposed to do with this?”

Indeed, the information proved voluminous but inactionable. Although it is easy to fault the vendor for delivering this shock-and-awe offensive on the brand’s behalf, some of the blame lay with the client, who—out of fear of leaving no stone unturned—upended every object in the landscape in search of answers. It was at this precise moment that I vowed to create a best-in-class process designed to stop the madness so that the business of marketing could proceed without a knee-deep wade through the sludge of too much information.

First, I started with the precept that it wasn’t information we sought, but rather insights. It was not about asking every question, but rather the right questions. Second, it had to be actionable: that is, the insight had to point specifically to a finite series of strategies we could pursue. Where the shock-and-awe vendor polluted the environment with raw volume, our goal would be to distill and refine. Instead of finding the differences among 28 segments of customers, we sought to identify what one or two things they might have in common. As it turned out, a simple, qualitative exercise revealed that there was one universal insight to which all customers could relate: enduring relief. The pain category is stuck between two types of positions: those that target pain regardless of side effects, and those that target pain less ably, but spare the patient from further injury. In each case, all patients sought one central idea: sustained freedom from both exposure to pain and exposure to side effects (e.g. GI bleeds, addiction), or Enduring Relief. Our study took four weeks and cost $60,000 and, more importantly, provided a simple, actionable answer to what the brand’s identity should be about.

When it comes to processes—and many truths in life—the rule of three prevails: three is the simplest number of steps to create a pattern; three (as Buckminster Fuller demonstrated with his triangle-based engineering that enabled huge superdome constructions) creates the strongest shape in nature with the least amount of waste. Between too much and too little lies the Goldilocks process: a three-step process. Any process shorter than three steps is inefficient; and any process longer than three steps is incomplete. Decades of experience shows that three steps turn out to be just right.

process illustration

Discovery. Consensus. Experience. These are the only three steps a best-in-class process needs. (Some argue that there should be a fourth step—Measurement—but when you think about it, this is just Discovery all over again.)

And as we saw in the Discovery example above, the same precept holds true for the other two steps: it should be about distillation—not outward expansion of possibilities, but rather a continuous refinement, keeping only those ideas about the brand that serve all customers universally, and eliminating the rest. Once you have asked the right questions to get a set of distilled insights, you turn to step two: agreeing on an impactful strategy. Too often, clients generate a series of identity strategies (what the brand will promise to customers), and then “test” them with customers. This is wasteful for two reasons. First, customers cannot evaluate a marketing experience that doesn’t yet exist, so they react to the words themselves and pick the one that gives them the most information. (It is no surprise, then, why so many healthcare brand strategies are sentences long, instead of cogent, potent promises. Again, pollution vs. distillation.) Second, the optimal strategy for a brand is not the one that sounds or tests the best, but rather the one all brand stakeholders inside the company can embrace with all their hearts. Experience shows that the number one obstacle to a brand’s success in the market is a lack of internal consensus. That is, if the people responsible for creating the brand experience in their various roles—marketing, sales, education, public relations, advertising, etc.—cannot agree on what the brand stands for, neither will any set of customers. Therefore, the goal of a strategy workshop should be Convergence: working through various ideas validated by the distilled insights until the entire group of brand stakeholders violently agree on one strategy. Too many workshops simply generate a volume of ideas, with no consensus at the workshop’s end. (That’s probably why they need to keep adding more steps to the process; this kind of step two is not completed as it should be.) Brand stakeholders leave and go back to their jobs, and when the strategy is finally decided upon later by a smaller group, the others don’t see a reflection of themselves in the results, and go off in their own direction. Without Convergence, there is no cohesive Experience.
This last step (Experience) brings the strategy to life visually and verbally. Primary branding hallmarks (logo, icon, color palette, typography, illustrative style), as well as secondary hallmarks (other visual assets—think of the Coke “wave” or American Express’ centurion background pattern one sees on their cards) come together in an integrated system along with verbal assets. Proprietary nomenclature about the brand and the condition, the science behind the way the brand works, and the frequently underused tag line should all be determined before any tactics are brainstormed. Clients—and you may be one—will find out in a very short time that unless the Experience is completed as the third and last step, they will begin to see as many different visions for the brand as there are vendors. The advertising agency will develop their visual and verbal ideas; the digital agency will field different ones; and the orgy of brand equity pollution will continue with the PR firm, the educational agency and the meetings groups etc. You can avoid all these needless extra steps by sticking with the Goldilocks process: Discovery. Convergence. Experience. Not too cold, not too hot, but just right.

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