Knowledge Bank Blog, Category Strategy, Range & Portfolio, Shopper Communication

Getting out of Fixing Mode

Are you addressing problems at source?

How many of you have heard of John Snow?

Not the Game of Thrones character or the Channel 4 news presenter with the loud ties. Both are ‘Jon’ by the way.

We are talking about John Snow, the nineteenth century English physician. Snow is famous for tracing the source of a big cholera outbreak in Soho in 1854. He mapped the incidences of cholera and traced the source of the outbreak to a public water pump in Broad Street. The water supply was polluted.

Snow then mapped other incidence statistics to prove the connection between the quality of the water sources and cholera cases. For instance, he showed that Southwark and Vauxhall waterworks were taking water from sections of the Thames polluted with sewage. They were delivering water to homes, leading to an increased incidence of cholera.

This all sounds obvious now, but at the time it was a big breakthrough. Before Snow, there was something called ‘Miasma Theory’. This stated that the cause of diseases such as cholera was a noxious form of ‘bad air’. It was only by identifying the root cause – stopping people from drinking water from infected supplies, and then cleaning up supplies, that cholera was controlled.

So, apart from giving you a short public health history lesson, why are we talking about this?   Well, we find that a lot of time, resource and energy in companies is spent in ‘fixing mode’. Trying to correct things downstream that are a result of things that happened, or didn’t happen, upstream. A classic example of this is NPD. Things that are decided early on in the NPD process can create problems further down the line – e.g. the pack size that doesn’t fit easily on the shelf.

The problem is that by the time issues have been identified there has been a lot of financial or emotional investment in a project. Often both. So people scramble around trying to solve, or at least manage, problems. But they are trying to treat the symptoms not the root cause.

So, how can you get out of fixing mode? How can you do more of the right things in the first place?

Have the right objectives. A project or activity needs clear objectives – everyone should know what you are trying to do. But, these objectives need to be the right objectives. It is no good having clear objectives if those objectives send you in the wrong direction. Let’s take an example we heard about a while ago.

A brand was developing an advertising campaign linked to a big sports event. One of the main objectives set out in the brief was to “win the world cup of marketing ads”. There was little in there about brand equity. There was even less about driving sales. Which direction does this take you down? An ad that is focused on what the brand really stands for and why consumers should use it? Or an ad that is brilliantly creative that is in the mix for awards?

Unsurprisingly, the ad went down the latter path. It tested badly. Left with little time in the process the team went into full fixing mode. They got a slightly better ad, but one that was way off the one they could have created with the right objectives at the start.

Have a clear portfolio and brand strategy. Know the role a brand plays in the category and the role products play within a brand. Without this clarity we often see two things. First, innovation is developed because it can be rather than because it should be. If there is no real need or opportunity that the innovation has been developed for, category and sales teams have to get into fixing mode – hurrying to create a story to justify why the launch is good for the category and ‘on brand’.

Secondly (partly as a result of the previous point), we see brands with too much range. It leads to more space for brands, but more complexity for shoppers. There are inevitably weaker selling SKUs in the range that come under pressure. So, category and trade teams spend a lot of time and energy trying to protect these SKUs in range reviews. Wouldn’t it be much better to spend that time trying to drive the things that are selling rather than trying to protect the things that aren’t?

Designing from Shelf Back. Let’s take one example – packaging. This is where a lot of emotional energy is invested. Design agencies want to create works of art. They’ve got so much good stuff to say about the product that they want to tell shoppers absolutely all of it. And this is all fine in the meeting room or the focus group when everyone has got a few minutes to look at the pack. But, as we all know, this is far removed from the reality of the shelf.

It is only when someone with a shopper or retail view sees the pack that you start getting a different perspective. But that perspective often comes late in the process. When it is hard to change things. It is much better to have a set of shopper guidelines that can direct things when you are in design mode. Not ones that only come into play when you are in fix mode.

The more time, energy and resource you invest in getting things right up front, the less time you have to spend fixing things further down the line. Don’t treat symptoms, treat causes.

Aren’t we all glad John Snow did that back in 1854.

On a separate note, our monthly article in The Grocer goes out in tomorrow’s edition .  There is a link to it on our website…

Have a great weekend and speak to you next week.