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Claim your moment of energy

I work in an environment where everyone desires to innovate. So we have innovation programs and projects in place and people can set aside time to work on their initiatives. Yet everyone still feels we can do more, and we fail to have an innovative culture. I think it is because although we have all the preconditions, client projects always get priority, and it is literally at the end of our day that we find the time to work on our innovation initiatives, if at all.

The solution is time management, although I rather speak about energy management. But it is different from the traditional definition. Recently I spoke with a colleague who is creative and innovative, has a great desire to do cool stuff, but does not get to it. We reviewed his average day to see why he would not get to it. So we made a schedule. He would start his day at 9AM working on client projects; if time left he would support the business development function, if then was time left he would work on another company initiative, and if then if any time was left, he may work on an innovation initiative. By then it would be 6PM or past, and his energy level was on a low.

I advised him to identify his personal “moment of energy” in the day, and spend it on something he really wants to accomplish, e.g., the innovation initiative. That’s my advice to anyone who wants to get accomplished something that she or he really wants: claim that hour or so in your day at which your creative energy is at a peak, and do what you really want to do. Use that time slot to have your creative juices flow, and make sure that you have the means with you to have them materialize and document them.

The moment of energy is probably different for every person. Mine is in the early morning, and I may spend it at the kitchen table or at Starbucks, writing and drawing, just before I come into the office to do my daily job. Your moment of energy may be different, for example in the evening or night. The thing is to recognize it and claim it as yours. When you enjoy your moment of energy like this, I am sure that the rest of your day will also be more gratifying and productive.

Why do emotional claims perform bad in claim tests?

Emotional claims usually perform bad in our* claim tests. They are outperformed by functional claims. I asked why this could be to Mr. Daniel Dahan, a brand expert and retired brand planner at D’Arcy, an advertising agency. The explanation is my interpretation of our conversation so any mistake is mine.

A claim is a promise of the brand to the consumer of what the product and its consumption offers after the purchase and upon use. The promise needs to be meaningful; the consumption rewarding. Functional claims promise a functional benefit (the “what”; “I promise this to you”, e.g., “20% more hair removal”). Emotional claims say why this could matter to you (“so that you …”, e.g., “… wear a skirt with more confidence” or “… won’t face a 5 o’clock shadow”). Emotional claims can perform badly if consumers consider them patronizing and condescending. Consumers think “don’t tell me what to do, think or feel; I can decide for myself”. They accept that the brand makes them a promise of what the brand can do for them, but not that the brand tells them what to do, think or feel upon that.

Daniel confirmed it. The idea that claims, functional and emotional, can be written in the form of a top-down ladder, is outdated. Brands are no longer considered higher in the hierarchy.

Brand (“I promise you …”) -> Consumer (“so that you can do/feel …”)

Brands themselves think about themselves as equivalent in the hierarchy. If emotional claims would reflect this equivalence, they would more likely win in our claims tests. It is probably both the structure and the intent of the claim that need to change.

Brand (“I promise you …”)  -> Consumer (“so that you can choose to …”)

The consumer can chose to experience what the brand has to offer. If the consumer wants to, she can. The consumer gets the opportunity to be like them, users of the brand, but the consumer does not accept the brand to be stronger than her.

In fact, Daniel indicated that the relation is now reversed: consumers consider the brand is a guest in their lives that they invite and welcome or not.

Consumer (“others choose to experience …”) -> Brand (“I promise …”)


So a typical mode of communication is that that brands show how other consumers, similar to you, experience the use of the brand. It is a modest position that leaves it to the consumer if, and how, to invite the brand to their life. I would say that this promise is easiest to convey by means of visuals, because text will easily sound condescending.

If the brand misbehaves, it will be ousted and ridiculed. My colleague Paolo Cordella gave me an example of Barilla, a pasta brand in Italy. Barilla always displays the use of the brand in a happy family setting: mother, father and the children at the dinner table. Someone asked an executive if he would display a gay married couple at the dinner table. He said no and he would be happy if this couple would choose another pasta brand. His answer caused a lot of responses on social media ridiculing the brand and the executive.

The old idea was that brands are aspirational and give the consumer a goal or promise that is away from the consumer’s reality. If you’re fat and insecure, you will be slim and confident; if you are hairy, you will be smooth and silky. It made the impression that reality is bad and the aspiration is good. However, the aspiration condemns reality which makes it condescending. The consumer prefers having a choice how to experience the product in her own, realistic reality, and chose how to integrate it. The portrait can dramatize the experience by painting a picture of people in a similar situation and integrate the brand like they did; not for the others or the brand to be stronger than me.

One thing I learned from the conversation is that emotional claims can work if they manage to express the expected relation between the brand and the consumer.

*P.s. I wrote this blog while working at SKIM, a market research agency. So “our claim tests” refers to the tests we performed at this agency.

The training of director-level professionals

At our company, we have a training program to offer our people the opportunity to grow through con­ti­nu­ous learning and personal development. As it turns out, the program is best at addressing the deve­lop­mental needs of  our least experienced people;  project managers. That’s because it is geared toward teach­ing the art and craft of managing complex research projects under circumstances like tight budgets and timelines, and working with dispersed teams and clients. The training focuses on craftsmanship and the acquisition of skills. By that, it runs out of steam at the director level and beyond. Because we want to offer directors the opportunity of personal deve­lopment too, a colleague approached me to discuss what we should do to train them, and how to do that? Well, it is hard to say, so I just tried to describe what has helped me to advance to the director level.

What did I learn when growing to a director level?

I made the transition from ‘managing in’ to ‘managing on’ the business

The progression to the director level was marked  first by the fact that I was expatriated to the United States to set up a market research team for a $300 million business.  It was challenging because I had moved two comfort zones away; first, by moving to a country with a different culture and second, by picking up a managerial instead of an individual contributor position. The first thing I learned was to make the transition from managing in to managing on the business.

When I came out to the US, the position had been vacant for a while so there was a backlog of project work to be done. I started to worked hard to get the project work done, and I had no time nor energy left to recruit team members. I was swamped and disaster was waiting to happen. A defining moment was when a VP of Product Development came out and offered me a brochure listing training programs about project management.  It was embarrassing. So in one of our weekly meetings, my manager, gave me a lecture, of how I had to make the transition of ‘managing in’ to ‘managing on’ the business. It was the transition from doing everything myself to creating the conditions to getting things done – which was in this case hiring the right people. So I did and I built a strong three-person team, which lasted for years after I had left to move on to the next assignment.

I learned to make initiatives scalable by detaching them from individuals

One advantage of working with others is that activities can become scalable if one focuses on deve­lop­ing people.  Even having a team of market research professionals does not mean  that activities become scalable; in order for activities to become scalable, every team member should impact others . It does not mean that we should all do the same. Instead we should develop trust in each other and give access to each other’s strengths so that the team as a whole becomes scalable. Scalability means leveraging synergies so that the collection will achieve more than the individuals could have done by themselves.

An example can be found in this mission: our organization had completed many claim studies, so we felt that we had the potential of becoming claim study specialists. But in order to do so, we should see the golden threat across the claim studies ; the communalities between the claims tested, and their impact on consumer claim appreciation. We did an analysis across the claim studies to identify drivers of claim appeal.  It extracts the insights from the studies and helps us develop a frame­work of drivers of claim appeal that anyone involved in claim studies could apply. Through the framework,  everyone can contri­bute and it offers a great way of disseminating  know­ledge.

But having the framework and the knowledge base is not enough; it should reside in people. That’s why we started a claim apprenticeship program. The director identified a team of people with a knack for language and he engaged in a training program to share his knowledge of claims. It extends the reach of the program beyond what we can individually do in the 24 hours of a day, seven days a week.

I (hope to have) made the transition from being a ‘manager’ to being a ‘leader’

The previous two points helped me becoming a manager but it were just necessary but insufficient steps toward becoming a leader. Becoming a leader takes having a 30,000 feet perspective, connecting the dots about what we’re doing and why we were doing it to create a common vision and encouraging others to get there in an inspiring and intrinsically motivating way. Managing is about creating the con­ditions for others to perform; leadership is about showing the way.  In fact, it is just leading by example, but I do not really know any other form of leadership.

Examples of (my) leadership in action are few and far apart. It was hidden in the previous example of how we wanted to be a leader in claims and how we encouraged one of our directors to pick up the glove. Another example is the presentation about pricing by two of our directors at the annual 2010 ESOMAR conference. The presentation it was the culmination of more than two years’ worth of work on analyzing 10 years of pricing studies. It was part of a mission to become a recognized pricing specialist, and the ESOMAR presentation was the pinnacle of our work. My contribution was to keep an eye on the goal and orchestrate the effort among a team of contributors.

I learned to trust people

One thing that comes with being a manager or leader is that you cannot longer do everything yourself. You need to trust other people with the tasks, and the outcomes. And that is still a recurring battle, especially if, and because, I want everything to be done in a certain way (“my way”). So I have to accept that other people do things differently, with a different result – not better or worse, but different. It is a matter of staying in touch and agree on reciprocal expectations.

The most challenging part is to trust people. What I learned is that I had to put markers in place to see if I still trust you. Point of departure is that I trust you (“trust by default”) instead of wishing you to fight for my trust (“trust by evidence”), which I will continue to do until you have breached my trust and disappointed me. After that, it is hard work to restore the trust that’s lost; probably more difficult than it would be to build someone trust in a “trust by evidence” situation.

In terms of tasks, I discovered two ways of trusting people, delegation and empowerment. Delegation means that I trust others with tasks that I conducted myself before, after training them. Most likely, I would look for replication of task and outcome, seeing if you do it the way I would. It is the best way of warranting a certain quality level of execution, but the risk is that it creates clones not leaders.

The alternative way is empowerment, which means that I ask for an expected outcome without telling you how it needs to be done. It is a good way to  get surprised by an unexpected path or outcome. The risk is a higher likelihood of disappointment and that I won’t get the desired quality. So empowerment only works with people who know what they do, or are so resourceful that they quickly compensate for their limitations. A leader who empowers should avoid to be naïve, and build in as many “markers of trust” as the person who delegates – perhaps even more.

The pledge of “I lead”

This was ‘just’ a series of challenges that I went through. It is not a recipe for others to copy; every person should find its own way. That’s the most difficult part of creating a training program for directors. Training programs are by default prescriptive because it has been proven to be less effective to deviate from the path. But it is less clear how to continue to make progress once has achieved the director level, so I believe that we can only work through case studies: by des­cribing how one person has done it, the next person may be inspired to go out and find its own way. It takes coaching not teaching to help a person find its her own way, allowing her to make mistakes but actively learn from it.

Perhaps that’s the most important thing to understand when trying to make progress: one needs to be intrinsically motivated to do so. It means putting yourself on a mission, taking your future in your own hands and accepting higher risks and demands. Not everyone is ready for it. So the first thing I had to do was to answer the questions: do I want to lead (“I lead”), what do I lead in (“the mission”), and what am I willing to do and sacrifice for it?

Just doing nothing

It’s one of those last summer Saturdays: the sun is out and I am sitting in the yard enjoying doing nothing. Well, not entirely nothing: I am thinking back about the soccer match this morning when I was a proud parent because my son scored. For the rest I felt totally “inert”. It reminded me of a business discussion we had earlier this week, about inertia. Inertia means that people don’t act. Inertia is a common concept in telecom and utility markets (“gas water licht”). It is not an appreciated concept in market research. I remembered a particular instance where a study showed that none of the tested promotions would make a difference; our participants wouldn’t switch contracts regardless of what our client could do to make them. We panicked, because clients don’t like to hear that. But then the panic subsided and we thought “well, perhaps our participants think that the promotions are not good enough and actively choose not to act upon them.” Or they did just like I do this afternoon: just sit back, relax and do nothing.


Use processes properly

Many organizations have processes in place to help workers get to deliverables. Processes are helpful to an organization because they help capable people to get to results more effectively and efficiently. Unfortunately, processes are also abused. Too often, it’s enough to have followed the process and ticked the boxes. Also too often, processes are in place to compensate for a lack of capable people. I believe both are wrong. The original idea should be restored: Processes should help people to get to results more effectively and efficiently, by freeing up time and resources to do proper thinking and investigating.

Leading by example

Our family pet is a rabbit named Tommie. We gave it to our children for them to take care of it; feeding it and cleaning its cage. After a few years it is evident that they don’t. Sure, they love it and hug it, taking it out of its cage and out on a leash. But dad has to do the feeding and cleaning. So I wonder: is that bad? Is it part of the upbringing of children to be strict and make them do it? Would they grow into less responsible adults if we don’t? I believe it’s not. I believe that as long as children get exposed to an example, they will pick it up when they are ready, just like I did. In fact, leading by example and inspiring people to pick it up, is a virtue I generally believe in.

Set expectations first

In our market research practice we often test product concepts, claims, value propositions and other pieces of material. Jokingly, we place bets on which piece we expect to win. I think we should be more serious about it: the business should put indicate beforehand which piece they think is going to win, why and by how much. This is helpful because it helps to weed out the bad pieces prior to the study, preventing us from wasting time and other resources. Furthermore, it is a better way to leverage the knowledge in the business team and make informed decisions. Finally, it prevents hindsight bias, allowing people to claim they knew an item would win or lose, which is impossible to prove or deny. My usual response is “great, so why did we test it?” I believe we should set the expectations first and do something with them.

Why is claiming brand heritage relevant?

Earlier this week I found a presentation in the printer about a claims test and I was curious to see the results. The test contained several brand heritage claims (e.g., “Energon, energizing lives since 1890). As usual, they fell to the bottom of the test. So I wondered: why do we still test them? Why don’t we advise our clients to just drop them? We shouldn’t because its misleading. Brand heritage claims will never excite a customer, but they can reassure prospects that they can trust the solution, prompting action and overcoming inertia. Would you trust a piece of MRI equipment from Ben & Jerry’s? Probably not. Would you trust a piece of MRI equipment from GE? You probably would. Brand heritage claims can reinforce that. The test design should recognize that different claims serve different purposes, and ask the right questions.

Word of the day: curation

Last Sunday I was on a plane on my way to Boston and I sat next to a very interesting guy who taught me a few new words. One of them was “curation”. My spelling checker does not recognize it, but it is related to “curator” and “to curate”. It means that a text is well researched so you can trust it to be accurate. This is opposed to tweets and many blogs that are just blatantly superficial, opinionated and are focused on sharing comments in an instant. As a journalist, he liked blogs (he actually writes one himself on WordPress) but he did not necessarily liked the superficial and instant nature. I agreed with him: as professionals (him being a journalist; me being a researcher) we need to focus on the validity of what we publish instead of just putting it out there as soon as possible.