COVID-19: Positioning and the Battle for Your Mind

Marketers Al Reis and Jack Trout wrote the human brain only has room for one dominant position for any one topic.

Food or Poison. Pain or Comfort. Friend or Foe.

Pause for a moment. Answer these questions and say your answers out loud, please:

  1. Name a fizzy, dark soda?
  2. What’s the safest automobile?
  3. Your favorite college sports team?
  4. The sweetest fruit?
  5. Best laundry detergent?

When we are done here, call a friend or relative. Ask them the same questions.

How different we all are.

Let’s try another set:

6.‘Liberal’ or ‘Conservative’ values?

7. Stonewall Jackson Statue: remove or keep?

8. ‘Open Carry’ or ‘Why do you need a gun’?

9. ‘Mask’ or ‘No Mask’?

10. ‘Vaccine’ or ‘Hell No’?

Questions 1 thru 8: they take time to unfold. They are not immediate cause and effect actors on your health. You can live to fight another day if forced to drink Coke instead of Pepsi.

The problem with question 9 and 10: one answer mitigates your risk of death. The other may accelerate it dramatically. 

The decision to get vaccinated or not was made well before COVID closed our borders, wrecked our economy, and tragically stole our friends and family from us.

Our brain decided our position before the pandemic decimated our health care system, highlighted the extreme importance of sound leadership, and showed the value of government in protecting public health. Tragically, the die was cast before this monster drove our communities further apart than was thought imaginable.

When George Washington, in 1777, made the decision to mandate inoculations so Smallpox would not kill our army as our country was being created. We had these same conversations.

To get jabbed or not was decided well before our elders ran to the front lines to protect themselves and their communities from polio, measles, and mumps.

Pause and consider this: the Sages of advertising, public relations, and communication research have developed the art and science of marketing to find ways to stake out a position in our minds.

Positions so strong that we will die on a hill for our preferred Brand or team: Chevy or Ford, Coke or Pepsi, Cowboys or Steelers. We have fights over Thanksgiving Dinner that fragment our families over political parties and sports teams. Look at us.

Brands are called Brands because they were originally the way cattle farmers kept track of their steer. A hot iron, an unmistakable mark, seared into the side of an animal hide. Can you hear it?

In 1981 before the barrage of social media, Al Reis and Jack Trout wrote the book “Positioning.” They believed our brains were under attack by messages then.We faced an onslaught of messaging trying to stake out a place in our minds. To win. To become the preferred brand of choice. Now, we have more attacks on our awareness. Dramatically more. Algorithmically, digitally, dopamine-based, exponentially – more.

As much as we want to position ourselves and our intellect above all else: the human brain is very basic. We want to live. So, our brain is wired to choose, learn, and not forget.

Our beliefs regarding other things are influencing our decision to be jabbed today.

Today, I do not have an answer or a recommendation on the next step towards improved public health.

How do we close the gap? How do we create ‘Trust’ again?

Until then. Until we figure that out. Here is my request: ask a medical professional you trusted before the pandemic with your health how to avoid COVID.

The reality I see and hear is that we don’t want COVID. Let’s avoid COVID until we all know more.

So please, ask a medical professional you trusted before the pandemic with your health how to avoid COVID.

Writing is …

not easy

fun

nonexistent, if you don’t write

something that takes commitment

impacted by what else is going on in your life

….. so, obviously, I need to get back to my process.

‘Cause – I have not written here in months.

The problem: we have too much information

“Warning, Will Robinson!!! Go on … look it up if you don’t know.

Data is so important in the creative process.

This Art and Science exercise we go through as marketers is painful.

The danger?

Getting toooooooo deep. Tooooooooooo much.

Toooooooooooooooooo S.P.E.C.I.F.I.C.

At some point, you need to act and stop analyzing.

Find the right outcomes to monitor that our communication efforts can actually drive.

As fragmented as media has become – you have to find the sweet spot – the place you get the high returns for the time and money invested.

Sure, we can hyper-focus on a specific age, location, sentiment, living condition, income, lifestyle … then you look back and your return was X +.0023%. Blah!

Broaden the target, refine the specific action and the strategy returns a result of X +125%. Yippie!

Sometimes, I feel we can’t tell if we really can drive some desired outcomes. There are too many factors at play regardless of how targeted we can be with our messaging.

There has to be a predisposition for a ‘hockey stick response’ return to occur.

Yep, we targeted the beejeezus out of them. But, should we?

Because the return on our time, money and effort just wasn’t worth the squeeze.

Be smart, intentional and informed. Test. Decide based on data – but, don’t be a slave to it.

You’ll miss the opportunity.

The Work : asking pesky questions?

But hold on …. I don’t want the answer in this meeting.

Asking pesky questions and not expecting answers. That’s the topic of our meeting today.

There is absolutely no way you can gather a cross functional group, ask the right questions to put you on a path to solving the problem and have the answer come out of that first meeting.

I am probably not being clear.

Say you get a request for Branding. Or, a logo. Possibly, a marketing plan.

The meeting is called: operations, product, the consultant, you, the director, your staff – all in the room.

Then, it begins.

You ask the pesky question: why?

You ask another: and success looks like?

And all Hades breaks loose. You better have someone taking notes.

Then, what is funny, I think most of the time the leaders think the answer will magically appear in that meeting.

It seldom does. Heck, for me, it never has.

Marketing is an Art and a Science.

If it was easy – you wouldn’t need that meeting to begin the process of solving the problem; for imagining success; for laying the groundwork; for the thinking that will help you build the strategy to get to the solution.

So, when you have those first meetings. When everyone is excited to do the “marketing.”

Set the expectation at the beginning: This is not that.

Tell them they aren’t leaving this half hour meeting with a communication plan.

Tell them you and your team need time to think.

Set the next meeting for review and validation of what your come up with – but, for goodness sakes don’t leave there with the phrase, or the tactic, or the color scheme … it’s just not the right time for that.

Why?

Because you end up with inferior blather. Things are left out, overlooked, missed and not thought through.

You don’t solve the problem that way.

So don’t let it happen, again.

Work Backwards from the Magic

I heard James Clear say this on a podcast just now.

Well, I didn’t know that’s what Marketers should do.

But, it’s what I have been doing for the past decade or so. Maybe my entire career.

What a great statement.

Our job is to look up. Look ahead. Prepare for the worst.

Get ready for what’s coming.

Figure out how to take advantage of the natural curve and push it higher. Attract and inform the margins to get more customers.

Create Zealots. Overcome objections with the art and science of communication.

Starting at the end and working backwards helps you Solve the Problem.

You cannot create a timeless platform or engage an audience if you have not figured out what success looks like before you start.

Everyone is not your customer. Visualize success.

Then build the plans and strategies to make that success happen.

Watch that Big Reveal in your Mind’s Eye – then create the show. Backwards.

Magic People!!

Be wrong. But, be dang sure of it.

One of the kindest souls I ever met said something like this about me once.

“I’ll tell you. He might be wrong, but he is dang sure of it.”

He was an orthopedic surgeon. We traveled the state and spoke with physicians and health care professionals about how to speak with patients when things go wrong.

Imagine: The hard talk. Terrible news. Life and Death.

As I studied and learned from him. As our team listened. We learned together from the tragic events we reviewed to find the best past path forward for the people we helped.

We grew and became more passionate about convincing people to fight their fear: to be vulnerable.

I saw our work as a vocation. One that I cared about deeply.

One night, I made a few emphatic, very emotional and challenging statements to a group of experienced physicians. Statements that eliminated the gray area they were trying to make to give them permission to not do the right thing. To lie. And, their reaction to my statements was more than energetic.

How dare I question their integrity and call them on their untruths and omission?

The good doctor looked at our friend and colleague and he said: “I’ll tell you. He might be wrong, but he is dang sure of it.”

Because I cared. I had read. Researched. Analyzed. And I saw the process we developed work.

We had distilled our message and built our platform so that we could undo decades of poor, learned behavior that was pounded into our audience’s head.

What we talked about every day was, for the lack of a better word – serious.

Life. Death, Cancer. Errors. Mistakes. Millions of Dollars. Legal Proceedings. Anxiety. Trauma.

My favorite part – we weren’t wrong with our premise. It was proven out time and time again. Morals aren’t wrong. Doing the right thing, isn’t wrong. And, yes, I was sure of it.

What in the world does this have to do with marketing?

Well, in the face of these terrible things, the physician had to communicate with someone. It was vital they were understood. It was imperative they were seen as the human they were – in that moment.

If not, clear communication would not occur.

Relationships would be broken. Lives would be thrown into more disarray.

So, as I develop solutions to the problems those I attempt to help everyday. I make sure I have found as much data, listened to customers, learned from those that have been where I am before, and work to make sure I am certain what I am going to recommend will work.

If I am wrong. I am dang sure of it.

And, I smile every time I think of Dr. Ghiz and the vocation he chose to share with his peers there was a gentler, more human, right way to speak with other humans and face fear together.

What are we going to do?

For starters – this is absolutely the wrong question.

Huddled in the meeting.

The number needs to go up.

The opportunity space we have to make a decision is suddenly filled with the infamous laundry list.

This post. That post. This ad. This mailer. This sentence added here. How about this group? They could help us. You know, why not? Yeah. Round Robin. Let’s go.

Please stop. For a minute.

Where’s the dashboard?

What problem are we trying to solve here, folks?

Where’s the data? Who will lead the strategy development? What are the needed outcomes? Do we have 24 hours that we can pause and really dig in and learn a little more?

We have experienced what on the fly marketing and strategy decision-making get us. It’s not pretty. Remember?

“Traditional or programmatic? Social media targeting or grass roots? Text campaign?”

No.

Stop it – this is not the time write copy or design the damn social media graphic.

You don’t know what you are really trying to do, yet.

This is the time we stop and assess. Consider and formulate in our minds what success actually looks like. As specifically as we can. So we can drive that outcome with marketing.

More: is not an answer.

All of them: is not an answer.

“But they want an answer by noon!”

So what.

To me, that means I have until 11:59 to keep them from making a mistake. OR, I have until noon to reset their expectations based on what I learned in the time we stopped writing copy by committee and making this laundry list.

So, grab you fortitude.

Use the next 15 minutes to set the process so you are successful in the next 24 hours.

Stop trying to be a creative genius. This is not that easy.

A lawyer does not go in front of a judge with preparation. That’s malpractice.

A doctor does research and considers all options before making a diagnosis.

A mechanic has a process to determine what’s wrong with your car.

A pilot doesn’t take off without a checklist or a flight plan.

Why in Rosser Reeve’s name are you letting strategy – and the next best idea you will ever have – be dictated by a committee?

Get to work. Define the problem. Stop. Create the solution.

Look at the dashboard and solve the problem.

Drive.

I don’t have time to read

When I was in newspapers, one of the responses we always received on our readership studies was a semantic jigsaw puzzle.

“Don’t have time to read.”

I remember the research consultant I learned from: Willis Duff. He wore tweed coats, a vest, tortoise shell glasses. And, he shared a piece of wisdom with us.

“Do you know what that really means? I am sorry to tell you folks. It means ‘I don’t have time to read THAT.” Points to our newspaper. Silence. That!

We were just told our product was bad.

You see – what Willis explained was that people have more time than ever to read. I firmly believe, he is more right today than ever.

I’m not out chopping firewood to make sure I survive the winter. I’m not plowing the field like Pa on Little House. Heck, I barely have a commute anymore because of COVID, I simply walk across the room to my office and start my day.

I have. You have. More time than EVER to read.

So here we go Marketers. We need to give them a reason. Enough quality. To read our words and thoughts.

It needs to be valuable. And, that. That is easy to say and difficult to pull off.

Every day, acknowledge that something unexpected is coming your way.

By holding a belief that everything is marketing: moving a perception from point A to B to C, I drive folks crazy.

Crisis communication … it’s marketing.

How you respond to emails: marketing.

Your social and digital footprint – what do you think I am going to write?

M A R K E T I N G.

As marketers, something is coming in about five minutes that could knock your day for a loop. Because, in the art and science of communication, perceptions, conversations, and business conditions change constantly.

To keep your head. To be your best. To help the most. To solve the problem – that is our goal.

We cannot panic. We cannot complain. We adjust.

We define the current problem, learn, and think for as long we have, and develop a plan of action. Then, we act.

Sometimes, that means scrapping or pausing or redoing a plan we made yesterday.

Accept it.

Frustration for some, an opportunity to learn for a marketer.

“ta eph’hemin, ta ouk eph’hemin”

Let’s ask him…

Epictetus – Stoic

“What is up to us, what is not up to us.”

What does this have to do with marketing? Everything.

2,000 years ago, Epictetus first penned this thought. When I am thinking about the communication and marketing problems I am asked to solve each day, this idea helps me.

I can choose to complain about the things I have absolutely no control over: trolls, misinformation, fragmented media, media that has been stripped of it’s resources, those that don’t take time to read, research, and understand complex topics.

Or, I can act.

And, I can take my best swing at solving the defined problem we have uncovered.

How can I use technology? How can I use research? How can I test, then replicate?

Who can I ask for advice and guidance? Have I solved this before in another industry? Has someone else? What mistakes have I made in the past that I can avoid? How can I measure my progress?

What do I truly have control over? And, what is the highest and best use of each of those resources?

This is so easy to write. Terribly complex to execute.

But, it is where we need to start each time.

Define the problem.

Asses your situation.

Prepare and Plan.

Act.

Control what you can.

Let go of what you cannot.

Repeat.