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Justin Foster

The Cost of Clarity

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We have all watched brands lose their way.  We’ve seen established brands take the slow walk to irrelevance.  We’ve seen start-ups that crashed on take-off.  We’ve seen vibrant brands that were all the rage suddenly become as popular as cold gravy.
How does this happen?

Of course, there are many causes: lack of funding, internal cultural issues, market shifts, etc.  But I would venture to say that even those issues are more symptoms than causes.   I believe the true cause of failure is lack of clarity.  More specifically, a lack of clarity in three areas:

  1. Lack of Strategic Clarity:  This is manifested in an organization’s inability (or unwillingness) to answer this question: “Why are we here?”  I refer to this as the “spiritual” side of a brand.  This is the core element that creates the aroma of the “bacon-ness” of a brand that attracts audiences – both internally and externally.  Brands that have answered this question always have a starting point for making decisions, selecting the right people, etc.  Without this answer, companies tend to drift – from executive to executive, message to message, and audience to audience.  The issue of Strategic Clarity becomes even more apparent when the top decision-makers in a brand have vastly different answers to this question.  This issue can’t be fixed with an ad campaign (it might actually make it worse).  Instead, it requires an awareness of the problem from the top executives – and the willingness to change.
  2. Lack of Role Clarity:  Ron Price speaks often of this regarding internal cultures.  The question to answer is “What are we doing and who is doing it?”.  While primarily an internal efficiency and productivity issue, role clarity extends to the brand – primarily via customer experience.  When your employees don’t know their role, this is manifested on to customers – creating language like “That’s not our policy”.  Lack of role clarity leads to quality control problems, theft, mis-use of the system and more.  This issue extends to directly to customers as well.  Brand that tend to have purely transactional relationships with their audiences create a role for their customers that severely limits word-of-mouth. When customers don’t have the role of brand evangelist, at best you simply have their loyalty – that’s not enough.
  3. Lack of Market Clarity:  While lack of Strategic Clarity and Role Clarity issues may be the primary cause of brand failure, both tend to be more subtle and longer-term issues.  Lack of Market Clarity is usually obvious to everyone.  This is manifested in the question “What are we selling and who are we selling to?”   This is the world of reactive marketing, poorly executed marketing efforts, and squishy messaging – and an obsession with finding the right message.  Surprisingly, lack of Market Clarity affects brands that often have a good product and good people.  They tend to believe too much in the “Field of Dreams” – build it and they will come.  They tend to view marketing as “icky” – primarily because they see their less honest competition using marketing to out-hustle them.  Regardless, you need to present the right image, the right message, and the right offering – all to the right people.
When you think of “Bacon” brands such as Under Armour, Southwest, Starbucks, Apple, SAP, Victoria Secret and others you can see that they do well in all areas of clarity.  Conversely, you can see the brands that are struggling because of a lack of clarity:  AOL, GM, Burger King, and many, many more.

We know what doesn’t fix lack of clarity.  Ad campaigns don’t fix clarity.  More investment money doesn’t fix clarity.  Casual Fridays don’t fix clarity. 

So what does fix clarity?  Leadership.

If you are the primary decision-maker in your organization, it starts with you.  All three of these clarity issues can be solved with leadership.  As a leader, you must first face the truth, clearly define the problem – then lead the effort to change and improve.

Is your brand Oatmeal or Bacon?  Find out here.

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The Cost of Boring

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Advertising is expensive.  When advertising does not produce measurable results (sales), it is even more expensive.   What’s really expensive is having a boring brand. Word-of-mouth provocateur Andy Sernovtiz says it best:

“Advertising is the price you pay for being boring”.
Being boring is one of the hidden costs of business.  It means that you have to bludgeon/advertise to generate response from the marketplace.  It usually means you have to provide discounts or deals to move people to buy.  It means you have to work unnecessarily hard to find and keep the right people (both employees and customers).
Beneath all of that is the most potentially fatal hidden cost of being boring … it means you probably have a product/service/idea that people don’t want.  As such, you have to create a false demand in the marketplace.  You have to over-promote.  You have to over-inflate value (or need).  Even worse, it means no word-of-mouth.  No excitement.
That’s why a brand starts not with your message or your marketing plan but your core idea.  Bottom line: Make stuff people want.  Solve a problem.  Create something truly different.  Deliver an amazing experience.  Then maybe you can consider advertising.

Want to be Bacon? Start by Being a Pig.

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You know something is a buzz word when everybody talks about it, but very few do it. Such is the case with differentiation. Differentiation is not a new concept. Jack Trout wrote about it. Tom Peter’s preaches about it. Every CMO, VP of Marketing, and ad agency guy with hipster glasses talks about differentiation.

So why do so few brands actually differentiate themselves? Because too many don’t understand it.

For most brands, differentiation starts with advertising. Create a snappy, well-executed campaign that drives a wedge between you and your competition. Having a big budget to own mindshare doesn’t hurt either. However, what if the only thing different about you is your advertising? The consumer is much smarter and much more connected than they used to be. Now, advertising differentiation without actually delivering it makes you look stupid.

More advanced brands focus on product/feature differentiation – making or do something different. This is difficult and expensive because even if you create something that isn’t a commodity, it will gravitate quickly towards commoditization. Being first doesn’t last as long as it used to. Example: power steering and AC used to be options on a car.

The latest form of differentiation is creating different/better customer experiences. However, even on low-dollar items we expect a certain level of customer service. An customer experience can be expensive. For high dollar items, user experience is a commodity. We consumers are spoiled so user experience becomes a game of oneupmanship. Which is great for us, but expensive and tedious for brands.

All of these areas matter, but they aren’t enough. To truly be Bacon, you must create differentiation in a completely different way.

I call this Cultural Differentiation. This means creating a brand that thinks, looks, and behaves differently than anything else in your market.


Dave’s Killer Bread (the photo above)
PBR (Professional Bull Riding)
Death Cab for Cutie (alt rock band)

There are numerous other brands that embrace Cultural Differentiation, but these 5 serve my point the best:

  1. They all know exactly who they are.
  2. You know exactly who they are when you experience them
  3. They are all great at promotion without being over-promoters.
  4. They built their brands through word-mouth.
  5. Being different is a standard, not a strategic initiative

In short, they didn’t have the goal of creating differentiation as part of an ad campaign. They started with simply being different. Then let being different permeate everything they do.

Cultural differentiation creates relevance, strategic clarity, and a fun brand to be around. So back to the question “Why don’t brands differentiate themselves?”

Traditional thinking

But most of all, a lack of identity. They don’t know who they are, so they have no sense of what makes them different.

Want to be different? Start there.


Buy “Oatmeal v Bacon: How to Differentiate in a Generic World” 

Are You Too Late?

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Much of business is about timing – of being at the right place at the right time with the right idea to create combustion.

Conversely, some businesses fail because they are too early.  But most fail because they are too late.

When they are too late, they think they can catch up …

But it’s too late …

If you have to tell people to find you on social media, it’s too late.

If you have to constantly remind customers to buy from you again, it’s too late.

If you have to remind customers that they are supposed be loyal, it’s too late.

If you have to provide coupons or deals to attract new business, it’s too late.

If you have to hire a sign shaker, it’s too late.

If you are worried about the cost of marketing and not the return, it’s too late.

If you hurt the customer experience to save money, it’s too late.

If you are not attracting the customers you really want, it’s too late.

Being late is so much more expensive than being on time.  It can lead to extinction.  So don’t be late.

* Cartoon credit: Dan Regan – Kansas City Star

Oatmeal v Bacon LIVE! – May 25 – Boise, Idaho

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On May 25, I will be presenting “Oatmeal v Bacon LIVE!” for free as part of the Idaho Business League’s Business Builder Day.


  • May 25 at 1:00 PM
  • Brundage Room at the Boise Hotel & Conference Center (formerly Holiday Inn off Vista)
  • Seating is limited to 50.
  • Register here:

Description:  Using the “Oatmeal v Bacon” model, the workshop dissects how great brands are created, established brands stay relevant, and aging brands can transform themselves to attract new audiences.  Thought provoking, humorous and immediately useful, this workshop is intended for business owners, executives and marketing and sales professionals.  It is not intended for the thin-skinned, over-promoters, or whiners.

What You Will Learn:  How to create a meaningful, relevant brand by being truly unique and different.  Why does differentiation matter?

  • Generates authentic word-of-mouth and market momentum.
  • Creates deeper relationships with your current customer base.
  • Attracts your next generation of customers and employees (Gen Y).
  • Helps you own the conversations in the your marketplace.
  • Spending marketing dollars and business development energy more wisely.
  • Beating the competition.

I will also be giving out signed copies of “Oatmeal v Bacon” (now available on Amazon) to the participants with the best questions and ideas … and who can beat me in arm wreslting.

Differentiation Starts with Being Different

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Standing out is the most basic element of branding.  Getting noticed is the spark that leads to brand awareness – and maybe even convinces someone to buy your stuff.

This is called “differentiation”.  Here is a definition straight from Wikipedia:  In marketing, product differentiation (also known simply as “differentiation“) is the process of distinguishing a product or offering from others, to make it more attractive to a particular target market. This involves differentiating it from competitors‘ products as well as a firm’s own product offerings.

Differentiation in the glory days of branding meant buying “breadth” – simply buying enough advertising and promotion to create a brand.  All it took was money and a decent ad agency.  There are hundreds of examples of brands that were created this way.  The irony is that very few of them were actually good products.  Case in point: harken back to the crapmobiles that American car companies were pushing in the 80s and 90s.

In the past few years, three massive changes have taken place that have stood marketing on its collective ear:

  • Media fragmentation permanently changed “appointment television”
  • Social media made everyone hyper-connected
  • Over-commoditization created an over-supply of just about everything.

These 3 trends – and their ripple effect – changed the definition and purpose of differentiation.  Now, differentiation starts with actually being different.  Godin calls it a “purple cow”.  I call it bacon.  Regardless of the metaphor, you have to make or do something that has “wow” built right in.

A few modern brands get this: Ford, Apple, Google, Zappos, Ikea to name a few.  But many brands are still using the lens that the sheer act of creating an ad or promotion is differentiation.


  1. Verizon’s Xoom – Part of the ever growing “pad” market, Verizon’s ads for the Xoom make little to no differentiation with it’s #1 competitor, the iPad.  The ads show the same features and benefits as other pads on the market – albeit, presented with lots of explosions and cool graphics.  Maybe the Xoom is different and better than the iPad, but you’d never know it from the commercials.
  2. Yahoo Mail – Yahoo is now spending ad dollars on promoting their e-mail program.  Maybe they are going after the straggler/laggard market, but the language of the ad is straight out of 1999.
  3. Bank of America – Their ads are particularly annoying because they promote features that other banks have had for years: on-line banking, bill pay, better ATMs, etc.
  4. State Farm – I’m sure State Farm is full of good people, but their new campaign of young, hip people singing the State Farm jingle has zero differentiation.  Maybe the message is that State Farm is available in case you need help, but that is lost in all of the gimmickry

Keep in mind that these are not poorly produced ads.  They are well-shot with high quality production.  The problem is the mindset behind the ads.  Competition for minds and dollars is an intense as ever.  So if you decide to spend money on promoting your stuff, at least give your marketing people and ad agency something to work with.

Is CMO a Temp Job?

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As has been discussed far and wide, the average tenure of a CMO is somewhere around 21 months. Rarely is it the incompetence of the CMO. Most of them are bright, accomplished people. In most cases, it is because the CMO was set up to fail with unreasonable revenue expectations or asked to market a bad product. What is interesting is that this trend doesn’t seem vary much with great companies v. poorly run companies or good products v. bad products. It appears that the modern CMO may be the most transitional executive position. Why is this?

Effective CMOs are typically big idea people. They tend to be strategic marketers not tactical marketers. Rare is the person who can excel at both the big idea and in the minutia of the execution. As such, the execution of the tactics is handled by Brand Managers, Marketing Managers, etc. – in essence, the “assembly line supervisors” of the marketing system. Speaking of “system”, the execution of marketing is a commodity. Once the idea is created and the execution system is in place, it is natural to drive costs out of the system. In short, it is cheaper to pay several tactical people than to pay one CMO. If the big idea and strategic marketing are successful, what does a CMO do? After the launch, most of the details will be handled by managers. Unless the company has other initiatives, there are really only a couple of places to go – out or up; either leave the company or get promoted to CEO. The latter is actually occurring more frequently.

CMOs typically get one shot to be right. If they are brought in and their strategic marketing/branding plan doesn’t work, they are shown the door. It is a bit like being a football coach at a big time college – win now or die. There is not a lot of patience to build a brand internally by focusing on quality control, creating employee evangelists, opening up the marketing to allow customers to participate, etc. Most Boards and CEOs want results NOW. Unfortunately, sometimes greatness takes time.

The biggest issue that creates the “temp” feeling of the CMO role is that the marketing rules have changed. When done properly, modern marketing is about creating a large enough customer base to reach word-of-mouth critical mass. This means an initial outlay of external marketing dollars, but only to reach the point where your customers become your primary marketing driver. At this point, almost all marketing should turn inward. As such, the CMO must evolve to a role of something more like “Chief Branding Officer” or “Chief Experience Officer” (CXO?) – someone who obsesses about the customer experience, customer feedback, product quality, etc. Unfortunately, in most corporate hierarchies, these are Department Head-type roles, not executives.

In light of all this, it is no coincidence that the CMOs with the longest tenure, that have overcome the “temp” curse, are in innovative, forward-thinking organizations. In fact, they may not even be called “CMOs”. It is likely that they started with a strategic marketing role, but because of their own flexibility and the innovative culture of their organizations they have continued to evolve their role to provide value to the over-all brand. This follows the “Good to Great” philosophy of the “right people on the bus, in the right seats”. Who says they can’t change seats?