Both J.C.Penney and Barnes & Noble were back in the business news last week with more stories of corporate tribulation for each.

The general pattern for both brand strategy dilemmas goes something like this:

  • Brand is sliding downward
  • A new person is brought in to hatch a new big idea and lead the new brand strategy and direction
  • New person tries to put the new direction in place
  • New direction doesn’t reverse the slide and makes the slide worse
  • New guy is out amid even more confusion about the brand strategy and direction
  • Board brings back the old person to get the brand out of the mess that the old guy created / let happen in the first place

A couple of quick brand strategy lessons emerge for me.


Brand Strategy Lesson 1 – Ideas are easy, answers are hard

Ideas are easy.

With some focus and using the right creative thinking exercises, you can produce many ideas in a relatively short time. When we facilitate a brand strategy or new product creative thinking session, we often call these “possibilities” because they are so young and fresh and devoid of analysis, it’s tough to say they are “ideas.” They may just be fragments of someone’s thinking. With more work they can become ideas and concepts, but call them what you will, they are relatively easy to generate.

Real business answers, however, are hard.

We’re talking about ideas that turn into answers that successfully change the course of a business, particularly one that’s failing – those are hard. Because to become a successful answer, the idea SHOULD stand up to a rigor that’s nearly impossible to survive:

  • Analysis
  • Prioritization
  • Resource decisions
  • Tests for strategic fit
  • Customer research
  • Testing and piloting
  • Scenario planning
  • Determinations about related critical success factors
  • Technical analysis
  • Development

All that, plus the idea has to be introduced at the right time strategically by an organization with the experience and wherewithal to pull it off. It has to be resourced adequately, successfully produced and marketed, effectively sold, and executed well so that it delivers value.

And those lists are simply surface level starts at what an idea has to survive to become a right answer.

A brand in trouble doesn’t just need an idea guy for a turnaround. A brand needs the RIGHT ANSWER guy at the RIGHT TIME.

And for both J.C. Penney and Barnes & Noble, it seems very possible that the time when even a PHENOMENALLY RIGHT ANSWER could make a difference is in the rear view mirror. When a brand misses the window for its right answer, no matter what the brand throws at the situation, it may very well be it’s going to fail. Maybe not right away, but it’s probable that no amount of executive chair swapping or brand strategy changing is EVER going to be the right answer anymore.

Brand Strategy Lesson 2 – The Devil You Know Isn’t Better Strategy

In both  of these brand strategy dilemmas, there’s a view that the former person is the right answer as a replacement, even though the brand declines started (or at least continued) on the former guy’s watch before the new guy failed to fix it.

The “devil you know” isn’t better strategy; it’s desperation strategy and smells of unfounded corporate nostalgia. While a board of directors may think “the devil you know” is an intriguing or viable idea, it’s tough to believe it will be the RIGHT answer.

See what I mean about ideas and right answers.

Because someone will ask . . .

The previous Brainzooming post was on seven solid lessons in the J.C. Penney social media strategy. So how do these two posts square with each other?

The social media moves J.C. Penney made are absolutely smart ones that any brand should consider. A great social media strategy, however, isn’t going to fix a shaky underlying brand strategy. It can enhance it, but it’s just one part of the brand, not the whole brand. – Mike Brown

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In July, Sean Ryan, Director – Social and Mobile at J.C. Penney spoke to the Social Media Club of Kansas City about the company’s social media efforts during a topsy-turvy period that’s been rocky again the past few weeks (but more on that tomorrow).

7 Success Factors from the J.C. Penney Social Media Strategy

Sean presented an insightful overview with real world examples of strategic concepts we view as integral to a brand’s successful social networking and content effort.

1. Create an audience persona as a focal point for social media content.

The audience persona of the “new” J.C. Penney (modeled after Tina Fey and others) helped focus the personality, voice, and editorial content decisions for the brand’s social media implementation. In Sean’s words, the Fey Roniston (as the persona was named) personality represented who the brand is, her voice is how the brand talks, and her sensibilities shape what subjects and events the brand covers.

Sean-Ryan-Visual-Resume2. Strong social media people represent a combination of business person and reporter.

Sean was a reporter in the first half of his career before transitioning to Target and then J.C. Penney. His career path suggests a strong social media profile: a reporter’s ability to ask questions and distill information along with a business person’s knowledge and sensibilities. Sean highlighted the two halves of his career with an intriguing concept: a one-slide, visual resume.

3. Reach into the organization to develop a social media editorial calendar.

Since many people outside Sean’s team (i.e., buyers for one) have early visibility and potential content on stories of interest to the brand’s fans, regularly reaching out for leads (as a reporter would) helps ensure timely, meaningful content on its social media editorial calendar.

4. Conduct weekly meetings with anyone touching the social strategy.

No one department “controls” all aspects of the social strategy so planned checkpoints among stakeholders enhance integration, provide visibility to developing stories, and ensure people with responsibility for key touchpoints are well-coordinated.

jcp-facebook5. Be willing to pick up your strategy and move it.

The original J.C. Penney Facebook page was mired in a seemingly unrecoverable Facebook Edgerank situation, savaged by fans complaining about the retailer and its Facebook content (which was being recycled from other media).  It was typical for negative Facebook fan actions (marking posts as spam, hiding some or all of the brand’s posts) to surpass positive actions (likes, shares, comments) on a regular basis. Rather than try to reverse the Facebook Edgerank perspective on its page, J.C. Penney moved its presence to a new Facebook page built around its updated strategy. The new Facebook page started demonstrating positive results immediately.

6. Build the trust needed to operate in social time.

When asked about differences in the review process for day-to-day vs. crisis communication-oriented social media, Sean said former CEO Ron Johnson commented that he trusted Sean’s team to edit and make solid decisions about what to share. This reflects a previous Brainzooming post on social networking critical success factors: real-time social media response depends on a level of trust from senior management in the judgment of those running the operation.

7. Produce weekly social media metrics linked to business performance.

If social media wants to be taken seriously as a business function, it has to deliver metrics at the pace the line organization does. It’s also imperative to provide a bridge to how social media contributes to making the numbers that move the business. One regular feedback loop among the J.C. Penney social media metrics involves reporting trending topics for marketing & merchandising to see what customers are talking about online. - Mike Brown


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“How strong is my organization’s social media strategy?”

9 Diagnostics to Check Your Social Strategy

Is your social media implementation working as well as it can? In less than 60 minutes with the new FREE Brainzooming ebook “9 Diagnostics to Check Your Social Strategy,” you’ll have a precise answer to this question. Any executive can make a thorough yet rapid evaluation of nine different dimensions of their social media strategies with these nine diagnostics. Download Your Free Copy of “9 Diagnostics to Check Your Social Strategy.”





Learn all about how Mike Brown’s social media strategy development workshops can boost your organization’s success!

Mike Brown

Founder of The Brainzooming Group, and an expert on strategy, creativity, and innovation. Mike is a frequent speaker on innovation, strategic thinking, and social media.

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Everyone-Is-the-audienceWhat if your organization thinks “everyone” is your social media audience?

A participant in a social media content strategy workshop I conducted asked what to do if your management group believes there are no specific targets for your brand’s social media content. Her management held that whatever content she created needed to apply to “everyone.” The question sprang from discussing the importance of targeting your social media content by developing audience personas to help you produce audience-focused content.

If you’re writing to everyone with your social media content it becomes very challenging to develop a cohesive and consistent voice.  When you’re forced, in essence, to be all over the market, it’s nearly impossible to assess whether the content you are creating is meaningful to those you are REALLY trying to reach. Sure, there must be SOMEONE who cares about a specific blog post, but is it one someone or thousands of someones? If you know before you start which content is likely to resonate (or not) with key audience targets, you can be much more focused in your content.

Convincing Management You Need a Focused Social Media Content Strategy

So how do you dissuade your leadership from its unwillingness to create focused content? Here are a four ideas to address the issue.

1. Profile your audience

Forrester has a tool showing what percentage of a certain demographic is active in various ways on social media. Using this app, you can identify at least some general social media usage trends, even among “everybody.” One caution: the Forrester tool is now several years old, so the results may be directional, but have lost their earlier accuracy.

2. Survey your customers and prospects

Either incorporate questions into other market research surveys or do a specific survey with a sample of customers and prospects to understand social media usage and preferences. Perhaps you could also capture the same type of market research data on customer service calls. The important point is you can’t simply do an online survey on this question and think you have representative results!

3. Start developing audience personas

Since this is the suggested strategic step that prompted the original question, it’s a natural move. By developing personas of representative, fictional audience members, you’ll gain a big benefit in better understanding your audience. Invite your leadership team to participate in providing input for a few audience personas. As they do so, they’ll see the differences among audience members and gain an appreciation that not everyone is a vital part of your audience.

4. Listen to what’s being said about your industry and who is saying it

Use social media listening activities and tools to identify and profile the important social media talkers and stalkers around your business, category, and industry. With a better handle on the topics and volume of social conversation, you can better show particular audiences care a lot more than others about what you have to say. Pay particular attention to who your competitors are interacting with on social media. But be warned: your competitors may also be operating from a lack of knowledge about what to do in social media as well.

The Bonus to Pursuing these Social Media Content Strategy Ideas

The bonus here is even if your organization isn’t dealing with the mandate to write to everyone, implementing these ideas will improve the focus and relevance of your social media content for your most important audiences. - Mike Brown


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If you’re struggling with determining ROI and evaluating its impacts, download 6 Social Media Metrics You Must Track” today!  This article provides a concise, strategic view of the numbers and stories that matter in shaping, implementing, and evaluating your strategy. You’ll learn lessons about when to address measurement strategy, identifying overlooked ROI opportunities, and creating a 6-metric dashboard. Download Your Free Copy of “6 Social Media Metrics You Must Track!

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Mike Brown

Founder of The Brainzooming Group, and an expert on strategy, creativity, and innovation. Mike is a frequent speaker on innovation, strategic thinking, and social media.

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bdtp-gtrpWhether it is a innovation, creativity, or strategic thinking workshop I’m delivering, I’ll likely mention the acronym BDTP or “better done than perfect.” BDTP is discussed on the blog multiple times as a call for getting things done and out the door instead of delaying until they are perfect.

Recently, after a quick succession of strategic thinking workshops, I’ve been thinking more about perfection. One workshop involved many people active in the healthcare industry where you don’t want to settle for less than perfect, if perfection is defined as whether someone lives or dies.

Contemplating how this changes the messaging on BDTP prompted a realization: there are multiple types of perfection, and the real issue may be striving for a type of perfection that doesn’t really matter (or as we’d say, that isn’t strategic).

What Kind of Perfection Are You Looking For?

For a process, you might achieve perfection relative to its:

  • Purpose
  • Plan
  • Inputs
  • Participants
  • Steps
  • Development
  • Format
  • Outcome
  • Usage

This list isn’t perfect, certainly – it’s just a starter.

Strategic Thinking about the Right Kind of Perfection

So for a healthcare example, what matters might be perfection in the outcome (i.e. someone lives). As much as the other types of perfection might be nice, it may not be a big deal to compromise on them if you deliver the perfect outcome.

So while you may need “some” perfection in what you do, what’s more important than BDTP may be GTRP: Get The Right Perfect.

What do you think about that? Does GTRP make more sense? Looks like I have some strategic thinking workshop slides to change. - Mike Brown


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Noah-FloddEarlier this summer, I finished a twenty-four week Bible class covering historical Bible books and presenting the salvation story in chronological order (affiliate link).

Suffice it to say, the class was a life-changing experience in multiple ways, including from a strategic thinking perspective.

Over time, I’ve discovered many business lessons in my personal strategic thinking tapestry originated in the Bible. Perspectives on servant leadership, communicating ideas to a suspicious group, and personal integrity, among many others, tie to hearing Bible lessons either directly or perhaps by osmosis.

Keeping Only What’s Needed

One strategic thinking perspective I’d missed, however, was eliminating everything extraneous and contradictory until all that is left is something or someone who is absolutely right to move forward.

For example, think about the story of Noah and the flood. There was a clear willingness to save only a few people versus trying to protect others who weren’t on the program (to borrow some corporate-speak jargon).

That’s never been how I’ve approached business strategy. While I’ve had to implement strategies to indiscriminately cut to the bare bones and reduce people and business expenses in order to start afresh, I’m not generally a proponent of the strategy. Instead, I’m a big advocate of trying to save and rehabilitate what you have available, even if it’s not exactly right. To me, it’s generally smarter to take best advantage of what you have rather than cut out what you might be able to adapt in some way. I’ve always seen this as decreasing the risk of falling short of the resources needed to implement a new strategy.

A New Strategic Thinking Perspective

But now, having seen in how many situations, the stories we studied involved protecting perhaps only one, absolutely right person to move the story forward, it has me thinking. Given how well all the other Bible-based strategic thinking perspectives I’ve adopted have served me, I’m considering expanding my personal strategic tapestry with this new lesson on keeping only what’s needed.

Which side of this strategy question do you embrace? - Mike Brown


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I’ll admit to being hopeful about the strategic planning benefits an organization can realize. But not from the typical strategic planning – the kind with too many boring meetings, too few real insights, lots of forms to fill out, takes forever with little real world impact.

Instead, my hopefulness is tied to the type of strategic planning we facilitate with:

When it comes to that kind of strategic planning, there are plenty of benefits for an organization.

18 Ways Strategic Planning Benefits Your Organization

When an organization engages in real strategic thinking-based planning with broad participation, an organization and its people should be:

  1. Brainzooming Strategic Thinking ExercisesSmarter
  2. More results-driven
  3. More confident of attaining performance goals
  4. Able to more successfully take on stretch objectives
  5. Very focused on high impact strategic initiatives
  6. More actively thinking and implementing strategically
  7. Better able to accommodate rapid change
  8. Prepared to better handle uncertainty
  9. Aligned more tightly to key objectives
  10. Able to readily identify and close knowledge gaps
  11. Experiencing stronger affiliation for the brand
  12. Displaying greater alignment within the senior management team
  13. Achieving stronger alignment within teams throughout the organization
  14. Gaining greater visibility for the senior leadership
  15. Engaged in more honest, strategic conversations
  16. More successfully tackling challenging strategic issues
  17. Experiencing a richer, actionable understanding of the strategic direction
  18. Interested in participating in future strategic planning

Not all these benefits may come right away, but over time, vibrant strategic planning will deliver on these benefits.

Wonder how all those strategic planning benefits are possible?

2014 is just around the corner. Email or call me and let’s talk about how these strategic planning benefits can become reality for your organization. – Mike Brown


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Customer experience and innovation expert Woody Bendle  is back today with his big, big, big, big strategic insights on big data analytics. Here’s Woody!

Strategic Insights – Much Ado about Big Data Analytics by Woody Bendle

Big Data is HOT!

Look at this Google Trends search on “Big Data” from this past Saturday (August 08, 2013).  You don’t have to be a statistician or a Nobel Prize winning macro economist to see Big Data has been on an AMAZING upward trajectory since 2011!



There is no denying Big Data is in vogue right now. Some might even say it’s pretty darned sexy!  But, as someone whose been tackling ‘Big Data’ for more than 20 years, I have to ask, “What the heck’s the big deal?”  We’re just talking about data – albeit, more of it.

Look, Big is relative; and as long as you know what you’re doing, data size should not be an issue given the current state and price of computing technologies today.  This leads me to think there is something more to all of this ‘Big Data’ chatter than simply terabytes.

Perhaps all of the hoo-hah surrounding Big Data analytics has to do with the different types of data out there.

Big Data encapsulates A LOT of different data types ranging from good (accurate and reliable) to bad (wrong and inconsistent).  Big Data can also be structured (numbers, etc.) or unstructured (a video posted on YouTube with someone railing on your company).  Also, some Big Data reflect location (latitude and longitude or a check-in on FourSquare) as well as things happening over time.  WHEW!

And for good measure, I even have my own classification for the different types of data (Big or not) I regularly encounter – these are Woody’s data ABCs.

  1. Attitudinal – what people are thinking, feeling and saying (or trying to say)
  2. Behavioral – what people are doing, where, when, and how often
  3. Crap – no explanation needed here

So sure, I’ll admit it, Big Data can be pretty complicated and complex. But this is what data analysis has always been about – for years. This leads me to think there is still something more to this whole Big Data thing than just data size and data complexity.

This is something I’ve been thinking more about lately, and I tend to believe the big deal has to do with the confluence of a number of technological trends that surprisingly snuck up on a lot of people, as well as the fundamental laws of demand and supply.

Our New Hyper-Digital Era

On the technology side, we now live a new hyper-digital era where due to advancements in computing capacity and speed, data capture and storage in conjunction with rapidly decreasing costs, virtually every move we make throughout every living moment of our lives is registered digitally.  Billions of people all doing hundreds (or thousands) of different things every day – all captured and memorialized in some digital form in the cloud.

In addition, the Internet revolution has enabled all sorts of technological, consumer , and social innovations which now allow people to create and share more data in one day than many companies used to generate in a pre-digital era year!

Think about all of the data each of us create every day through emails, text messages, Facebook pages, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Vine, Yelp, WordPress, Blogger, etc.  And, not to mention the continual digital wake we leave behind with the GPS transmitters in our smartphones and cars.  All of these things individually and in combination generate more data than most of us can fathom – and certainly way more data than most in the business world are prepared to use.  And by use, I mean actually utilize in such a manner as to create new value for consumers, society, and businesses.

So, technological innovation is enabling the creation and storage of exponentially growing mountains of Big Data.  But this wouldn’t be happening if there weren’t market forces driving it.  That is, demand for Big Data led to the supply of it!

It always seems to come back to economics doesn’t it . . .

On the demand and supply side of things, we’re dealing with at least two different phenomena.  And this is where I think the real Big Data frenzy is stemming from.  The first is a case of being careful about what you wish for (because you just might eventually get it!); and the second is gross deficiency in the supply of analytical talent in the US.

You Asked for It

In terms of being careful about what you wish for, my sense is a lot of the Big Data issues many are living today probably involves a narrative similar to this:

1)     For years, the lack of data (or the costs associated with obtaining data) has been used as an excuse for not knowing (or being able to answer) something – if we only had more data

2)     Many, for whatever reason, erroneously believed that simply having more data would mean better and more valuable (insightful) data  -  these are probably the same people who believe you need to remove all of their blood in order to have a reliable blood test

3)     Over the past 15-20 years it has become amazingly cheap and easy to create and house A LOT of data.  As a result, there are now massive mountains of Big Data “out there” all over the place  - making the people using the old “if we only had more data” excuse pretty nervous

4)     Many (bosses, shareholders, government leaders, etc.) naïvely believe since Big Data is now relatively easy to capture and house, it also should be relatively easy and inexpensive to analyze  -  these are people who think Microsoft Excel is all anyone could ever possibly need to analyze anything – they also happen to be the same people who slept through their business calc and business stats courses and don’t know the difference between a T-Test and a T-Square (hint – one is used in carpentry)

5)     Very few people (in decision making capacities) have actually spent much any time thinking about the types of questions they want to be able to answer with Big Datalet alone how someone would actually go about answering them

6)     Even fewer people have spent much time thinking about how all of this Big Data should actually be configured.  That is, how it should be structured in order for it to be analyzed; thus enabling it to help answer all of these yet-to-be-defined business questions

7)     Many leaders are now nervously sitting on tons of Big Data and have come to the realization that they don’t have the right tools and/or the right talent within their organization to leverage their unwieldy Big Data asset

8)     Meanwhile senior leadership, boards and shareholders continue to wonder when all of the Big Data magic is going to begin! – I mean come on all ready would you! You’ve got all of this data that you’d been asking for; so do something with it already – and make us tons of money!  NOW!

In Search of Big Data Ninjas

This leads me to the second, and more problematic demand and supply issue surrounding Big Data – There simply aren’t enough well-trained Big Data analysts in the US labor market do anything of any value with all of this Big Data!

According to the US Department of Education, only about 10% of the 1.6MM undergraduate degrees conferred in the 2009-2010 academic year were in areas such as Computer Sciences, Engineering, Math and Statistics, and the Physical Sciences & Technologies.



These are the types of degrees Big Data analysts will have; and unfortunately for organizations needing to hire Big Data analysts, this is down significantly from nearly 13.5% of all degrees awarded in the 1980-1981 academic year.  If you are on the demand side of this Big Data equation, this is not the sort of trend you want to see in the face of the surging Big Data Tidal Wave! (Affiliate Link)

While I’m spreading all sorts of sunshine on our Big Data parade, here’s something else to keep in mind.  Only a small fraction of those who have graduated with analytic or technical degrees in the past twenty or so years are actually in the Big Data analysis business, and very few of today’s technically-oriented undergrads are aspiring Big Data ninjas.  The bottom line is an interesting reality where we are dealing with the rapid growth in demand for competent Big Data analysts in the face of a woefully insufficient supply.  I suspect it will take a good number of years before natural market forces arrive at equilibrium – that is, when the supply of Big Data slayers will equal market demand.

The Path Forward

There is absolutely no doubt that Big Data is finally here, and that it is truly here to stay.  There is also no denying that there are a lot of Big Data challenges that need to be better understood and dealt with.  However, if we make the proper investments in Planning, Preparing and Organizing  for Big Data, we can begin to realize the value that is promises.  I, by no means intend to trivialize or undersell the time, effort, and resources that will be required along the way.  This will be a big effort – after all, we are talking about Big Data. However this dilemma is a bit like the question about when is the best time to plant a tree. The best answer of course is yesterday and the second best answer is today.  Regardless of your current Big Data state, better Planning, Preparation and Organization today will ensure a better Big Data tomorrow.

So what do you think?  Are we really in the midst of a Big Data dilemma?  Or, is all of this Big Data stuff much ado about nothing?

And hey – on the bright side of things, if you happen to be a budding Big Data ninja…  Your future’s so bright, you’d better get shades (cue up Timbuk3)Woody Bendle


       (Affiliate Link)

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