June 12, 2014 – Originally Published on StrategyOnline.ca

By Luke Sklar

Bono put it best when he said: “We thought we had the answers but, it was the questions we had wrong.”

We at SW+A have had the good fortune to discover you can’t get to business-changing insights without asking business-changing questions. These questions go well beyond the world of surveys and data; they’re the foundation of marketing strategy.

However, too many great brands (and some very smart people) often ask the wrong questions. In these times of information overload (and leaner teams), it’s important great marketers pause and ask: “Are we truly asking the right tough questions?”

So, what are some of the common wrong questions many marketers ask? And how do you turn them into the right questions?

Wrong question #1: “How can we grow?”

Should Colgate launch Kitchen Entrees? Should Smith & Wesson launch bicycles? Should Frito Lay launch lemonade? Should Coors launch bottled water? Should the CFL go into the U.S.? (Surprisingly, it did – and not surprisingly it failed, likely because it didn’t have the credibility to play in the new arenas.)

The right question: “How should we grow?” Lego pulled into the black, not by chasing technology-based toys (why would consumers say don’t do that?), but by energizing against what they are famous for: fuelling your imagination. The result? Blockbuster growth with the wildly creative The Lego Movie, a brilliant content marketing piece that stayed true to the brand.

Wrong question # 2: “How can we stay market leaders?”

Incumbents almost always lose in our era of technology disruption. Iconic brands like Kodak, Blockbuster and (ultimately) Sears and BlackBerry have, and may eventually disappear, because they delayed confronting the inevitable.

The right question: “What business are we really in?” And equally important: “Who could destroy our business?” What did Kodak not see in Shutterfly, Blockbuster in Netflix, Sears in Amazon, and Blackberry in Apple? As marketers, we’re often at the mercy of quarterly earnings, but great marketers hold the mirror up and ask “What purpose can the brand meaningfully serve – today and in the future?”

Wrong question #3: “How do we compete on price?” 

In a Walmart world where pricing strategy is more important than ever we saw the storied JC Penney brand almost go down by chasing everyday low pricing (EDLP).

The right question: “How do our customers see value?” JC Penney customers were weaned on discounts and promotions at both the brand’s stores and in its catalogues. EDLP took away the only traffic-driving weapon it had.

Wrong question #4: “How do we shore up our weaknesses?”  

Let’s jump right to examples where marketers asked the right question. Clearly Buckley’s (“Tastes awful. And it works.”), Smuckers (“With a name like Smuckers it has to be good”) and Avis (“We try harder”) asked: “How do we make our weakness a strength?” We can also celebrate the Toronto Raptors for embracing this insight. Living in a hockey town, Tim Leiweke, president & CEO of MLSE, turned the problem on its head with full-force impact by enlisting ambassadors (Drake) and a compelling ad campaign (“We the North” and even “F Brooklyn”) that played off their differences. Have you ever seen Hogtown with such an urban edge?

So, what’s preventing smart marketers from asking the right questions? Is it because the consequences are scary and political? Great marketers are change agents, and being at the centre of scary is the path to business-changing insights. Perhaps the first question to ask is, what is it going to take internally to effect change?

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