Tag Archives: research

Too Many Messages!

Tuesdays With Coleman

Regular readers of Tuesdays With Coleman and loyal Coleman Insights clients know of our affinity for Outside Thinking, the ability to look at any business, product or service from the perspective of its customers or users. Furthermore, those of you who have listened to my colleagues and I espouse on Outside Thinking know that understanding the obstacles that often prevent businesses from communicating what they stand for and offer is vitally important. One of those obstacles is the concept of “Too Many Messages.” When brands—through their product, advertising and other communication efforts—communicate multiple messages about what they stand for, the result is a lack of consistency in the messages that get through to consumers.

A few years ago, my colleague Sam Milkman ran into this guy:

This t-shirt has too many messages on it

Even though Sam didn’t know him, he begged him to let him take his picture. Why? Because the radio station t-shirt he is wearing is one of the best examples of violating the Too Many Messages rule we’ve ever seen. The shirt inundates anyone who sees it with at least three major things it wants you to know about the Magic 101.7 brand: (1) it plays “Continuous Lite Rock,” (2) it features John Carter’s morning show and (3) it offers “the no-repeat workday.”

The point here is that this guy in the t-shirt could have walked past many people the day he wore it, and if we polled those people afterwards, each of them would have taken away different perceptions about Magic 101.7. Some would just remember the brand name, some would recall the kind of music the station plays, some would retain John Carter’s name and some would think about the station’s no-repeat workday feature. Very few of them would retain all four messages and the overall population of people exposed to the shirt would remember inconsistent mash-ups of the various messages.

Despite our efforts to discourage breaking the Too Many Messages rule, we see radio stations and other businesses do it all the time. Why? We can chalk up some of it to human nature; when advertising budgets are tight and you get that rare opportunity to tell consumers about your business, you want to tell them as much about it as you can. However, I think it mostly happens due to a lack of strategic thinking and understanding of how consumers’ brains process information. It probably also happens because some people just don’t buy into the Too Many Messages rule. I’m sure the Inside Thinker who designed the t-shirt above concluded that it wasn’t too complicated and that consumers would “get it.”

Fortunately, we have proof that consumers don’t get it via recent research from Millward Brown, a subsidiary of Kantar, the global research behemoth. Millward Brown’s specialty is measuring the effectiveness of advertising and they offer their clients a service called Link™, which measures how consumers respond to advertising copy across many dimensions.

Using Link, Millward Brown was able to determine how well ads featuring multiple messages manage to get any single message through to the consumer. As the accompanying graph reveals, not very well. Even by adding a second message to an ad, the likelihood that consumers take away either of them drops from 100% for a single-message ad to only 65%. By the time fourth messages are added to ads, the best likelihood of a message getting through to consumers drops to 43%.

The more messages you try to communicate the lower the likelihood of communicating any single message

What does this mean for your business? It means that you should focus on the most strategically-important message to get across to your target audience to the greatest extent possible. If you’re in radio, this should flow from knowledge you have on the state of your station’s Image Pyramid and which layer is most in need of development. If your music position needs development, focus your advertising solely on the music you play and resist also promoting your morning show or another benefit listening to your station offers.

If you’re trying to grow the audience for a podcast and you believe—as most research in the podcasting space has confirmed thus far—that there’s a large untapped audience consisting of people who aren’t aware of your podcast, keep the message focused on the “elevator pitch” for your podcast and don’t spend a lot of time explaining all of content elements of the show. If you own a hot dog stand that recently expanded its menu to include bratwurst, don’t advertise the addition of bratwurst until you know that your image for hot dogs is strong enough to support the development of imagery for other items on your menu.

I should stress that this applies well beyond what you do with your advertising, especially if you are in radio. Think about the messages your listeners are exposed to when they tune in to your station. Are they focused on helping your station develop the one image that is the next step in the construction of your Image Pyramid, or do they hear a music image promo in one break, followed by a promo for your morning show in another break, followed by another break in which your air personality encourages listeners to visit him at the station’s tent at the upcoming community festival downtown?

When he portrayed Curly in the classic 1991 movie “City Slickers,” I doubt Jack Palance thought his “secret of life” would apply to the “Too Many Messages” rule. My take? Nearly 30 years later, Curly’s recipe provides good marketing advice:


10 Quotes from 100 Blogs

Tuesdays With Coleman

On October 10, 2017, we started our Tuesdays With Coleman blog series as a way to share branding, content and research strategy. Last week’s entry, “Seven Solutions for the Podcasting Brand Challenge,” was the final of three consecutive blogs about podcasting, centered around the increasingly popular Podcast Movement conference in Orlando.

It was also our 100th Tuesdays With Coleman blog.

We love a good benchmark, and 100 blogs feels like an opportunity to look back and mine some nuggets from the past couple of years. Since 100 quotes seems excessive, here are 10, curated from a wide range of topics, strategic advice and members of our team.

“We sometimes get too close to the product for our own good, and are unable to see it through the lens of our customers.”

Warren Kurtzman, in “Is Inside Thinking Blurring Your Strategic Vision?” explains the Coleman Insights principle of Outside Thinking and how to achieve results by changing your mindset.

“If Bill Belichick showed up to a station remote, what would he think of a station banner hastily hung behind a bored jock eating a cheeseburger?”

One of our most-read blogs, “What if Bill Belichick Programmed Your Radio Station?” features Jon Coleman imagining New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick as a radio station program director.

New England Patriots Bill Belichick

An aircheck session with Bill Belichick as your PD could get pretty intense.

“We’ve all become so hyper-focused on the now, the instant gratification of numbers, that it is easy to take your eye off the big picture.”

After attending a talk by marketer Seth Godin, I wrote “Direct Marketing Is Easy. Brand Marketing is Hard” to reinforce the value of brand marketing, despite its lack of trackability.

Seth Godin Internet Summit

Marketing expert Seth Godin

“The Trader Joe’s lesson is that you beat a leader not by being better. You win by finding the inherent weakness in their strength and creating your points of differentiation.”

In “The Branding Genius of Trader Joe’s,” Sam Milkman explores why Trader Joe’s is so profitable in an industry with traditionally low margins and how to apply the lessons to your brand.

Trader Joe's Hawaiian Shirts

“TV is looking for talent in new places and banking on that talent. Why can’t radio?”

In “When it’s Time to Hunt (for Talent), Go Outside,” Jessica Lichtenfeld makes the case that radio should look outside the industry to find fresh, new, memorable stars for the medium.


“Don’t confuse the lack of 90s music exposure with the desire for hearing 90s music.”

In “The 90s Music Research Conundrum,” John Boyne explains how compatibility, not appeal, influences 90s airplay on many Adult Contemporary and Classic Hits stations.


“It’s possible while you’re programming on intuition alone, your competition is making data-influenced decisions.”

In “How Research Won The Super Bowl,” Sam Milkman debunks the myth that Philadelphia Eagles head coach Doug Pederson was a crazy risk-taker in winning the 2018 Super Bowl, when in fact he used a combination of research and instinct to take down the Patriots.

Philadelphia Eagles coach Doug Pederson

Philadelphia Eagles head coach Doug Pederson uses a blend of research and instinct

“There are a few iconic brands in every category and there isn’t much changing going on.”

In “Don’t Change Your Radio Station,” I explain how the instinct to “freshen things up” can be detrimental to brand growth.


“Chipotle doesn’t sell pancakes. Hip Hop stations don’t play Taylor Swift.”

In “Should I Play That Song On My Radio Station,” Jon Coleman warns that playing popular songs or even songs that test strongly on your station that don’t fit your brand is a slippery slope.


“The ultimate success of the industry will depend on its ability to build brands.”

Warren Kurtzman, in “Joe Rogan and the Podcasting Brand Challenge,” writes that while producing great content is very important, listeners won’t discover it if the brand isn’t strong.

Thanks for reading Tuesdays With Coleman. If you haven’t yet subscribed, we invite you to do so. If you have an idea for a topic you’d like us to cover, feel free to reply and let us know. It may just show up in one of the next 100 blogs.





Winning Through Analytics and Intuition

Tuesdays With Coleman

This is a very difficult blog for me to write. You see, I’m a huge English soccer fan who spends far too many weekend mornings in a pub watching matches with my fellow members of North Carolina Spurs, the official local supporters club of my favorite team, Tottenham Hotspur. To say that I have become a rabid fan since I began closely following the English Premier League more than a decade ago is a bit of an understatement; my wife and I even made sure to attend a match in London before they tore down my team’s ancestral home—White Hart Lane—to make way for its beautiful, new state-of-the-art stadium.

Tottenham Hotspur

Me with my wife Sharon at White Hart Lane, Tottenham Hotspur’s former stadium

And now I am going to write about a glowing New York Times article about Liverpool. I hate Liverpool—I believe it’s codified in English law that if you’re a supporter of one of the Premier League’s “Big Six” teams you have to hate the other five—but the piece supports a concept that is incredibly aligned with our experience of working with radio stations at Coleman Insights.

So why is this a challenging blog for me? This past Saturday, Spurs lost a heartbreaking 2-0 match to Liverpool in the final of the Champions League. For the uninitiated, the Champions League is an annual competition between the top clubs across Europe and is the closest thing the continent has—short of the World Cup—to America’s Super Bowl. It was amazing that my Spurs advanced as far as the Champions League final, but to get so close and just miss out on being crowned as the champions of Europe was also bitterly disappointing.

Even if you have no interest in soccer (or football, as everyone outside of America calls it), I encourage you to read “How Data (and Some Breathtaking Soccer) Brought Liverpool to the Cusp of Glory,” which ran in the Times about ten days before this past Saturday’s final. It talks about how Liverpool’s plan to rebuild after several less-than-successful seasons was not only based on luring away manager Jürgen Klopp from the German club Borussia Dortmund, but also on the hiring of a director of research named Ian Graham and using the data-based insights Graham produced for making decisions about the direction and strategy of the club.

Graham is but one of numerous examples of how analytics is revolutionizing sports. Sports executives, managers and coaches are increasingly making decisions—about what players to recruit, about where to position those players on the field, court or ice, about what strategies to employ, etc.—based on incredible reams of data that advances in technology have made readily accessible. It’s why Major League Baseball games feature more player shifts in the field than fans of the games have ever seen before and why three-point shots have become a much bigger factor in NBA games in recent years, even though they have been a part of the game since 1979.

The parallels to radio programming here are striking. Jürgen Klopp is the program director who is succeeding by blending together the science he is getting from his researcher Ian Graham and the art that comes from his instincts and years of experience coaching soccer. One of my favorite lines in the Times piece describes how “the tactics he chooses end up being a mix of the data-driven and the intuitive.” As a researcher, I can really relate to Ian Graham, who “wants the club he works for to win, but he also wants his judgments to be validated.” Very few things give me greater satisfaction that seeing one of our client stations enjoy great success because of things their management team learned from the data and insights we provided to them.

Jurgen Klopp Liverpool FC

Liverpool FC manager Jürgen Klopp has embraced analytics in his coaching strategy, which helped lead to a championship

If a sports franchise can use insights derived from data to make consequential decisions on things like which players to attract and shots to take, radio stations should use the same advantages for decisions ranging from which air talent to attract to types of music to play and features to run. In fact, most successful radio stations do exactly that. The programmers that lead them possess great instincts and creativity; they put them to work within strategic frameworks that are supported by research.

May 15th marked my 24th anniversary with Coleman Insights; as I embark on my 25th year with the company, my belief that the best programmers know how to blend art and science is as strong as ever. Are you using high-quality data and research-based insights to make decisions about your strategy? If you are not, I strongly encourage you to do so if you want to remain relevant in a world that is increasingly reliant on data and analytics.

Even if all was right in the world and my Spurs—who also use analytics, but weren’t the Times article’s subject—defeated hated Liverpool, the fact that Liverpool has experienced a significant turnaround in its on-field performance since Ian Graham was added to its payroll is evidence of the value of high-quality research. With another soccer season over, now all I must worry about is that my fellow Spurs supporters don’t gave me too much grief about writing something positive about Liverpool.

Adapting to Audience Research Disruption

Tuesdays With Coleman

If you’re a regular Tuesdays With Coleman reader, you likely consume large amounts of information like me. One of my favorite aspects of reading is encountering material that really hits home by reminding me of something I’m dealing with in my personal or professional life.

That was certainly the case two weeks ago when Politico ran a piece entitled “Pew: Phone Polling in Crisis Again,” exploring the ramifications of the record low number of Americans willing to participate in telephone polls. This was followed last week by an excellent blog post called “Everything’s Being Disrupted—Even Audience Research” by my friend and one of the industry’s leading programming consultants, Fred Jacobs.

I won’t regurgitate the two things I read; if you’re interested in this topic in depth, I encourage you to follow the links to both provided above.

Today’s gadget-obsessed consumers pose new challenges for audience research

As you might imagine, I read both pieces thinking that someone was standing in my shoes for the last few years, as they described many of the factors that have resulted in dramatic changes in the business I oversee. Coleman Insights makes its money by advising clients on how to build strong brands and develop great content based on the consumer research we conduct on our clients’ behalf. Quite simply, if we can’t get consumers to share with us their opinions and perceptions, we don’t have a business.

That’s why we have radically changed the way we do most of the research we complete for our clients. All the music research we do—our FACT360SM Strategic Music Tests and the new music research conducted by our Integr8 Research subsidiary—is collected online from samples created through landline, mobile phone and online recruitment. Most of our Plan Developer strategic studies are based on ratios of in-depth telephone to online interviews that are appropriate for the goals of each project.

I am quite proud of what our team has accomplished in response to the disruptive forces reshaping market research, believing that we have been appropriately ahead of the curve without overreaching by using approaches or methodologies that are untested. When I read in the Politico piece referenced above that an organization as highly regarded as Pew is beginning to blend online and telephone interviewing, my pride in our organization grows further, as we began that process more than five years ago. I’ll also add that we’re not standing still; as I wrote in a blog last August, ten of us traveled to Canada to participate in a two-day summit devoted to data quality with our primary fielding partner and we are still working on initiatives that came out of that trip.

Great Data Quality Summit

The Coleman Insights and Integr8 Research teams with our fielding partners at the Data Quality Summit in Canada

Whether you are a Coleman Insights client or not, I leave you with three suggestions about how to be an educated research customer:

  1. Work with research partners who are “methodologically agnostic.” The days of conducting all strategic research through landline telephone interviews and music tests solely in auditoriums are over, as there is no one right way to conduct research. Different segments of the population respond to opportunities to participate in research differently; the best research companies understand this and utilize multiple techniques to engage consumers. If a research company you’re considering hiring makes claims like “no one uses telephone interviews anymore” or “online music research can’t be trusted,” end the conversation.


  1. Simply moving online is far from a panacea. While there is little doubt that the ability to survey consumers online has revolutionized market research, it has also resulted in the creation of some truly awful research. That’s because the range of quality in online research varies widely. Make sure that the research providers you hire to conduct research online utilize samples from only high quality sources.


  1. Understand that research must be tailored for each collection platform. Take a moment and think about how you may word something in an email or a social media post and how you would do so differently if you were telling someone the same thing in-person or on the phone. That difference also needs to be reflected in how things are asked in telephone interviews versus online questionnaires. When you hire a research company that utilizes multiple methodologies, make sure they have the expertise to design surveys for each platform they may use for collecting data.

If you grew up in the New York area in the 60s and 70s, you’ll recall an advertising campaign for Syms, a men’s clothing store chain, that featured the legendary tagline, “An educated consumer is our best customer.” Those seven words are just as true today when applied to the fast-changing world of market research.

Preparing Your Radio Station for U2

Tuesdays With Coleman

On Friday, October 2, 2009, I was programming 96rock in Raleigh, NC and preparing the station for a major live broadcast the next day. U2 was set to play nearby Carter-Finley Stadium as part of its 360 Tour, and there were a number of last-minute logistics to run through. That’s when the phone rang.

U2 360 Tour Raleigh

It was the regional rep for Interscope, U2’s record label.

“Jay, I have a few questions for you.”

I was intensely focused on what I was doing, but, “Sure, what’s up?”

Interscope rep: “How long does it take to get from the venue to your radio station?”

Me: “15 minutes.”

Interscope rep: “How long does it take to get from the airport to your radio station?”

Me: “25 minutes.”

Interscope rep: “How long does it take to get from the airport to the venue?”

Me: “10 minutes.”

Interscope rep: “Ok, thanks.”


My mind started racing and I was freaking out, and here’s why:

I knew on the day before U2 kicked off the North American leg of their 360 Tour in Chicago, they had conducted radio station interviews and visits at several stations, including 93.1XRT and Q101, and had donated a VIP concert experience to 101.9 The Mix for its fundraiser.

A week later, the band popped into the studios of 102.1 The Edge in Toronto with just a few hours’ notice.

U2 The Edge CFNY Toronto

Now, my Interscope rep had left me a cryptic message and I’m certain U2 is going to come by the studio for a visit.

That overwhelmingly thrilling concept led to this thought:

“Oh no, what if U2 comes by the studio for a visit.”

Was the studio in an acceptable condition to host U2?

Could we mobilize a security infrastructure fast enough once the word got out?

Did we have the right people in place to handle everything that comes with a visit like this? Could we turn around production pieces immediately? Would we be able to maximize the PR opportunity? Would we be ready to utilize our digital assets right away? Could we come up with some memorable questions they hadn’t heard before?

And so, we mobilized like U2 was coming to visit. Fortunately, I do believe we were prepared for the special moment if, in fact, the band decided to grace us with their presence at the last minute.

Unfortunately, it didn’t happen.

On the other hand, it was a great opportunity to ensure we had all our ducks in a row.

In many ways, we work in the preparation business.

Among many other things, perceptual research can identify the strengths, weaknesses and opportunities both for your station and for the radio market as a whole.

Stations we work with often evaluate various potential scenarios and determine which actions to take based on the insights.

Although you can’t predict every scenario, you can prepare.

So, prepare like U2’s going to drop by this afternoon.

Research and the Art of Calculated Risk

Tuesdays With Coleman

Most museums are a celebration of art and culture, but not the Museum of Failure.

The Museum of Failure, as it bills itself, is the world’s largest collection of failed products and services from around the world.

Museum of Failure

Based in Sweden, this eccentric house of gaffes is traveling the globe as a pop-up museum with stops still to come in China, Germany and France.

What can the Museum of Failure teach us about failure and how can research play a role?

Let’s first examine some of the products featured in the museum, which include:

Harley Davidson perfume

These product failures were the result of incompatibility with the brands themselves.

Colgate stands for toothpaste. Bofors is a Swedish weapons manufacturer (seriously). Harley-Davidson means big, loud motorcycles.

If the product is incompatible with the brand, it has a higher risk of failure.

Other products in the Museum of Failure fizzled because they missed the mark on what consumers wanted, like:


Despite boasting higher quality than VHS, the Betamax was too expensive and didn’t feature long enough recording times (it only held one hour of recording time compared to three for VHS). The Newton MessagePad was the first Personal Digital Assistant, but featured inferior built-in handwriting features. The Twitter Peek, launched in 2009, was a pocket-sized device used only for tweeting. If the minimal usage wasn’t enough, the display itself was minimal, with the ability to show only 25 of the allowed 140 characters on the device’s small screen.

Twitter Peek

Some of the product failures simply fall in the “why do I need that?” category, like:

Bic made a pen just for women, which would have been fine if anyone felt a gender-centric writing utensil was required. Google didn’t do an adequate job explaining why consumers needed to buy its privacy-cringing eyewear, and consumers really didn’t want Coke that tasted like Pepsi. If they wanted a Pepsi, they’d buy a Pepsi, thank you very much.

Bic for her

Innovation can be a very good and necessary thing. In fact, many of our Plan Developer presentations at the conclusion of a media perceptual study end in a brainstorming session. The key is that the brainstorming is guided by the strategic direction dictated by the research.

Perceptual research can bring into focus very clear perceptions consumers have of your brand. Brand growth comes from improving and strengthening those images.

Lasagna is not going to improve Colgate’s toothpaste image, toothpaste certainly will do nothing for Bofors’ weapons business, and perfume isn’t going to improve Harley’s motorcycle image.

Many of the same lessons apply to the other examples, and these certainly apply to media brands.

If your radio station is known for hard rock (Colgate), you may not want to give your listeners Classic Hits (lasagna).

Is your radio station adding features that enhance your position? Or are you adding features your listeners don’t really care about? Put it through the Twitter Peek test.

Do your listeners understand how to use your radio station? Are you abundantly clear as to why they should use it? Or are you Google Glass – shiny and new but not really necessary in the lives of your consumers?

One of the signs in the Museum of Failure is a quote from Henry Ford that reads, “Failure is only the opportunity to begin again, only this time more wisely.”

Museum of Failure Henry Ford

Utilizing research and growing your brand with a strategic vision is one great way to wise up.

Don’t Change Your Radio Station

Tuesdays With Coleman

There are times in the lifespan of a radio station when making changes makes sense. Often, these changes are guided by research. A library music test is a great opportunity to freshen up the sound of the station. A perceptual study may indicate that a shift in music strategy or positioning would be a sound move.

On the other hand, high value propositions from radio research studies can manifest themselves in learning what not to change on your station. Sometimes research indicates the audience is picking up on an image you’re trying to build, like “The Alternative Station.” It may tell you that a new morning show feature has relatively low familiarity but has high excellent scores among those familiar with it.

In “How Brands Grow” by Byron Sharp, the author writes “Again and again it appears in numerous product categories, markets and countries that there is a fundamental law of brand size. Big brands have markedly large customer bases.”

How Brands Grow by Byron Sharp

Therein lies the ultimate goal of media research. Use the data to build a bigger brand to draw a bigger audience.

One problem. Humans like to change things.

I was a radio program director and sometimes fell into the trap of Inside Thinking. This is when you think like someone who works for the radio station, rather than putting yourself in the shoes of your listener. When I put a sweeper or promo on the air, I generally used my gut to determine when to take it off, which was usually when it sounded like it was “getting burned.”

Of course, I didn’t listen the way my listeners did. My TSL—or time spent listening—was way higher. When something sounded burned to me, it was probably nowhere near ready to come off.

Outside Thinking would have dictated patience with that sweeper or promo.

A program director may implement a positioner on the air, like “The Best Variety of the 80s, 90s and Today”, knowing from the research that’s an image the station should build. At first, the line is delivered multiple times an hour. Then, the jocks aren’t saying it as much. Some of the new sweepers have the slogan in them and some don’t. You’re feeling “burned” on the line.

Your listener isn’t feeling burned on the line. Unless it is a strong, established image, your listener barely knows you’re saying it.

Building images takes time. Outside Thinking dictates you’re probably not saying it enough.

“That promotion isn’t working.” How often did you run it and for how long?

“That feature isn’t working.” Did you give enough time for the audience to get familiar with it?

Why do we constantly feel the need to change things?

There are a few iconic brands in every category and there isn’t much changing going on. Big iconic brands understand it takes time to build images. Once an image is built, you don’t change things for the sake of change.

A Coke can is red and the McDonalds arches are yellow. If it were the other way around tomorrow, your brain might melt.

Coca Cola McDonalds Logo

Big iconic brands don’t often change logos and colors.

Sure, there are times when a radio station needs to change its logo and colors. But, it shouldn’t be just for the sake of change. Can you think of some radio brands that have kept the same logo for a long time? Chances are they’re big brands.

McDonald’s has kept the same slogan (“I’m lovin it”) for the past 15 years.

Get your singing voice ready. “Nationwide is on your side.”

Radio station listeners generally consume your brand the same way they do other brands.

If a key message is “Traffic and Weather Together”, don’t get tired of saying it.

If you’ve got a catchy jingle they sing back to you, don’t get tired of playing it.

If a key promotion is the Workday Payday, don’t get tired of running it.

If a key artist for your station is Justin Timberlake, don’t get tired of all those Justin promos.

“I’m burned on all those Justin promos. The listeners will get sick of them.”

No they won’t.

Don’t change for the sake of change.

Be an Outside Thinker.

Why The Plenti Loyalty Program Failed

Tuesdays With Coleman

On May 4, 2015, American Express announced the launch of a “coalition loyalty” rewards program called Plenti.  A coalition loyalty program offers incentives to customers of two or more businesses in exchange for user data.

Plenti Loyalty Rewards Program

On April 16, 2018, members received an e-mail notifying them of Plenti’s demise.

What went wrong?

American Express should be commended for its ability to bring a remarkably wide variety of brands together to participate in Plenti. These brands included Macy’s, Chili’s, Direct Energy, Hulu, Nationwide, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Expedia and AT&T.

One by one, companies dropped out of the program until it caved completely.

As many radio stations we work with understand, building a coalition is no easy feat.

A News/Talk station may learn via research that fans of one show are not fans of another.

Adding 90’s Country to a Country station may take away appeal from an on-air mix based on Contemporary Country, but adding 00s Country may add appeal.

That’s why our clients are able to utilize research to identify coalitions to help them build more cohesive products.

In Plenti, you had a national coalition loyalty program that brought brands together in different categories, with customers displaying completely varying characteristics.

As one analyst put it, “researching consensus on how the program is structured can be a lot like herding cats.”

Herding Cats

I may use AT&T for my phone, but Netflix (not Hulu) for my streaming. Perhaps I’m a member of the Gold Plus Hertz rewards program, so I couldn’t use my Plenti points with Hertz. This pretty much nullifies my interest in the car rental benefit Plenti is offering.

Consumers may be loyal to Enterprise or Nationwide or AT&T, but they’re loyal to them individually because that brand carved out a position and built a relationship with that consumer.

The consumer has the relationship with each individual brand, not with the Plenti program itself – just as listeners have relationships to a single radio station or a single podcast.

There are plenty of other reasons why Plenti failed. These include a clunky interface, low brand awareness and a confusing rewards system, as well a group of companies that each had their own agendas.

But at the end of the day, American Express tried to force a coalition to work. Without clear synergy, brand and product coalitions are destined to fail.

The Branding Genius Of Trader Joe’s

Tuesdays With Coleman

Trader Joe’s has a distinct and defined image in a very crowded, competitive grocery space. While most grocery market chains struggle to eke out very small margins, Trader Joe’s profits soar.

How do they do it? Let me count the ways.


A grocery store? Fun?

Trader Joe's Hawaiian Shirts

It’s true, it’s hard not to smile in Trader Joe’s. There’s the quirky music selection playing overhead (think “More Bounce to the Ounce” by Zapp and Roger into “Alive and Kicking” by Simple Minds). The freshly cooked free samples at the back of the store no matter what time you’re there. The employee walking around with the wacky giant question mark available to answer questions. The Hawaiian shirts. The stuffed animal always hidden somewhere in the store for kids to find.


Read: focused. Far easier to navigate than most supermarkets, yet vastly wider selections than your typical small grocery store. We’ve blogged a few times on the tyranny of choice. Rather than presenting a benefit to the consumer, too much choice and selection often creates nothing more than stress. At Trader Joe’s, you know where everything is and can generally get in and out quickly.


I don’t usually buy generic brands. I like Heinz ketchup, French’s mustard and Vlassic pickles. In the typical grocery store, I completely ignore the generic brands for products like these. Piggly Wiggly ketchup? No thank you. I wouldn’t even want to think about where it may have come from.

But Trader Joe’s brands? A totally different story. You trust them—they did their homework and found a better pickle. Trader Joe’s made their generic brands cool, because they made their brand cool.

Trader Joe's Ketchup-Mustard-Relish


Rather than being just like Whole Foods, the leader in the healthy, gourmet grocery category, Trader Joe’s found the “weakness in their strength” and attacked it.  Where Whole Foods takes itself very seriously to the point of being stuffy, Trader Joe’s is fun and whimsical. Whole Foods is expensive. Trader Joe’s is gourmet on the cheap. Whole Foods’ color is green. Trader Joe’s is red. As marketing/positioning experts Al Ries and Jack Trout might say, Whole Foods as the category leader is playing a perfect game of defense, while Trader Joe’s as a challenger is playing a perfect game of offense—which isn’t being better than the category leader, it’s taking a different approach than the category leader.

Trader Joe’s isn’t that different from Whole Foods when it comes to the products it stocks. No Trader Joe’s branded products have high fructose corn syrup or GMOs, and their seafood comes from sustainable sources. It’s just that everything else around it is the opposite.

Radio stations find themselves in battles with format competitors every day. It is easy to get caught up in thinking only in granular terms. We both play 80s music, but we’ll do it better than them. We both have big ensemble morning shows, but ours will be funnier than theirs. We both have big contests, but we’ll give away more money or tickets to hotter shows.

The Trader Joe’s lesson is that you beat a leader not by being better. You win by finding the inherent weakness in their strength and creating your points of differentiation. Some of the most successful brands are categories in and of themselves.

Do your research. Find your lane. Define your base position, then create brand depth.

Just don’t wear Hawaiian shirts and ring bells. That position’s already taken.


Why Toys “R” Us Is Closing

Tuesdays With Coleman

Digital photography killed Kodak’s business.”

“Netflix put Blockbuster out of business.”

Blockbuster Video

“Amazon put Toys “R” Us out of business.”

When an iconic brand goes under, the blame game always commences.

The truth is, Amazon didn’t put Toys “R” Us out of business. Neither did Target or Wal-Mart.

Toys “R” Us put Toys “R” Us out of business.

My colleague Warren Kurtzman wrote last week about how essential it is for every brand to have a clearly defined base position. But is that enough?

What’s a better base position than “the photography company”? Or “the movie store”? Or “the toy store”?

Kodak, Blockbuster and Toys “R” Us didn’t just have strong positions in their categories, they owned the dominant positions. The problem is, each of these brands lacked positive brand depth beyond their base positions.

An engineer at Kodak actually invented digital photography. In 1975. Navigating the consumer through the digital space using the brand equity of Kodak moments would have been a perfect and natural complement to its base position. Unfortunately, Kodak couldn’t see beyond its history as a film company, and competitors swooped in.

Kodak Moment

Blockbuster had an incredible, dominating base position. Unfortunately, it had negative brand depth in the form of late fees, which left it vulnerable. By the time Blockbuster removed late fees, it was too late.

If Blockbuster had entered the DVD-by-mail category or streaming category first, the company would quite likely still be around. Blockbuster had the chance to buy Netflix in the early 2000s for $50 million.  Today Netflix is valued over $100 billion, worth more than every media company that’s not named Disney.

Would Netflix have had that growth under the leadership of Blockbuster? Probably not, and that’s the point.

Netflix started as a DVD-by-mail company, but its base position centered around convenient entertainment delivery. All the moves and innovations Netflix has made, including doubling down on streaming and adding original programming, has been complementary to its base position. Netflix added brand depth.

Amazon online bookstore

Amazon started out as an online bookstore that became an online marketplace. Its moves and innovations, including ease of app use, marketing automation, customer service and free two-day delivery, have all supported its base position as an online delivery service.

Toys “R” Us had an enviable base position and an emotional connection to legions of children who wanted to be Toys “R” Us kids.

Where did the emotional connection go?

Although the road would have been challenging, Toys “R” Us could have added brand depth to its base position. It may have been through incredible marketing automation techniques (like Amazon and Starbucks) or hiring an ace social media manager (like Wendy’s). It could have been a research program that let kids test toys. It may have been partnerships with kids’ museums around the country.

Not to say any of those ideas would have definitely worked, but Toys “R” Us needed to try long before Amazon posed a significant threat.

Integrating Babies “R” Us into Toys “R” Us stores was definitely not the answer–it detracted focus from its own brand.

Last year, Toys “R” Us CEO David Brandon said the chain hoped to add playrooms where kids could try out toys and spaces for birthday parties.

Unfortunately, they never got the chance to give them a shot.

When we work with radio stations, we illustrate the base position on our Image Pyramid, but also explain the perils of a misguided Image Pyramid–which is what Kodak, Blockbuster, and Toys “R” Us all ran into.

Coleman Insights Image Pyramid

Clearly define your base position. Once you do, never stop adding brand depth.