Dear CMO:

I spoke with Eric Ryan, co-founder of Method, about how a brand can successfully struggle with internal brand tension and the fun of fighting for retail shelf space against competitors who spill more detergent at the loading dock than you manufacture. There were dozens of great nuggets from the conversation, but one in particular captured my imagination: the benefits of not knowing that you can’t do something.

Eric says, “If I were a brand manager at P&G, could I have come up with the same idea (of launching a Method-like brand)? No, definitely not. If I did, I would look at the business as an insider. I would know too much. I would accept the way it was defined and move on.” On starting Method, Eric explained, “I was naïve to cleaning. I was able to not recognize that this is how the game is played. I looked outside the category and said you could treat cleaning the way you treated personal care. And if I did have that idea, I would have struggled to be able to prove it.”

If Eric had been a brand manager at a large detergent company, he probably would have made a different shaped red plastic bottle. Perhaps it would have smelled better, but maybe not. I’m sure there are chemists and futurists at the giants who would have told him that the signature scent of their detergent was ingrained into the psyche of the American household like Cinnamon buns or pumpkin pie. They’d be right but they’d also be wrong. Ingrained isn’t always a good thing. But corporate insiders see things from their own insular perspectives. They’d be convinced that they were right, if only because other more senior managers would look at them askance if they suggested it wasn’t.

Eric’s point is important for any brand. Smart companies continuously look at things from an outsider’s perspective. Even when their success over time gives them every card carrying right to be called an insider.

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Key Takeaways:

. All innovation comes from elsewhere. Method was originally pitched, said Eric, as “Aveda for the home.” Look at detergent through the eyes of a personal care marketer and what do you see?

. Vision is ownership and accountability over time. Could a major detergent brand come up with the idea for Method? Probably not. The brand manager wouldn’t be in that spot long enough and be able to focus on that single idea long enough for it to take root and survive his or her departure.

. Competing against giants is often an exercise in focusing where they don’t have any intention of focusing. They’re big. They have too many volumes of company lore and too many things they have to say. You can steer clear of this and shift the conversation to places where they can’t or won’t follow you.

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This begs the question: how does a marketer, regardless of title, affect these changes in an organization? How do you bring, or keep, or instill this outsider’s naivety when you’re already an insider? You may have favorite ways of doing this, but I’ve got a deep rolodex of professional outsiders. I’ve brought motley collections of people from very diverse walks of life into rooms (sometimes behind the glass so we can all watch a series of focus groups – no, really, I like focus groups, but only when they’re used the way they’re supposed to be) to get a collectively diverse take on what real people say. It helps to have a cultural anthropologist, a Hollywood promoter and maybe a professional comedian take a look at your problem.

What do you do to stay naïve? How do you bring an outsider’s perspective to your day job?



Photo courtesy of Flickr.