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Brand Management

Solving Brand Challenges With The Paradox Process

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Solving Brand Challenges With The Paradox Process

The Paradox Process is a model for brand development that when applied works for many brands facing complex challenges. Its primary purpose is to get insight into consumer pain points or contradictions that need solving, and it works by using contrary perspectives to arrive at new conclusions. It worked exceptionally well at Nike where I was the Director of Marketing Insights & Planning from 1986 to 1996.

Nike used this model to overcome a major blind spot and brand positioning challenge that it had in addressing the women’s sports markets in the late 1980’s. Up until that point Nike’s advertising had focused only on male professional athletes. The Nike Women’s Campaign changed this by using everyday people, identifying with the authentic inner voice of female fitness enthusiasts. The Paradox Process helped us overcome the situation, reversing a 60%, ten-year decline in sales to women, and putting the brand on a 400% growth trajectory over the next five years. To apply the model to your brand, read on.

Brand Strategy - The Paradox Process

Contradiction: Stage 1

Begin with what you know about current conditions; perhaps sales are stalled, or market share is slipping. Begin a process of honest self-assessment by listing what you believe the contradictions or opposing forces may be responsible for the marketplace adversity your brand is experiencing.

List what you know and what you don’t know, what you think you’re doing right and what your intuition tells you that you may be doing wrong. List the facets of product designs or product value propositions that might be perceived as bad or good, fun or serious, emotionally engaging or prosaic and boring. By examining the opposing charges, you’re framing hypotheses that can be explored for validity in Stage 2.

Paradox: Stage 2

A paradox is a situation that consists of two ideas that are both true but which appear to be opposite to one another. This seems impossible, but it actually is true or possible, which is why it’s a paradox rather than a contradiction. Paradoxes in marketing life pose an invitation to consider whether the two apparently opposing forces can be reconciled.

For example, the paradox that Nike was grappling with was how to interpret its brand mantra, authentic athletic performance, for women who did not resonate with the macho, competitive language and imagery.

Having lost 60% market share in footwear sales to women, Nike leaders knew that blind spots and limiting beliefs were afflicting our brand fortunes, and we used this as inspiration to study the problem using depth research. We asked ourselves how we could respond, what we could learn about ourselves and how could we uncover what women really wanted.

Revelation: Stage 3

If you entertain a paradox long enough in your mind, if you mull the apparent contradictions over long enough in meditation, you may come to a flash of insight, a revelation, which points the way forward for a new solution that could only be found through your struggle with the opposing forces. The revelation is often a far superior solution to what came before, because it reconciles the opposing forces to arrive at a higher level of truth about the real needs of the market. We gained four key revelations by going through this process.

1. Cultural Blind Spots

In exploring the private thoughts and feelings of Nike leaders, we discovered many limiting beliefs about the choices we were making. We found, for example, that the hard core, male, testosterone driven competitive sports ethos that pervaded Nike culture was so widely held that it wasn’t even being discussed. We were like fish in a fishbowl, not recognizing the cultural waters we were swimming in. Consequently, we had developed hypotheses about sports attraction, motivation, product performance needs, and consumer attitudes that came from competitive males, and when we tested their attractiveness with female fitness enthusiasts, lo and behold, we discovered women had very different ideas about all of these things. Our massive blind spot was exposed, and it instantly became the elephant in the room that we could no longer ignore.

2. Design Principle Limitations

Another limiting belief was exposed concerning shoe design. Nike designers at the time understood – that is, they assumed – that sports shoes needed to provide durability, high performance cushioning, and exceptional lateral support stability. The upper materials therefore needed to be tough to stand up to Nike’s performance standards.

Many women, on the other hand, felt that Nike’s materials and its design approach was clunky, that it made their feet look big, and it wasn’t immediately comfortable, all negative qualities that Nike’s designers had determined were positives. We had it backwards for this market.

3. Competitive Product Advantages

Reebok had seized market leadership from Nike with its Princess and Freestyle shoe models (pictured), which broke with Nike’s high-performance shoe design paradigm by offering thin and pliable garment leather, low profile mid-soles, and minimal cushioning. The result of these design choices was that Reeboks were immediately comfortable, and they required no break-in period. Reeboks were also more slender and trim, offering a more petite and appealing appearance. Reebok design fit customer requirements, while Nike’s did not.

4. Brand Communications Model

To further complicate the situation we were using the wrong communications model at Nike. For a fitness-oriented person, it turned out that fitness pursuits are inner-directed, sourced from a need for physical, psychological, and sometimes emotional therapy. It was often more about personal empowerment, not high performance or competitive status, and it was done to bring a feeling of balance, play, and joy into their lives.

All of these insights surfaced because we were experiencing a decline in footwear sales to women, and we were determined to study the issue to get to the bottom of it. The insights that came back from the research guided our actions and shifted the energy of the brand with women, sales erosion stopped, and sales began to climb. Sales to women grew at a 75% -to- 100% year-over-year clip for the next five years, while Nike’s stock price increased from about $5 per share to over $35.

When there is a mismatch between offer and market response then there is evidence for a paradox that may, as in this experience, suggest that there are divergent sets of beliefs and expectations. The brand manager’s mission is to track down the source of the divergence, to identify the essence of the paradox, from which can come a new resolution that overcomes the discrepancy, thereby reinforcing the strength of the bridge between company and customers.

These core ideas and others can be found in my new book The Brand Bridge – How to Build a Profound Connection Between Your Company, Your Brand, and Your Customers.

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