“Everybody’s the best. Be different.”
Chris Harges joined Tank as our director of strategy in 2016. He brings 20 years of experience as a brand marketer and strategist, helping build awareness and drive sales through story-driven, omni-channel, go-to-market strategies. Prior to Tank, Chris directed global marketing efforts for Mountain Hardware, co-founded Satellite Design in SF, and helped grow companies such as North Face and Eastern Mountain Sports, among others. With all his outdoor chops though you would think he would be a better skier. Still, he’s scary smart and an expert at what he does. We sat down with him to discuss Tank’s approach to brand strategy for 2017.
Tank: What should marketers be thinking about in 2017?
Chris Harges: Marketers should be thinking more about brand and less about tools. If you’re a marketer with direct reports, let them answer questions like: are we mobile-first, should I try programmatic, should we offer social shopping? You need to focus on tuning your brand proposition to the evolving needs, beliefs and biases of your consumers.
That doesn’t mean changing your brand proposition or doing a brand identity project every year. But it does mean periodically asking: “is the way we explain our value to our consumers still relevant?” Giant consumer brands like Coca-Cola stay true to their basic proposition. But they’re constantly tweaking language, images and stories to align that brand with trends and current events. Use tools. Think brand.
Tank: Should you test creative?
Harges: Yes. But you should only test good creative. Huh? I think that everything measurable should be tested. The mistake is in testing everything. If you want to optimize an email campaign, you can start with three mediocre creative directions and optimize for the best performance. Or you can start with three good directions and your best will be better.
It sounds silly but “solving by testing” is a very common mistake. Testing is for refining. You should only test the directions you absolutely know will be great. How do you know which ones are great. Two choices: an infinite regression of testing thousands of options, or staff or hire great strategic creatives. Their skill and your judgement will get you to a few great directions. Optimize those. Don’t waste your time refining waste.
Tank: How do you judge a good brand positioning?
Harges: I’ll give you a good rule of thumb. It’s called Far From Best. If your brand proposition is just fancy rewording of “we’re the best,” you have a lousy brand proposition. Be on the lookout for “we provide the most premium consumer experience in the x category,” “we empower our customers to maximize returns,” and “we lead with a vision of innovation.” Nothing there folks. They say “we’re the best brand.” If you’re not Far From Best, you’re not differentiated. You have a brand positioning that was designed to make your management feel good and your consumers feel nothing. Everybody’s the best. Be different.
Tank: Should marketers focus on the head or the heart?
Harges: Sorry, I’m going to say both. You knew I was going to say “both.” Here’s what I mean. In the old days, we thought humans were rational beings who operated in their best interest. Then came behavioral economics. We began to understand that decision-making was more complicated. In the 90s and 2000s, the pendulum swung away from rational messaging to focus on emotional messaging. There were even guys saying “we should market to the ‘lizard brain,’” a sort of pre-cognitive evolutionary leftover. The truth, as always, is more complicated.
We think of human decision making as a spectrum. On the one end is the base, the animal instincts. On the other, rational decision-making. We all use both—and a few moves in between. When we consider a marketing or design strategy, we like to look at four phases of brand-human interaction:
Animal: Appeal to base instincts.
Cultural: Appeal to cultural preferences.
Behavioral: Appeal to shopping habits.
Rational: Shape final decision-making.
It’s not PHD-level work, but it’s a good framework for our strategists and creatives to make sure we’re testing ideas across four basic modes of human thinking. It also helps us think in terms of buying narratives. Brand affinity tends to operate on the early part of the spectrum, transactional decisions in the latter.
Tank: Whose side are you on? Client or agency?
Harges: Hard to say—I’ve switched sides so many times. I think I actually add the most value when I’m thinking like a client-side guy at an agency and an agency-thinker at a brand. At Tank, I sometimes play the role of extra gray matter. Our clients are often so bogged down with the administrative and managerial tasks of running a business or a department that they no longer have time to think strategically.
Tank’s strategy role is to add brain cells. Sometimes that means playing out an idea that a client doesn’t have time to explore. Sometimes that means nudging a client with an idea that we think exposes a hidden opportunity. Flip-flopping between brands and agencies has helped me understand the best way to fit agency intelligence into the crowded brain of a brand-side marketer.
Tank: What was your favorite job?
Harges: I was a newspaper reporter for two years right out of college. The beat wasn’t exciting: small-town school board and town council meetings. Occasionally a house would burn down. What I loved was the way stories would assemble in real-time. Through the hours of tedium at a town council meeting, an outline of what was really important would begin to form in my mind. Most nights, by the time I left the meeting, the narrative of what was meaningful and how I should explain it had magically formed in my brain. That kind of real-time storytelling has probably informed everything I’ve done since but it was the most fun when it was just starting to happen.