Emory Marketing Institute

Branding for Advantage
An Interview with Steven Feinberg

by Christian Sarkar

Steven Feinberg advises senior executives on leadership and organizational issues, with an emphasis on advantage-making: how to maximize opportunities. His latest book is The Advantage-Makers: How Exceptional Leaders Win by Creating Opportunities Others Don't (Financial Times Press).

Dr. Feinberg, in your book The Advantage Makers, you claim that advantage-making can be taught, that is you could teach someone to become an advantage maker. What do you mean by that, and how does advantage making relate to branding?

Steven Feinberg : Let’s start with what brand giants like Clorox, AT&T, Anheauser Busch, Microsoft and Liberty Mutual all have in common. They are all facing a transforming marketing landscape. And to deal effectively with the changes in this landscape requires what I call advantage-making leadership.

In a recent conversation with Dereck Gordon, Chief Marketing Officer of Clorox, we were discussing how advantage-makers win more often than others. "Whenever we come up against a wall, our job is to get over the wall," was how he saw it.

What's so striking about his comment is that it perfectly describes advantage-maker leadership. Advantage-makers consistently create superior outcomes in the face of constraints. In my book I describe advantage making as a radical new tool for executives. It's all about changing the game by helping you see what your competitors do not, and act on these insights to gain and sustain the leadership position in your field.

This is no small feat. How you lead, the quality of your judgment, and your ability to create momentum inside the organization, as well as in the marketplace will all show up in your branding result.

You're saying that branding is about results...

Branding is not about creativity, although it can’t be done well without the design minds at work.  Branding is ultimately about executing to the brand promise. The advantage of your brand promise is lost when execution is inadequate. Not delivering on the brand promise is heard loud and clear, and customers vote with their pocketbooks with other vendors.
Remember this: "Do you hear me now?"

That's the question used by Verizon Wireless as a brand guarantee. Amusing when we watch the commercials, perhaps, but every time we hear the phrase, we recall the brand promise. And of course it's deadly when it's not fulfilled.

How do Advantage-Makers build brands?

It takes: one, making hard decisions, two, employees who can fulfill the brand promise and three, an organization that can accelerate momentum.

AT&T's Senior V.P., Wendy Clark, knows full well that managing the brand is as much an inside job as a customer message. She develops brand ambassadors inside the company. Clark's strategy includes hiring people whose behavioral characteristics will support the brand, not just fill a position.

Just like Southwest Airlines hires 'people people' to support the friendly service, quick responsive organization so "you are free to move about the country."

When Clark presented her budget to AT&T's CEO to shift the brand, he unflinchingly said, "It's too small!" You have one chance to get this right, it has to be funded for success.

An executive who will make the hard decisions is essential. If you can't make the hard decisions, you probably shouldn't be in a leadership role. Problems and conflicts fester, resources are depleted, and momentum is lost when tough decisions are not made.

For Wendy Clark the hard decision meant changing out 50,000 hard hats, as well as 24,000 Company Buildings, 6,000 Retail Stores, 83,000 Automobiles and 74,000 Uniforms with the new AT&T image, part of supporting the brand with customers and reinforcing it throughout the organization.

Hard decisions require an appreciation of what really drives behavior.

Advantage-makers like Wendy Clark seem to know something the other managers don't know. She leverages what I call four hidden forces that drive behavior, placing her in the top 10%, a different league.

These hidden forces cause internal organizational changes as well as customer behavior. Not knowing these four levers of influence causes leader to be outperformed by their competitors, and places them at a disadvantage with their teams, organizations and customers.

So what are these four forces or levers as you call them?

The code of the advantage-makers is distinguished by their ability to shift four dimensions: time, interactions, perception and structures. T.I.P.S. for short.

Advantage-Makers interact with the world differently. They spot these forces where others overlook or simply don't know they exist.

Strategically shifting these four levers creates an economy of means for producing superior outcomes.

Shifting time generates possibilities.

Shifting interaction transforms the game.

Shifting perception creates winners.

Shifting structure changes behavior.

Can you give us some details?

Sure. You shift time to create possibilities. TIVO has shifted time on your television viewing. Walt Disney envisioned Disney World by imagining a future in Orlando, Florida.

You can identify your own time profile or time IQ:

The Now or Never folks need immediate reactions, but may press too hard, move too fast and miss opportunities that a little perspective may have landed.

The Eventual, Steady Eddy types who take their time and have a long time frame, they deliver results over time but they miss market changes and can’t adjust fast enough to opportunities.

The Same Old, Same Old, Past oriented, let’s not break it if it works while the competition runs right by with innovations.

The Time Shifters who are able to adjust their time frame, they can take action now, be patient to grow organizations and companies, use what worked in the past but not get stuck in any one time frame. For Advantage-Makers there is no time like the present to create the future.  

What do most people think of their time shifting?

Most people think they are time shifters but in fact when they get stuck or shoot themselves in their own foot its because they haven’t made the right time shift. Steady Eddy when they should be pressing the point.

In your negotiations, adjusting time frames can help overcome resistant thinking. Always pay attention to the time horizon present in your thinking, then shift it and you will find solutions you hadn't before.

You said shifting interactions transforms the game.

You become a game changer when you shift interactions.

Facebook, MySpace and the Apple iPod shifted the network of interactions to transform social networking and the music industry.

On an everyday level, this has to do with your skillful interaction with your colleagues to change problems into opportunities. The road to hell is paved with mishandled interactions.

Most often we make sticky problems stickier by persisting in wrong solutions. For recurrent problems consider if:

1) You are taking action when you shouldn’t – overreacting or doing too much tinkering

2) You are not taking action you should be – dodging conflict, or attempts that are too little too late

3) You are taking the wrong action – miscalculating, thinking the problem is one thing when, in fact, it is another.

Pay special attention to the interations that are not working, then shift from persisting to something 180 degrees different. For example, instead of pushing your point of view, ask for support.

So perception is reality...

You shift perceptions to create winners. Volkwagen shifted the perception of VW bug from ugly to beautiful, and Avis transformed themselves on the brink of bankruptcy with the "We are number 2, we try harder" campaign.

While losers complain, and do more of the same, advantage-makers shift.

In branding, perception is reality. Yet, you can easily miss an opportunity by mistaking perception for reality. Remember the New Coke fiasco. Perception is a tool.  To deliver on the brand promise you must vigilantly guard the insight: perception drives behavior. Especially inside the organization. You must influence and manage the perception inside the company to create a winning brand.

Jack Welch established a hierarchy of being number 1 or number 2 in the marketplace or getting out.

Pay attention to perceptions, especially those that aren't working, then shift to use dissatisfaction constructively. Toyota institutionalized behavior to continuously finding things that need improvement.

What does structure have to do with branding?

You shift structures to shape behavior. The Internet changed the structural forces in our culture and business. Just as a riverbed directs the rivers course of action, your business has an underlying structure that determines your organizations course of action.

Sixty five percent of organizational change efforts fail because the underlying structure is in conflict. All your effort to drive the brand will be neutralized. Paraphrasing Pogo, 'we have found the enemy and he is u.s. (underlying structure).

At Home Depot, Roger Adams, CMO aligned the business around what fueled growth - selection, price and service. In particular, the magic structural bullet for motivating customers is their emotional connection to being able to say, "I did it." Home Depot aligned the organization around delivering the sense of confidence to customers that they could improve their own homes. And that in turn became a shift in perception for the consumer.

Pay attention to the structural forces that drive behavior, then shift to spot how decisions are made. If the organization has a pattern of delays in decisions there is usually a structural conflict that needs to be resolved. Your brand promise will not be delivered because the organization will not move forward fast enough.

So these four levers are not just intellectually stimulating ideas...

In my studies, we find that 60% of the time, managers miss the advantage-making solution in the obstacle they are facing. 60% miss opportunities to deliver on the brand promise.

The message is clear: obstacles will always brand your brand if you don't outmaneuver the obstacle.

Millions of dollars of profit are lost along with underperformance, and promising managerial careers are cut short because managers don't know where to look. Many managers simply aren't seeing or thinking as an advantage-maker. Frankly, that's why I wrote the book.

Speaking of which, can you sum up your book for us?

To successfully implement your brand strategy in the face of disadvantages you must learn to shift. Doing more of the same won't work. Instead change the game. But how do you shift the odds in your favor? By shifting time, interactions, perceptions and structures you will gain insights and observations that reveal unexpected solutions.

Advantage-makers, like Dereck Gordon, Wendy Clark, and Jim Adams win more often by transforming challenging situation - their walls - into the best possible outcome.

If you are not an advantage-maker you will probably lose to someone who is.

Finally, advantage making is a process. It can be learned. Sure, some people are naturally better at it than others. But the managers and companies that take the trouble to learn this simple framework will find that advantage making strategies pay off quite handsomely- both for the individual and the business.

Thank you so much.

Visit Steven Feinberg's site at: www.stevenfeinberg.com

Christian Sarkar is the managing editor of this site. He is the founder and CEO of Double Loop Marketing LLC, an online company specializing in demand generation and thought-leadership-based campaigns.


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