May 16, 2007

Personas and Pressure

Personas are becoming a popular way to bring data to life, to make data actionable.

In the late 1990s, we were looking for ways to reinvigorate the Eddie Bauer "brand". One way management chose to do this was to hire a team of brand marketing experts. There's no better way to generate new ideas than to hire a dozen brand marketing experts.

This team created personas of the Eddie Bauer customer --- Ken and Karen, if I remember correctly. These folks were mid 40s but felt like they were in their mid 30s, $75,000+ annual household salary, sitting in the ski lodge next to a fire watching folks ski, after arriving in an Eddie Bauer Ford Explorer.

Because these folks felt like they were younger than their mid 40s age, the brand marketing team felt our creative should skew younger, to reflect how these personas felt about themselves.

Within a few months, a new creative approach appeared in our catalogs. The 46 year old graying male wearing jeans while walking along a raging river in Alberta was replaced with a 31 year old, muscle-bound set of men carrying a canoe over their heads.

Instantly, mens pages in catalogs that were missing expectations by 10% became mens pages in catalogs that were missing expectations by 20%.

In other words, the new way of presenting men in the catalog, based on the personas created by our brand marketing team, caused a ten percent reduction in demand of mens merchandise.

There's nothing that strikes terror in the hearts of an Executive team than a ten percent decrease in sales volume, a decrease that is quite possibly self-inflicted.

The brand marketing folks fought back, suggesting that it would take Eddie Bauer customers six months, a year, or two years to get used to the new creative. They were probably correct in their assessment of the situation.

Meanwhile, inventory managers were frustrated, because they had to liquidate merchandise that used to sell better. Merchants were frustrated, because merchandise they believed in was not selling as well due to the implementation of a vision endorsed by the brand marketing experts.

I recall sitting in a conference room on a Friday afternoon, watching this brand marketing team get chewed out like you wouldn't believe. Folks left the room crying.
Within a year, most of the brand marketing team either lost their jobs, or chose to leave the company. The brand marketing experiment of 1998-1999 was over.

Pressure causes leaders to make decisions that may not be in the best interest of the long-term health of the business. It is entirely possible that the brand marketing folks were doing the exact right thing for the "brand". It is also possible they unintentionally damaged the "brand".

We still have to meet short-term sales expectations, regardless of the long-term vision of brand marketing experts. This conflict causes pressure.

Personas may be the right thing for your business. It is how personas are implemented within your culture, how that implementation impacts short-term sales, and how short-term expectations are communicated to all employees, that determines how successful the business strategy will be.

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