Allow me to introduce you to what was, for over 100 years, the Four Color Conjecture—that is, until the mid '70s, when mathematicians Appel and Haken made it the first major mathematical concept to be proved by a computer—turning it into the Four Color Theorem.
From Wikipedia: "The Four Color Theorem states that given any plane separated into regions, such as a political map of the counties of a state, the regions may be colored using no more than four colors in such a way that no two adjacent regions receive the same color."
To create a complete marketing plan, one that drives near and longer term marketing action, I need only four colors as well. Those colors are created through a set of analyses that we perform:
1. Customer analysis
2. Competitive analysis
3. Whole Product analysis
4. Forces analysis
Now, I mention this because I'm working these days on a series of Marketing Plan Templates for the folks here at MarketingProfs. (You can see the first one here). As with all templates, the value lies primarily in providing—imposing—a structure on the process, to facilitate thinking and cut some organizational corners.
There is also a structure I impose on the preparation for planning: the research and analysis and assumption-bashing that we go through before we think that we have enough knowledge to make good decisions.
And that structure revolves around the Four Color Theorem.
For us, the key focus when we approach learning about the customer is to think behaviors, not preferences. The notion that if you want to find out what the market wants, you simply ask it, is flawed at its foundation. After all, if that's all it took—a few blasts from the Conjoint Cannon across the market's bow—to win in the marketplace, we'd have to make an infinite supply of "First Place" ribbons.
It's behavior that opens the door to anticipating the marketplace: Behavior allows you to figure out what customers want today and what they will want tomorrow.
I want to know what they do that brings them to my door—and what they were doing before and what they'll do after. I want to know what they do today to solve the problem I want to solve for them. I want to know what they do to get service, support, or repair. I want to know what else they do while they solve the problem today (do they talk on the telephone, are they watching television). I want to know what they do when they compare products.
I want to know what they do. If I can build this kind of behavioral profile, I can determine message, advertising venues, product feature set—I can do a lot.
The best place to learn best practices (and, for that matter, worst practices as well) is from the companies that are practicing them best.
So, for us, a study of the competition moves quickly past product line and price points and market share. We look at each competitor as life lessons. If they're successful, we want to know how they did it. If they're not, we want to try to discern what mistakes they made.
We want to know their past and present so we can learn about their future.
We start with their history. What they publish. What we can find through the historical business wire information. What their Web site looked like five years ago. Whatever the information and wherever we can find it, we want to know how they have evolved—which will give us a clear view into their strategic thinking.
We like to know how they stack up against a set of objective criteria for excellence. We like to use Jim Collins' Good to Great as a yardstick, but you may have other criteria.
And we try and discern, through things like patent applications and new partnerships, where they're headed.
I have written before here about whole product (if you want more information, see my article "The Whole Whole Product").
When a customer buys your product, it's most likely the case that it is not an isolated need but part of a series of needs that they solve or need to solve. I call that the "solution stream."
Where is the person at the gas pump going after they get gas? What caused the person to decide to go supermarket shopping? What will they accomplish with the upgrade to Word? How will they keep the loaf of bread from turning into an abstract squished sculpture before it gets home?
Understanding everything that customers go through to reach you, and everything they will go through after they become a customer, becomes your road map to understanding how you will grow in the marketplace. It is an obvious place to look when determining new product development. And it adds a dimension of insight to the behavioral analysis of the customer.
Finally, there are forces that operate internally and externally. Fortunately, quality models exist for this so we don't have to invent them: SWOT, PEST (or PESTE or PESTEL or wherever that grows to) and Michael Porter's 5 Forces being chief among them—and you may have found others you like.
But creating the graphs and charts that these models display is not the goal of this analysis—it is not enough to understand that there will be environmental regulatory pressures, or that you're weak at service and strong in fulfillment.
What's important is what actions you'll take based on those purely subjective evaluations. Whether you determine that you are going to face PETA pressure because you test with animals, or PETA endorsement because you don't, your goal in planning is to define the action you'll take based on the information.
I've shared with you my palette. My colors. This is what works for our clients. While you may want to use different colors, my goal here is to share with you how structuring the "color set" will help you focus your research, derive relevant conclusions, and then use all that information to create workable, living action plans for your marketing efforts.