If you are a marketer with line responsibility today, you are likely facing increased pressure to produce results. You are likely producing results with a reduced budget. And you are likely reminded frequently that favorable results require speed-to-market.

Given these pressures, it's understandable that you strive to take action decisively and quickly.

But before you take action (and even before you gather information to guide your decision about the best action to take), have you stopped to make sure the decisions you are making are addressing the most important issues? If not, you may be trying to solve the wrong problem.

No doubt you make countless decisions every day, both as an individual and in groups or teams. But you must have a reliable process to assure that before you actually make a decision, the question you are asking is indeed the right question.

In marketing, perhaps more than any other business discipline, outcomes are not only dependent on the quality of the decisions you make but also on the way you frame decisions.

In their fine book called Winning Decisions (J. Edward Russo and Paul J.H. Schoemaker, Random House, 2003), Russo and Schoemaker report the following two stories of framing marketing decisions—one resulting in dramatic, category-changing business growth, and the other resulting in catastrophic losses.

When John Sculley—best known now as the former CEO of Apple—was VP of Marketing at Pepsi, he desperately searched for packaging to compete with the hourglass bottle used by Coca Cola. He spent millions of dollars researching new bottle designs before he realized he was asking the wrong question.

As Sculley writes in his autobiography Odyssey (Harper & Row, 1987), Pepsi executives were certain that the classic bottle was Coke's most important competitive advantage. He came to realize, however, that the company did not know enough about what consumers wanted, and, therefore, management could not make effective marketing decisions.

To explore the broad question of consumer preferences, Sculley studied how families actually consume Pepsi and other soft drinks in their homes. He learned what all marketers of snack foods now know: people will consume as much as you can persuade them to buy. “It dawned on me that what we needed to do was design packages that made it easier for people to get more soft drinks into the home,” he recalls.

So he reframed the decision by first asking what the customer wanted. He writes: “It became obvious that we should change the rules of the competition entirely. We should launch new, larger and more varied packages.”

Soon after introducing the new packaging, Pepsi's business grew from a distant second to a strong competitor for first in the category, and drove the Coke bottle into virtual extinction.

In contrast, consider the failed decision framing of Encyclopedia Britannica, long the quality leader of multivolume encyclopedias. In the mid-90s, just five years after Britannica had set sales records and achieved market dominance, sales plummeted more than 50% due to the introduction of the CD-ROM encyclopedia, like Microsoft's Encarta, with color graphics, automatic search and low production costs.

Nevertheless, throughout the period, Britannica continued to sell encyclopedia sets for almost as much as it cost to buy a computer. It is now clear that it framed its product development and sales issues as a print publisher, missing the demands of the market to reframe its business as one of information provider to children and adults in the new world of computers and the coming Internet explosion.

As these stories teach, decision frames can work for us or against us. Russo and Schoemaker explain, “The way we frame a problem exerts enormous control over the options we recognize and the solutions we choose.”

They suggest conducting a “Frame Analysis Audit” to analyze a current frame, a frame you may use or the frame of someone on your team, by asking such questions as these:

• What issue does the frame address?

• What aspects of the situation are left out of consideration?

• What does the frame emphasize and minimize?

Lesson for marketers: before you rush to make a decision, consider the frame you are using, because it can direct you to the best options or cause you to miss opportunities completely.

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image of Roy Young
Roy Young is coauthor of Marketing Champions: Practical Strategies for Improving Marketing's Power, Influence and Business Impact.