Thinking Outside of the Cereal Box

The Art of Persuasion
We are all involved in persuading people to change their mind, perception or action.  Whether it is in business or in our personal lives, we often need to shift someone’s point of view.

We might be trying to convince our spouse to go on vacation at the ocean instead of the mountains.  We might be trying to shift our daughter from dating the boy with the iron stake through his ear.  We may be trying to convince our boss to fund a new project or we may be speaking to a customer to shift their attitude about our product offering.

How can we succeed, shift their thinking and what are the steps toward success?  

Squeezing innovation 
Squeezing the Tube
One of the most difficult persuasion activities is trying to change an industry from doing something it has done for a long time. Imagine convincing Crests and Colgate not to use a tube for their toothpaste? Or speaking of squeezing, how would you pitch the Tropicana marketing folks to stop using a gabled box back and instead to use a plastic container? 

In the following hypothetical example,  I use the cereal industry to illustrate an approach to altering a long-held view by an industry.

A wrinkle-free bag
Situation:  Let’s say I’m responsible for the marketing and communications for a company that makes stand up gusseted bags that are made of flexible film or plastic laminated material. You often see granola, cookies and many salty snacks use this form of packaging. 
My company wants to shift influencers and decision makers to use our product.  Our targets are companies like Kellogg’s and Post who make cereal that is packaged in a box with an inner seal package. We are the disruptors in the marketplace as our product eliminates waste (extra box) and cost (labor, weight in shipping, material). 
Thinking outside of the box?

Unfortunately, we have been selling our product to private label and house brands so the trade thinks we are only for cheap or less expensive products.  Since we have successfully sold our value proposition as saving money, how can we shift the impression that we are right for more expensive brands? Our competitors like to position us in a negative fashion saying that we are generic looking material so we have to overcome many myths.

Before I jump into tactical solutions, I need to be clear what problem I am trying to solve. To do this, I like to get a clear visual image of what picture is in my potential customer's mind of my brand. To do this, I might ask my colleagues questions like:

What are the perceptions we are trying to shift? 

What is the implication for that person we are trying to influence to change their mind? (Risk factors)

Are they the sole decision maker or are they gatekeepers to more senior decision makers?

What are the most compelling arguments you can share and what is the best way to deliver them?

What is evidence that we are making progress?

What does success look like? 

This is so obvious it is almost embarrassing to say. But how often are you truly listening to get clarity about this person’s point of view. Are they restating your competitor’s arguments?  Do they have old information? On what information is their view based? The deeper you can explore this, the more focused you can be in shifting perceptions.  If they have old or wrong information, how open are they to learning more?  How are you trying to alter what they believe – as an educator or in an argumentative way?

What picture is in your customer's head? 

Gather facts.

Ask probing questions like how do you know that?

Can you get them to share what might change their mind?

Are you in the right place to move their attitudes? For example would a coffee shop or a wine bar be a better and more relaxing environment to talk than an office?


Let’s assume that the main objection that you keep hearing is that your film or bag doesn’t present itself well at retail and that consumers have a negative reaction thinking the product inside is cheap and not worthy of its higher price.  The wrinkly image is the culprit and the cereal folks want a better shelf presence that shows off their brand. The brand manager describes your product like a shirt that has never been ironed.

The image in your customer's head 
Now you have a visual to go with your situation. This is the picture in your customer’s mind and can be very helpful. Now that you know what is visually in your customer's mind, can you get your them to agree to the problem and a solution statement?

Problem statement:  The marketing management in the cereal industry believes that flexible film bags are not capable of presenting as high a quality image to consumers as printed cardboard can. And, because so much of the generic product in the category is in wrinkly flexible film, the higher end brands want to separate themselves from that poor image. How can you change their perception of your product as a wrinkled shirt? Can you position your product as a "wrinkle-free film"? 

Solution statement:  If the flexible film supplier can demonstrate that consumers are willing to accept this type of packaging in top shelf brand cereals, then we would consider running a test in several markets.  Proof of acceptance would be demonstrated not in surveys or focus groups but sell through at retail and our current price points. If this alternative packaging format was as successful at retail compared to the traditional card board box, we would consider expanding the test nationally.
Agree on a path forward
By working with the person you are trying to persuade on a definition of a problem AND a definition of a solution, you start to have some clarity about the mission at hand.  Now you know what you must do to move things forward. You may need to reposition your film with a 'wrinkle-free' guarantee to help launder that image of the unkempt shirt out of their mind. You may have to offer the customer free material to run a significant market test. The real objective becomes convincing brand management to allow the market (and the consumer) to make the real decision. 

You can now work with your team on tactical ways to get to a market test once you have agreement on the problem and what it will take to convince the final decision makers.  Once a solution statement is in hand, at least you understand the challenge you face.

Bowled over with excitement 

Sometimes you have to think outside of the cereal box. Now please pass the milk. 

Note: If you have finished eating breakfast and you have like-minded marketing friends, would you share this post with others who might enjoy my blog? 

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