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how to write a kick-ass situation assessment


In this guide, I am assuming you either have never done a situation assessment on your brand or you are needing to go really deep on a business that you've been coasting on for some time.

Either way, you need to go deep. This is like a 7-day juice cleanse for your business. Except, if you follow my guide, you shouldn't have any of those hunger headaches that make you give up within the first 3 hours. Or is that just me?

What is a situation assessment?

I know you know this, but just for fun... In brand management, a situation assessment is a document that captures performance, trends, and insights that impact your brand planning. It is an informational and diagnostic tool that brings clarity to where your brand is today, in order to help you inform the options for where you may go in the future.

It's like your annual physical -- checks you out and helps you understand if you need to work on anything.

What is the purpose of a situation assessment?

A sit assess (what the cool kids call it) helps you really understand your business by giving you insight to everything happening to and around you. In other words, you sift thru a whole lot of info so that you can better highlight what is most important. This, in turn, helps you better understand what comes next for your brand.

Deeply understanding your business is critical to strong brand planning. It is very hard to make informed decisions when you don't even know the basics about your business. It's foundational knowledge that is required before anything else can occur. I've written before about the power of knowing your business and this is an excellent time to get reacquainted with facts and ensure you've got the data-foundation to make smart decisions.

With that, let's get started...

The right framework

I have found the best Situation Assessments to be based on the 5 Cs: Company, Category, Competitors, Consumer and Context.

Depending on your brand and/or industry, you may consider adding Collaborators (could be partner organizations, such as co-packers, brokers, agencies, etc). Sometimes this can be captured in Company but that is up to you.

Spending time going deep on each will ensure a well-rounded view of your business. For some categories, one or another C will be more important than the other. That is totally fine -- adjust to your specific situation, but be sure to hit all of them to get a full picture.

How to avoid boiling the ocean

Just looking at this framework you can see that someone could get really overwhelmed. There is so much to cover in each of these buckets and the bigger your brand or your category, the bigger the beast it becomes. So how to man-handle it?

First, recognize that there is probably a lot you already know. As you dig into each section, clear these knowns right off the bat. Document them and move on.

Second, be realistic about what will really have a meaningful impact. Sometimes there are things your organization (e.g. COGS), your resources (e.g. speed of innovation) or the current cultural climate (e.g. slow changing regulations) won't allow you to impact. If so, limit the time you spend on that and focus on what you know you can impact. The exception is if you are working to make a case for this impact -- if you think you can rally the organization to change your manufacturing solution, by all means, spend the time gathering the facts.

Third, start with just enough info. You can always get deeper later. Especially in the first pass, you want to get a broad assessment so you can see where the problems and opportunities are hiding. Once you've prioritized the learnings and have some hypotheses, you can go back and get as deep as you need. You don't want to spend all your time on something now, only to realize later it is not as valuable as something else and yet you've run out of time.

First things first: daydream, hypothesize & game plan

Before diving into a sit assess, dedicate some time - 1 hour to two days - simply thinking about your brand and business. If you have a team, this is the time to use them!

Where would you like to see this brand go in the short-term? The long-term? What are the biggest obstacles you see for your business? How do you think you can overcome them? What are things you wish you knew about the consumer or the competitors? What are trends you've noticed that could impact your business? What recent or upcoming cultural, social, political, economic or other events could have an impact on your consumer or your company?

Write down some notes and hypotheses to help guide your work. This is a great opportunity to both clear your head and focus your efforts.

Finally, write up a game plan for how you'll get your sit assess done. Who on your team will you tap into for help? How will you prioritize this over other work? What is your timetable for completion? How will you use this information when it's complete? There is a lot of work involved in a truly good sit assess and not thinking thru your plan could leave you with a lot of work partially completed but not a lot of value delivered.

My sit assess process

If you are personally creating a Sit Assess, you could find yourself DROWNING in data and information. And that is the opposite of helpful. If you tell someone on your team that you want them to complete a Sit Assess, you might find yourself at the other end of a death stare. The work can really be daunting.

When I am working on a sit assess, I use this process to help me organize my thinking, make continuous progress, and deliver an output that is valuable:

1 - Do an initial review of data available. Flip thru old decks, review the last 3-4 brand trackers, do a few retail visits, do some social media browsing (learn how on Hootsuite). This helps me "open up the pores" and start to absorb the big picture, as well as remind me some key things I need to dig into. I take tons of notes.

2 - Write an outline. Using the 5-C framework below, I plot what information I think I want to include in each section. This helps me understand how much work there is ahead. Rarely does the final output match this outline more than 50%, but it's a great way to put a line in the sand and just start.

3 - Tackle it chunk by chunk. Start with one section and get to work. Little by little make your way thru it all. As you work on one "C", you'll find a great insight for another "C". Capture it but don't get distracted. I love the Pomodoro technique for getting thru chunks of work.

4 - Once you have most (about 80%) of your content gathered, start to go thru each section and try to summarize the key learnings. Use the last page in each section to document learnings and implications -- what did I learn in this exercise and what does it mean for my business?

5 - Wrap it up and put a bow on it. Once you've compiled all the information and have solid learnings and implications for each section, then sum it all up. What are the big headlines here that need to be considered as you plan ahead for your business? And, what are the questions that are still unanswered (there are always unanswered questions)?

Don't short-change the cleanup step. You want to be able to share this document with key stakeholders and bring them along your learning journey. If you have a messy, complicated, and illogical flow, you'll lose your audience.

How to evaluate each C

COMPANY

Company, of course, is an inward look at your brand. This means looking at everything from your brand performance, to organizational happenings and implications, to corporate mandates or leadership changes. Anything that could impact your brand in the coming year(s) should be considered here. But certainly, it means a deep dive into the brand data -- such as sku and customer mix, profitability, sales trends, regional variances, etc. You risk boiling the ocean here, so first ask yourself: based on what I know right now, what are the areas of my business I really need to know better? Start there.

Note - a SWOT is a great framework to include in this section.

CATEGORY

Category refers to the universe in which your brand plays, and could be an immediate category or a broader category. For example, your iced tea brand plays in the Refrigerated Iced Tea category, which is in the Ready to Drink Tea category, which is in the Juice and Tea category, which is in the Liquid Refreshment Beverages category.

Depending on any number of factors, such as your brand age, brand performance, category dynamics, consumer shopping trends, etc, you will need to look at one or more of these category definitions. If you don't have a good grasp on your immediate category (Refrigerated Iced Tea in this example), start there. Expand as you consider opportunities to expand your brand beyond that.

Then, take a similar approach as you did with Company -- look at everything that could impact your brand in the coming years. Again, to avoid boiling the ocean, ask yourself - what do you already know and what do you need to know better?

COMPETITORS

Competitors seem pretty straight-forward, no? These are the brands with which your brand competes for share of voice and sales. Of course, we must start with the immediate competitors, those you find yourself talking about almost daily. But sometimes it is imperative you look beyond your obvious competitors. Consider the occasion or need state in which your brand plays. Are there other products outside of your category that might deliver on that occasion or need? What can you learn from them? How are those brands impacting your business?

And of course, here you should look at these brands the way you look at your own so that you can more readily compare. A SWOT analysis for your target competitors is a smart addition here. For some brands, it can be hard to capture competitive sales data. However, there are a ton of clues around you -- look at their shelf presence. Where and how often do you see their ads? What are their press releases saying? How big is their presence, what channels are they using and what are they saying on social media?

One last thing - don't ignore bigger trends and insights on these brands -- what innovations are they launching? What is happening with their overall company performance? What kind of marketing investments are they making? Think big picture and document that which is important.

CONSUMER

The consumer is a complicated thing. To start, you need to have a good understanding of why they are even in this category -- what are the drivers of purchase? What are the need states (e.g. energy or me time) and occasions (e.g. afternoon break or Saturday morning) that your brand delivers? What are the trends that are influencing the purchase (e.g. good fats or international indulgence)?

Additionally, you need to understand how the consumer specifically interacts with your brand. Having significant and meaningful data about how your consumer is interacting with your brand can be hard to come by if you are not subscribing to syndicated data and/or you do not invest in brand tracking or consumer research. However, you need to have a clear picture of how your brand delivers on the consumer's needs; how the consumer uses the brand; how much or how often they consume or purchases it, etc. These questions and more ensure you have no blind spots to your most important asset and even clarity on whom you are trying to target with next year's plans.

For small brands that can't afford syndicated data, you can think about creating a consumer council. Identify 20+ consumers that are loyal to your brand and provide them a survey. Follow up with a select few to interview for more in-depth insight. It doesn't have to be outrageously expensive to get some insights.

CONTEXT

Context is very often forgotten in a sit assess. Cultural, political, financial, or other topics of the moment are often very top of mind for all of us. However, without a conscious effort to document and evaluate those current events into your brand planning, you will ignore the truths and implications they bring.

Selling bikes? You might want to consider that American's view of the auto industry is at an all-time high. Selling crackers? What about the rapid expansion of "clean label" messaging from the expected categories like yogurt and beauty products to completely unexpected categories like hot dogs and gasoline? Wondering if your marketing mix is optimized? What about the rise of video-message (read: Snapchat) bringing a cultural shift and making video one of our primary communication vehicles, especially with those under 40?

And don't forget

  • In the end, you're telling a story. You're capturing information that will help frame up the future of your brand. Make sure you're talking about the past, present, and future. All three are important inputs to your brand's long-term plans.

  • Get input from cross-functional teams. The sales team is an invaluable resource for the sit assess. Spend time talking with them about your brand and you might get insights you can't imagine.

  • Come up with a plan to answer the unanswered. Create a "Learning Agenda". The next time you do a sit assess for your brand (should be same time next year), you' don't want to show up with the same unanswered questions. Those which can impact strategy need to be answered in the coming months so you can be better prepared for the next planning cycle.

  • Pictures are a great tool! Add photos of consumers, competitors, content online etc. In this case, a picture can be worth a million words.

I have completed numerous situation assessments over the years and have always found them to be a critical step in the brand planning process. I hope this guide will help you deliver a valuable sit assess for your brand.

- KG


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