How to Guide for Marketers

How to find the key issues that set up the right strategic choices

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Lay out the key issues that answer, “Why are we here?” Take the summary findings of the deep-dive analysis and drawing out the significant issues in the way of achieving your stated brand vision.

A great way to find the issues is to brainstorm up to 30 things in the way of your vision. Then, narrow down your list to the top 3-5 significant themes you see. Take the themes and begin to write the top issues in a rhetorical, strategic question format. These questions should be able to prompt a few different strategic options for how to solve each issue. Spend serious thinking time on these questions because the better the strategic question you ask, the better the strategic answer you will get.

Example of using the four strategic questions to focus the brand’s key issues

Another excellent methodology for finding key issues is to go back to the four strategic questions model I outlined in the strategic thinking chapters. This thinking ensures you take a 360-degree view of your brand. Looking at the example below, I have used the four strategic questions and come up with four specific questions that fit the Gray’s Cookies brand.

With various ways to brainstorm and find the issues I recommend for the annual brand plan, focus on the top three key issues, which set up the top three strategies. From there, a long-range strategic roadmap can typically handle up to five key issues, then five strategies.

Make sure you find the right level of the key issue

Too low: How do we get consumers to use more coupons?

  • In this example, the key issue is too specific and too tactical to set up a strategic solution.

Too high: How do we become the #1 brand?

  • This key issue is too general and too broad of a question to lead to a pinpointed, strategic solution. It is more suited to a question on brand vision.

Just right: How do we drive usage among loyal consumers?

  • With this example, the key issue does an excellent job of addressing an obstacle in the way of the vision, yet it is big enough to leave you sufficient room to explore various strategic solutions.

The power of three’s:  

I believe in “the power of threes.” As I said earlier, your brand plan should help you make decisions on where to focus and allocate your limited resources. As a guideline, for an annual plan, I recommend you focus on the top three strategies, then focus on the top three tactics for each strategy.

That means nine significant projects for your brand to focus your limited resources on during the year. Compare the subtle difference with what happens when you try to do five strategies with five tactics: the plan quickly explodes into 25 projects. That would cripple your brand’s limited resources. What if you never get to the twenty-fifth project but it was the most important project? With fewer projects, you will be able to execute everything with full passion and brilliance.

I see too many marketers with a long list of things they need to do. They are so busy; they have no time to think about what matters to their brand. And, they have very little passion for any one particular project; they’re just trying to get everything done. This thinking is not the ideal behavior a brand needs to become a beloved brand.

Asking the smart questions leads to smart strategies


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How to Guide for Marketers

How to conduct a Key Issues review

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From my consumer-packaged-goods marketing days, I learned the discipline of asking the right questions, before moving to figure out the solution. Strategic Thinkers see “what if” questions before they see solutions. They first dive deep to make sure they understand what is truly happening. Then they map out a range of decision trees that intersect and connect by imagining how events will play out. They reflect and plan before they act. They are thinkers and planners who can see connections. So it fits that you should do the work to figure out the right questions on the business before figuring out the right answers.  

The right questions are the Key Issues.

The 5 Steps to Doing a Key issues deck:

  1. Start with ‘Straw Dog’ Vision Statement to help frame where you want to go.  
  2. Analysis: Top 3 Drivers, Inhibitors, Risk & Opportunities.
  3. Summarize the Brand Health vs. Wealth, cutting it at both Internal and External. 
  4. Then using the ‘straw dog’ vision as a beacon and the analysis to explain what’s happening; Brainstorm all the things getting in the way of you achieving your vision.  You might come up with a list of 10=20 issues.  Group them, narrow them, sort them.  
  5. Vote to Narrow to the top 3-5 Key Issues. 


Straw-dog vision statement

A straw dog vision is really a big huge goal. Put yourself in your shoes 5-10 years out, and ask yourself what would the 3 things you want to have achieved on that date? What would give you a sense of accomplishment?  I use the ‘straw dog’ version more as a place holder at this point, and would keep re-fining the vision through the long-range strategic planning process. The role of the vision within the Key Issues process is to open yourself up beyond the current day-to-day muck and get you to think bigger. This allows the issues to become bigger and more strategic. 

Force field analysis

There are a few possible options you can use, but for real live businesses, I prefer the Force FIeld analysis:  What are the factors currently driving your business? What are the factors inhibiting your business? The drivers are about momentum that you are seeing on your business and you want to keep going. The inhibitors are the things holding you back and need to be reversed or knocked down.  Always keep in mind, these two factors are happening now. 

When you then layer in the Opportunities and Threats, these are not happening, but could happen. The opportunities could be things such as new markets you want to enter, new technologies or an untapped area you’re seeing. You want to raise these ideas and opportunities to management in an assertive selling way. Threats have to be real, not pie in the sky maybe’s. These could be competitors coming into the market, changes in regulations and changing customer behavior.  


Actions coming out of the Force Field

  • For drivers, you want to Continue/Enhance: Stay focused on things going right, keep accelerating and driving them.   Continuous improvement.
  • For inhibitors, you want to Minimize/Reverse. Close the leaks, develop turnaround plans or re-focus the team against the trend.
  • You want to Take Advantage of the Opportunities. Build plans to mobilize the brand to see if the opportunity is a winning space for the brand.
  • For the Threats, you want to Avoid or build Contingency plans. Identify and measure the risk, explore plans to avoid. Fill the gap before a competitor.

For new businesses that are yet in the market, I might switch it up so that Drivers become Strengths that speaks to the assets we’re bringing to the market and Inhibitors become Weaknesses that showcase potential gaps in the business. Another good analysis for a brand that is impacted severely by the environment is a PEST analysis where you look at the Political, Economic, Social and Technological.  

Deep dive on each driver and each inhibitor

Narrow down your list of inhibitors and then a best-in-class deck would blow out the details around each driver and inhibitor with a page or two for each.  Looking at the example below, of a one-page explanation behind an Inhibitor, you want 4 key attributes on the one pager:

  • List out the Driver/inhibitor
  • Use a key visual or chart that showcases the data and facts behind the driver/inhibitor.  
  • Tell the fact-based story with 2-3 argument points.  
  • In the box at the bottom, you should call out a potential action to address this driver and inhibitor. 


Brand Health and Wealth

A great analysis I recommend is to do a Brand Health vs Brand Wealth. Think of the wealth as things you can see connected to things like sales, shares, margins or profits. For Health, it’s the things you can’t see, like trial, repeat, processes etc.  just like a human, you can’t judge the health just by looking at someone. You need to dig deep and understand below the surface. Breaking it this way gives us four key boxes


  • External Health: Connecting with consumers is a source of power for brands. Understand the brand funnel and It’s impact on the results. How your consumer sees your brand, starting at awareness, trial, repeat all the way down the brand funnel to brand loyalty. Build on your strengths and attack your weaknesses
  • External Wealth: Healthy win in the marketplace. Beloved Brands can leverage success into power and drive wealth.   Beloved Brands are more efficient, higher sales, lower costs, better margins, higher over all profits. 
  • Internal Health: What is the internal beacon that helps  all employees get it and live it.  The idea of the brand has to be embedded right into the culture in a consistent manner. They have to realize their impact on the end customer.
  • Internal Wealth:  Everyone focused on Profit and Value.  Assets, IP, culture, contracts, ownership. Lining up and delivering the brand promise to a clear set of objectives, helps employees see that they are contributing to and sharing in the brand wealth. Everyone should understand where and how they impact profitability. 

A great example of why breaking it out this way is crucial is Apple in Q4 of 2012. If we look at traditional measures, Apple had their highest sales ever, share  increased across all products, margins reached an all-time high, and yet we have to look at the Brand Health to see the stock price came crumbling down. Apple’s innovation has slowed down, the intensity of feelings among the most loyal consumers has slipped due to challenges from Samsung and they seem to lack an internal alignment going forward. Clearly the wealth of Apple exceeds the health, so the stock price began to reflect.

Key Issues

Start by looking at the Vision and Analysis and ask: what are the things getting in our way of achieving that Vision?  You might hold a brainstorm with your team and start with 20 things getting in the way.  Narrow it down, by starting to group things, elevate up to the next level or two and challenge to find the over-arching issue that might be made up of a few visible issues.  As a guideline, there should be 3-5 key issues per brand. The crucial part of key issues is getting to the right level. If you have less, you are likely not detailed or specific enough, and if you have more…you should try to elevate some up to see if you can capture the bigger picture.   Play around with it, until it feels at the right level.
Since business has a history of using warfare examples, here are three ranges of key issues for what the U.S. government might have been looking at for the Iraq war:
  • Too Low:  How do we get more helicopters into Iraq?  This is too specific or too small.  Think about it, if there are other ways to get to the same goal (e.g. you could get more tanks) then the issue is too small.
  • Too High:  How do we drive Peace in the Middle East?  This is aspiration, but unrealistic.  If it feels too much to chew off, then it’s too big of an issue. 
  • Just Right:  What’s the most effective way to change Regimes in Iraq?  This talks closer to the overall objective…but with enough room to give strategic alternatives

The power of three’s:  

When I do these workshops, I force my teams tio use three’s whether it’s the driver and inhibitors or more importantly the Key Issues.  I like to see the teams focus more.  Forcing it down to 3 only might push them to look at the over-arching issues by looking bigger causes and issues than they first look at.

But most importantly, we ask the Key Issues in question format because the answer to that question is the strategy.  So, if you narrow it down to the biggest 3 issues that lines you up to having 3 big strategies.  I also recommend 3 tactics per strategy. That means, the Brand will have 9 major projects to spread the financial and people resources.  Even if you had 5 strategies and 5 tactics under each, you’d exponentially be up to 25 key projects.  I would bet that the quality on the execution of the 9 would exceed the execution of the 25 on the other brand.

Asking the big questions leads to big strategies and big results


Here’s a learning session on Key Issues with a full case study using Gray’s cookies.  

Beloved Brands: Who are we?

At Beloved Brands, we promise that we will make your brand stronger and your brand leaders smarter. We can help you come up with your brand’s Brand Positioning, Big Idea and Brand Concept. We also can help create Brand Plans that everyone in your organization can follow and helps to focus your Marketing Execution. We provide a new way to look at Brand Management, that uses a provocative approach to align your brand to the sound fundamentals of brand management.

We will make your team of Brand Leaders smarter so they can produce exceptional work that drives stronger brand results. We offer brand training on every subject in marketing, related to strategic thinking, analytics, brand planning, positioning, creative briefs, customer marketing and marketing execution.

To contact us, email us at or call us at 416-885-3911. You can also find us on Twitter @belovedbrands.

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