Tackling the problem of solution-focused marketing
Most solution focused marketer start with 'What' instead of 'Why'.
Is your team busily seeking solutions at such a rapid pace that they forget the problem they’re trying to solve? After more than a decade at VC-backed companies, I’ve seen too many wasted resources and too many burned-out teams who are implementing solutions that add little value to the actual business problem in the first place.
The pressure is high. We have a wealth of tools and data at our fingertips. With so much competition, fast growth is the order of the day. Progress is made by hustle and hacks; quick actions to move the needle. Whilst this approach does have value, and does make an impact, it has a dangerous long-term side-effect: the shift into a solely solution-focused mindset.
This article will help you identify these situations, and I will provide you with 3 effective ways to deal with it (see conclusion). You must pause, look, and listen and build a system for your team to do the same.
What is a solution-focused marketer?
To solve business problems, we all need to seek solutions. But solution-focused teams jump to finding a bunch of solutions without truly understanding what problems they’re trying to solve. It’s all about quick action, busyness, and a fixation with output. In this mindset, more is meant to equal more. Not so.
Most solution-focused people start their journey with what:
What can we do?
What does the data say?
What can the channels do?
What can the creatives do?....
Echoing my recent article about intuition in decision-making, it is my view that there needs to be more focus on the why. When I talk about the problem of solution-focused marketing, I don’t mean that we should stop seeking solutions. I mean that we should make sure we’re seeking meaningful solutions that create shareholder value.
The opposite to a solution-focused marketer is a “problem-solving marketer” - who spends more time to identify, understand, and frame the problem they’re trying to solve before coming up with a solution.
How to spot a solution-focused mindset
“If I had an hour to solve a problem I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” - Albert Einstein
Amongst start-ups and scale-ups, the pressure is always on. On top of growing the business, you have to manage investors and battle with competition every day. Industrious effort shows commitment. Output is easily measured. We’re rewarded for what we do, rather than how we think. This has permeated our regular way of working.
As an On-Demand CMO, I am (rightly) expected to show my value even before I take on a gig. But I always dive deeper into figuring out the two key questions: “what is the problem we are trying to solve?” and “is the problem presented by the client the right problem?”.
When I’m being nudged in a solution-focused direction, I ask the board and investors to pause and evaluate whether the proposed solution will actually solve the problem and create shareholder value.
Why do I ask this? From experience, these simple questions are crucial.
How to move from solution-focused to problem-solving
These are three real stories from my direct experience with direct-to-consumer brands:
#1: At one high growth mobile app start-up, the management team was fixated on reducing CPA, to scale and make the business viable. This not only involved testing new channels, but going through multiple agencies and people changes. The budget was spread thin, and the team was overworked. Marginal gains were made - albeit with nowhere near enough impact.
Ultimately, the business had to find space to reinvest in growth, but they were looking in the wrong place. I quickly noticed that the CPA was actually within the industry benchmark. It was LTV that needed attention. By launching high value products, increasing basket size, and reducing customer churn, the LTV/CAC ratio became positive, making this start-up EBITDA positive and able to reinvest in marketing to scale acquisition.
#2: At another VC-backed scale-up, a team of 15 people - including designers, UX, copywriters, and front-end developers - were solely dedicated to update the website with new deals every week. The team designed solutions and workflows to make this complex process smoother. All of this demanded a lot of energy and resources. 80% of their capacity was swallowed.
Two questions changed our direction: “why?” and “what is the problem we’re trying to solve?”. On average, customers only purchased two and half time per year. The weekly site updates were unnecessary, so we limited them to once per month. All of a sudden, this amazing creative team was able to work on innovation projects vs. just BAU - unlocking more value for the business.
#3: At this pre-series A eCommerce start-up, the focus was to drive MOM growth through paid social and search - in order to secure Series A funding. They were burning hot. Lots of tests, optimisations, attribution windows changed, and they went through two agencies in six months.
In fact, I noticed that the demand was not present at scale in these channels. Also, prospects in these channels were price-focused; quickly choosing the eCommerce behemoths after initial research. We moved resources into community-building and content marketing - driving loyalty and brand awareness of the value proposition. After successfully raising Series A, the business has now repositioned itself as a community-based platform with a focus on driving sales through content marketing.
From experience, asking the right questions early can stop a tamable demon from becoming a ferocious beast. What’s more, doing this can unlock significant value for the business. Before jumping into the solution, ask yourself these three questions:
What is the problem we’re trying to solve?
What does success actually look like?
Which one factor will unlock the most shareholder value?
As you evaluate and implement solutions, remember to keep returning to these Q&As to stay focused.
How to create the problem-solving mindset
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” - Will Durant
The secret sauce
I’d love to pretend that I have a secret sauce; a special recipe. The truth is that to shift thinking in the right direction, you just need to create one simple thing. Time!
As a founder, CEO or a leader, you need to block off the time to think, strategise, and nurture the habit of asking the right questions. And you need to create an environment in which your management team can do the same.
This is all very well, but how do you create this environment? Firstly, the initiative needs to be top-down; you need to celebrate the act of pausing to asking the right questions, and forge an understanding of why this is important. This is done by repeatedly using the three questions I listed above:
What is the problem we’re trying to solve?
What does success actually look like?
Which one factor will unlock shareholder value?
Next, a framework should be put in place to give people time.
At many of my previous clients, I’ve guided my management team to take one day per month to think. Not do. Just think. To operationalise this framework, I find including it in 1:1 and integrating with OKRs works best. They should ask themselves questions about the work and its value, and consider the direction of their focus, the application of their ideas, and the allocation of their time. This is done in a fresh environment; at home or wherever suits the individual.
Importantly, this day is mandatory. Not only does this pause encourage better long-term decisions, but forces smarter time (and task) management. Quite simply, they must free-up this day - whatever it takes.
Death by data
Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should. This is one of the most common issues I see.
Business intelligence (BI) is everything. We live in a data-led world. Ubiquity of information FTW! Marketers collaborate with teams of super smart data engineers all the time. This is fantastic, but it results in overuse and overreliance on the BI team. Engineers are busy building flows for all sorts of data requests, many of which aren’t in fact meaningful. This is a waste of time and energy.
Sometimes you simply need to check yourself before making a data request. Pause, and ask:
What am I trying to solve with this piece of data ?
What is the outcome that I’m aiming for?
During one gig, I was sitting in a meeting with the marketers and data engineers. The engineers were overburdened by constant requests for data flows, and I could see the solution-focused mindset had taken hold within the marketing team. Lots of busy activity, with fewer meaningful outcomes. I simply asked:
“What is the problem we’re trying to solve with this many data requests?”
Again, this simple question was enough to get the team thinking more strategically about the everyday mission. Overnight, the data requests reduced by +40%. The relentless churn of tasks was limited, and everybody had more breathing room to find the best answers to important questions.
When I enter a business as an On-Demand CMO, there are always quick-wins to be made. Don’t ignore this low hanging fruit. But whilst you make ground with short-term gains, adopt a strategic mindset for the bigger picture. A solution-focused approach will burn out your team and keep you in the churn.
The three main principles that I’ve developed:
Create an environment that allows time to think
Question your approach at regular intervals, and stay focused
Start with why, not what
The pressure is real! Startups are at a critical stage, and stakeholders demand results. We have solutions coming out of our ears: tactics, channels, tools, and platforms. This breeds an “always on” and “more equals more” attitude. As a team leader, it’s your responsibility to fight the good fight. By asking the right questions, you can set the standards and create the conditions for your team to thrive.
Hi, I’m Mehul Garg. I’m an On-Demand CMO and the founder of Be Gargantuan - focused on strategic positioning, growth, and team-building. As an intuitive leader, I drive innovation to exceed business goals. My past gigs span from multinational corporates, to global scale-ups, to early stage startups. Notable clients include Canon Europe, eHarmony, Photobox, Touchnote, and 8Fit GmbH.