How to Conduct a Key Issues Review

Brand LeadershipFrom 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

Following the Gray’s Cookie Case Study example, here are the three Key Issues.


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.  

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Brand LeadershipI run the Brand Leader Learning Center,  with programs on a variety of topics that are all designed to make better Brand Leaders.  To read more on how the Learning Center can help you as a Brand Leader click here:   Brand Leadership Learning Center


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About Graham Robertson: The reason why I started Beloved Brands Inc. is to help brands realize their full potential value by generating more love for the brand.   I only do two things:  1) Make Brands Better or 2) Make Brand Leaders Better.  I have a reputation as someone who can find growth where others can’t, whether that’s on a turnaround, re-positioning, new launch or a sustaining high growth.  And I love to make Brand Leaders better by sharing my knowledge.  Im a marketer at heart, who loves everything about brands.  My background includes 20 years of CPG marketing at companies such as Johnson and Johnson, Pfizer Consumer, General Mills and Coke.  My promise to you is that I will get your brand and your team in a better position for future growth. Add me on LinkedIn at so we can stay connected.

Brand Focus: Great Marketers use the word “or” more than “and”

Strategy is all about Choices

“It’s all about choices” is how my marketing professor started every class.  He’d repeat it about 8-10 more times each class, sometimes after someone made a choice and sometimes after someone didn’t.  I still see a fear among many marketers to make choices–whether it’s a target market, brand positioning or strategies or the allocation of spend.  Good decision-making starts with forcing yourself to use the word “or” instead of keep using the word “and”.  

The most important element of Marketing Strategy is the exact area where most Marketers struggle:  FOCUS!

Why should you focus?
  • Every brand is constrained by resources—dollars, people and time.  Focus makes you matter most to those who actually might care.  Focusing your limited resources on those consumers with the highest propensity to buy what you are selling will deliver the greatest movement towards sales and the highest return on investment for those resources.  I was leading a session on a Tourism Region and asked who the key targets were.  The first answer was pretty good–it was some of the regions that were within close proximity.  Then people around the room kept saying “well, what about…” and “we can’t forget…” and “we don’t want to alienate…”   And the President says in serious tone:  “we target everyone, because it could be anyone really”.
  • In a competitive category, no one brand can do it all.  Focus makes you decide whether to be better, different or cheaper.  Giving the consumer too many messages about your brand will confuse them as to what makes your brand unique.  Trying to be everything is the recipe for being nothing.   I was lucky that my first marketing job at General Mills was managing child cereals, where each quarter, I had to do a promotion on 5 different cereals.  So, twenty times per year, I had to work with the 2 x 2 inch corner of the cereal box and put a message that would make a 5-year-old scream at their Moms to buy the cereal.  That taught me a lot about focusing my messaging.
  • Trying to do everything spreads your resources and your message too thin, so that everything you do is “ok” and nothing is “great”.   With a long to-do list, you’ll never do great at anything.   And in a crowded and fast economy, “ok” never breaks through so you’ll never get the early win to gain that tipping point that opens up the gateway to even bigger success.  I once had a director working for me, who kept spinning around never getting anything done.  His team was complaining that every time they started a new project, he’d come up with new ideas.  I sat down with him and asked him to bring his project list for the up-coming quarter.  He came in with 83 projects!!!  I said “how do we narrow this list down to five”.  He looked at me like I was insane.
When You Focus, Four Things Happen
  1. Better ROI:   With all the resources against one strategy, one target, one message, you’ll be find out if the strategy that you have chosen is able to actually moves consumers, drives sales or enhances other key performance indicators.  Did you actually get done what you wanted to get done?  If you spread those resources, you may never see any movement and then figure your strategy is wrong.
  2. Strong Reputation:  When you only do one thing, you naturally start to become associated with that one thing.  With consumers, you get the reputation as the “fast one” or the “great tasting”.   And internally, as people in the company start to align to your one thing, eventually you become very good at that one thing.   Look at Volvo with “safety”.  Every consumer message for 30 years is about safety.   And internally, everyone at Volvo is fixated on safety, coming out with new safety innovations ahead of everyone else.  Yes, Volvo’s have leather seats, go pretty fast, have a CD player and even come in multiple colours.  But they don’t feel the need to have to say it.
  3. More Competitive:  As your reputation grows, you begin to own that one thing and your are able to better defend the positioning territory.  As categories mature, brands start to stake claims and if you’ve got something that’s unique, relevant and motivating, you’ll be able to own it.
  4. Bigger and Better P&L:  As the focused effort drives results, it opens up the P&L with higher sales and profits.  With a better ROI, you get to go back to management and say “it worked” and they’ll say “ok, let’s increase the investment”.  And that means more resources will be put to the effort to drive even higher growth.  As you efficiently drive the top-line, the P&L opens up a bit and becomes easier for a brand leader to work with.
Where Your Focus Shows Up
  • Pick a focused Target Market:  While it’s tempting to sell to everyone.  Focus your resources on those most likely to buy. Realizing not everyone can like you is the first step to focus on those that can love you.  Whether you are a niche player focused on guerilla tactics, or the number two player attacking the category leader having a focused target market is crucial. I see a difference between a “buying target” which is those consumers who currently buy the product naturally without your effort and a “strategic target” of those consumers who you want to get to act–whether it’s considering, purchasing or continuing to buy.   Rest assured that the buying target will not likely leave you because they aren’t in the strategic target–whether that’s in your TV ad or as part of your promotions.
  • Pick a focused Brand Positioning:  Start with the target market you just picked–and assess their need states to see where you can best match up.  Beloved Brands are either better, different or cheaper. Or they are not around for much longer.   There’s too much pressure to be a copy cat brand–your channel might be the first to reject you, but if not, the consumer surely will.  The winning zone is to match up what your consumer wants and what you do best.   Avoid taking your competitor on in the space that they are better than you or you’ll get your butt handed to you.  Where you are both trying to meet the needs of the consumer and are equal in performance, be careful that the leader may win, unless you can find ways to connect emotionally, be more innovative or find ways to provide superior execution.  But even then, this space is a risky place to play.
  • Pick a Focused Strategy:  Brands need to understand where they sit before picking strategies.  Evaluate the health of your brand using the Brand Funnel to understand where you are strong and should keep pushing or where you have a weakness (a Leak) that you need to close.  Where you sit competitively–whether you are the Leader, challenger or a niche player–impacts what competitive strategy you might choose.  I also promote the idea of the Brand Love Curve where the relationship between the consumer and brand move along a curve going from Indifferent to Like It to Love It and onto a Beloved Brand for Life.  The farther along the curve, the tighter the connectivity, which means more brand power and a potential to drive growth and profits.  Where you are on the Brand Love Curve can help focus your strategic choices.   If your brand is Indifferent, you need to establish your brand in the mind of the consumer so they are aware and consider your brand.  If you’re stuck at the Like It stage, you need to separate yourself and drive the rational and emotional benefits into your consumers mind.  If you’ve made it the Love It stage, keep finding ways to tug at the heart of your consumers and find ways to build it into their daily life.  At the Beloved Brand stage, keep fuelling the magic to maintain the love.  Attack yourself before others attack you. Leverage all the power you’ve created to stay in the lead position
  • Focused Activities.  While everyone talks ROI, I talk ROE as well.  Return on Effort forces you to prioritize all your activities.  If you put all the proposed tactics and activities on a grid, plotting the ideas as Easy vs Difficult to and then Big Wins vs Small Wins, you want all your focus to be on the Big and Easy ideas.  If the ideas are Easy and Small then brainstorm ways to make them bigger.   If they are Big but Difficult then brainstorm ways to make them easier.  The Biggest Easiest ideas will drive a higher ROE and in turn a higher ROI.  It’s the point where you’ll see an impact for what you do.
Challenge Yourself to Focus

If I can challenge you in each of the areas.  Push yourself on the target to have a bulls-eye target of no more than 5 years.  Force yourself to have one “shout from the mountain” style main message supported by a maximum of two reasons to believe.  As you’re doing your brand plan, try to narrow it down to 3 key strategies and for each strategy a maximum of 3 tactics.  That leaves you taking your resources and spreading them across a maximum of 9 tactics in total.  Spend 75% of your resources against the top 3 tactics.  That’s much more focused than 5 strategies with 5 tactics per–which spreads your resources and efforts across 25 tactics in total.  None of these are hard and fast rules, just challenges to be more focused.  

Watch what happens when you start saying “or” and stop saying “and”.  After all, “It’s all about choices”.  


I run Brand Leader Training programs on this very subject as well as a variety of others that are all designed to make better Brand Leaders.  Click on any of the topics below:

To see the training presentations, visit the Beloved Brands Slideshare site at:

If you or team has any interest in a training program, please contact me at



About Graham Robertson: I’m a marketer at heart, who loves everything about brands.  My background includes 20 years of CPG marketing at companies such as Johnson and Johnson, Pfizer Consumer, General Mills and Coke. The reason why I started Beloved Brands Inc. is to help brands realize their full potential value by generating more love for the brand.   I only do two things:  1) Make Brands Better or 2) Make Brand Leaders Better.  I have a reputation as someone who can find growth where others can’t, whether that’s on a turnaround, re-positioning, new launch or a sustaining high growth.  And I love to make Brand Leaders better by sharing my knowledge. My promise to you is that I will get your brand and your team in a better position for future growth.  To read more about Beloved Brands Inc., visit   or visit my Slideshare site at where you can find numerous presentations on How to be a Great Brand Leader.  Feel free to add me on Linked In at  or on follow me on Twitter at @GrayRobertson1