What’s the Problem with Problems?

Agreeing on a brand’s problem is critical to solving it—but that’s easier said than done.

Matt Herlihy
Mar 11 · 4 min read

At our agency, we greet every brand-curious prospective client with a direct question: “What problem are you trying to solve?” That inquiry seems simple on the surface, but its responses might surprise you.

Some interpret the question broadly: “Where do I begin?” Others opt for the narrowest of interpretations: “Our digital presence is awful.” A third reaction involves only a world-weary stare and labored breathing.

We pose the question to dig for the real existential issue beneath a company’s surface — the most useful area that an agency intervention might address. As all brand strategists worth their kosher sea salt know, we must frame a problem properly in order to find an effective solution.

Yet something about the word problem evokes a strong, even visceral response from most would-be collaborators. It can land like a gut punch after a warm handshake. But getting to that root cause is essential for our work — and ultimately, our partnership — to be successful.

This is easier said than done, however. The term’s standard definition reads like an Ali-level rope-a-dope assault: “a matter or situation regarded as unwelcome or harmful and needing to be dealt with and overcome.” Okay, Oxford. We get it.

Its secondary meaning is far more hopeful: “an inquiry starting from given conditions to investigate or demonstrate a fact, result, or law.” This feels more constructive and appealing, even a bit jaunty.

Albert Einstein, who embraced virtually any problem apart from his hairstyle, held an admirable view on the subject. “If I had an hour to solve a problem,” he said, “I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.”

This is how our office sees it. Even though it takes hard work upfront to frame a problem properly, that alignment pays big dividends later. A shared target makes every decision easier from the moment we all agree to it.

But actually arriving at that agreed-upon framing is the hard part. And not always for an intellectual reason — but because it brings our egos to a place of tremendous vulnerability. Which, no matter what our job title, is often petrifying.

A mentor of mine from a prior agency believed that at their core, all people care about the same two things: to be loved, and to not look stupid. Over a couple decades in this work, I’ve never seen this disproven.

We directly associate our identities with our work, particularly in this country. So when asked to identify the problem with our company, we’re immediately transported to the hinterland of our own flaws — the place where we feel the least loved and most stupid.

We wonder: Are we not reaching the right customers because I’m not good enough at understanding people? Have we been slow to innovate because my creative skills are subpar? Perhaps most terrifying: Are we behind the times because I’m a relic of the past, being slowly rendered obsolete by the ceaseless march of time?

It all gets dark pretty fast. And most of us aren’t wired to admit our own problems clearly, let alone quickly or in front of our peers. No one freely admits to functional alcoholism on a first date — instead, we demonstrate it over several occasions. Most people can’t even be fully honest with their doctor, whose sole job is diagnosing their problems.

But we have to do it. Candor is a critical part of getting the brand where it needs to be. And nailing that problem will help guide the company — and by extension, everyone here — to a place where all are loved, and no one is stupid.

The good news: When it’s done well, the ultimate success is worth the trouble.

Dunkin’ Donuts recognized their problem: younger consumers demanded healthier food. Their brand, while beloved, was associated with quite the opposite. So they attacked the problem by removing “Donuts” from their brand identity — and backed it up by transitioning to a simpler, healthier menu. Sales rose, the stock price climbed, and the CEO credited the refreshed brand.

Scandal-plagued Uber identified a cultural problem that manifested itself everywhere from workplace harassment to rider safety. Building trust was an antidote that would be essential to the company’s survival. A sweeping brand refresh signaled change and a friendlier, more caring stance — while new leadership undertook sweeping internal measures to repair internal culture.

Both companies had to confront uncomfortable truths about themselves, ranging from their core business to their values. Behind the scenes, real people wrestled with difficult notions about their work and their beliefs, both individually and collectively. But by aligning around the problem — and taking real steps to change accordingly — they found a better path.

Of course, the long-term histories of both organizations remain unwritten. Dunkin is still better-known for sugary treats than egg white bowls, and Uber’s cultural wounds remain deep. Sustained success will require their people to hold their problems squarely in sight, keep their egos in check, and continue to act accordingly.

Along the way, they lost some love. They may have looked stupid. But through a willingness to change their minds, they survived.

Which brings us back to Einstein, who had another pretty good line: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

His work on relativity may still be only a theory, and that hairdo remains questionable. But we can all agree that he got that one just right.

Better By __

At The Office of Experience, we believe the experience is…

Matt Herlihy

Written by

Brand philosopher. Executive Director, Strategy, The Office of Experience. Author, speaker, and instructor.

Better By __

At The Office of Experience, we believe the experience is the brand®. The best brand experiences are better by design. But they’re also better by strategy, technology, and message. Better By explores the ways in which the world around us made better by design.

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