The Case for Brand Strategy Investment.


Brand strategy is such a misunderstood science. And undervalued.

Here’s why: Brand strategy, as I define it, is “An organizing principle for product, experience and messaging.” As such, it guides all tactics — marketing and otherwise.  Because brand strategy, by this definition, impacts the product it can also impact things like operations; typically not thought of as the domain of brand strategy. So, when the brand strategy for a commercial maintenance company has “preemptive” as a brand plank, it requires all employees to looking for problems with a customer building and grounds before they occur. Blind curbs due to poorly trimmed bushes, sweating pipes that lead to burst pipes; things typically outside of the normal contract. Things commercial maintenance companies aren’t paid for. This is an example of an operational component of the brand strategy.

Preemptive is both a care-about and a good-at at Excel Commercial Maintenance in NY. It’s partly why they landed a huge cornerstone account ten year ago.

Brand strategy – unless you are hiring a multinational company – can cost less than an ad in a national magazine.  Yet it is rarely funded. It’s just not valued as much as the tactics it should be driving. That’s probably why John Wannamaker coined the phrase “I know half my advertising is working, I just don’t know which half.”

Measure twice (invest in brand strategy) and cut once.






Yesterday I watched a recording of the Cannes presentation by Rob Campbell and Martin Weigel on “Chaos.”  It was lovely and refreshing. Smart men, both. During the Q&A someone asked “Isn’t chaos a lot like disruption?” Indignantly, Rob said “No.” very different, he offered  

I’m with Rob, sort of; disruption is so overused. It’s a pop marketing term to which all aspire.  Overall though, I’m not so sure I heard how chaos is that much different when it comes to heightening creativity than are many of the other pop marketing memes planners and creatives have bandied about for years.  Chaos is just a new word for it.

The big news, as I heard it, was a call for increased focus on people (not consumers) and getting out of the building — rather than relying solely on data. And frankly, getting out of the building is not that new.

Chaos in practice is recombinant culture, as Faris Yakob might say. Chaos is the mistake that invented Post-It Notes. Chaos is a bird song inspiring “Stairway To Heaven” (I made that up). Chaos it the synapses, synapsing. It’s the irony of disorganization.

I agree with all things said by Messrs. Campbell and Weigel. Be it chaos or some other descriptor. We need to think more creatively about how we think creatively. The clarion call to action they espouse is needed today.

Where I will take issue, however, is the notion of creating chaos in a complete vacuum. Brand building requires that chaotic outputs operate in conjunction with brand strategy. Rob and Martin may not agree. Then again….



Deeds and Proof.


There’s an old axiom often repeated by parents to children “Do as I say, not as I do.”  A picture comes to mind of my mother savoring a cocktail, perhaps post-cigaette, in a 1950s-60s bathing suit on the back of the Salt-Shaker, my dad’s first Chris Craft. You can almost smell the smoke and the salt air. As a youth I was counseled not to smoke or drink. But kids watch. Kids learn.

Marketers are all about “Do as I say.” Brand planners focus on “Do as I do.”

A new class of brand planners – let’s call them proof planners – understand this. They understand that people more strongly believe proof and deeds than narrative – which they associate with fiction.  Evidence is evidence. So a picture of a smiling, pretty face drinking a Kraft beer is not as impactful as long line of concert goers waiting for Kraft beer next to a Budweiser line with 1 person on it. Proof beats claim any time.

Proof planners understand we are 50 years into the era of claim advertising and we’re totally inured to it. Claim sans proof doesn’t work.  Mine your proof, brand planners. And build stronger brands.




A Truth About Small Business Marketing.


There are mighty few small business owners who acknowledge they’re awash in marketing questions about their business. Especially those in service industries. Small business product marketers know what they know best: the product. The food tastes good. The lawns are properly manicured. The artwork is captivating.  But they may still have questions about pricing, targeting and distribution. On the service side, selling what may seem to be commodities, e.g., insurance, healthcare, financial products, the product is pretty static and it’s the delivery that counts. Those owners have even more questions.  Questions they leave to the marketing Gods…and perhaps Google.

Marketing is the science of selling. And small business owners are often not scientists. Certainly not in this art. So they turn to so-called marketing/branding/advertising consultants or agents for help.

Here’s why this often goes off the track: The people small business owners turn to are way more familiar with their own business, i.e., search, art direction, research, than they are with the business they’re supposedly helping.  Brand planners, actually, are paid to know more about their client’s businesses than the client. Hard to believe I know. And while the business owner may, on volume, know more than the brand planner, the planner has done the heavy lifting to remove the ancillary things from the equation.  To boil down the care-abouts and good-ats. To provide the real focus.

Brand planners are needed more at small businesses than at their larger cousins.  But the owners are so used to doing everything themselves they don’t see strategy as a priority. And those that do ask for help, often ask people who don’t spend the time to really get to know the brand and the business. Often, because they are small businesses too. Hee hee.



Service Brands. Organized For Success.


Brands were first used as identifiers of personal property. Then they became marks associated with commercial products. Bass Ale being an early brand. Today they even extend to people, but let’s not go there.

What I’d like to discuss today is the branding of service companies. IBM has become a service company, but it started out as a hardware company: International Business Machines.  Today service economies are rampant. Software, which used to be shrink-wrapped and therefore a product, is now embedded in the cloud and rented. Or given away. Software as a service (SaaS).

Most service companies, are not very good at brand building. Why? Because the brand experience is the people. And people are hard to manage.

Four decades ago, IBMers (mostly male) were easily identified by their white oxford shirts. A friend of mine moved to WABC TV in NYC and was told by a manager he had to wear an undershirt beneath his suit and shirt. Clothing as a business uniform was, in effect, branding for service companies.

I work with lots of service company brands and it’s not about clothing. It’s about behavior, deeds, actions and evidence. Organized tangibles that support a brand claim.  

Selling the need for this organizing principle is a hard job. It requires education. But the service companies that choose to listen and organize are those with the greatest returns, the most agile of teams and most powerful brands. Organized for success, might be the branding meme of the day.



The Brand Strategy Business.


It’s hard selling brand strategy. Everyone knows what a brand is. And everyone knows what strategy is. But no one knows what brand strategy is.

Here’s my definition and it’s the best definition I’ve seen so far: An organizing principle for product, experience and messaging.  As my Norwegian Aunt would say “Tink about it.”

Let’s forget the organizing principle part – that’s a where most brand strategists get caught up in their underwear. Let’s jump straight to Product, Experience and Messaging.

When talking product and brand strategy it’s somewhat of a chicken and egg thing. What comes first? The product comes first. Unless it’s a startup. Even then, the product comes first.  What a product is and what product does — I call this the Is-Does — must be baked into the brand strategy.  This informs current product positioning, future product iterations, evolutions and brand extensions. It’s an explicit roadmap for the product.

The experience is also fundamental to the brand.  Whether it’s the website, out-of-the-box or in-store, how one experiences a product (starting with packaging) is what makes the brain synapses fire toward brand value.

Lastly, is the messaging. 85% of all marketing budgets today are directed toward messaging. And mostly, it’s a mess. Ask any copywriter or art director – they’ll tell you. They get no input other than product specs, a consumer care-about or two, and eps file with a logo. Messaging is a bunch of words and images that are mostly interchangeable. Without a tight brand strategy.

Not all is hopeless.  It just takes a steady hand and a plan. 

Tomorrow, we’ll look at brand strategy and service businesses.



Popup Businesses.


The web and 3D printers have taken a toll on marketing and branding. The web, because you can put stuff up on the internet and pretend you have a product or service when you don’t. Pick a name, buy a URL, add a few stock pictures and you are off. Use social media to promote it (for free) and start your skin-deep business. This is desktop publishing not product marketing.  As for 3D printers, you can create stuff to hold in your hand, prototype and walk around to buyers as if it’s something you might find in Best Buy. With no thought toward production, supply chain, consumer law, or patents.

It’s a popup business world.

What’s even worse is these pop-up entrepreneurs tend to do all the marketing ground work in-house. They build websites with WordPress, ads with online templates, name things as they might their children, and fund startups with credit cards. Fail. Fail. Fail. Albeit Fun, fun, fun – until the credit card comes due.

Startups and entrepreneurs that do things the right way (and there are thousands of them), start with a plan. A strategy. A product requirements document (PRD).  They are more business-focused  than play-time focused. They make lots of paper before starting up the 3D printer or HTML.  

As Keith Hernandez would say, they start with the fundies.




My LinkedIn Profile…Open For Business.


I’m a bit of a stickler when it comes to certain things. I don’t prevaricate. I don’t even lie. I won’t eat popcorn at the movie theater until the movie starts and I don’t like to add people to my LinkedIn connections I don’t know.  In fact, if someone asks to connect I don’t know them I’ll spend all sorts of time tracking down their email so I can send this little note off:

Morning.  Thanks for the LinkedIn request. 

I try to stay true to the LinkedIn mission by only adding people I know.  If we haven’t met, may we quickly remedy that with a phone call or Skype?

Hope that’s all right with you. I’m flattered that you’d like to link up.  …Steve Poppe

I’m rethinking this stickle.  Life’s too short. As of today, I’ll be adding all comers, save for the few beauties with bountiful breasts, who are likely Russians.)

IRL I wouldn’t parry the request of someone who wanted to talk. And frankly, though I think Reid Hoffman is really smart, I won’t let his rules for LinkedIn guide my ability to share my business crap. (Did I just call my life’s work crap? Hee hee.) I am, after all, in the business of learning from others and making connections.

So there you have it, my LinkedIn is open to all for business. This morning alone I accepted one new and two back dated requests. Let the party begin.




Truist Brand. C Team Stuff.


First impressions in branding are important.  I once heard a young woman say she knew she was going to attend Wake Forest after seeing the front gate.  How’s that for branding?

In branding names are first impressions. Naming is hard but it’s so important. Just look at the name of the bank resulting from the merger of SunTrust and BB&T. Truist. What a cluster fork.  The name has been announced on the web. The video launching the name has launched. The video that sets the stage for the name change has launched. But the mark has not. Not as of this writing (6/25/19).  I was talking to a banker from TruePoint bank last week who told me the Truist name is in litigation by another bank with True in the name. Oops.  Trademarkia anyone? Maybe that’s why the new logo hasn’t been seen.

The Truist name has something to do with heritage name SunTrust. BB&T seems to have been jettisoned altogether. They would have been much better starting from scratch. Names are as much about the future as the past and if you’ve been paying attention to the news lately you’ll know the banking industry is moving. Moving more quickly today than in the last 100 years.

Can you say blockchain? Can you say mobile banking? Can you say deposit slip?  Hee hee.

Truist is C team thinking. A miasma of team-think. The lawsuit may be the best thing that has happened to his effort.



Brand Strategy Is Organized Proof.


Brand strategists are organizers. Not like political or civic organizers. We are value and strategy organizers. Most brand strategists think binary worldviews are bad.  They like grays. Me? I like a plan that organizes deposits in brand value. A plan where you are either on strategy or off. I’ve heard it said “If you are not making a deposit in the brand bank you are making a withdrawal,” which may be too harsh, but if spending money or effort not supporting the plan, even if for a brand neutral-value, you are missing an opportunity.  So I’m a binary organizer.

What else am I? I’m a proof-ist. Or proofist. As someone who grew up in the advertising business, buried in product and service claims that all sounded alike, I’ve landed on proof as my strategy differentiator. Proof is what gives people reason to believe. Reason to remember. Reason to be trusted.  Proof is performance. Taste. Experience. All existential. Claim is a promise. And idea tethered to proof. Advertisers have spent billions on promises, sans proof, so much so that consumers choose not to believe them. Claims flow and flow and never stop.

Hence, the need for brand planning — brand planning based on organized proof.

If you’d like to see some claim and proof arrays for real brands, names redacted, feel free email me…