Monthly Archives: February 2015

SEO, SEM and Stem Cells.


stem cells

In my Pollyanna-ish view of healthcare I look forward to the day when we can “slap some stem cells” on a diseased area and healthy tissue will grow anew. Friends are used to hearing me say slap some stem cells on it. It’s a personal meme. Well, with all props and deference to Google, Bing, Yahoo! and other search engines, I’m afraid many marketers view search marketing similarly. Got a marketing problem? Slap some SEO on it.

SEO and SEM are the most amazing marketing tools of the 21st century.  I know a billion dollar company that sells thousands of SKUs of products to businesses (e.g., paper towels, chairs, etc.) that happily mails Google a $30 million check each year for paid search. This was a company that back in the day probably spent $750,000 in advertising. Google says thanks. Good algo!

I love SEO and SEM, don’t get me wrong. It is stem cells for marketing…to a degree. But it shouldn’t be used as a crutch. Companies still need to get the product right. Same with delivery, pricing and brand. I’m seeing too many mid-size companies hiring 30 year old search jockeys at the expense of marketing quarterbacks and it is having a disastrous effect.

Slap some SEO on it. It’s a quick fix. Not!




The Pedagogy of Marketing.


teacher in class

A couple of years ago I worked with an education company. Travelling elementary, middle and high schools in the northeast, interviewing teachers, administrators and observing kids, I was amazed by how K12 education is changing. And, in many cases, not. The tools and pedagogy are there, we just have to use them.

What became most clear to me after my time in education was a simple observation about teaching and learning. The latter is the result of the former. But only if done well. You see, there is bad teaching but there is no bad learning. Understanding the linkage is important.

This observation powered an insight that changed my approach to branding and marketing. Most marketing is about teaching. While the best marketing is about learning. The old days of reach and frequency –smother consumers with repetition– akin to learning ABCs or months of the year, is not how we need to market in the 21st century. Not with the constant bombardment of media and messages. And messy messages at that.

With a rich “organizing principle for your product, experience and messaging” (a brand strategy), brought to life through learning moments and learning demonstrations, you can connect with and motivate consumers. Stand at the front of the class and recite benefits (teach) and you will fail. Peace.




Early on ad agency Strawberry Frog jumped on the smart positioning of creating cultural movements. As someone steeped in the strategy business, I understand how powerful movement ethos can be. Movements are easy to talk about and aspire to, not so easy to create. 

Sales of flat bottled water grew last year by 11% according to Beverage Digest. Sales of sparkling water, sans sweeteners, grew 20%. If you are in the carbonated soft drink (CSD) market, you are smart to see that double digit growth as a movement. A healthier-for-you consumer push. Look at year-over-year store register receipts at McDonalds for further evidence.

Scott Goodson, founder of Strawberry Frog was prescient, with his movement positioning. He knew advertising, done well, can spark a movement. But he really understood it is not the best way to do it and he saw social media coming.

One of my Social Media Guard Rails is “Don’t Sell.” Advertising can’t help itself. It has to sell. Social media, done poorly, also asks for the order. But social media with a consumer-biased motivation — with an organized, well-plotted field of persuasion is a movement waiting for a place to happen. And if you support the movement with not too heavy handed advertising – making it easier for consumers to participate – you have a win. And a new agency revenue model. Peace!




Yahoo! Stuff-Makers.


I want Marissa Mayer to succeed. I want Yahoo! to succeed. What’s the Idea? posts over the years have perhaps been unkind to Yahoo! but only because I care.

Ms. Mayer’s strategy a year ago, to be consumers “daily habit,” was a good one. It was certainly measurable, certainly grounded in consumer behavior and most importantly aspirational. Habits can be ritualistic and mechanical, but they can also be born of the need for education, stimulation and positivity.

Ms. Mayer’s latest “follow-the-money” foray, however, into mobile technology is off center. And in the tech world she is not alone. Inviting a 1,000 mobile developer s to a Yahoo! campfire rally, to energize them to use new analytic tools and advertising plug-ins is goofy. Mobile app developers are no better at finding the next new habit than anyone else. In fact, they are probably less so.

Innovative daily habits are more likely to come from visionaries. Students of people. Behaviorists. Social scientists who like punk. Comedians. Artists. Creative directors. As Ms. Mayer looked out in the audience at her mobile app developer meeting last week, what do you think she saw? Did they laugh at her humor? Did they look up from their devices?

If she goes to SXSW, Ms. Mayer is more apt to find habit formers at South By Music than at South By Interactive. Trust me.

Ms. Mayer – please know, Katie Couric, David Poque and some mobile developers are not the future. They are stuff-makers. You need to hire visionaries. Peace.





I met a midsize business owner last year who spent a great deal of time and money refreshing his brand. The catalyst for a rebrand is often a creaky website. When your website looks like a brochure, hasn’t been updated in 3 years and has more stock photos than an art director’s attic, it’s time for a new site. This is often when small marketing companies or agencies try to sell you a new logo and tagline. Voila!

A logo and website — a new set of clothes — make you look sharp. A tagline energizes and organizes you, but after that “Has anything else really changed?” Has your strategy changed? 95% of the time the answer is a resounding no.

In the case of my friend, he worked with some smart people who knew a thing about marketing. The tagline, a de facto brand strategy, was alliterative making it memorable by design and, more importantly, was based upon something customers wanted dearly. But did the company do its part to deliver on the strategy? Did it operationalize the strategy? Did the company work hard to prove the strategy or the claim? Not yet. The story is still to unfold.

Rebranding is not a paint job. It’s a business-building. Brand strategy is an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging.  



Brand Strategy is Business Strategy.


There is a dissonance in my business. And it’s my own fault. I am attempting to redefine what a brand strategy is. I grew up in the advertising and marketing business thinking that goal of both is to make more money; or, as Sergio Zyman says “sell more, to more, more often, at higher prices.” But when I say I’m a brand planner or brand strategist, people think logo, packaging, taglines and style guides.

logo art The hardest task in advertising, also the most expensive, is educating consumers about a product they think they don’t need. Reeducating consumers about something they think to be true, but isn’t, is also heavy lifting.

So when I tell prospects brand strategy is business strategy, they go all “Huh?”

Most brand planners are about using strategy to enable tactical selling. Sow a nice fertile bed for flowering tactics, e.g., ads, content marketing, promotions. Me? I like my brand strategies to have direct measurable impact on sales. The brand plan must convey business-winning credential. Not culture. Not tone. Not likeability.

If your brand strategy cannot be tied directly to sales gain, it’s probably marketing art.

Find out what customers want, what your brand is good at, and create a strategy that offers bankable returns. Peace.

The Big Rebrand.


One of the cool things about my work is the propensity for decision-makers to want to rebrand. Unlike with personal names (Cecil, Muriel or Wallace) which can’t be changed — company names are easily altered or sculpted. Someone is always trying to distance the company from something.

That observation aside, there is going to be an even greater demand for new company names. All those companies or brands with words “Net” or “Web” or “Digital” in them are wasting space. To that you may even add the word “Technologies.” These words were descriptive back in the day (10 years ago); today, not so much. Apple dropped the word “Computer” from its name in 2007. An elegant move, no?

I often talk about naming and the importance of a brand’s “Is-Does.” What a brand is and what a brand does. The inflection point we’re at today is such that names no longer need to convey the obvious.  In this agile, competitive world, there is much more information and value to convey.

Let the renaming onslaught begin. Peace.

Phil Jackson, Yogi Berra and Business Strategy


phil jackson quote                                                Andy Weissman, Union Square Partners

I read this quote yesterday written by Union Square Partner’s Andy Weissman. It was mentioned by Fred Wilson in his blog AVC. The point of the quote was that venture capitalists are most effective when they provide a framework for decision-making to funded companies. Having worked at a start-up with a very special product, but no framework, I can empathize. The start-up went under but the lesson stuck. It stuck hard. A billion dollars hard.

My business, What’s the Idea?, a brand and marketing consultancy, is dedicated to providing frameworks to companies –start-up or otherwise – who understand the need for business-winning structure. For business winning decision making. I’ve written scores or marketing plans; the ones that work adhere to a brand strategy framework.

Yogi Berra said “If you don’t know where you are going, you might not get there.” To that I will add, if you don’t arm your players or employees with a framework they will have a hard time performing. Peace!

My Brand Strategy Secret.


Clients pay me for two deliverables: brand strategy and marketing plans. I can’t do the latter without the former. It’s possible to pretend, even hide the brand strategy component, but without strategy the marketing planning is a little bit like paint-by-numbers.

gem miningSo how do I approach brand strategy development?  I look for proof. How does a guy walk into a company and in a matter of days or week know a brand well enough to create a strategy that will operationalize marketing success? Proof. A hunt for proof.

Proof of what, you ask? Ahhh, that’s the $64,000 question. At the beginning, it’s way too early to tell. Each brand presents a clean slate. As I trek through fact-finding, data, sales, consumer and business partner interviews, I come across lots and lots of claim-ish fluff. But when tangible proof rises up, it is easily noted. Proof may be found in behavior. In deeds, business decisions, investments. Product taste. Product experience. It’s everywhere. With enough proof arrayed and smartly clustered, the brand planner can begin to formulate the brand claim and key support planks. And that is the secret sauce of What’s The Idea?. Proof hunting.

Rest in peace David Carr.      


Promise Versus Claim.


Any brand planner worth his or her salt uses the word promise. I use it all the time. That said, as I codify and package my practice–trying to explain to business owners and marketing people what brand planning is–I gravitate toward the word “claim.” Branding is all about “claim and proof.”

The word promise is so much nicer it seems. Softer. More forgiving. Claim, on the other hand, feels boastful. Perhaps full of itself. The fact that most advertising is claim-based rather than promise-based is not a trivial obstacle either, when it comes to defending claim vs. promise. I am undaunted; it’s still all about the claim. Why? Because consumers want value they can count on. If consumers are let down by the claim and they really care, they will say so. They will rebel. Sales will take a hit. With a promise the whole position and sales thing is more nebulous.

A brand with a claim needs to prove it every day. A brand with a promise has leeway. Less urgency. I won a huge piece of business once by telling a multi-billion dollar company they had a great claim, but weren’t proving it. The fastest way to return on strategy (ROS) is to have a claim.

When your brand lacks real proof of value, it’s time to trot out the promise. Which is about as satisfying as bad margarine. Peace.