Monthly Archives: May 2019

The Branding Supply Chain.


The branding supply chain is not a thing, but it should be. A supply chain is a chain of custody of manufactured elements that go into a finished product. In electronics, it’s not abnormal for a component to ship across the ocean three or four times before finding its way into Best Buy.  The comms chip is made in the U.S., sent to China to be put onto a circuit board, sent back to Mexico to be assembled into TV guts before being shipped back to Asia for its screen or glass.  Then onto a huge ship to cross the Pacific in 2 weeks.

In branding, the supply chain can be similarly messy. First a brand strategy is created (hopefully). Then it’s approved by the CEO and C-suite. The marketing department (often in flux) internalizes the brand brief and puts their own imprimaturs on it. Bring on the vendors. The web people turn it into a home page. The user experience leads finesse it into a lovely journey. The search people seek out clicks. The ad agency develops a campaign. HR massages it into the welcome packet for new employees – 18 months in the making.  And frankly, few of the aforementioned have really read the brand brief. And those who have are probably the department heads, not the workers.

By the time all the work is assembled by hands inside and outside the company, the words and images have traveled over too many oceans. Then the new chief marketing officer comes in (every 18 months) and says, “So, what’s our brand message?”

Tighten up!



Diagnosing Brand Health.


In healthcare, diagnosis is the second most important activity – next only to treatment. One without the other isn’t effective. That is not to say treatment always works. This we know.  But with proper diagnosis we are much more likely to have a positive treatment and outcome.

Similarly, brand strategy requires a diagnosis (critical insight) and treatment (brand plan). The critical insight can be defined many ways and come from many areas yet in its simplest form it is the “identification of a business building or business detracting phenomenon.” It may come from any of the four marketing Ps (product, place, price or promotion) but rest assured the insight is a diagnosis.

Extending the metaphor, the treatment lies in brand strategy — the way we remove the obstacles or magnify the positives. A brand strategy is one claim and three proof planks. This “one and three” framework organizes product, experience and messaging in a rich, memorable and provable way…so as to build sales conviction. It’s practice and regiment. 

If you would like to see some examples of real-life claim and proof arrays and the diagnoses they address, write me at




Brand Strategy On High.


Yesterday I wrote about the need for brand strategy at startups. Today, I’m taking on existing businesses.

When a C-suite executive drives into the executive parking lot in the morning the last thing s/he is thinking about is brand strategy. Let’s take IBM’s CEO, Ginni Rometty.  She may be thinking about invigorating the stock price or how making more money solving the rising security concerns of top clients. Or she may be thinking about the impact of Medicare For All on revenue. But is she debating and prioritizing the “good ats” and “care-abouts” that will shape perceptions of employees, customers, and shareholders? Prob not.  Leave that to the branding nerds. Mistake.

In long term planning meetings at large corporations, the chiefs look at the bottom line by department: product, people, channel, real estate, taxes – not brand strategy. Yet brand strategy touches all those things. Brand strategy is an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging. It creates context for decisions across the corporation. From designing physical plant to hiring policy to pricing.  

I tell clients that when a receptionist answers the phone and is asked to make a quick decision on behalf of the company, those who understand the brand strategy have answers.  

For reals.






The Difference Between a Startup and a Give-Up.


Why should an entrepreneur consider developing a brand strategy while the product or service is still incubating. Or being built out? Perhaps, even before the product requirements document is complete.

Here’s why.  Because startups are targeting people. Targeting buying publics. And while product requirement documents are built for engineers, a brand strategy is created to meet the needs of those willing to part with their hard-earned.  

Most entrepreneurs are also consumers. But it’s not their day job. If it weren’t for nerdy tech entrepreneurs we wouldn’t have Bitcoin and Etherium. We’d have banks with more robots. So I love nerdy entrepreneurs. But what I am counselling here is to have your product requirements doc but also a brand strategy — built upon customer care abouts and brand good-ats.  Only then can you begin to measure true demand and effectiveness.

I’ve worked at a startup. I have worked with a number of startups. And I am currently advising startups. Makers and builders love product requirement documents. It gets the cash flowing. It gets the there there. But without an “organizing principle for product, experience and messaging,” your startup is likely to become a Give-up.




Brand Planners Are Not In The Ad and Sign Business.


Ask a SMB (small or mid-size business) owner “What do you want consumers to think or feel about your product as a result of using it?”  Brand-centric marketers might call this the “net take-away.”  The usual answer will be some contorted, ramble of about 45 seconds, with an occasional heavenward look and a smile. If a brand planner asks the question the smile is apt to be more self-conscious.

The point of the exercise is to see if the product’s value proposition is refined. Not raw. Not piecemeal. Not at all fickle.

If a business owner can’t settle on a good description of his/her business or product, then that owner needs a brand assist.  If they can’t agree on a fairly static brand value statement, something is not fully baked. And usually it’s not the product, it’s the owner.

It is the job of the brand planner to extract the brand value statement that gives comfort to the business owner. One that through a claim and proof array, creates an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging.

Some think brand strategy is not product strategy. It is. Many are not aware that brand strategy is about the retail or service experience. It is. Yet everyone will agree messaging is the brand strategy reason-for-being. And it’s this latter, singular view that most hurts brands. Brands planners are not in the advertising and sign business.

McPeace. (Not autofill for make peace.)






Proof Book.


A long time ago, during my formative years as a brand planner I worked as an advertising account person on AT&T Business Communications Services. The portion of the business I handled, following a large management consulting reorg of the business, was emerging services. That meant non-phone services; the precursor to internet and cloud offerings.

The business was parsed into 3 brand planks: reliability, competitive price (within 10% of MCI), and emerging services designed to increase business performance. We called the latter the Opportunity Zone.

The total ad budget at the time was about $125 million and at the beginning of the program we had no real map as to how to win our unfair share of the market. Someone smart in the AT&T marketing department suggested putting together a 3-ring binder complete with demonstrations of reliability, price programs and innovations to use when designing ads.

Let’s call that the Proof Book.

Readers of What’s The Idea? know that proof is a fundamental brand building strategy. Brand claims require proof.  Every brand strategy I present has a digest of proof points undergirding the claim. Even as a one-sheeter, my brand strategies are mini proof books.

I encourage every company looking to build a brand to look at your proofs of value and try to array them into three distinct and cohesive areas. Much the way AT&T did. You will be amazed by what you see.  For examples of real proof arrays, please write Steve@WhatsTheIdea.



Fast and Easy….Bad.


I asked a cohort with an aspiring web business what s/he wanted consumers to take away from the web experience – the brand experience – and the answer was it’s “fast and easy” for the user and “a traffic source and stress free” for the vendors who pay to be on the site.   

Consumers and vendors want these things, I know.  I worked at a web start up that wasn’t easy to use. And when something is not easy it’s not apt to be fast.  But today, my friends, fast and easy are the price of entry in a web site or app. (The only time you want to push fast and easy is when the functionality of the product or service is expected to be plodding and complicated — read: trips to the DMV or reading a financial disclosure statement.) Most of the time brand strategy should not be about price of entry values.

The values you need to position around should be human and endemic to the category. The more emotional, the better. Emotions are flypaper to consumers.

I watch Hallmark movies with my wife to balance the bang, bang, bang stuff I favor.  The movies are all the same story-wise but never fail to get me to tear up at the end. It’s a formula. When planners are mining the brand claim, they need to think emotional and endemic. Not just in a passage in the brief but in the claim itself.

Heavy lifting admittedly. But your creative team will appreciate it.




Brand Claim.


There are a number of words used in branding to depict the central idea of the strategy. Truth, promise and value proposition are a couple of favorites. The word I use is claim. Words matter, make no mistake, and in brand-speak the proper descriptor speak volumes.

Claim is straightforward and begets proof. Claim without proof is bluster. (Or advertising.)

The word proposition is much softer, nearly apologist.  We propose. Consider this.  It’s kinder and gentler but branding is about belief. Being versus promising.  Absolutism versus promissory-ism. 

While claim is the critical brand strategy word, the proof planks (3 of them) are the content upon which belief is constructed.  Anyone can make a claim, few prove it.   

If you are a small or mid-size business – or any business in fact – looking to improve your marketing effectiveness, ask yourself what claim are you making in the marketplace. Not what’s your vision, not what’s your voice, not what is your profitability…what is the claim about your product or service that makes it worthy of successful commerce?



Brand Glossary


I started my first big boy job at a top advertising agency in NYC, McCann-Erickson. Working on AT&T. While most of the team was handling TV work and producing print ads for The Wall Street Journal, Fortune and Time Magazine, I was hired to do the technical products: data lines, network management and software defined networks. I was the B2B guy, which suited me. It’s from whence I came. But AT&T and McCann were the real deal and I was scrambling.

At my first meeting in Bridgewater, NJ, I became inundated with acronyms and telecom terms I’d never heard before.  It was like moving to the Ukraine.  My head spun.  I had to quickly invent a game plan in the pre-internet era.  Laptops were few and far between. First step was to create an acronym glossary. One based upon AT&T jargon. When complete the glossary was probably 20 pages long filled with paragraphs of arcane descriptions. I brought that baby with me everywhere. As my team grew, it became a shared resource.

When the Bell Labs and AT&T marketing people saw me with my glossary they giggled but appreciated that I cared. I asked lots of questions; they never held back.

I write a lot about learning the language of the target. In account or project management, learning the language of the client is the first step. Only then can you translate that into the consumer dialect.