Brand Strategy

    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.



    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…



    Health System Branding.


    I worked on the North Shore-LIJ Health System brand strategy about 20 years ago.  Today North Shore is called Northwell Health.  If I did my job correctly, the brand strategy should still be valid.  From everything I’ve seen, it is.  In fact, three ads agencies later, even with a professional yet rudderless ad campaign in place and a goofy tagline (Look North), I still see evidence of the original “system-centric” brand strategy. Some popping up anew after many years.   

    As someone who follows health system brand strategy, I recently came across one (it will remain nameless) for a which brand campaign was launched last fall. On the agency of record website this is what was said about the goals:

     “Integrated creative campaign that would increase system brand awareness and build a positive perception of the organization among the ____ community.”

    I kid you not.  Awareness and positive perception.

    The resultant advertising is beautiful.  Shot in black and white. Great casting. Lovely videography, maybe even cinematography to keep the quality and price up.  But idea?  Ugatz! Strategy? Ugatz!

    What gives advertising a bad name is freeform creativity without an endemic category goal.  The best creative directors want to accomplish something. They want to tell a story. They push for brand strategy.

    Healthcare system branding still has a long way to go.




    How Much Brand Discovery is Enough?


    That’s a fine questions Steve. I’ve done some freelance work where the shop wanted 30-40 interviews. On the B2B side, inclusive of technology, that may be too many.  You can never learn too much, you can never talk brand too much, but 30 plus takes time and reduces focus.  That said, in my last engagement I probably conducted 25 interviews. It was for a complicated tech assignment, however, requiring that I learn blockchain, cryptocurrency and such.

    Ideally, and things are never ideal in the interview business, one would get all the conversations out of the way in a week. That said, don’t over-schedule and burn yourself out. You need time for the information and insights to marinate and react. I like to use a pat set of questions so I can look at the variation of answers or the deltas as they say in the research business.  

    If you don’t do enough interviews, you can fall into the traps of projecting insights from elsewhere — and that’s a bad.  If paid to only do a few interviews you might rationalize things by short-cutting — relying on your planning experience. Don’t do it. Your brain will fart. You’ll spend more time looking for patterns that aren’t there and it will take more time, not less.

    Go long, but be careful not to go too long.


    PS. For a presentation of brand strategy framework with real examples (sans attribution), write  




    The problem with most marketing communications is lack of originality.  I was speaking to business owner yesterday who said he went to a seminar on branding where the speaker told the crowd everyone had to decide which of the two types of business they wanted to be: quality or service. (I hope he didn’t have to pay.)  Can you imagine, thinking there are only two types of brand or company? These are price-of-entry values. Not positioning values. And franking if you are not offering quality and service you won’t be in business very long.

    Branding is about originality. Finding new ways to convey value. Using new, ownable, believable words. New demonstrations. And I’m not talking a smiling face next to a stack of tasty pancakes. I’m talking a line out the door of the pancake house.

    Some say “nothing is original” in advertising and marketing.  And I say everything has a chance to be. Find your brand strategy (one claim, three proof planks) and invent originality every day. And then do it some more.



    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.






    David Ogilvy once said and I paraphrase, the advertising business is infected with people who have never sold a thing in their lives. Dude!

    To build on David’s thought, the branding business suffers from what I call the brand-babble syndrome. Incessant use of words – coin of the realm, if you will — that sound good but have nearly completely lost their meaning.

    I don’t know Scott Davis and I’m sorry to use the video featuring him but here is an example of brand-babble. Please note, Prophet is a smart and successful branding company (Hell, they hired Charlene Li) and I’m sure Mr. Campbell is a great guy. Let’s just say the video editor was an intern and approvers were on vacation. Click here to play.

    The only thing of substance here is the idea that brand is owned by everyone in the company.  However, he doesn’t say the word strategy, just brand, so the point is diluted.

    The brand strategy business is infected with words like “transparency,” “pivot,” “authenticity,” “transformation,” “voice” and “customer journey.” At the end of the day it’s words like these that cause many customers of brand strategy to not know what they’re getting. Or what they are signing up for. Brand-babble is the enemy.

    (For an example of a real brand strategy framework, sans brand-babble, email Steve@WhatsTheIdea.)