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.



Rage Against The Alphabet.


Google has built its enormous search business by creating “ads that are helpful.” The advertising industry, on the other hand, creates ads meant to sell. One business is shrinking, the other growing. Many consumers would agree they prefer to be helped rather than sold.

If you add machine learning to Google’s laser focus on marketing as evidenced at yesterday’s Google Marketing Live Conference, you might place career bets on Google rather than Droga 5 or RGA. But wait!

At the nexus of “helping” and “selling” is brand planning. Advertising agents more often than not sell. Clients make them. But advertising agencies, both digital and traditional, guided by proper brand strategy can’t avoid being helpful — because a brand strategy is built upon customer care-abouts. (Balanced by brand good-ats.) With a brand strategy as your guide, the advertising work can’t help but be helpful. It’s hard to be self-serving when being helpful.

So let’s all learn from Google and capture the essence of helpfulness, then wrap it in powerful product and consumer insights and beat the machine. Zack de la Rocha had it right.






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.)




A Screed On Personal Branding.


Someone asked the question last week on Quora “What’s the most important action to take for personal branding?” Here was my answer:

Don’t do it. Branding is about strategy — an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging — don’t live your life that way.  If you try to live a strategy you are limiting the development of “self.”

Why do people want to be brands? Why not just be people? Will it help gain more friends and followers online? Get a better job? Or be more superficial and have something to blame when it doesn’t work out?

Not everyone defines a brand as I do, I get it. But it’s clear you can’t build a brand without a strategy (the above mentioned organizing principle). The Kardashian and Jenner kids are not brands. They are people. They are a television show. People who sell stuff.  

Please don’t confuse yourself with a brand. Just go out an live a fine, helpful and caring life.  That’s the hard part. It’s existential, not strategic.