I know it may be sacrilege but I’m not the world’s biggest Beatles fan.  The Stones were my thing growing up. Perhaps less controversial, I was not a fan or follower of Queen. So shoot me.  But let me say this, having seen the movies “Yesterday” and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” I am a big Kool-Aid drinker now.  Could it be that I’m older and more accepting — more Zen-like? Maybe.  But the amazing backstories and cinematic storytelling driving those two movies turned everything for me.  In fact, I went to the see “Yesterday” thinking I wasn’t going to like it — the trailer not being its greatest sales piece.  In both cases the movie-making craft, the backstory was brilliant.

Those in the business of selling things and building brands need to understand the craft of backstory.  Not just story. But contextual backstory. If we jump straight to advertising, you might correctly argue it’s hard to do backstory. Especially in a :30 spot or page of print. But the good ones try. And the good ones can deliver deep context quickly.

If you want to convince someone of something new or change their opinion of something old, you can’t spend your time selling. You have to deliver some humanity. Some subject empathy. True thought stimulation. Make the viewer a participant, not a consumer. That’s what backstory does.




An Internship Idea.


Ton of companies hire interns. Let’s face it, you get good, motivated talent for free and milk it. Sometimes you get some truly cool work that has an economic impact. Internships are the haps, as Dave Robicheaux or Cletus might say.  But is there an opportunity to do more with an internship from the company point of view? I believe so.

When the engagement is over, sponsoring companies should ask the question “What did we learn from this intern?” and do a write up. It’s a smart exercise. If the company didn’t learn much, it wasn’t trying. Interns go through a vetting process, so they were deemed capable to begin with. And if the intern wasn’t motivated to perform that’s important learning. And needs to be fixed.  But the hope is that the intern will perform. And will provide value. And that value will teach the hiring company a thing or two. After all these tyro employees are next gen consumers.   

Companies like to take pictures of their graduating interns. They promote intern fun on Instagram. They post thank you videos at the end of the summer. But what really inspires an intern is knowing they had an impact. It’s the least we can offer. Whet the way for growth.




Master Brand Planning.


On this planet there are thousands of brand planners. Most work at ad agencies. Lots work at small boutiques. And like me, hundreds and hundreds, either through ageism or salary-ism, have been pastured. No matter their station, the lions share of brand planners work on projects. That is to say, the main brand has been planned and the strategist is asked to handle a particular sub-effort: perhaps an ad campaign, service launch/relaunch, web initiative or demand generation program.

At What’s The Idea?, I/we (not a gender thing) work upstream of so-called projects. I create brand strategy for the master brand. That is, I work on the organizing principle for product, experience and messaging. The organizing principle that drives all projects.  

With the master “brand claim and proof array” out of the way, brand planners working at the project level have a big head start.  As do product development people. Product management. And more importantly, executive management. And please don’t suggest this in anyway curtails creativity. Quite the opposite.

A powerful brand claim and proof array becomes the money that goes into the bank. Revenue is revenue.  Everyone has it. But a powerful brand strategy – at the master brand level – undergirds every successful brand. For examples write Steve@WhatsTheIdea.



Atmosphere and Brand Planning.


Brand planners have to get out of the building. And they should even leave their computers home from time to time.  “Atmosphere” is one of the key tools of the planner. It’s where senses other than the ears take over and instill. You can’t smell fear in an interview. You can’t experience unbridled joy while typing interview responses. Atmosphere creates in situ observations and muscle memory for planners and ethnographers. Where deeds and proof emerge that stick with you when it comes time to write your brief or organize your thoughts.

Part of my discovery is interviewing people – absolutely with the computer at my fingertips.  I complain about my typing ability to which cohorts ask “Why don’t you use a voice reorder?” My reply: “If it’s not important enough to type, it’s probably not going to make it in the brief.”  If the interviewee is going too quickly to capture everything, I slow them down and ask for a redo. It’s the same with atmosphere. The stuff that flies by isn’t as important as the stuff that sticks. (This ability may be an innate planner good-at.) Observing what’s important versus what’s not. Things the eyes see.  The schnoz smells. The tones the ears compels.

Staring at a computer screen or paper notes is not atmosphere. Atmosphere is sensual.  Get some before you start organizing.




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.