New Future of Work.


I did an insight piece on the “Future of Work” while working with ad agency JWT on their Microsoft 365 business — it was a blast.  At the time, who other than some epidemiologists would have predicted COVID 19 and its rampage across the globe. Covid changed everything. Two key outcomes for the working world were less meetings and working from home. The cry for less meetings is not new but has certainly grown thanks to Covid. The work from home phenomenon, however is new and here to stay. Ish.  

If you combine these two workplace developments the result is a lot of individual work product. And for me, that’s a bad trend.  Most people work best with fellow employees. As sounding boards. Lunch partners. Idea generators. Creative recombinators as Faris Yakob would say.  

The future of work is not isolation. Hell yeah we can do it. And it might even make us more self-reliant and resourceful short term.  But working like pod people is not good for anyone. We are a gregarious species. Whistling while you work is no substitute for communicating while you work. I get the head-down thing, I do. But we all need to come up for air frequently. It’s healthy and it’s productive.




Cultural Strategy.


I was listening to the Fergus O’Carroll’s On Strategy podcast with Harvard professor Douglas Holt yesterday and heard some cool insights on brand planning. Mr. Holt has this thing he calls Cultural Strategy which as a student of anthropology interested me quite a bit. Brand planners have to be cultural anthropologists, as they try to nestle their selling schema into current culture — with an eye toward creating future culture. (An academic would blast me for the last part of that statement. Culture is organic, not man-made, they would caution.)

(Pictured here, Franz Boas, father of cultural anthropolgy.)

One of Douglas’s thoughts is worth dissecting: “Whoever is the symbol of the dominant ideology in the category, controls the category.” (Clearly a challenger mentality, evidenced by his follow-on point that you need to disrupt the category leader who can outspend and out-media all challengers.) 

Two differing examples, the first supports Holt’s Cultural Strategy notion: when Oatly plays its save-the-planet card in oat milk messaging, that’s not an endemic product quality sell, it’s a culture sell. When I used the word “nestle” above, my point was one needs to nestle an endemic product value into the cultural lever — not use the cultural lever as your main value. With my client Handcraft, maker of the Potty Genius Potty training kit, we didn’t position around reducing disposable diapers in landfill, a cultural lever. We led with the “joys” inherent in the accomplishment.  The landfill claim was a support, albeit a very good one.  

Douglas Holt is certainly onto something. Most planners agree culture (and category culture) are robust insight mines.  But don’t pray tell forget what is popping off the production line. Product always needs to be at the heart of any claim or proof plank.






What Comes First the Brand Strategy or the Product?


My definition of brand strategy is “an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging.”  Most practitioners get the “messaging” part. And a growing number understand the “experience,” especially those with branded storefronts. How a customer experiences the brand at retail is more than a passing fancy.  Dunkin is a very different experience than Starbucks.  But when it comes to an organizing principle guiding “product,” many underdeliver — which is quite odd since the product almost always precedes brand work.

So why does one create an organizing principle for a product that already exists? Well, it’s useful when making changes to the product. When creating product extensions.  When franchising the product. When dealing with supply chain issues. How about when dealing with quality control. Or hiring people who design the product. Apple certainly gets this. No Evil Foods understands. Marmot subscribes. 

Marketers who fully understand their product’s, provenance, heritage, DNA, differentiators and UPS (unique selling proposition), have the easiest ways forward. And the most organized. And most principled.



Positivity in Brand Strategy.


Neil Young’s new album has a rather apocalyptic track called Human Race. Many of today’s social commentators seem obsessed with negative goings on. Climate. Politics. Covid.  The list rolls on. There are, indeed, lots of reasons to be negative. I get it. My friend Donald hasn’t tweeted a nice thing about American politics in years. The evening news is 92% bad stuff, one puff piece.

There’s a miasma of negativity surrounding us. It’s deafening. Yet life goes on. We try to be healthy, tell jokes to lighten the moment, and search for light.

One place positivity is quite important is branding. (Didn’t see that one coming, did you?) Planners should always be looking for the light. For the promise of goodness, success and perhaps a touch of elation. That’s how I run my brand strategy practice. Lot’s of planners look to solve problems. I get that too.  It’s easy lifting. Many marketers looking to branding solutions are trying to fix things. But positivity is my jam and I like to think it makes for the best brand planning.

Find a positive brand objective. Seek out a positive consumer motivation. Bathe your discovery in warmth, consumer pride and satisfaction. We have lots of time to be solemn. Our job it to position brands around hope and positivity. Not the meh.




Can Brand Strategy Enculturation Cause Disruption?


A not so new marketing buzz word is Disruption.  It’s been around the advertising business for decades and thought-leader Charlene Li has made quite a business out of it.  I’ve been thinking about the word and my business, brand strategy, and wondering if brand strategy can actually be a disruptor. My answer is a big fat “yes.”  Brand strategy, as “an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging” has the ability to govern the decision-making of employees and cohorts. 

When decision-making is in lockstep within a company, consumer attitudes cannot be far behind. And consumer behavior quickly thereafter.  Early in my career I leaned the fastest way to change consumer attitudes was through TV advertising. Smack TV watchers in the face with a message and demonstration enough times and they tend to believe. But advertising has been so watered down and the web has collapsed many of the steps-to-a-sale so as to make advertising way less powerful.

Brand strategy however, brought forth through all channels and contact points can disrupt business as usual. But it must be tight. Compelling. And category-meaningful.  When products and services live the life of the brand strategy, and don’t just talk about it, change can happen. And fairly quickly. That’s disruptive.

Enculturating your brand strategy is the ideal. First within the brand company, then within the buying public.



Tips For Field Sales Reps


A few years ago, I had a slow period at What’s The Idea? and decided to take a sales job. Direct face-to-face sales was something I’d never done. (David Ogilvy would have been proud.) Anyway, my job was that of a field sales rep and I was paid to pitch kitchen remodeling at big box stores and street fairs.

After a while I got good at it and did a little sales training for the company. Following is a sales team presentation I gave, which just came across and thought worth sharing. Enjoy.

I’ve been asked to speak tonight on Success At Street Fairs and also How I Turned Around A Slow Start as a marketing rep. When I first began at KM I used to call in a lot of zeros — and now I’m putting up my fair share of crooked numbers.

Someone once described a co-worker of mine as a guy who spoke in tee-shirt slogans.  He was known for memorable snippets of advice and wisdom.

For my talk tonight, I thought I’d borrow from that and maybe update it a bit by sharing some “KM Marketing Memes.” Memes being internet information bites that sound memorable and get passed along. 

So here are a few marketing memes that helped me at fairs and in my turn-around. Meme number

 1. Make Them Like You. It helps prospects open up when they like you. A smile is great, but is it a warm smile? A real smile?  In order to be liked it helps if you’re happy. Are you happy or just smiling?  Use humor when you can, it goes a long way to likeability.  And likeability is a real word in marketing.  It’s not easy to stand around and be happy, especially if you’re having a slow day.  So entertain yourself. Make yourself see humor in your surroundings and the people passing by. Make yourself laugh out loud. If you make it easy for people to like you, you’ve taken a step toward a sale.  Ask John G. about likeability. Or Arturo. 

2. Be Interesting. Think on your feet.  Ask yourself “How am I going to get to this person?” After you have someone’s attention, the best way to keep it is to “be interesting.”  Make customers talk, make them think. Get them to share. If you see a Montauk tee-shirt, ask “Do you have a kitchen in Montauk? Or do you surf Ditch Plains?”  Learning about people lets you be fast on your feet with interesting comments.  Bring them in. Being interesting means being topical. Be current.  “Happy Friday.” “Did you know today is free slurpee day at 7-11?”  Don’t recite the same factoids about products that you use time and again. Find new ways to say them. And use research to come across as having good business sense “50% of US kitchens are white,” “Quartz is in 50% of European kitchens,” “80% of KM’s business is in refacing.”  There are lots of ways to make yourself and KM interesting to customers.

 3. It’s About Tempo. The tempo of the information you share with customers should be set by them. If someone is in a hurry, also be in a hurry. If someone is just killing time, help them kill time – but don’t lose other customers while doing so. Don’t fire-hose people with information. Watch their faces. Do they want to talk? Or listen?  Leave time to listen for sure. Pay close attention to customers and what they want. Also remember, speed kills believability. It can make your pitch sound rehearsed.  It should sound to customers like it’s the first time you are saying the words.  Sometimes I wait until the customer speaks first – leaving dead air for the first few seconds. This lets them drive and is a good way to gauge tempo.

4. Kitchen Time is Exciting Time. Next to buying a new house, remodeling a kitchen is the most exciting time for a homeowner. Get excited with them. Share that excitement. When a middle class family decides they have enough money to improve their kitchen — to make an investment in their biggest family asset — you can see the pride in their eyes.  It’s like a vacation for the sole.  Ask about the house. The kitchen.  Get specific with your questions. “Does your kitchen get enough light? How is storage? Do you like natural wood or color?” Has it a functional design?”  Customers light up when I share with them how exciting it is to remodel the kitchen.  Get them talking about it.  This can also be a point during which you remind them a great kitchen partner can do the job quickly, on time, and on budget. Sell the KM single source advantage.

5. Educate Don’t Most people don’t like pushy salesman. So if you hear yourself selling, recalibrate.  If you can educate a customer in a way that moves them closer to an appointment, you’re much better off.  Education is the best way to create preference and action. (Remember when you were 5 years old and an unknown kid would come up to you and say “Do you want to be my friend?” Without educating shoppers, it’s as if we’re asking them “Do you want to buy my cabinets?”) While educating, use specifics about product value… this gives people things they can remember.  “We’ve done 50 thousand kitchens. We are direct-to-consumer. No showrooms drives cost out of the business. Refacing is half the price of new cabinets. Lifetime warranty.”  Help customers learn about our value and advantages. It helps them decide. Leaders educate. When shoppers learn from KM, they view us as a leader.

6. Read People. Some people in the store are sad. Some are deep in thought. Some are busy. Others have family problems. Read their emotions and be sensitive. Acknowledge it, and decide when not to intrude.  Tell crying kids, “It will be okay.”  For the happy suggest “Someone’s having a great day.”  Be kind and concerned for all. People can feel authentic concern. And it may help you the next time they’re in the store.  It’s a lot easier for them to remember you than for you to remember them. Give them a reason to.

7. Memorable Reasons to Believe. Marketing today is too focused on claim, and not focused enough on proof. If you find yourself claiming KM is good at something, pay it off with reasons to believe.  Some examples on competitive price: “We wouldn’t be at BJs if we weren’t competitively priced. We make our own cabinets so there’s no mark-up.  On quality: “We warranty most products for the life of your home. Our A+ ratings from Customers are 95%. #1 In Qualified Remodeler”  By using proof rather than claim, you remove yourself from the bluster of salesmanship.

8. Don’t Be Needy. Customers can smell a needy salesperson. A salesperson who wants the lead or sale too much, or who is too over-the-top, can be off-putting. As the Marketer Magic book says, “be helpful, whether we earn their business or not.”  It’s our job to make them want a free in-home design consultation. That can’t be forced, but is may be encouraged. It’s an amazingly valuable gift we’re giving them.  Treat it as such. And don’t apologize for our three qualifiers: own the two-home owner sit, don’t apologize — it’s part of a business model that has made us a $25M company.    

9. Read the Cart. Every cart that passes by at a BJs tells a story. This meme is a little like the “read people” one pointed out earlier but’s more about the cart. How fast is the car travelling, and what does that mean about the shopper? Is the cart being used as a crutch, holding up an elderly or tired customer?  Is it full or empty?  Full carts can mean the person may not like shopping or has little time during the week to do so. A cart with a few items may mean a frequent shopper who has extra leisure time. A cake in the cart suggests an impending celebration. Does the cart have squeaky wheels?  If so, it might mean the shopper has a high threshold for pain or is lazy. Or hearing impaired.  That’s actually a joke. Ish. Do they buy organic products? This might be a cue to talk about refacing as a sustainable solution.  If there are 6 gallons of oil in the shopping cart it can mean they are at work. If the shopper is head down, double checking the receipt, they may be very price-conscious – someone for whom the $1500 and $500 promotions are worth pushing hard.  I’m not telling you to go all Sherlock Holmes every time a cart passes but little cues can help you start a dialogue. And big cues may help relate to shoppers and inform how to build your case for a KM consult.  Lastly, 

10. Be Fastidious About Your Display. Maybe this should have been my first point, but I’ll close with it to make it memorable. I set up my display so it’s as eye-catching as possible. Not over-crowded. Not too busy. Like a good web home page, don’t give customers too much to look at.  Use your best samples. Keep them beautiful and aligned. I sometimes prop doors up with pennies to make sure they are level.  Walk up the aisle to check sight lines. Be fastidious about the cleanliness of your samples and tablecloth. Let the display do a great deal of the work attracting customers. The display is your most important selling tool. And using the 6 foot table, it improves your chance of Quick Setting by 33%.     

I don’t expect you to put these ideas on a tee-shirt or share them on the web, but if they help you get one more Quick Set a week – or even just make you a little more spry at a BJs on any given Sunday, then maybe they’ve helped.

Thank you.

Hope some of these insights helps with your sales adventure.





Brand Strategy is Business Strategy Requited.


“Decision making filter” are words Ana Andjelic uses to describe brand. I wonder if we are kin from another mother.  When I read her newsletter post “Why VCs should pay attention to brands,” I felt a special kinship. My descriptor for brand strategy is “An organizing principle for product, experience and messaging.” And if you boil down my words or ladder them down, it yields decision-making filter. Take action based upon a strategy.

When we use words the brand rather than business, business people get uncomfortable.  They think we’re talking brand ephemera: logo, color palette, tagline, voice, and such. HELL NO. We are talking strategy. Strategy that is bi-directional. Or full duplex. That means we are not just leveling a strategy at consumers, but we are bringing consumers into the strategy, so they can play it back to us. So they believe they are the participants and propagators of the mission.

Business strategy is one way. Brand strategy is two-way. Love can be unrequited, but it’s not fulsome love. Brand strategy is business strategy requited.

Why Ana’s post is important is VCs tend to stop at business strategy – at financial viability and ferocious growth.  Branding is about completing the circle. Creating a fertile, long-term garden. One that fertilizes itself.




The Creative Brief.


Words are important. Especially to creative people.

Creative directors, art directors and copywriters all have their own way of making decisions about what constitutes good creative. Certainly, the output is mission critical. But good creative know the ability to motivate action and preference among consumers is most critical. And that means action beyond liking the ad.

One of the key stimuli for a creative team is the brief: the document that sets the stage and strategy for the execution. There are a couple of different type of words used in a brief: science words and sales words.  “Science” words are the what and the why – the evidence of the product and claim. “Sales” are the word flourishes that are supposed to excite the creative team into creating great ads.  The problem is, creative people don’t want to read briefs that are salesy.  Exposition that is anything more than a valid claim, specs, advantages and competitive superiority are bullshit to them.  Creative people know this because they are in the bullshit business. They see it and smell if before anyone.

Tell a creative person your widget is more reliable and they seize up. Tell them it has a gold-plated framis that last 10 times longer and they can get to work.  

This is why creatives prefer shorter briefs. It’s easier for them to remove the sell from the science.






Mission Health headquartered in Asheville, NC and owned by for-profit hospital group HCA out of Nashville has been under fire for a couple of years since its purchase.  Quality of care issues have arisen, as have the cost of care, and physician attrition. Mission has some image work to do.

Hospitals are notoriously bad advertisers. The occasional big brand hospital invests in a good ad agency and the work turns out well, but that’s the exception.

The ad herewith from Mission Health is an example of poor ad craft.

The one-word headline “Commitment” is lazy. Even with the subhead “That’s my mission,” an obvious play on the brand name, the line is meaningless. These are the words of trauma Nurse Jackie, the ad’s visual:

“I am deeply committed to this community. I’ve lived here all my life and have also been a part of the Mission family for more than 20 years. Now, as Assistant Chief Nursing Officer, I play a direct role in ensuring Mission remains the top trauma center in Western North Carolina.” 

Below this quote are the words “Dedicated to our patients. Committed to our employees.

Let’s parse the communications. Nurse Jackie is committed. That’s the claim. But the only proof of this (commitment) claim (better known as reason to believe) is that she has worked at Mission for 20 years and been promoted.

You can’t make a claim in an ad and not prove it. It’s a waste of money. And commitment is just about the most common ad strategy for hospitals since “care and caring.”

I really, really want Mission to succeed.  They do a lot of good medical work in the community. But when it comes to advertising (and branding) they’re not committed.






Hunt For Heroes.


If you haven’t yet guessed, I’m a big fan of brand planning. It’s a fundy (as Keith Hernandez would say) for proper marketing.  One of my favorite brand discovery pastimes is hunting for heroes.

My enthusiasm for heroes goes way back. While working at McCann-Erickson one of my favorite interview questions was “Tell me about one of your heroes.”  A fairly opened-ended question, it helped me discern a candidate’s social and/or professional proclivities. And the depth of those proclivities.

Today, in brand discovery, I’m always looking for category heroes. When social media first came along, I hunted up Posters. Original content creators.  Finding heroes was easy then. They had big audiences and important ideas to share. Heroes, shared for the betterment of the public. It started with people like Kandee Johnson, Melting Mama and dana boyd. But then the social web begat “influencers” whose intentions were more personal and skin deep. Less heroic. Posters also begat Pasters — people who curated others’ thoughts — also making it harder to finding category heroes.

Heroes tend to be selfless. Their agendas are the agenda of the people. (Not unlike Native American chiefs.) Heroes, like the tide, lifts all boats. Finding heroes helps me through my thought process. It quickens the blood. Makes my insights tighter. More real.

One of my contemporary category heroes is Aisha Adams.  She works in the area of Diversity, Inclusion and Equity. She’s consumed by the topic. She shares to a fault, has an amazing sensitivity, and is most definitely part of the solution.  Heroes are out there — it just takes a little more work to find them.

Wake up every morning during your brand planning assignment and hunt up some heroes. It’s sooo worth it.