Nowhere Land.


My new go-to podcast on branding is Fergus O’Carroll’s On Strategy. (He is my second favorite Fergus. RIP Fergus O’Daly.) One of Mr. O’Carroll’s latest podcasts in on PBR aka Pabst Blue Ribbon. Great brand name. Great brand name acronym.

It takes millions of mouths to create a market. Mine is only one but personally I’m not a fan of PBR.  Let’s just leave it at that. That said, the beer has ridden a wave of positive sales in “hipster” urban areas over the last 15 years. Good price, good targeting. Stars aligned.  But the craft beer phenomenon has conditioned the market toward more flavorful beers and PBR has suffered. Enter the brand planners.

Mr. O’Carroll interviewed two planners from DNA, Seattle who shared three key values unearthed during three brand discovery: Value, Classic and Nostalgia. In other words, it’s affordable, it’s a venerable, recognized brand, and it harkens back to the good old days of beer drinking. The only endemic value of the three here is value/cheap — which honestly, is an important value. But we all know as perceptions of inexpensive go up, perceptions of quality go down. So one needs a balance. Especially with endemic values.

The advertising claim that resulted from the three values is “Pabst is the place.” The problem with this campaign line/claim/strategy is that it lives in nowhere land. “Sitting in his nowhere land. Making all his nowhere plans for nobody.”  “Classic” and “Nostalgia” are inputs for advertising tone, not brand strategy.  Brand strategy incites great advertising. Brand strategy values — or proof planks, as I like to call them — must support the claim.




You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know.


I posted earlier this week that I don’t take direction when doing a master brand strategy. That may sound controversial, even dick-ish, but it’s why clients hire me.  If they could do it themselves, they wouldn’t need outside counsel.

Back in the 80s when diagnosed with depression, I didn’t know I was depressed.  I was having dizzy spells and my body was sending signals my brain didn’t pick up. A psychiatrist had to convince me.  You don’t know, what you don’t know.  If more people knew about the power of brand strategy they would be on board.  But brand owners/business owners and especially SMB chiefs think they know everything there is to know about their business. They do know lots of stuff.  But that doesn’t translate into brand strategy.  That translates into the “Fruit Cocktail Effect.” (Google it.) A common brand killer.

Brand strategy is very delicate. Very compartmentalized. Arty. And reduced. A brand that is all things to all people is not a brand. Ads, Promotions, Packaging, Search Terms ungoverned by brand strategy are a waste of air and money.  As are any other unfettered marketing dollars.  Investments supporting a brand strategy (a boiled down set of good-ats and care-abouts”) is money well spent. Money in search of return.

Peace be upon Veterans and veteran families this Memorial Day.



Client Direction. No Thanks.


I’m a fan of Sweathead, the brand-centric consultancy of Mark Pollard.  He does what I do but way more publicly. We’re likeminds I think.  In a missive today about ChatGBT he mentioned brand planners have a problem when clients provide a lack of clear direction.  He wrote:

“Strategists may struggle when clients or stakeholders provide vague or inconsistent guidance, making it challenging to develop effective strategies.” 

This seems very sound advice. In fact, I recently read somewhere that this a potential weakness of AI — the AI response is only as good at the question posed. Again, sensible.

Interestingly though, in my work, I don’t care if a client provides clear direction. When doing master brand strategy, I’m not looking for direction.  First, I follow the money. Then I interview key stakeholders, happy customers, SMEs and maybe the disaffected (if I can find them). We talk. I query, I follow the threads and look for anything resembling “proof of quality.”  The word direction doesn’t come up. 

What comes out of the sausage maker when all the info is gathered, assembled, boiled down and repatriated? That’s direction. Direction in the form of an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging. The definition of brand strategy.



Where The Real Money Is in Branding.


I read a passage in The New York Times yesterday quoting a Ukrainian soldier saying “Every yard taken felt like a mile.”  I mean no disrespect to the soldier.  I’m sitting in a comfortable chair not in a muddy foxhole. And as powerful and “real” as this sentence is, filled with life- and-death consequences it points toward something in communications and, more particularly, brand strategy worth thinking about.

What makes my brand strategy practice different from  others is “proof.”  My framework uses one claim and three proof planks to deliver the ongoing, ever-going story. Everyone in the brand strategy business offers a claim. It’s rare to find someone who mines the proof.  If I tell you I’m it’s different than me lifting your stove. With proof you believe me. It makes an impression.

As powerful as the “Every yard felt like a mile” reference goes it lacked proof. “I lay prone in mud for 6 hours, looking at the enemy through a 1inch window between my helmet and the mud. I urinated into a hole I dug with my thumb and forefinger. Afraid to drink water all day for fear of getting my elbow shot off.” You get the point.

Copywriters today are the backbone of marketing.  But strategists need to give the proof with which to work. The claim is the easy part, the proof is the money.




Testing and Brand Strategy


I was reading a little ditty on the web today about effective marketing which at first glance, seemed quite smart.

Test, then double down or kill.

  • Test everything, your messaging, your creatives, your approach, everything
  • If it works, double down and iterate further to see how far you can go
  • If it doesn’t work and iteration fails, kill it no matter what.

As I thought it through though, I began to see that while this may be good marketing advice – constant learning and positive movement – it is not at all good brand building advice.

Brand building begins with strategy. Ask a hundred people, you may get a 1hundred answers what a brand strategy looks like, but most will agree a strategy is accountable for tactics.  As I read the test, test, test advice I began to think about the whiplash it will cause marketers. And my neck hurt. Testing the brand strategy is absolutely called for.  But once in place, let your un-artificial intelligence drive the program. (Media tests are okay.)

Get your brand strategy right and get your strategy tight to save time downstream. If you test everything, you are testing nothing.




Boil Down.


I write a good deal about the boil down. The function we brand planners do when creating brand strategy — taking all of the fire-hosed information we collect, prioritizing it and illuminating a single claim that poses as the brand strategy.  Anyone can hunt and gather. Taking what is gathered and refining it into a key value that predisposes a target to purchase is the bases loaded swing.

I got some really great exploratory interviews with mega brand planners through emails telling them I had a “good ear” for strategy.  I think I used a dog whistle metaphor or something. It went something like this, “While much said in meetings is blah, blah, blah, I hear business-winning statements, observations, and insights.” Hey, it got me in the door.

The main job of the brand planner is the boil down. The “idea” referred to in What’s The Idea? (my business name) is what we are mining. But the job is not done at the claim or idea level. The “proof planks” are the heavy lifting. They feed and nourish the idea. And nourish the creative teams. The proof planks (3 in total) are, perhaps, even more important than the idea/claim. They are the science. The measurable evidence. Together, the claim and proof array build the brand. With the marketers and creative teams being the carpenters.

Boil down.  It’s what makes a Subaru a Subaru.




Oppo Culture.


In my strategy practice I borrow occasionallly from the political strategy arena — one such borrow is oppo research, also known as opposition research.  Typical brand strategy discovery for me includes a good deal of customer, stakeholder and SME interviews.  The sausage making uses some proprietary tools but I’m beginning to think I need to add a new tool.  One I’ll trot out an upcoming assignment. Oppo culture.

What’s oppo culture? It’s a clearing of the mind of learned and preconceived notions of ideal consumer behavior.  Then it’s going all Aaron Rogers on the topic.  That is, a one hour sit-in-the-dark “think” to conger up any an all ideas that might be held by consumers not likely to buy. Or even dislike.  Oppo research tries to find leverageable negatives in a candidate and this is not that.  Oppo culture is more like understanding a red stater in you are a blue stater. Or a Yankee fan trying to channel a red Sox fan. Duke fan understanding a UNC fan?   

Its intent is to provide a mental sanity check. A flushing of ones biases.  One hour in the dark should be enough. (How can you type in the dark?  Don’t. And no voice recorder either. Just let it percolate.)

Can’t wait to try it. I’ll share results when I can.




Brand Claim and the Boil Down.


“How do you know if you have a good brand strategy?  More importantly, how do you know if a brand strategy being presented to you is any good?  

When I present brand strategy, I’m presenting words on paper. No mood board. No customer journey montage. No recorded customer interviews. Just words. And those words, typically presented in serial, near story form, lead to a benefit claim – a single-minded value proposition capturing the emotional and logical reason to buy. Done right, the claim is pregnant with meaning and brand-positive interpretations.  Hopefully, poetic in its memorability, it will often sound like a tagline – but not a campaign tagline.

In addition to the claim I present “proof planks.” Proof planks are the organized reasons to believe the claim. Three in total. Proof planks cement the brand claim. Without proof, a claim is just advertising.  

Back to the “How do you know?” question. Clients know they have a good brand strategy when it captures the essence of the brand’s reason for being. And when the proof supporting that essence (claim) is not only familiar it’s filial. The job of the brand planner is not to rearrange words that make the client nod.  It is to boil down those words into a single, powerful sentence.  Like naming a baby in reverse — after they are grown.

No easy feat.



We Are Brand Builders Not Gallerists


Creative people don’t really like rules or incumbrances. Unless they are creating art for a loved-one. This highlights the traditional tension between creatives (in advertising) and strategists.  I recently wrote a brand strategy with a strongly articulated target. A target offering lots of spark. But in my world the target is only one part of the brand brief – is a serial, logic document that drives to a brand claim. The brand claim is the strategic directive.  Creative people, so long as they are happy with the artistic output, often think they’ve done their job if inspired by any part of the brief.


We are working on building brands not a series of gallery-hangings. We (strategist, creative team, client) are trying to get consumers to buy, then buy again, and again. To that end, we need to find the most compelling care-abouts and good-ats and codify them into a brand strategy (claim and proof array) that will outlast any campaign. “Coke is refreshment.”   

Campaigns come and go, a powerful brand idea is indelible. Creatives need to follow the brand claim. That’s brand building.




I Am the Brand Strategy.


Since moving to Asheville, NC I’ve had to refocus my business.  There are only a handful of large companies here; mostly mid-size and small.  These latter two classes are not waking up in the morning thinking about brand strategy.

Most small business owners think they are the brand strategy. That is, as the owner, they believe they know everything there is to know about their business. And those savvy enough to think otherwise believe they need to find out the answers on their own, not outsource it. Understanding what motivates consumers to buy from you is just part of an owner’s day job. First they have pay the refrigerator repair man. But managing a business around consumer care-abouts is mission critical. And that’s what brand planners do. The reality is business hardware, inventory, and tools always come before strategy.

In brand planning we call this “the problem.”

So what’s a body to do when a SMB owner incants “I am the brand strategy?”  How do we move strategy up the needs ladder?

It’s some real chicken and egg shit.  All thoughts welcome.