Made for People Strategy.


I came across a website yesterday for an electronic bicycle business opening a retail store in Asheville, NC. I’m sure the products are great but I didn’t that from the website write-up. Here’s an open letter form the CEO:

Pedego is the best brand of electric bikes on Earth because we put people first.

The most important part of every Pedego isn’t some high-tech gadget or fancy bicycle component – it’s the person riding it.

Producing great eBikes is just the beginning. To be truly great, a company has to stand for something…

Pedego stands for you.

Don DiCostanzo

This claim is the most-used brand position in the history of commerce. And to be honest, there’s nothing wrong with putting the customer first; I’ve written a number of strategies around ergonomics, for instance. But if I’ve said it once I’ve said it a thousand times, don’t make a claim and let it sit there. Prove it. Provide evidence. Be the claim. Live the claim.

When Nfinity sneakers says their cheer shoes are made for women, they show an engineering drawing of the unique weight distribution radiating down the leg from womens’ hip structures. And then there show the different shoe configuration and weight bearing areas. This is claim and proof.

Mr. DiConstanza, may make bikes that put people first (hate those dog bikes…hee hee), but he needs to build a support case. And he needs to pound it home.

Words matter. Especially in selling. Be what you say you are and share it.





Action Vs. Purchase.


Yesterday’s post referred to a Neil Parker article in Inc. Magazine, a thought piece on brand as verb.  As much as I agree with Neil’s points, one did hit a sour note for me. He wrote “Ask yourself how your brand can create moments that compel people to contribute rather than persuading them to purchase.”  

I am old-school, but for me all actions must be about moving a customer closer to sale. Marketers and brand builders are in the business of selling not “compelling people to contribute.” Commenting on a website or issue-related actions are secondary to sales — at least for me.  They are good-to-haves and it will happen organically, but they are not the main job of the marketing dept. There are other departments for that. Corporate responsibility, for one. Public relations for another.

Lots of smart advertising, marketing and branding people out there agree “doing” is better than “feeling.” I’m down. But actions that don’t ultimately contribute to sales eat up oxygen. Be careful.




Brand As Verb.


Neil Parker, strategy head at Co:Collective in NYC is a likemind. That is not to say we are peers. The dude is a rock star. I’ve been trying to get a meeting with him for 15 years, and did get a lunch with his boss, but Neil has higher standards. Hee hee. Enough grousing. Neil just published this article in Inc. and it’s sooo smart. His thoughts on treating brand as verb not noun – as an action, rather than an asset – is spot on.

At What’s The Idea?, that’s why we deal in strategy. Because strategy is an action plan. Action, evidence and promise-delivery are how one builds a brand. And that’s Neil’s point. You are always building, not extracting, value.

Marilyn Laurie a storied AT&T marketer often talked about “making deposits in the brand bank.” One could infer this means creating value to be extracted in the future. But we are not in the extraction business, we’re in the brand building business. When I worked on AT&T in the glory days, we had a three-ring binder of products and services that delivered on the brand claim. I called them proofs. This book grew by day. By hour. Because, and I bet you could see this coming, actions speak louder than words.




Brand Strategy Transformation.


Private equity firm Blackstone just hired chief strategy officer Jonny Bauer away from ad agency Droga 5 to head up a group it is calling Brand Transformation.  To start, he will work in an area overseeing 200 companies. This warms my heart. It’s proof of concept that smart and monied people are starting to see the huge value of brand strategy in business fundamentals.

When digital came on the scene a couple of decades ago, it took a while for the big consulting companies like Accenture to see it as an opportunity zone for business transformation. Now all the big consultants have digital groups – stealing revenue from ad agencies.

And with this announcement, financial equity groups are getting into branding. Next, and I hope it will be quickly, will come the VCs. (One VC in Boston, G20 Ventures, is already providing brand strategy for its portfolio start-ups.)

Brand strategy used to mean what advertising idea can we hang our hat on to leverage sales. Or, what tagline will drive consumer behavior. Or, what design elements will lock down identity. Today, it’s so much more – it’s “an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging.”

And as we like to say in brand planning, when you “follow the money” you now are finding new groups of cohorts lining up a the trough.

Good luck Jonny!



Product Insight Tool.


Have  you ever written an obituary?  If you have, it’s probably been for a family member. (Unless you have a father in the business who got his PR friend to take it on.) I did one for my mom and it was not a very good piece of writing. I was on a word count and it was, therefore, very informational.  Obituaries are an interesting form of writing. The NY Times does an amazing job with theirs.

One tool the research department at McCann-Erickson-NY used in focus groups was to have participants write an obit for a product. It encouraged participants to break out some creative muscle. But mainly it found them writing about product high and low points along with some personal stories and feelings. People tend to be nice in obits and that’s part of the appeal of the tool. Of course, the focus group moderator could simply ask open-ended “like” and “dislike” questions but an obit also forced writers to imagine a product’s demise and why.  

A neat tool and trick. Insights can come from everywhere. It’s worth pushing the limits sometime.



Brand Strategy Is Not Foreplay.


“How do I write a brand strategy” is search term to avoid. It is a well-intended phrase — one that shows proper marketing thinking and consumer empathy. But the problem keying this question into Google is the outcomes will be all wrong. Small business owners or neophyte marketing people shouldn’t be writing their own brand strategies. Just as psychiatrists shouldn’t attempt to self-diagnose and self-heal.  

It’s hard to objectively view your brand when you are the owner; but, more importantly it’s a misguided errand. Using the web to learn about brand strategy, it’s frameworks and tools is a rabbit hole. Effectively, you are looking for templates to help you with a brand articulation. It’s not effective.

Brand strategy is often seen as foreplay in anticipation of selling large ticket items like logos, names, retail/web experiences and style manuals. The money-makers. Companies that focus on brand strategy and position themselves as experts really want to sell you other things. So they salt the web with goodies and search-ables in order to get your attention. Educating the market on brand strategy with so-called tools only to attract your business.

Don’t try to write your own brand strategy. Don’t search the web for brand strategy tools. Find a company that cares about brand strategy and brand strategy alone — the words and organizing principle.  Seek them out. You’d be surprised at how fast and cost-effective a paper brand strategy can be.



Whither Inspiration?


When brand planning, there is collection mode and production mode. Collection is about research and interviews and consumer insights. The latter should be marketing-centric with a measure of cultural anthropology thrown in. The thing to remember about cultural anthropology is to never insinuate yourself into the equation. Never alter the behavior of the subject you are studying. And by asking questions, you are likely doing that very thing. It’s tricky.

Once collection is done, and frankly, it’s never done, it’s time to start packaging. Time to produce. At What’s The Idea?, I’m lucky enough to have developed a pretty fool-proof framework for brand strategy: One claim, three proof planks. So for me production is about filling those boxes.

I use lots of metaphors for pairing down all the info and learning and putting it into a one claim and 3 proof planks. The Boil Down is one such, where everything goes into a big stock pot and boils away the unimportant. Then there is the wheat and chaff metaphor and the cull rack metaphor. But really, inspiration for the claim and proof array is cerebral. The claim has to be right. Inclusive. Inspiring. Memorable. And the proofs planks must be scientifically accurate. And it all must fit together. Proof planks must be organically linked to the claim, not tethered or bolted on.

And the inspiration for this brand strategy? From where does is come? From the product of course.



Homepages: On-claim and Fresh.


When your homepage doesn’t deliver your brand strategy you’re making a mistake. Plain and simple.

It’s okay to have a functional home page. In fact, it’s an imperative — with buttons for navigation, pictures of products and lifestyles, copy explaining what you sell (hopefully).  But if you don’t land a punch about your main brand value you are missing a most important messaging opportunity. Perhaps the most.

With my little brand gambit “Brand Strategy Tarot Cards” I look at a company or product homepage to see what it conveys about the key brand value or claim, in What’s The Idea? parlance. In the digital age it’s très important.

That’s not to say you must bang visitors over the head with the claim day after day, but you have to accommodate it. Coca-Cola is still about refreshment. They needn’t say the word, but should convey it on the homepage.

There was a time when ads were your best image and brand building tool. Now it’s the homepage. And just as ads burn out, so do home pages. Update them regularly. Daily would be awesome. Weekly, best. Keep then on-claim and fresh.




Consuming the Future.


Scott Keogh, president and CEO of Volkswagen, America said today in the NYT “There’s never been a competitive consumer product that sits at 80% market share.” 

Why is that?  Well, if the pie is big enough, competitors will want a piece. Tesla has 80% of the electronic vehicle market right now but that is about to change. All the big girls and boys are launching EVs and want share. Which will be big fuel for the economy. From General Motors changing its logo to be more electric, to the people in charging station manufacturing, to real estate people thinking about what to do with gas stations — the EV will be one of the biggest sources of economic change we’re seen since the Model T.

I’m not a numbers nerd but I bet economists are salivating with all the models of growth to be considered over the next decade thanks to EVs.  

I was at Starbucks this morning and while waiting for my grande non-fat latte, pondered the next Starbucks — the next consumable targeting a daypart behavior that will change the marketing world.   The future of consumables is what brand planning and marketing planning are all about. It’s the sun in our morning. 

I love the smell of consumer behavior in the morning.




Brand Jab


Out of necessity, while living in small-market Asheville, NC, I am having to reevaluate my pricing model.  Without going into my process for brand strategy development let’s say it takes me roughly about 150 hours of research and labor to get to an idea.  But for clients in this market and encumbered by the pandemic, something has to change. Toto, we’re not in NYC anymore. Adapt or suffer.

Over the past year or so I’ve been mentoring some startup entrepreneurs through a neat program called Asheville Elevate.  I have not had the ability to do brand strategy for my mentees, as it doesn’t fit into the MIT-based program guidelines. It’s been hard trying to help young companies without having a brand strategy in place. Sans organizing principle, everything feels tactical. So, recently I’ve decided to try out a process lite to short cut my normal process with a couple of mentees. And it’s worked. I’m calling it a Brand Jab. Like a vaccine jab, it’s quick and painless. The process reduces the number of interviews I conduct, by attempting to find the one or two people most likely to speak for all targets. Rather than write a perfect brief, I cluster consumer care-abouts and brand good-ats and fast track my decision-making.

It’s not exhaustive. But it’s agile.

And I’m able to try it out on the market at a price point that should resonate. It also comes with a guarantee. For a quote write