What I Do for a Living.


When people ask me what I do for a living, as a brand planner I usually say “brand strategist.” When I see that quizzical look in their eyes, I babble on about writing “paper strategy” and creating an “organizing principle for product, experience and messaging.”  Which doesn’t really change their expression.  Moving forward I’m just going to say Brand Strategist which is kind of self-explanatory. (I used to say brand consultant, but that made me sound retired.)

The fact of the matter is I’m an advertising him/he/his. 

The most expensive application of brand strategy is advertising. And good brand strategy, like a good, tight ad brief, is the creative artist’s best friend. No one sees a brand strategy — everyone see advertising. That’s where the money is. So realistically, I am an upstream advertising person.

When you have a smart, business-building brand strategy in place, every tactic produced can be judged. As on strategy or off.  If it is on, you are putting deposits in the brand bank.  If not, you’re wasting value promotional dollars. You may get a click. You may get a sale. But those are not long term sustainable. Think win battle, lose war.

I’m an ad guy who specializes in strategy. And I build foundations. There I go again…





Loyalty and Feelings.


Kevin Perlmutter, a fellow alum of McCann-Erickson NY and now owner the brand consultancy Limbic recently posted about a piece of research suggesting “How your brand makes people feel has the highest correlation to brand loyalty.”  The observation is powerful and quite true, albeit a bit passive. 

Let’s look at two operative ideas here: feeling and loyalty.

Feeling about a brand is the result of the product itself and the positioning of that product by brand management. When Coca-Cola moved away from “refreshment” with its advertising and toward “happiness” they were looking a tangential or resulting feelings rather than an endemic feelings. The problem there was that lots of things can cause happiness. And so can lots of products. It’s ownable but only with a billion dollars. It’s a generic value. This was a campaign idea not a brand idea. Refreshment, on the other hand, can cause happiness. Happiness being a by-product of refreshment. One can earn happiness rather than position around it.

As for loyalty, nobody doesn’t want product loyalty. But one can be loyal by degree and still not have purchase intent. I like to create bias toward product purchase.  Loyalty is a marketing concept that’s been around for decades. But it’s a passive measure. Segmentation studies turn up flavors of loyalty all the time. When a consumer has a bias toward a product or service, they will go out of their way to purchase.

As much as this research is on track, in today’s analytics world where purchase is the primary measure of marketing success, I’m all for positioning around endemic product feelings/attitudes and creating bias toward purchase. “We’re Here” advertising and branding is no longer viable. Hear that Geico?

For examples of this type of work in your category please write Steve at WhatsTheIdea dot com.



The Secret of Brand Strategy.


The name of my company is Whats The Idea?, and it’s fitting.  But it’s not the whole story of this brand strategy business. To most consumers the word “idea” conveys a business only about an idea. In brand strategy the idea is important – it’s the key thought or boil-down of the brand’s value proposition. But brand strategy is here defined as “an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging.” And that goes beyond an idea. More accurately, the organizing principle is one claim (or the idea) and three proof planks — supports for the claim.

A claim unsupported or without tangibles to make one believe, is simple-minded. And sadly, simple-minded is what much branding and advertising is. Proof planks are the structure of the brand strategy.  It’s the science behind the claim.  Why three?  Because three can hold up a claim… and three can be remembered.

By itself the “idea” is not enough to build a brand. It must be supported by discrete clusters of proof. And that ladies and gentlemen is the secret to proper brand strategy. To measurable brand strategy. Not the brand voice. Not the brand mission. Not the brand personality. All mildly important, but not foundational.  Those elements are tactical and the domain of ad agencies.

So, if your branding agency or content creator who purports to do branding talks about voice, mission or personality, ask them about proof of claim. Organized proof of claim.





I’m a big fan of qualitative research.  The two most common forms are focus groups and one-on-ones.  At What’s The Idea? a good deal of my discovery is handled through one-on-ones. Here’s why.

A recent Homeowners Association meeting in my community was attended by a typical assortment of personalities.  It was a contentious meeting as a number of members were not happy with the current board. The main issues seemed the result of poor communication and power (centralized or decentralized).  Anyway, at its worst the forum went downhill when bullies tried to take the floor.  Think school board meetings during Covid.  Bullies poison the water. They make others defensive and seek retribution. They keep people from saying anything. And it is flat out uncomfortable.

On a smaller scale this can happen in focus groups.  That’s why I like one-on-ones. At best they are conversations. A sharing of insights, likes, dislikes and attitudes. At worst you have to pull a few teeth. But conversations are bi-directional. They are about dialogue. Conversations are how we got the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. Not presentations.

My best brand strategies have been built on conversations.    




Brand Strategy With A Limited Menu.


There is a West coast brand consultant I came across yesterday who does much the same things as I. From the screen grab below you will see the offerings are quite varied. There are 20 bullets. Very comprehensive. VEry impressive.


What’s The Idea? has 2 bullets. Only two offerings.  A brand brief and a one-page brand strategy. Those are my wares.

The brand brief is the tool I used to create the one-page brand strategy. The strategy contains a “Claim” and three “Proof Planks.”  Proof planks are discrete value headings, inherently tied to brand success. All interlock with the Claim. For a client in the commercial maintenance business we used the Claim the “Navy Seals of Commercial Maintenance.” The proof planks are “fast,” “fastidious” and “preemptive.”  Under each plank resides a list of individual proof points. An actual example or demonstration of value.  Not a platitude or generic, baseless claim, but a scientific, existential act, deed or accomplishment. People remember proof, they do not remember marketing fluff.

In brand strategy, proofs often become the subjects of ads, events or other content.

With all deference to other brand strategy consultants with menus, I give you a simple offering: an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging. I give you a brand brief and a brand strategy – the foundation for all things marketing. The strategy drives campaigns and voice and personality but does not dictate them.  That’s the job of the agency.

Simple is complex sometimes.



Think Before You Type. People Are Listening.


Any copywriter will tell you words are important.  Of course, they will.  But how many will dig deeply enough to find the right words that connect with the target. That demonstrate to a target they understand, sympathize, empathize and gets the reader?  Words can be found in a dictionary.  AI copy is not that far away, if it is not here already. Auto AdWords anyone? Good copy is personal.

I heard something on NPR this morning that struck me as a great example of words versus copy.  The story was about the shooting of Jayland Walker, a black man, in Akron, OH and this was the lede: “One in one thousand black men in America can expect to be shot by a police officer.” It’s a real smack in the face line of copy — but it must have been written by a white person because it is utterly untrue. I’d say nearly all black men in America worry about being shot by a police officer. Not one in a thousand. Parse the sentence and it may have been accurate — statistically one in one thousand black men may be shot by police. But that’s not what a black man is likely to hear.

We have to listen to our words. We have to try to contextualize our words.  That shit isn’t woke. It’s listening and thinking. Think before you type.

Rest In Peace Jayland Walker.


Brand Roots.


A brand strategy is only as strong as its roots.  I’m in the roots business. With roots in place, it is then up to the CEO, CMO, director of marketing and brand managers to do the cultivation work.  Otherwise, a brand strategy is a piece of paper and a bunch of words contribution to the pantheon of marko-babble — no more important than a shareholder letter, an about section on the web, or ad in a charity program.

Roots are where growth comes from.  And I’m not talking about sales growth, I’m talking about strategy and tactical growth. You see, tactics today comprise 85% of marketing budgets. Check your marketing budget. And tactics are what we measure for sales effectiveness. But tactics sans brand strategy (the organizing principle for product, experience and messaging) do not grow into healthy trees.  When a brand strategy is managed well, everyone at a company is looking for ways to prove the strategy.

When working at McCann-Erickson NY on AT&T, I sent a brand idea to our CEO John Dooner. It was an idea for a demonstration of “refreshment,” the Coke brand idea. It may have been one of the most brazen things I had ever done. I didn’t send an idea to do more advertising, I sent an idea to support the brand claim.

Coke had great roots. People knew how to feed them.



The Science of Brand Purchase.


Asking people if they will buy a product is a form of quantitative marketing research. It’s directional but flawed.

We launched a web page development product in 2007 that quantitative research told us was something people would use like crazy. The functionality of the tool: uploading pictures, video, audio, original text and other digital objects, like Facebook and MySpace yet without the restrictions of a design template, was universally desired. Projections were for 60% adoption of adult targets. On paper.

When the product launched, usability was poor. Not intuitive to the non-techie prospect. The startup failed — even though the research suggested otherwise.

Asking people why they bought a product after purchase is a more accurate form of market research. And a better predictor of future results. But for startups it becomes a chicken and egg thing.

When a brand strategy client is having a poor sales swing, it’s my job to understand why. It’s my job to get inside consumer heads and reason out the buy/no buy behaviors. In my world – the brand strategy world – I look for the three most important reasons a person prefers a product, typically found among customer care-abouts and brand good-ats.  Then I package those three things under brand claim closely tethered to the three benefits. This becomes the organizing principle for product, experience and messaging aka the brand strategy.

This organizing principle becomes the science of purchase upon which to build quantitative research. That’s the chicken. Quantitative research sans strategy is science without a hypothesis.




How Brand Strategy Works.


I worked at an ad agency a while back that did the advertising for the North Shore-LIJ Health System, now known as Northwell Health. The brand strategy for the work used the word “systematized” as part of the claim — a word some of senior hospital management people felt was cold and impersonal.  It was the job of the creative team to warm up the claim, but there was no denying North Shore was a system and that constant measurement and improvement was their secret sauce. Still is.

Anyway, no matter who I met with at the system, no matter the clinical practice, the way to the particular ad topic was through a discussion of the systematized way the group improved care. No sidebars about how much they “cared” or deep dives into what they called “the highest quality of care,” we hunkered down in the measures and processes and, hopefully, unique practices. You see the tagline for the system was “Setting New Standards in Healthcare” and for every ad that was our mission — always show the standards and practices North Shore used to improve care.

Having that brand strategy in place made our job easy.  It made the jobs easier for the doctors, nurses and administrators we interviewed. In fact, over time they would know the questions we would ask, before we asked them.  A great brand strategy is enculturated into an organization. Same hymnal, same pew.

For examples of how this enculturation works in other categories, write Steve at WhatsTheIdea dot com



One That Got Away.


Newsday is a New York regional newspaper.  It serves Long Island, home to 3.5 million people. Newsday also has distribution in Queens. At one time it was one of the top 10 circulating newspapers in the country.

The ad agency I worked for on Long Island, Welch Nehlen Groome, handled the Newsday account, doing periodic TV commercials. Mainly promotional and project work.  One of the problems selling newspaper on LI was that it was a commuter island. Most of the heavy hitter worked in the city. And those people read the NY Post and NY Daily News on the train on the way home. These were NY city-based papers with sensational headlines and great sports sections. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal were big morning reads, filled with business and national news.  Not a lot of space in between for a paper covering Long Island news, e.g., “Blue Angels to Appear at Jones Beach July 4th”.

Much of Newsday’s circulation was home delivery; people who wanted Wednesday food ads and some local high school sports coverage.

I wrote a brand strategy for Newsday, the claim for which was “We know where you live.” It was a plea to commuters, whose jobs were in the city and who lived on trains, to get back closer to their families and neighborhoods — but it also reinforcement to non-commuters and homebodies, the position that the paper as better attuned with their lives and lifestyles.

Cool freaking idea. Tagline worthy I thought.  Someone at Newsday co-opted the claim to read “It’s Where You Live,” which was used as a tagline and lived for years. Unfortunately, it removed Newsday from the equation, a no-no. And it could have been interpreted as a simple usage claim. We know where you live, some decision-makers thought, was a little intrusive and perhaps anti-privacy.  Huge client mistake in my opinion. It gutted the strategy.

If adopted as a tagline, “We know where you live” could still be in place. A working claim and a working strategy. And strategies rule the tactical world.

One day I’ll tell you about my other Newsday idea to shut down the Long Island Expressway and throw the world’s biggest block party.