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.




Love. It’s What Makes a Brand Plan a Brand Plan.


On my website and bio I let everyone know about the high-profile brands I have worked on: Microsoft, JP Morgan Chase, Abbott Nutrition, Northwell Health, Pricewaterhouse Coopers, ConAgra, Newsday and Sunkist.  But that’s me showing off. 

A lot of the work I’ve done and enjoyed has been for lesser-known brands: Excel Commercial Maintenance, Sweet Loren’s, Biz2Credit, Trail of Bits, Handcraft Manufacturing, and pro-bono Appalachian Specialty Pharmacy to name a few.  I’ve written before that a brand planner has to fall in love with the brands s/he works on…and it’s true.

You don’t set out to love them but it just comes naturally. The more you know the more you warm up.  Knowing you are searching for ways to shed them in the most positive light helps. That’s not to say you overlook any shortcomings or negatives but it’s our job to accentuate the positive. And that becomes easier as you grow more acclimated and more predisposed. Love may sound a little over-the-top, but it’s not. It comes with time and effort.

Sometimes the smaller brands are easier to love. They come with less baggage. Less complication. It’s all good. They are all fun. Love is love.




Discovery Is Not Rediscovery.


It’s easy to say “dump the cache” when approaching every new brand strategy assignment — as in, approach it anew, without any preexisting opinions formed — but let’s be realistic, our brains are filled with information. It isn’t easy.

The elixir to my discovery is the customer and prospect interview. I ask questions. I listen. I interrupt, with a healthy interest in what is being said. Not rudely, excitedly.  I reshare stories from my life so they know it’s a conversation (don’t tell my Rollins anthropology professor, she’d shit.) The point is, it’s only by digging into each new interview that I can flush the detritus from earlier references and focus in on a new brand.  (After discovery, when sleeping and cogitating about claim and proofs, old info may come into play. But that’s subconscious stuff and fair game.)

Every brand is and must be viewed anew. Every brand is and must be a treated and seen, not as a different flavor, but as its own unique entity. Pure. As. The. Driven. Snow.




Last Touch.


I’ve been learning a lot lately about marketing technology.  It’s fascinating and scary. I recently had a lesson on the digital metric “last touch” before a sale. The lead attributed to the platform where a “conversion” (sale) was made. The cool thing about this metric is it acknowledges there is a continuum of touches leading up to a sale.

This is great for ecommerce plays but gets a little hinky for retail. A decade or so ago, I came up with a customer journey-esque rigor I called Twitch Point Planning.  A Twitch being a media move from one platform or device to another. An example would be a Twitch from an Inc. Magazine story on the tech scene in Asheville, to a Google search for “Asheville Technology Companies.” This Twitch could happen all on an iPhone or if could take place while listening to NPR in the car, followed by a Twitch to a mobile phone search. Twitches are serial touches. And hopefully trackable.

The goal of Twitch Point Planning is to move a customer closer to a sale.  In other words, we are not just focusing on the last touch, but on all touches in the queue. We are good with last touch but not so much the serial bread crumb trail. Modeling the rest of the funnel is what martech (marketing technology) is all about.

The fact that we are talking about it is exciting. The fact that some companies are investing 90% of their marketing budgets on the last touch (Google/Facebook), though, is startlingly shortsighted.




The Brand Strategy Blur.


When I try to explain to businesspeople what brand strategy is, I end up using words like “framework” and “organizing principle.” But these words are rather formulaic and scientific.  I mean, what business doesn’t have a framework or organizing principle? So when the polite nods are done I tend to jump to the end-benefit. Recently, while explaining what I do to a graphic designer I tried to tailor it to his frame of reference saying “A brand strategy is the words a graphic designer needed to know what to design.”  For a copywriter “a brand strategy explains what the goal and content areas are of the writing.”  Again, a little structural, not so much benefit-oriented. So, I cleaned it up by saying “a brand strategy gives you direction, saves you time, and reduces wasted creative hours.” All of which save money.

The problem with that benefit is since of the advent of the railroad, the automobile and machines, saving time and money has been an oft-cited end-benefit. Having grown up in the IT (information technology) age, working on many tech brands, I can tell you efficiency, and money saving have been the end-benefit of 80% of ad strategies. Some implicit, most explicit.

How, then, do I talk about the benefits of brand strategy in a breakthrough way? I’ve been pondering doing so with a person-to-person or person-to-group workshop.  One in which I demonstrate the framework, interactively rather than theorize it.

Tune in tomorrow for more.




Flah, flah, flah…


My brand discovery, from a functional point standpoint, is a lot like others: stakeholder interviews, interviews of customers, qualitative research, experience research, a review of available quantitative data. Perhaps some primary research and scouring of social media.  I may toss a few curve balls into the mix and, of course, questions vary from brand planner to brand planner, but that’s the tool kit.

What sets one planner apart from the next is what they do with the discovery. How they wade through and mine key data and insights. Some use a brief. I use a brief. It allows me to tell a story and forces me to tell that story by prioritizing the learning.

All that said, one differentiator that sets What’s The Idea? off from others brand strategy consultancies is its reliance on proof. Or evidence of value. The kernels of proof that demonstrate value. For me that’s the science. If I was to tell you I’m strong, you might not believe me until I proved I can pick up 200 lbs. If I claimed to be fast, you might want to see me run and time me in the 40 yard dash.  

Having grown up in the advertising business I understand how often we bandy about superlative claims with little or no proof.  Copy or salesy words fall of deaf ears today. Consumers are inured to claims without proof. It’s flah, flah, flah.

Find your claim, prove it, then prove it again and again. Don’t waste a breath on copy without proof.

Doing so is costly.




Tabula Rasa In Brand Planning.


I have a hypothesis that marketing directors or CMOs who work for brands for a long time and move to work on new brands are at a disadvantage.  Their worldviews or market views are colored by the strategies and value cultures of their previous brand. They can make assumptions born of previous brandscapes.  Every brand has its own unique fingerprint. Sure, every brand has hands, fingers, knuckles and nails, but each fingerprint is a unique selling premise. And when a new sheriff is in town, and her/his market view is colored by brands past, it camouflages the reality.

If this hypothesis is correct, how does a new market leader go all tabula rasa on their new assignment?  Drum roll. With a brand strategy engagement.

If a market director without true power goes takes a new assignment and asks the CEO for funds to conduct a brand strategy deep-dive and the response is, “That’s why we hired you,” it’s a bad sign.  Or if the CEO says, “I know everything about the brand, don’t waste the money,” another bad sign.

As any good psychotherapist will tell you, no one ever got sicker because they looked inward and had better understanding of themselves.

New brand leaders can go off the rails when they make assumptions about customer care-abouts and brand good-ats based upon previous knowledge and products. 



BS and AS


Brand planners are reinventors. Faris Yakob, a leader of the pack, rightly says “all ideas are recombinant.” There’s nothing new. Only new packaging. I like to think we are reinventors. Invention being the mother of necessity and all. He just said it better.

Brand planning is like peeling an onion. Freakin’ layers. And more layers. But at some point you need to put a stake in the ground and deliver a strategy. At What’s The Idea? I deliver a brief and a more operative Claim and Proof array (a single sheeter). The array is a living breathing list of proofs, organized under three key values (planks). The time prior to the strategy being delivered is BS. Before Strategy. Anything after, the aftermarket discovery, is AS. After Strategy.

The beauty of my framework (claim and proof) is that all people involved are always on the prowl for more ways to prove the claim. With every proof unearthed we make another deposit in the brand bank. We are also giving the ad agency and agency-ettes fodder for new and exciting work.

Brand strategies are like children to me. Whenever I see a potential new proof point for one of my brands I light up. And pass it on. Brand strategies are 20% BS and 80% AS. And then you die.  Hee hee.





People that look like me.

Are you tired of staged photography in your ads? Are you happy with all the gratuitous diversity and inclusion casting in TV commercials?  It is wonderful seeing gay couples in ads, but why always on a couch?  How about casting ads with we the people? People not trained to smile for the camera? There is some progress, we are beginning to see some larger people in TV commercials, but less that 5 percent by my count. I also recently saw a woman with freckles in The New York Times Magazine section.

Are you one of those people who watch a hockey or football game and says to the screen or your honey “Sure are a lot of while people there?” I do.  I’ve even started a meme on social media where I comment “White much?” when diversity is totally and ridiculously white.

Here’ my point. Casting has a new imperative. More real people. No one wheel chair a quarter. Don’t check both boxes by using a mixed race couple with two dads. Real people. Zits and all.

All those marketers talking about authenticity need to shut up and cast like they mean it.


Words To Live Mas By?


The word “brave” has been used a lot in the advertising and strategy world of late. Friend Dave Angelo of David & Goliath has centered his business around brave.  A synonym for brave is daring.  Daring takes brave up a notch introducing a smidgen of danger to the equation.

When Taco Bell hired Lil NasX as “chief impact officer,” that was brave. The question was, would they be daring enough to do cool stuff with it? Well, the answer is yes. Taco Bell’s 5 City Drag Brunch tour elevates Taco Bell above all fast food restaurants. The brand has always preached a “live mas” mentality but beyond mixing some crunchy salty snacks into its fare hasn’t always delivered. Drag Brunch does that. So as a next act, how about being daring with other demo-, ethno-, psychographic groups? Do LBGTQ’s get to have all the fun?

I’ve written about how my brand strategies often make clients just a little bit discomfited. Usually, it centers around one word in the claim. My response is it’s not about the word, it’s about the strategy. “If I use a synonym, will you be okay?” Almost always the response is “yes.”

Brave? Daring? The best strategies live a little mas themselves.