Always Listening. Always Thinking.


Last week I was walking the floor of the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACs) in Atlanta and the place was jammed.  Take that Amazon! Over my shoulder I heard someone say “And let’s keep marketing out of it.”  Como se indignance??? I knew immediately this was to become the beginning of a discovery question. 

Marketers, I know, wouldn’t be a good place to trot out this kind of question but salespeople would. And I love to interview sales people. Other c-level executive in, say, finance, operations, HR, might also be likely to have moments when they want to keep marketing out of it.  Why? I have no real idea, but it’s worth a dive.

So here’s how the question might lay out.

“Can you ever imagine a situation where in a meeting where someone might say And let’s keep marketing out of it? Please explain.”  Branders and marketing love what they do, but not everyone will agree we’re the be-all and end-all of commerce. Getting to the underbelly of tensions is something brand planners are good at, and this question is likely to get there quickly. It may not be one that helps understand consumer buying insights but it might just be foundational for selling the insight.

Can’t way to try it.



Is Charles Schwab Making A Brand Withdrawal?


Charles Schwab has always been known in the investment and trading world as a low-cost provider. Yesterday they announced they are waving fees for stock and ETF trades. A bold move.  Now I don’t know what Schwab’s brand strategy is but “A more modern way to invest” from the homepage might be the claim. I haven’t studied the brand so take this with a grain of salt, but I am comfortable saying free is not something they are going to want to position around. (And this is from a no-load mutual find guy of 25 years.)  

Modern is not a bad claim for Schwab, and free trading may be modern – certainly it’s a tech-centric position – but there’s a much bigger story here I suspect. And I smell a big spend ad campaign, supported by an agency foaming at the mouth, in the wings. What this brand planner might do is dig deep to find the underpinnings of what enables Schwab to stay in business with this new model. Investors are not stupid. They know a wo/man needs to make a living. Tell consumers you are going to make less money and they are curious. And skeptical.

I wouldn’t lead with the no fee story (sorry ad peeps). I’d lead with foundational, modern story that resets the table of investing. Make deposits, not withdrawals in the brand bank.




The Service Company Conundrum.


Service companies, commercial organizations that do not sell CPG retail products, are the least likely to have a brand strategy, yet are the most likely to need one.  I worked at ad agencies for many years and as my dad used to say about the business “the overhead went up and down in the elevator every day,” meaning it’s a people business.  When you’re selling people and their output, it’s hard to differentiate one company from another.

A brand strategy (an organizing framework for product, experience and messaging) helps service company owners and chiefs put into place a codified service delivery that elevates customer experience. One that is replicable.  

The conundrum occurs when the brand planner discovers that the customer care-abouts don’t align with the brand good-ats. If the brand is really good at say “expensive food” and the local customers want “inexpensive food,” something has to give. Either with the targeting or the cost of goods.

Problem is, most service economy brands just focus on with good-ats, not particularly caring about the care-abouts. And service companies can’t easily reformulate, not the way a packaged goods company might.

Understanding good-ats and care-abouts in the service industry is sometimes more akin to anthropological field work than business planning.  Certainly pairing the findings down to brand strategy size (one claim, three proof planks) is.

Service company brand strategy is the future of brand planning and the field is wide open.




Brand Design


What I do for a living is Brand Design. Not with a color palette or artist’s eye, but with words, deeds and strategy. Building an infrastructure upon which strong, powerful brands are built is the collective goal. Only when the infrastructure is solid does it make sense to start fueling the commerce engine. 

Midtown, NY is one of the easiest megalopolises in the world to navigate because it was designed. It uses a grid system with numbers and compass points to help people find their way. Greenwich Village, on the other hand, is laid out with curves and bends and family names and nary a navigational design element to be found. It’s like it was pasted together with available parts one year at a time. 

Many people in the startup world today, especially those without B-school educations, begin their quest with a product and Google. A search consultant will cast a net into the ether, filled with random search words, looking to see what comes back. Efficiency and cost per click do not a brand or business build.

It takes a plan. And brand design is an elegant and savvy place to begin.





There’s Proof and Compelling Proof.


Followers of What’s The Idea? know that proof of claim builds brands. Existential evidence beats out ponderous, repetitious boasts every day of the week.  The brain processes and indexes proof, it doesn’t process hollow promises. Sermon over.

So if we want to brand builds faster than the competition, we need to evaluate our proofs. I posit that the proofs shared between consumers are the most compelling.  (The Superglue image of the man whose hardhat is attached to an I-beam and lifts him off the ground always comes to mind – it’s a classic example of proof.)

Brand planners and ad agents are big on storytelling and storifying. As am I. But not for the sake of storytelling. When a story contains proof, that’s when it becomes compelling brand craft.

So a story:

I was working with a huge healthcare brand many years ago and interviewing a top orthopedic surgeon who explained how they were building knee cartilage. “First we take some soft tissue from the palate of the mouth. Then we add human growth hormone and let it multiply. Then we build a miniature, dissolvable scaffold out of an organic material and place it arthroscopically in the knee and inject it with the lab tissue. After the scaffold dissolves it leaves cartilage. It’s also the same way we rebuild bone.”  Leading edge treatments and technology was a brand plank.  You can see why.

Find your claim and prove it every day. The more compelling the proof, the better the outcome.




Be Good.


At What’s The Idea?, brand strategy is about the hunt for top customer care-abouts and brand good-ats. Once determined, the list needs to be winnowed down to three. I call these proof planks — planks that support the brand claim.   

One of my clients, a software company, does some very important work recruiting women into coding. More importantly, the company works to remove the toxic bro culture in a number of technology pockets. Not just talking about it, but putting their money where their mouths are.  There is no sane person the on the planet that could argue with a more egalitarian environment for women, so it would seem this would be a good and differentiated care-about.

I could have recommended it as plank in the brand strategy but chose not to.  You see, it is not an endemic part of what they do. It makes them look good as a company, it makes them a preferred software company, but it’s not a devout product of service value.  It’s topical, yes. It would have played well in today’s world…but is it a brand positioning point? 

Continue the good work. Publicize it. Hell, make it a core belief. But don’t load it up, as some might, as an “intentional” marketing value.  Be intentional, be good. Just don’t brand as such.  



Random Thoughts on Why I Blog?


Yesterday I asked myself the question “Why do you blog?” With nearly 2,600 posts and counting, it’s high time.  I mean I am a strategist after all, preaching focus and intent daily.  Do I blog to teach and make myself look smart? Do I blog to generate business inquiry and revenue? Do I blog to inspire thought and action? 

One thing I do know, I blog to become a better writer.  No wise cracks.

A great many of my posts seem to target people who don’t understand brand strategy. And because those people don’t understand, they aren’t searching for it. Chicken and egg. And to be totally honest brand strategy is a fairly arcane and untested science.

As for my heroes in the brand strategy community, they already know this stuff. They are informed. So I can’t be writing for them. Tyro brand planners? Yeah, they would find these writings more worthwhile. 

Potential clients, where the consulting money is, are searching for marketing solutions.  So while that target is into baseball I’m writing about football. Doh!

I like hanging with brand people. Talking insights. Tools. Learnings. And success. Were I to quantify the number of said strategists, however, it would probably number less than 1,000 on the planet. Some might call them a dying breed. (I could even link the decline to global warming if I worked at it.)

So perhaps it’s time for a redirect. From now on, I will make an effort to speak more to marketers, not planners. Maybe one or two more blog posts a year.  Hee hee.

Phew, I feel better.



Tangential is Good. And Bad.


In brand planning tangential is something to which you want to pay attention. Learning comes from everywhere. The broader you cast your learning net the better. Anything to spark and idea. Any new way to look at data, information and opinion.  Faris Yabok a learned and smart brand planner will be the first to admit his bailiwick is recombinant information and ideation. He calls it genius steals. To Faris nothing is new and everything is new. Tangential can be a good living…to a planner.

In business however, tangential is not a strength. Dan Guido, CEO of Trail of Bits, understands this. Dan is a master brand builder and world class infosec leader. He lives his business goals and plots the path there with rapt attention…minimizing distraction. He knows he can morph and slide the business based on demand and futures, yet tangents to core abilities need not apply.

You don’t get to be Faris smart or Dan smart without living with tangential awareness. The key is knowing what to do with it. On or off.




The Secret Sauce Of Brand Discovery.


At What’s The Idea? discovery is the secret to developing a brand strategy. Discovery being short hand for people talking about the product or service. And when I say talking, it can mean people talking to reporters — who do a nice job of capturing compelling thoughts, opinions and stories. (Tip: Find the best journalists or bloggers rather than the also rans.)  When immersing in a new category I like to ask people who their favorite “read” is. I once asked the publisher of Time Magazine who he thought America’s best editorial writer. William Safire he offered quite quickly. Even over his own columnists. I love truth.

Where rubber meets the road in brand planning is what one does with all the discovery.  It’s nice to have a lot of different paint colors but you can’t add them all together.  I was reading a recipe for remoulade this morning and dismissed it out of hand. Too much stuff in the recipe.  And I love remoulade. It’s a nice analog for brand strategy. Too much stuff kills brand strategy so the planner must prioritize. In my case, I organize into a claim and proof array. I can’t promise you the claim emerges first, sometimes if does. The scientist in me wants to suggest once the proof array is decided, the claim emerges – but that, too, is not always the case. It’s a little bit art, a little bit science.

But fear not — organize your proof into the most compelling care-abouts and good-ats (3 proof planks in total) and you’ll be well on your way. Back to the remoulade analogy, you’ll also be able to understand what you are tasting and why.




Packaged Goods and Experience.


I define brand strategy as a framework for product, experience and messaging.  The experience component is often a bit of an outlier but good branding companies take it seriously. Experience as a brand component is particularly important in retail and business to business but how does one deal with experience in packaged goods?  A bottle of salad dressing is a bottle of salad dressing. You can say “packaging” is experiential. Perhaps “labeling.” But opening a bottle of Samuel Adams is the same as opening a bottle of Bud. It’s tough.

Along comes the internet and now we have a little something more to play with. Web experience can be built so as to adhere to brand strategy. Not via messaging, i.e., pictures, copy and sound but through the actual user experience. The brand strategy claim and proof array should be delivered in actions, navigation and visitor behavior.

As an example, let’s look at Highland Brewing whose claim is “Pioneers in craft.”  The website experience should deliver on the claim. Perhaps some tips on how to make beer. Or a demonstration of what makes a craft beer different from a mass-produced pasteurized beer. Someone around the campfire this weekend said done poorly a website can be an “electronic brochure placed in the ether that gathers dust.” Well let’s make websites package learning, create new behaviors and reward deeds – that’s how you can upgrade your packaged good experience.