Strategy is Your Muse.


I don’t know about you but I do some of my best work when in a group setting. Riffing and recontextualizing other’s ideas.  Group think can be messy if the group is too big and unstructured, but when the numbers are small enough for conversations to take place, ideation can soar.

In advertising, known as a creative business, most creative teams have a visual person and word person.  Both understand each other and their respective crafts and a chemistry results. They present ideas to a creative boss, who helps them focus, refocus and finesse. A team.

Problem is, business people and marketers we aren’t always in a position to work in groups.  Sometimes is just you and your computer. Or you and a research report.  You and the inventory. It’s lonely having to make decisions in a vacuum.  That’s why strategy is so, so important.  Strategy becomes one’s muse. It’s both a starting place and an endpoint.  It gives you a catalyst for what must come in the middle. The thinking.

Brand strategy is an organizing principle for marketing. It’s delimiting and inspiring.

If you don’t have a brand strategy, you will waste a lot of time and have a lonely time doing it.



Brand Strategy and Messaging.


One of my brand planning memes is the definition of brand strategy: “An organizing principle for product, experience and messaging.” I was working on a readout for a specialty pharmacy company using this definition when it dawned on me that maybe it’s time to subjugate “messaging” by surrounding it with parentheses.

Even though messaging is what most people are concerned with when thinking about brand strategy, I’m having second thoughts.  It is where a lot of the marketing budget goes, especially for companies with out-sized advertising budgets — but I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s really secondary to “product” and “experience.” 

Get the organizing principle right for product and the experience and it’s going to be hard to get the “message” wrong.  And advertising messaging should never, ever be the tail that wags the dog.




SMEs and Copy Points.


I’ve interviewed hundreds and hundreds of people while doing brand discovery. Some at the absolute top of their fields. Highly impressive people. I’ve worked with members of Bell Labs, software engineers and healthcare system CEOs. People are so interesting if you give them the opportunity. And some bait.  But one thing I’ve found when interviewing so-called SMEs (subject matter experts), is that they often answer questions with what I call copy points — dumbed down generalizations about what makes their product or service better.  It’s like they are copywriters. 

For a recent interview I asked a CEO who sells software to specialty pharmacists about differentiators. Here’s what she said:

“We provide one-on-one specialized services. With us you are not a number, you’re a person. We are more focused on your individual wants and needs.”

Woo. What Am I going to do with that? 

So we probe. We ask for examples. We storify and cajole. I did get what I needed but this CEO started out spouting copy.

As smart as SMEs are, they often need to be drilled in more evidentiary explanations of value. SMEs are conditioned by poor marketing claims too. And like the rest of us they have been conditioned all their lives.



Branding Is an Act.


In his farewell Op-Ed piece in The NY Times last week John Lewis said about democracy “It is not a state. It is an act.”  Well, this statement can be co-opted for brand craft as well.

Branding, the act of making brands, is an active pursuit.  It takes the actions of brand managers and consumers. Consumers build brands by consuming but also by advocating. By sharing their experiences with friends. Or, in the online world, with other consumers. Advocates with no agenda are easy to believe.

When I refer to brand strategy as an “organizing principle for product, experience and messaging” I am outlining a simplified way of packaging a product or service, highlighting what is most special about it and what customers most desire from it. This organizing principle helps the product people say on track but it also conditions consumer expectations and repsonse.

When brand managers and cohorts stick to the plan, consumers experience the benefits in expected, replicable and understandable ways. Branding is not a state it’s an act. An ongoing act.

Too many marketers rely on telling consumer what to feel rather than making them feel. A flaw in the system.




Leadership During The Pandemic.


Smart business leaders learn a lot about their business while under duress.  And there’s probably been no bigger moment of duress around the world in my lifetime, than the Corona Virus.  9/11, some might argue, was bigger. And the financial banking collapse is certainly in the running. But the pandemic is touching almost everyone on the planet.

Leaders are grappling with supply chains. Employee reductions and furloughs. Bank credit, taxes and consumer demand drop-offs.  So many pucks are being fired at leaders at the same time, it’s hard for them to think about positive things. But good business leaders are looking out for any business positive issues that rise to the surface. Good ideas about work-arounds. New offerings to help customers. More efficient ways of doing business. Delivering business. And improvements to the business experience.

Learning while under duress is powerful learning.  Politics aside, the government is trying to do its best to help small and large businesses.  Much as we came out of the financial crisis stronger and with better governing principles, we will also emerge from the pandemic better prepared.

New business leaders and government leaders will emerge. They can’t help but.



Vision Quest? Nah.


I am beginning to think I need to get out of the strategy business and into the vision business.  Everywhere I turn when talking about brands there are people talking about vision. Vision statements. Company vision. Brand vision. Business vision. Professional vision statement.

It’s tiring. To me it seems like vision is for people who have a hard time identifying a strategy with acuity. Vision seems a little unfocused, a little blurry.  It can be malleable with moving parts.  Vision for me is antithetical to focus. And focus is strategy.

Our vision is a better life, through banking.

Our vision is a healthier society, through better eating.

Our vision is the American dream, through clothing.  

I guess if you need to convince yourself, your employees and custies that you are a good company, it can’t hurt to go on a vision quest.  But at What’s The Idea? we don’t have time for that. Plus, most brand planning customers don’t really want to pay for that. What my customers care about is building brands. Brands that have bank. Brands that earn.

So we are in the focus business. Not the gauzy vision business.

Try getting bank loan, from one of those people who want you to have a better life, using your vision statement.




Roots Rock.


I’ve got it — another brand strategy metaphor. Hee hee. You can finally get some sleep tonight.

Late last year I was speaking with an agritech business.  If we are to ever truly sustain and be a resilient planetary organism, we are going to need agritech businesses.  Agritech, cleantech and sustain-tech are the planet’s future.  As is brand strategy.  JKJK.

So here’s the metaphor borrowed from agritech.  Roots. Not Americana music with a little mandolin — plant roots. Roots are fundamental to plant life.  They are adaptable. They are life giving. They are the root of all flora.  When I hike I sometimes see trees growing out of, and over, massive granite rocks. The roots sometime envelope rocks.  Roots give stability to a plant or tree. And nourishment. Well that’s what band strategy does for products and services.  It creates roots. And strength. And nourishment.

The biggest problem with brands today is that the roots are shallow. To much change. Brand strategies often changes when the ad campaigns changes. And then one has to start all over again.

Campaigns come and go. Directors of marketing come and go. CEOs come and go. Ad agencies come and go.  A powerful brand strategy is indelible. Roots!




Is Your Brand Strategy Earning?


A topic I like to plumb with clients is compliance. Or adherence.  Two words borrowed from healthcare meaning is the patient listening to his/her doctor and following treatment. It’s a problem in healthcare. It’s similarly a problem in branding.

Are brand managers and marketing cohorts adhering to the brand strategy? Are they using it to guide tactics, deeds and experiences?  If they are then the brand strategy should be earning. That is, delivering value to the bottom line.

After all, that is what brand strategy is meant to do. Deliver value – shekels – to the bottom line. 

The minute Patrick Mahomes signed a $503M contract is the minute the owners and payers start asking if he is earning it. Everyone watching Patrick for the next 10 years will wonder if he is worth it. Is he earning?  Well, that’s how we have to look at brand strategy. Is it earning? Is it worth the investment? 

No one ever asked if a logo earned its keep. Or a name.  Rarely do brand managers and CMOs ask if their brand strategy is earning.  That needs to change.

Evaluate it. Dissect it. Monitor adherence. Monitor value delivery.  It’s a big part of the job



Retrofitting Strategy.


For new business and startup owners there is nothing more exciting than jumping into marketing. Naming, logo development, your first retail or business sign. Don’t forget leasing space and buying furniture and equipment. Picking carpet maybe. It’s a flood of exciting choices. 

The excitement is not unlike buying a new car. All you want to do is drive. No time for the owner’s manual. That is often reserved for a rainy day.

Well when it comes to start-up and new businesses owners, the single most common error is putting off strategy development. Brand strategy development. Because brand strategy undergirds all marketing efforts. And everything is marketing. From the product or service name, to the logo, retail experience and everything all the way to your first announcement ad. 

But few new owners start with a paper strategy; something that acts as an organizing principle for all decisions. Brand strategy first should be in every business book.

Many of my customer engagements begin after a company has been around for a while. And that’s okay. Everyone needs to get organized. Everyone needs marketing obs and strats. Better to get organized later rather than never.  So, in the brand building business there is a lot of retrofitting going on.  But it’s always best to plan up front.



Fines for Brand Strategy Noncompliance.


What if brand strategy noncompliance came with a monetary fine?  Rules are made to be followed.  Fines work in banking, why not branding?  And we all know adherence works best when there is a carrot or stick involved.  Well, in brand management the carrot doesn’t seem to work. Creative people believe in campaigns but they are usually put off by strategic structure.   That’s why lots of creative people don’t like briefs.  “The shorter the better they say.”

I want the absolute best out of my creative people.  I want them amped and excited.  But I also want my artists to be hitting the positive brand-building values set out in the brand strategy (one claim, three proof planks.)  And it is not good enough to just kill work as a brand manager. Killing work is a cancer at an ad agency. Letting work fly, regardless of strategic intent, is cool.  But it’s not. That’s not how you build brands.

So why not hit the team with a fine each time they provide a solution off-piste. Money and compensation make the world go around. Why not consider using commercial disincentive to keep teams on track?

Probably my worst idea ever. I love it.