Tactics Should Not Define Strategy.


A marketing plan without a brand strategy to guide it is a mistake many companies make. I’ve written many marketing plans and not one have I undertaken without a brand strategy. A brand strategy (one claim and three proof planks) provides a compass point for obs, strats and tactics. A marketing plan sans brand strategy is like an assortment of puzzle pieces made of one color. Eventually they may fit together, but what does it display?

Startup founders are not brand planners, but they do have a picture in mind (What the puzzle looks like finished.) That’s how they come up with names and logos. But when startup founders are asked to develop a marketing plan, something that translates the business plan to a go-to-market plan, they’re often lost. They turn to tactics-palooza. But tactics have no moral grounding, just commercial. Sell. Mo’ money.

Until businesses understand that brand strategy is not a nice-to-have but an imperative, they will rely on tactics to define the brand rather than the other way around. And that’s bass-ackwards.






I read someone’s bio on LinkedIn yesterday and it referred to them as “A strategic and creative thinker, adept at helping companies execute for growth and deploy brand effectively.” Who wouldn’t want to do business with someone like that? Well, as someone who grew up in the advertising business, this statement might be considered a straddle. Some would argue it takes different bones to build a strategic person than it does a creative person. Back in the day, you were either in the creative department or other less creative departments, e.g., media, account management, or research. So as much as I appreciate the straddle, muscle memory keeps me from believing creative and strategic can live in the same body. Oh, the scar tissue!

Today rather than chose a label I prefer to identify via the process. I am a planner. A brand planner.

In ad agencies, a brand planner’s job it to feed the creative people so the work can shine. Planners provide direction and insights that stimulate great work. Whether that stim is creative or strategic is unimportant so long as the work is effective. And effective for the right reasons. Yet when working directly with marketers who want help with their brands I find they don’t want a creative person at the table or a strategic person at the table, they want someone who understands them and their business. Someone who can deliver a plan for business improvement. A plan they can analyze. And approve. And implement.

There goes another layer of scar tissue.



The Interview.


I’ve built my brand planning methodology around the personal interview. It’s how I get to branding insights. Typically my interviews are with C-level executives, sales people, outside SMEs (subject matter experts), and customers.

Business-to-business clients are different from consumer companies. Large corporations are different from small businesses. Online and brick and mortar also offer substantially different challenges. And startups, that’s a post of different color. But what binds all these client types together is the fact that they all have chiefs, all have sales people and all have customers — the oxygen that gives life.

The questionnaires are different for chiefs, sales people and SMEs. (We’ll get to consumers later.) The chief questions are follow-the-money questions. How to sell more, to more, more often, at higher prices. The sales questions are more transactional in nature. They revolve around removing impediments, building preference and earning commission/money. The questionnaire for SMEs is built to elicit the outsiders view because if your only view is inside the company you’re sniffing your own fumes.

The questionnaires get people talking. Once chatting, the interview can go in many directions. It’s my job to keep the person talking, interested and thoughtful. The last thing you want to happen is to get rote answers. This is where the skill comes in. No matter the person, everyone can be nudged into interesting territory.

Last, is the consumer interview. I’ve done retail intercepts and sold kitchen remodeling, belly-to-belly at Costco, BJs and home shows. And honesty there is no static questionnaire that works. That’s why written consumer research questionnaires are soooo deadly. And focus groups not far behind.

I’ll dive into this topic tomorrow.



A Good Ear and a Good Cull Rack.


I’ve written scores of brand strategies and my success rate the first time out is exceptionally high. That is, stakeholders buy into the brand idea (brand claim) almost always without redirects or word edits. To what do I owe this success rate? Listening.

I once opened the door to a meeting with CEO of Naked Communications, NYC explaining that “Just as the dog hears Flah, flah, flah, flah want to go out?, I hear business building brand insights.” Hearing what is truly important.

Boiling away what’s not important is also a skill. That “boil down” is the brand planner’s day job. In the Gilbert and Sullivan operatic comedy Iolanthe, the title character says “I did nothing in particular, and I did it quite well” – an observation that typifies what brand planners do in the boil down. We remove weeds from the garden.

When I present a brand strategy (one claim, three proof planks), clients are hearing what they know. They’re hearing what they believe. It’s just that the consumer care-abouts and brand good-ats are winnowed and prioritized.

Business consultants are apt to tell clients things they don’t know. Things they don’t necessarily believe. Business consultants are not always good listeners. Brand strategists don’t do organ transplants. For the most part, we work with what we’ve got. We just make it better through focus and celebration.



Free Day of Planning…Asheville Style.


I’ve lived in Asheville, NC going on three years. I’ve met some really neat people. Seen some cool work and rubbed shoulders with beaucoup makers and business owners. Most are quite grounded. Recently, I visited with some people with a graphics and printing business, doing carrier reroute sort snail mail and automobile wraps — and they are absolutely killing it; businesses that wouldn’t have a chance in most places. Must be the water.

I’ve also met some people who are slogging along. Restaurants here are closing almost as quickly as they are opening. Outside investors are coming to town with an eye toward extracting better margins (read: HCA, Anheuser Busch In-Bev, the guys who bought New Belgium). Yet whether slogging or sledding, one thing most businesses seem unconcerned about is brand strategy. They are blocking and tackling so hard they don’t understand the true business asset brand strategy can be – not beyond name and logo.

Mission Health is running ads telling us “people are its mission.” Devils Foot Beverage thinks “keep it simple, keep it fresh” will distance it from other ginger beers. (In a dogfight with creators of complexity and staleness???) And Keller Williams Real Estate positions around “people not properties.” What the…?

This city is pregnant with creative products, services, ideas and money. It’s a bubbling cauldron. I salivate over the possibilities. So I’m going to do something about it. I’m offering any and all businesses in Asheville a free day of brand planning. Open up to me, answer some questions, allow me to dig and speak with some customers and when the day is over – plus a little time to collect and organize my thoughts — I’ll present some cursory insights that will alter your views of branding for years to come.

Write Steve@WhatsTheIdea.com



Brand Names.


There was an article today in the Asheville Citizen Times about the District Wine Bar having to change its name because someone had trademarked District 42 for another local establishment. The rough cost was about $50k not including all the business fallout over Google search rankings and web crumbs like reviews and listings.

The new brand name for the restaurant is Bottle Riot. A more fun name and certainly one pregnant with more meaning. (District is shorthand for the River Arts District, the wine bar’s neighborhood.)

Naming is such an important undertaking. It’s the de facto brand. Sans promotions and signage, it’s how people refer to you. When you go through life with the last name Poppe and people call you Pope, Pope-ee or even Poe-pay, you’ll get what I mean. Have you ever had to tell a friend to meet you at Asheville bar Cursus Keme? ‘xactly.

Naming is best when done using a brand brief or strategy. I never work on a naming or logo project without a brief. When the District Wine bar had to go back to the drawing board, if they had a brief development time would have been cut in half. It also would provide time saving for the art director charged with designing the new logo.

Brands, names, logos and everything else marketing are easier with a brand strategy.

For a sample brand strategy write Steve@whatstheidea.com.



Carcass Picking.


“New” and “Sale” are the two most common words in advertising I was told growing up in the business. It’s not apocryphal to think it is still the case. As a brand planner or ad person, new categories always interested me. I was doing technology advertising when chips weren’t cool. Integrated circuits, software defined networks, private data lines, SaaS were all products of mine.

In advertising it’s good to work in emerging products, technologies and services. They are high growth. Not a lot of people are expert so your thoughts are creative, sometimes ground breaking, and non-commoditized. But the simple fact is, the marketers most in need of strategy help are not in the business of new, they are in tired, mature categories where growth isn’t happening. And when growth isn’t happening you are likely trying to take someone else’s share, not creating new share. Carcass picking.

What does the brand planner do in these cases?

Well, you have to make your insights and strategies new. Treat them like emerging markets. The consuming brain loves new. That’s why people get so tired of advertising. It’s not new. That’s why ad agencies are fired every 3.8 years (just made that number up). It’s easier to create new advertising that new brand strategy.

I can change one plank of a brand strategy and open up crazy new revenue. (Brand strategy comprises one claim and three proof planks.) Brand strategy is like DNA. Make a subtle changes and lots can happen. Imagine what would happen with a total brand strategy overhaul.

For brand planners there can be no such thing as stale businesses or categories. Everything “new” is a potential “sale.”



Proof Not Platitudes.


I once wrote a marketing communications deck for a billion dollar healthcare system that included quite an array of advertising and branding objectives. The obs were stuff like: increased doctor retention, increased patient satisfaction scores, improved close rate on nurse hires, reduce cancer patient outmigration to NYC – I mean, full monty stuff. My marketing director looked at me like I’d taken hallucinogens. “We can’t do all that.” I believed we could. I believed these results were already underway, he just didn’t see it.

The health system was indeed changing healthcare for the better, across all of its entities. And the brand strategy and service area (cancer) ads were chronicling it. You see, when “proof” not “platitudes” comprise your branding efforts, people tend to believe you. Sure, they might wonder about what you are not telling them but over time proof convinces. Proof is reality.

I can’t share the claim and proof array on this particular brand strategy, even though it was written close to 20 years ago, but believe me when I say it still applies. It still works, and it still shows healthcare improvements across a wide variety of objectives. Not the least of which is a nearly 4 fold increase in revenue since that fateful  meeting.



Writing an Effective NPR Billboard Part 3.


Readers of the my last two blog posts know I’m writing a :15 radio billboard for What’s The Idea?

So let’s try to morph this mishegas (Yiddish) of preparation into a 15 second read.

NPR is brought to you by…

What’s The Idea?  A brand strategy consultancy that studies customer “care-abouts” and brand “good-ats” to create an organizing principle for content marketing. This words-only, one-page brand strategy takes the guesswork out of every  marketing decision.  WWW.Whatstheidea.com

Okay I was able to accomplish 4 of the 5 tasks needed for a successful billboard. I didn’t have time to hit the last point, explaining what makes my consultancy a good choice over others. That said, by properly explaining the Is-Does, the offer, and what’s in it for the consumer – hopefully in a clear, concise way – I will have differentiated What’s The Idea? Many brand shops have a hard time ‘splainin’ brand strategy.

So onward now. It’s time to buy some time.

As they say, stay tuned.



Writing an Effective NPR Billboard Part 2.


Yesterday I explained what a 15 second radio billboard had to accomplish in order for it to be effective. The key tasks were five-fold. Doing the math that’s about 3 seconds per task. Let’s get started then maybe we can massage the flow later.

  • Explain what the business is.
  • Establish what the business does.
  • Explain what brand strategy is.
  • Explain why prospective clients need a brand strategy.
  • Lastly, establish why What’s The Idea? is a good choice.

What’s The Idea? is a brand consultancy (1). Fairly clear. A subset of marketing to do with branding. What’s The Idea? consults on brand strategy (2). We don’t do logos, packaging, style guides or websites. Task three is to explain what brand strategy is. An organizing principle for product, experience and messaging (3). At What’s The Idea? strategy is delivered as words alone. Words that offers explicit direction. When following a brand strategy, content makers know if they are making a deposit in the brand bank or a withdrawal (Hint: Don’t make a withdrawal).

Most marketers don’t wake up in the morning saying I need a brand strategy. Especially those outside of the packaged goods business. But everyone needs a brand strategy. Marketing without a brand strategy is like knitting without a pattern (4)… you are just making marketing knots.

And lastly, why should a marketer buy brand strategy from What’s The Idea? rather than say Atlas Branding, Interbrand or Brandtuitive? Well, it’s all we do. While many use brand strategy as a lost leader to sell other forms of art and content, What’s The Idea? is only about the idea. And idea that drives consumer value and business value (5).

Stop by tomorrow to see how all this is assembled into a ready-for-primetime NPR billboard.