A Powerful Brand Idea Is…


I wrote the brand strategy for a healthier-for-you cookie company, the brand claim for which was “Craft Cookies, Au Natural.”  At my practice a claim is supported by three proof planks. Those planks were: craft cookies are healthier, craft cookies offer complex flavors, and craft cookies are naturally moist.

In prep for this post, I reread the brief (from a while ago) and was happy to see it chock full of lovely, even poetic, marketing insights; all of which could launch scores of marketing efforts. (One such insight was “Mass-produced cookies use blanched, steamed, stripped, macerated, and filtered ingredients denuded of taste, texture and health properties. Mass-producers do this to save money and create efficient, flavored sugar sponges.”)

The hard part of brand planning is taking multiple insights noted in the brand brief and boiling them down into a claim (and then, proof planks).  Does “Craft Cookies, Au Natural” do that as a claim?  I think so. Might there be other ways to reflect a brand value prop for this brand? Sure.

The thing about brand claims, at least at What’s The Idea?, is they need to be memorable. Pithy. Tagline-like. In effect, they become the tagline for the brand until the ad agency creates a campaign for public messaging that trumps it. I often tell clients and prospects campaigns come and go, a powerful brand idea is indelible. Search for one.




Don’t Speak in Branding Tongues.


Tons of people in marketing will tell you what a brand is.  Right or wrong they can be reasonably articulate.  Few though, have a clean answer for what brand strategy is.  Most practitioners get all caught up in their underwear and speak in branding tongues, using words like story, personality, voice and mission.  

Brand strategy at What’s The Idea? is explained as “An organizing principle.”  What’s an organizing principle?  It’s a set of parameters for activity. It’s governance for marketing – all 4 Ps. It’s a way to decide if you are on or off your business-winning objective.

By calling it an organizing principle it seems little less dictatorial, allowing room for experimentation. Besetting an ad agency with (creative) rules makes them see red. No rules, no rules! But an organizing principle seems almost helpful.

So, what are we organizing?  The rest of the definition goes “an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging.”  In this approach, brand strategy informs the product itself. Secondly, it informs the experience, i.e., packaging, out-of-box, retail, web navigation and customer care. Lastly, it directs messaging; the place most marketers get it wrong. In fact, well enculturated into an organization brand strategy becomes an employee manual…without the table of contents. 

In summary, brand strategy is the epicenter of not just branding but marketing. Says the man with the brand strategy business.

For examples of brand strategies of real customer businesses, write Steve at WhatsTheIdea.



Pandering Palaver.


I’ve been thinking a lot about brand strategy claims lately. A brand strategy claim is a brief, almost poetic, statement of value which predisposes a customer to buy. At my brand house, it boils down a brand’s top good-ats with customer care-abouts. Endemic care-abouts.  (I may care about being a good father, but UBS investments aren’t going me make me such.)  

When you borrow non-endemic brand values for your claim, it’s disingenuous.  There are a lot of brand planners who think they will win hearts and minds using a pandering palaver of claims.  But when you promise to fix a person’s (or planet’s) weakness with a product that has nothing to do with it, it’s cheating.

Some brand planners, during discovery want to dig into company values.  But they define values in woo-woo terms. My definition of values is closer to benefits.  Having great social values is the price of doing business; it’s not brand position. For instance, Patagonia positions around sustainability, but I would venture to say product durability is a stronger position and brand claim. Imply sustainability. Let the creative teams color the work with it, but position around product durability.

Brand strategy claims have a responsibility to move customers closer to a sale – not make them better people.


PS. I’m about as woo woo as you are going to find. I live in Asheville. I haven’t taken a paper bag from a deli or bagel store in decades. Woo-woo R Us. Just not in my brand claims.


Tell Me About Your Advertising.


Where the rubber meets the road in my brand strategy practice is in the questions and answers. I have a battery called 24 Questions that revolve around money.  How do you make it? Where does it come from? When competitors get your money, why? Margins? Low hanging fruit? Recurring? You get the idea? When I have answers to these kinds of questions, it’s easier to build a case for strategy when selling senior executives.

But I use a whole other battery of questions for brand strategy input. Some are sales focused. Others management focused. And others target focused.  For instance, when I’m interviewing cyber security experts, I’m conversing more as a tyro colleague than, say, Uncle Lou at Thanksgiving. That takes some prep.

Lately, one question I’ve been thinking about asking is “Tell me about your advertising?”  An open-ended question, this presumes a company actually does advertising. People in the marketing dept may be able to answer this question thoughtfully. As may the CFO, who funds it.

That said, 85% of advertising today is shit.  Most company employees will agree. I can watch TV ads and more often than not haven’t a clue as to the strategy.  Most of it is “See me, here me, touch me.”  Not “Why Me.”  When interviewing lay people about their company/brand advertising, it’s what’s missing that is most telling. Non-advertising people will tell you what the ads should say. And that is input.



All Promise, No Proof.


Northwell Health of NY is a brand on which I cut my planning teeth. My work for Northwell began sometime after the year 2,000. The brand strategy developed back then still stands, even though many of the agency players have changed. When I started planning, Northwell, a system of hospitals, described itself as “a loose federation of hospitals.” Today, they are a tight knit juggernaut.

This week I saw a new :30 spot for the system under the new tagline Raise Health. It was posted on the LinkedIn account of CEO Michael Dowling, a superb leader and administrator.  He (or the proxy who posts to his LinkedIn account) lauded the ad. The strategy behind it is collaborative medicine…but the ad does not deliver. Visually maybe, but not in the copy.

The key copy point is “More experts, with deeper insights, getting to more breakthroughs.” This ladies and gentlemen is a claim. Three claims actually. And it’s an example of poor ad craft. Ads need proof. Scientific reasons to believe. This ad has none. Except for the promise that Tanya (patient) is better.  

Let me first say I learned a lot about branding by studying Northwell. This organization built its reputation on science. On maximizing protocols, sharing up and down its hospital network and constantly measuring data.  But that’s not what this ad does. It falls into the copy trap of all promise no proof. Even the words “more experts” is hollow.

Now, I did click through and found a story behind the Tanya case. I didn’t read the story. Most people won’t. Millions will see the ad though. And it’s nice film, nice words, but no proof. Nothing to remember.

Northwell Health and all its hard-working docs and professionals deserve better. Northwell is a system of hospitals.




Proof Or Truth.


At McCann-Erickson, a huge and venerable global ad agency, the tagline is Truth Well Told.  Lots of agencies make up taglines — more like ad lines — but few have them for their own brands. Truth Well Told is one of the better ones.  Back when invented, the McCann shop stewards understood advertising would be rife with untruths and near truths.  The word truth is bandied about a good deal by planners (strategists) today. I’ll let you decide what the word means along with it nuances but, certainly, there is nothing wrong with hanging you marketing laundry on a truth.

At What’s The Idea? we are in the brand strategy business. Not the ad business.  In this world one must convince consumers a brand is better. Songs are nice, so are pretty pictures. Funny is good too. But to convince a consumer your product is better you have to prove it. It’s not good enough to just say it.  This is where advertising and much brand strategy falls short. Planners’ day jobs are to dig for insights. Insights that make marketing communications more personally motivating and unique.  But those insights, which may be truths, aren’t always proofs. They may be stimulating for creative teams, yet might not create muscle memory around a brand position. That’s the job of proof.

I often tell clients brand strategy is about finding that business-winning claim then proving it every day. That’s the job of the planner, the brand manager, the marketer and the ad agencies.

There are a lot of truths out there in the world. But not all truths, which may or may not capture the attention of consumers, will sell your product. That’s the job of proof.  If you would like examples of how proof and proof planks are organized into real brand strategies, write Steve@WhatsTheIdea.com




Clicks Don’t Make the Baby.


Branding is a long-term pursuit. It’s not testing. It involves a great deal of planning. I presented a brand strategy, in the form of a long brief to an agency and they giggled that the original date was the year before. It embarrassed me a little. Then I waited for the work to get done. The creative work that is.  Hmmm.  I’m not sure the campaign has fully launched and it is one year out at least.  

Many people in marketing don’t have the stomach for long-term. They want their “tuna fish sandwich in their mouth now,” as my young daughter once indignantly told me while repeatedly being told lunch is coming, lunch is coming. And the web has not made this need for immediate return less important. Clicks and same day results are the marketing measure of the day.

A Ukrainian solder quoted in the paper today “water cuts through stone, and we’ll do it bit by bit.” That’s branding.  But it only works if you have a tight brand strategy. One comprising key customer care-abouts and vibrant brand good-ats. All wrapped in a brand claim that sings in the ear of customers and prospects.  That take planning. and the execution takes time.

Clicks don’t make the baby, genetics do.



Swimming With the Tide.


When meeting with a new client, one should not jump right into the water and evaluate pricing, distribution and promotion — not without first understanding the product. If you begin with the first three components of marketing without fully understanding he product/service, you’re likely to observe, form insights and think about suggestions based upon “generic” category understandings.

Generic category information is what consumers default to, it’s what they believe about your product if they don’t know you.  You are simply a product swimming in the tide of public opinion.

It is imperative, I repeat, it is imperative, to fully understand the product before forming any sort of suggestion about marketing.  It’s a strategy first, tactics last approach.  

Brand strategy is about differentiation. It’s about positioning around heightened value. It is about proving that value with every breath. With every dollar. Mic drop.

Swimming with the marketing tide does not make you Tide. It makes you menhaden.  (How’s that for a mixed metaphor?)




Too Much To Chew.


Elon (Do I need to write his last name?) is definitely a smart dude. Politics aside, he may really transform Twitter in a positive way.  But I have a couple of bones to pick with his efforts over the last few days.  One, the rename.  X is not ownable.  It’s not language-friendly.  It’s a letter, not a word. Or name. The second issue I have is the so-called positioning: the everything app. When you are everything, you are really nothing. Been there, done that with a start-up called Zude.

Maybe you can become the everything app — you just can’t position around it.  Let the people make that distinction.  The iPhone was the everything device but it wasn’t positioned as such. Or named as such. That was some serious restraint in branding.

I love Twitter. To borrow a quote from Thomas Friedman, Twitter (or X) makes the world flat. But it is a communication device, with amazing search aptitude. If it becomes payment app, fine. But this?…

“X is the future state of unlimited interactivity – centered in audio, video, messaging, payments/banking – creating a global marketplace for ideas, goods, services, and opportunities,” Linda Yaccarino, X CEO

It’s a chaotic position. Tech companies and tech entrepreneurs often bite off too much.  This is another case. And you can X me on that.



Strategy or Brand Strategy. Hmmm.


When I’m on a roll – and it’s not often, thanks to PCMS (Post Covid Malaise Syndrome), everything I see and read in the news is viewed through a strategic lens. It’s, as the kids would say, strategy fire. Today, for instance, it started with a glance about  a NYT piece on the speed with which Nokian Tyre’s changed manufacturing strategy.  With climate change, geopolitical results-driven planning and change. And they realize quick change is better than sluggish change. The new environment is the catalyst of this change, but strategy the driver.

Notice I didn’t use the word brand one time in that paragraph.

The brandscape was kind enough to teach me my craft yet the word “brand” diminishes what I do for a living. When I position around brand, it sounds cool, trendy and au courant, but it’s not a wining communications value. No one wakes up in the morning thinks brand strategy is the business answer.

When I think about it I am really a strategist.  I find business-winning values, actions, tasks (read: strategies) that add money to the top line and bottom line. My work doesn’t feed the ad agency. It feeds the business and everyone in it.  Which then feeds the consumer.

When Nokia Tyre decided to open a manufacturing plant in Hungary because of the war in Ukraine, they weren’t, per se, using a strategic road map or what I like to call “an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging.” They were looking purely at supply chain, cost of business, security, ROI timetable and investment strategy. They were blocking and tackling.  Had they an organizing principle of values to drive all decisions, before they met to solve the many layered challenges, their “time-to-solve” would have been faster and more organized. And, honestly, it was quite fast to begin with.

Strategy would have sped up the process.

For examples of how my strategy based upon proof has worked for other companies, write Steve at WhatsTheIdea.