Brand Jab


Out of necessity, while living in small-market Asheville, NC, I am having to reevaluate my pricing model.  Without going into my process for brand strategy development let’s say it takes me roughly about 150 hours of research and labor to get to an idea.  But for clients in this market and encumbered by the pandemic, something has to change. Toto, we’re not in NYC anymore. Adapt or suffer.

Over the past year or so I’ve been mentoring some startup entrepreneurs through a neat program called Asheville Elevate.  I have not had the ability to do brand strategy for my mentees, as it doesn’t fit into the MIT-based program guidelines. It’s been hard trying to help young companies without having a brand strategy in place. Sans organizing principle, everything feels tactical. So, recently I’ve decided to try out a process lite to short cut my normal process with a couple of mentees. And it’s worked. I’m calling it a Brand Jab. Like a vaccine jab, it’s quick and painless. The process reduces the number of interviews I conduct, by attempting to find the one or two people most likely to speak for all targets. Rather than write a perfect brief, I cluster consumer care-abouts and brand good-ats and fast track my decision-making.

It’s not exhaustive. But it’s agile.

And I’m able to try it out on the market at a price point that should resonate. It also comes with a guarantee. For a quote write



Spam Words.  


The unsub button is set you to allow you to stop unwanted emails. The first options is

__ Too many emails.  The second is

__ Not relevant to me.  The third is

__ Too promotional.   And the fourth is

__ I don’t know why I’m receiving these emails.

They put the first one in that position to increase the chances of it being elected. Then the email company can argue spam emails are not so bad there are just to many of them…and stay in the spam business. Just with a bit less frequency.

Spam is to email what TV commercials are to broadcast TV. Unwanted intrusions.

Brand planners are all about relevance. And salience. Advertisers are about attention. Email marketers are clicks. And marketers are all about selling…and all of the above. The problem with most of the above, is that it negatively impacts relevance and salience. Consumers are conditioned not to believe certain words.  Certain claims: better, faster, tastier, cheaper. These are spam words.

Brand planners have to weed out the spam and identify new ways of conveying value. New strategies to garner interest, desire and action.

I like Spam on sliders, not in my copy.



Ask or Tell?


According to The New York Times Sunday President Biden has decided to ask Homeland Security and NASA employees to take paid leave from their organizations and go down to the southern border to help minister to the thousands of children crossing the border seeking asylum. Finally, a smart and workable solution to handling the huge influx. Problem is, he is asking rather than telling. It may be the kindler gentler approach to ask, yet in times of crisis we need fast and decisive moves.

In the 1990s while working as an ad agency guy on the AT&T account, AT&T faced a government regulation requiring them to allocate a proportion of corporate 800 numbers to MCI and Sprint. Until that time, AT&T owned all 800s and was viewed as a monopoly. If you chose to stay with A&T, though, you could.

The president of the Business Communications Services group, Joe Nacchio, emptied two huge corporate buildings in New Jersey of his white-collar work force and sent them on the road to meet with 800 service customers large and small in an effort to get them to stay. Talk about a redeployed workforce! He didn’t ask. He told. It was an unmitigated success. If memory serves, they retained about 90% of their 800 business and margins probably increased as MCI and Sprint were discounters. As an added bonus, they picked up quite a bit of market intelligence for their efforts.

Moral of the story, think big. Be big. Lead decisively.


New Proofs Daily.


Yesterday I wrote that the “proofs” from my brand strategy framework are like results in the OKR (Objective and Key Results) school of management. See post here. Claim and proof are my thing; it’s what makes What’s The Idea? different from all the other brand strategy shops.

Proofs are evidence. Tangible things that explain a brand claim.

Proof helps me reverse engineer the claim. But it assumes the business has been around a while. You can’t really be a start-up. Ish. During discovery, mining proof to determine the key claim of a product is a backward-looking pursuit. Yet the beauty of this approach is, once configured, the strategy looks forward. It helps in decision making and productizing for the future. Why? Because the claim and proof array is alive. And it is the day job of the brand manager (and every other employee) is to invent new proofs to support the claim. Daily.

Lots of brand planners are rearview mirror planners. It’s best to also look beyond the dashboard. And encourage every stakeholder to do the same.

It’s a total branding approach.






OKR stands for Objectives and Key Results. It is a John Doerr construct renaming and tweaking Andy Grove’s MBO or management by objectives. John and Andy were big deals back in the 90s and aughts. Measurement is always a good idea. And performance against objectives is marketing.

OKRs, according to Wikipedia, are best when the success rate is 70%. The thinking being, if success is 100% the objective are too easy.

In my business the framework for brand strategy is a Claim and Proof array: one claim, three proof planks. If we think about the brand claim as the objective (a business winning value) and the proof planks as the results (activities that support the claim) we have a way to begin to measure brand strategy success — getting us a little closer to the notion of return on strategy or, acronym baton please, ROS.

While OKRs are internal business measures, ROS is a consumer-focused measure best derived from attitudes and beliefs. The degree to which a consumer can play back your brand claim, e.g., Coke Is Refreshment and proof of that claim, e.g., cooling affect on a hot day, or the bite of the cola bean – are measures that can be tracked to sales. Brand attitude trackers, when tied to sale, are how we build brands. It’s how we measure brand success.




East Fork Pottery Ad.


“East Fork makes plates, bowls, mugs and more, with regional materials in Asheville, NC to support our most private rituals and bear witness to the full breadth of our domestic life. To hold the mess and tidiness and joy and anger and grief and boredom contained within the walls of one’s home.

Founded by potters Alex Matisse and John Vigeland we’re now a team of about 100 and growing, together building a more person-centered and equitable approach to making objects in the U.S.”

East Fork is a pottery manufacturer in my home town of Asheville. I first took notice when they did a full page add in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. Quite an expense. The words above are copy from another ad, this one from last Sunday’s New York Times national paper.

I don’t know what to make of the ad. The visual of organic greens and plates is wonderful. And they even throw in a vinaigrette recipe. But the copy, while poetic, is a bit over the top.  I’m not sure I use plates to organize my messy life. (Or do I?) Nor am I sure they are there to contain my boredom. (Or are they?) As for private rituals? Umm.  I guess over time tableware can become part of the family but can a pottery company be my confessor. My shrink?

The copy is Asheville crunchy.  I get where they’re going. And I applaud it. But perhaps a bit less glaze in the future???  Nah. Keep it up.




Negative Brand Brief.


For me, part of the brand planning experience is finding love for the brand. Because ultimately that is what we are building: a facilitation for consumers to fall in love with our brands. From the product itself to the experience of the product and, importantly, mentions or discussions of same.

Finding things to truly love isn’t easy. Everyone loves differently.

But lately I’ve been thinking these rose-colored glasses we must put on are a fraction of the total picture we see. And in these divisive times, while quick to smirk at political opponents and their POVs — even as the grown up in me says try to see what they see — perhaps it’s smart to brand plan with a more open mind. Maybe it’s time to write a reverse brief.  Filled with all the reasons a person may not like my product. As an exercise.

We aren’t hippies after all. This is a real world.  And even though my job is to find the love, my job is also to help brands succeed. And successful marketing is not a commodity, no matter what Google AdWords will have you think.

Next time I finish a brand brief, it’s a quick negative brief.

And I’ll report the results.



Discovery Tip #8.


One of my discovery tricks is to interview top trade magazine writers who cover the category beat. If doing an assignment on energy drinks or beer, I run down the top writer at Beverage magazine and attempt to interview them. There are trade publications on every topic under the sun. It’s best to read a few of their stories before contacting, showing some interest and awareness of their craft, as well as picking up on language. One way to find out if they are a top writer is to see if you can gather up readership reports from the publication. Many trades report on their best read pieces, departments and writers. It’ a neat short cut.

Also, these writers have a many smart connects they interview and quote for their stories. Track them down. Today, one might call these quoted people influencers; I prefer to call them experts with skin in the game.

It’s a great way to begin to cast the net. Not only for ideas, but sources.



Truth and Conspiracy.


Brand planners pay close attention to popular culture in an attempt to massage their ideas and selling schema into it. One hugely impactful, popular cultural construct today is demand for disinformation, especially related to politics and conspiracy.

Disinformation, it seems is much more interesting than typical truthful information. And when I say truthful information, I’m here talking about advertising. Nobody needs to hear me talk about advertising bombardment, it’s a given. And add to that, eighty percent of advertising is bad.

Bad advertising shares commodity claims with little proof. “Fred Anderson Toyota offers the best customer service,” for instance. Is that misinformation? Prolly. Multiply that by 100,000 and you begin to see why consumers are not real believers in the craft. But in today’s environment, uncover a little conspiracy and you have a person’s attention.

In a recent strategy written for a potty training company, I uncovered a conspiracy worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Diaper companies were productizing and strategizing ways to keep children in diapers longer. And it worked. Fifty years ago kids were out of diapers by 18 months. Today it’s closer to 36 months.

Manipulative, greedy marketing is the worst type. People don’t want to be pushed around.

We are still up to our asses in diapers (hee hee), but this conspiracy has gotten more than a few mothers angry and we’re moving in the right direction. Truth Well Told.

Not every advertising and market campaign can be a movement, but it won’t hurt planners to dig a little deeper and give the people the drama they crave.



Service Companies Need a Brand Syllabus.


Branding in consumer goods and packaged goods is very different than branding in a service business. Products that are produced on an assembly line all come out the same. Their packaging is the same. Their product names are the same. Variability is negligible. But in a service business the delivery vehicle is people. And they are not the same. Sure you can dress up employees in uniforms but that doesn’t insure similar service delivery. And of course there’s training. But that doesn’t insure standardized service delivery either. People are people. Every one is different.

So how do you create a brand strategy for a service company? Through education. Using a brand syllabus. And every day is a school day. The classes aren’t led by teachers but by employees. Brothers and sisters in arms. And that syllabus? It’s pliable. It’s owned by the employees.

It all starts with an “organizing principle for product, experience and messaging,” also known as a brand strategy. The organizing principle creates a culture around inherent company values and good-ats. It develops its own language and muscle memory. The best service companies are like sculling crews with everybody pulling oars together at the same time. All working to fulfill and further the organizing principle.

For examples, please write