A brand planner is a lot like a chef.  One must amass lots of information, or using metaphor, ingredients and assemble them into a unique, tasty dish.  The brand planner’s ingredients are the language — the spoken or written words assembled by the planner. Listening to customers, prospective consumers, stakeholders, SMEs (subject matter experts) and journalists yield language from which to cull insights and establish key care-about and good-ats.

It is the culling or boiling-down (another cooking metaphor) of those words that moves the planner closer to a positioning idea and strategy. But it is the language that helps the planner get closer.  Specific words resonate. Specific product or service patois. Words and phrases that move the interviewees Galvanic Skin Response — monitored or simply gleaned. This is what we are listening for.  Blah, blah, blah language is just that. Excitement, passion and emotion are the “tells” we seek.

Keywords: listen, language, repeat.


PS. No humans were tested for this blog post. Ever.

Brand Strategy Interviews.


The difference between interviewing an employee at a brand and the brand customer is significant. 

Employees are tough to interview because their answers are often generic.  I once interviewed a cardiothoracic surgeon and department head who was a billion-dollar health system’s key earner and asked what makes his practice one of the best in the country. His answer? “It’s the care. It’s the people.” So, when he is elbow deep in a patient bleeding out, does he ask his assistant, “Pass me the care” or “pass me the people”? I don’t think so.

I can’t tell you how many employees I’ve interviewed have crowed on about “customer service” or “quality” or “our people” thinking they’re being helpful.  It’s as if some employees have been programmed by TV adds. If they don’t have something specific to say about the product value, they default to a generic marketing-speak.

Customers, on the other hand, are way more to the point. More specific. They’re happy to share their likes and care-abouts. Customers don’t water down or default their preferences.

A good brand planner is able to get employees to provide specifics about product and service superiority.  Proof of product superiority are the things upon which strong brands are built. Boiling down and organizing these demonstrable proofs with “what customers want” is the job of the brand strategist. Customer care-abouts and brand good-ats.




Why Three Proof Planks?


Yesterday in my post about brand strategy framework (one claim, three proof planks), I said the reason for three proof planks was that was what the mind could process. It’s not like consumers are sitting around parsing advertising and consumer communications all the-live-long-day.  If fact, the opposite is quite true.  With all the pablum being spoon fed to consumers each day on their devices and in the media it’s no wonder people can’t remember any brand values.  Add to that, the need to create so-called creative ads to gather attention — ads that bury product values — and you can see the dilemma.

If a marketer had a $75 million annual budget, it would be easier to establish three proof planks beneath a brand claim — but most mid- and small business are lucky to have a quarter million in marketing spend. Therefore, 3 proof planks for a brand strategy may seem ambitious. That said, most smaller businesses aren’t national and can make a fine living targeting smaller customer bases, using lesser budgets. 

Brands are built by owning a space in the mind of the consumer. A brand claim is the fastest way to that space. The proof planks are the way to make that claim believable. To make that claim salient.  To make that claim stand out.

For more information on claim and proof as a brand strategy framework, please write Steve at WhatsTheIdea.




Simple Is As Simple Does.


Every time I present my brand strategy framework it gets easier. Most people in the business are prone to talk brand strategy theory. Many use Venn diagrams when trying to be scientific. When just using their words they quote marko-babble terms like “authenticity,” “brand voice,” “personality,” “mission,” “story,” “journey” and the babble goes on. In meetings lately, I’ve been sharing a PPT slide showing the Google results when searching the term “Interbrand brand strategy framework.”  There are 114,000 results. And, my-my, don’t click on the images tab.

At What’s The Idea? brand strategy fits into a framework both easy to understand and easy to convey. Brand strategy is not string theory as some planners might have you believe. Our framework comprises “One Claim” and “Three Proof Planks.” Claim and proof.  That’s it.

The claim is a boil down of all key customer care-abouts and brand good-ats. What people want and what the brand provides… tobest meet that need. All in a simple statement. The claim is effectively a tagline, but for creative agencies to interpret in their own words. The proof planks are a troika of evidence that sets the claim like concrete. There are three planks because that is what the mind can process.

If you found your way here because you are looking for a simple strategy to guide your brand building, write Steve at WhatsTheIdea.




Targets and Insights.


One of the tools I use in brand planning is the brand brief. It’s a document that tells a serial story leading to the “idea” or what I call the brand claim. The end of the brief outlines three proof planks that give life too the claim. Most brand planners have their own briefs.

An important part of the brief is the target. Getting into the head of the target(s) helps you connect. It helps you create a message that resonates and fires off the preference synapses.

I like to give my targets a name…something catchy, not demographic. One such target, written for assisted home healthcare company, was named Captains of the Castle. The product was an acute geriatric care service, costing a good deal more than typical insurance would cover. The target was high net worth individuals. The name played off of captains of industry, which many of the patients were, and also the expression “A man’s home is his castle.” 

Sadly, for Captains of the Castle, men and women of means used to having their way, assisted home care is really quite the opposite. They tended to be people who have often lost control of their mobility and other faculties. Quite a change in status. The brand claim “individuals require highly individualized care” spoke to this friction. The friction between control and loss of control.  In this case the key brand insight came from the target. Insights can come from anywhere in the brief. Insights are the lifeblood of the brand plan.




Personal Branding is a Fool’s Errand.


I was reading someone’s advice on personal branding on LinkedIn recently. Oy. Part of that advice was to first get in touch with yourself. The personal brand advocate then suggested listing people you admire, and articulating the traits you admire most about them. Ironic much? 

After a boil down of all those traits, one assumes the job is to cobble together a path forward for oneself — a strategy for one’s personal brand. Still with me? 

As if one could study, copy and paste together a life. Or personal ethos upon which a life is built.

They had me shaking my head at the idea of personal branding, but tools for personal branding?  Try inputting that one into Chat GPT.  You’d fry AI forever. Hee hee.

At What’s The Idea? all customer care-abouts and brand good-ats go into the stock pot. What come out when the process is done is one claim and three proof planks. It’s a bloody horrible process. Important things must be boiled away to get the equation to three planks. People are too complicated to get to three. Products not so much.

Don’t wrestle with personal branding. Don’t do it. It’s a fool’s errand.





Under-complicate Your Brand Strategy.


I am a simple man.  It’s something I often say at the beginning of introductory meetings with perspective What’s The Idea? clients. What are the negative implications of this lead in? I’m not smart. I don’t think things through all the way. Perhaps my education is lacking? It may not be the best foot forward, yet it works for me. You see, it is an everyman, everywomen, everythey statement that fits nicely into brand strategy.

The US collective consumer does not have time to overthink every purchase.  In fact that statement has given rise to branding itself: consumers attach value to brands so they don’t have to examine every purchase.  It simplifies their lives.

My brand strategy framework (one claim, three proof planks) simplifies branding so consumers make quicker assignations of brand values. They don’t have to overthink a purchase. Consumers get what the product is — something particularly important in the digital/technology age. And, they quickly get the product value/advantage.  Moreover, they get that advantage and can articulate it with proof…not advertising superlatives. Proof is the fuel on which What’s The Idea runs.

If you make your brand simple to understand, then give consumers a clear array of reasons to believe its value, you win.

Under-complicate. Be clear. Be selective in your key values. See? Simple.




Everything is a brand.


…and nothing is a brand. Hanging out in social media as I do and with my business proclivities, I often come across people talking about “people as brands.” I scoff. I’m very protective of my turf.

As an early user of social media in market research, I made some serious money understanding its power to influence consumers.  That said, I like to think I’m an early adopter of the notion that today’s “influencers” are kind of a sham. Especially those who use influence for influence’s sake.

I do, however, love the early influencers on social.  Those people with key motivations behind their postings: Emo Girl, Melting Mama, Kandee Johnson, Bob Lefsetz, Robert Scoble and dana boyd. They were/are SMEs. And if not exactly SMEs, they were certainly capturers of attention.

Faris (Is it too soon to use only his first name?) likes to say we live in the attention economy. And, yes, having curators helps. But influencers? To me the title has a bad reputation. Today’s influencers and their acolytes use the word brand too much. To them everything is a brand. And when everything is a brand, nothing is. I like my social media influencers rare. Not medium or well done.

Share. Not to make money but to make life better. More entertaining. Interesting. Fulfilling. Don’t share your shit to make yourself more commercial.



Symbolic Value and Real Value.



I was listening to the Sweathead podcast interviewing Ana Andjelic, chief branding officer at Esprit, and she mentioned a branding notion of “assigning symbolic value.” It immediately gave me pause.  My brand-o-babble alert went off. Buttttt, the more I thought about it the more I appreciated the idea.

I am a brand strategist. I make words. And those words are about positioning products and services in the minds of consumers. Symbols, not so much. Symbols I leave to creative parties.  My business has always been anchored by strategies tied to “real” values. Endemic values. Coke is refreshment. Real and endemic. Swallow a big gulp of cold Coca-Cola and you are refreshed.  

Butttt…Ana isn’t wrong when dabbling in symbolic value. Symbolic value can be part of an organizing principle. But it’s best worked on a mature brand.

A strategy I wrote for Zude, a drag and drop web authoring tool, positioned it as “the fastest, easiest way to build a web page.”  The creative/tag line was “Feel Free.” Freedom was ancillary yet endemic inside the category. Freedom was symbolic. For those not experiencing the brand within the category or never having heard of Zude, “Feel Free” was meaningless.

Branding is first about real value, then about symbolic value.  It’s a serial thing. A less expensive thing. A commercial thing. Nobody knew who Zude was, so “Feel Free” was a bridge too far. Had we $20 million in the budget the bridge would have been closer.

Build a bridge (to consumers) first with materials then with dreams and symbols.




UBS and Craft.


I love multi-page print ads. Often, campaign or brand- launch units, they’re a brand planner’s playground.

(Full disclosure, UBS is my financial firm and they are great.) 

This past week UBS launched a 4-page ad in The NY Times.  My brand strategy rigor is simple: one claim, three proof planks.  Reverse engineering this effort, I would have to say, the brand claim is “Banking is our Craft” and the three proof planks are: advice, managing wealth, and investment experience. Each topic gets its own page. The operative word in strategy is “craft.” (Don’t get me started on the word “banking.”)  

Page one ad copy reads:

Craft matters. In small ways. Like how a coffee is brewed. How a chair is built. In not-so-small ways. Like, how your money is cared for. It’s a conscious choice in in how we perform our work. At UBS, we elevate our banking to a craft blah, blah.

The planner in me says “craft” is not a terrible word. It can be emotionally and logically brought to life as a metaphor for managing money. But not through empty copy. Only through deeds, tasks, processes and evidence can one begin to believe managing money is a craft. As for the proof planks, the ones selected are departments not values. Or as I like to say “good-ats.”   

As I read the copy, mining for proof, it is de minimis.

An example: Always delivered with passion, care, unmatched expertise, and meticulous attention to detail. With our clients at the heart it all.”

This effort does not pass the sniff test.  It’s copy, not advertising. Persuasion requires proof. Craft may be an idea. May be an idea. But this souffle certainly isn’t cooked.

Not a good investment in branding. Or marketing.