Monthly Archives: September 2013

The power of brand.


Tomorrow, October 1st, is the first day of sign-ups for the new Affordable Care Act health insurance exchanges. It will be a messy day for those organizations new to the insurance business. Nay, new to the customer care business. Think of these insurance exchanges kind of as big new libraries where people can go, learn about, pay for, and sign up for new health insurance policies. Online. Continuing the metaphor, the places will not always be manned by librarians, the card catalog and book aisles won’t be well organized or complete and there will be a lot of people milling around, some semi-literate, some semi-informed.

Enter the brand.

bue cross blue shield

In 30 of our 50 states, there will be one health insurance brand that many people have heard of and trust: Blue Cross and Blue Shield.  Even with over 150 policies – way too many – in the Blue Cross portfolio (variations by state) the Blue Cross name will carry the day. It is familiar, known for insurance and BIG. In the midst of all the confusion, it is also trusted. I’m not sure if it was the federal gov’t that made this happen or some smart people at the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association, but those decision makers understand the power of branding and delivered. Peace!

Pregnant Context



pregnant-red-apeWhenever I try to explain to business people what a brand strategy is, I find it often better to just show them a few strategies. When I go on about “an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging” eyes glaze over and I fall into the marko-babble trap. But when I display the brand idea and 3 proof planks, the synapses start to fire and they begin thinking about their own business.  Practice and a modeling (as they say in .edu) are brain sparking. Theory not so much.  

Then I typically walk prospects through the hard part of brand strategy: what we need to throw out. As in, what we needn’t say. The iPhone was positioned as a phone, not a camera-email-text-app device. The “i” carried all of that. The “i” was pregnant with all innovative things Apple.  

Pregnant context is what you get credit for even when you don’t say it.  Select your brand strategy words with precision and you’ll get way more than you ask for. In the recent tyro brand planner event at BBH, celebrating the life of Griffin Farley, the winning idea for the Citibike assignment was “Bikes with Benefits.”  The idea was pregnant with target information, aspiration, vitality and value.  The best brand strategies live a long, long time. First they borrow context then they create their own.  Peace in The House (of Representatives). 


Hallowed Brand Strategy Ground.


The best way to get to good insights is to ask great questions. That’s after the “How do you make money ?” questions, of course. When asking C-level executives you often get answers that feel polished and rehearsed – “handled” information that might be written by corporate PR people. When asking managers, many of the answers feel guarded, as if the bosses will read them. I try to protect the names of salespeople and managers when they are really opening up, if the insights are helpful and business-building. (One trick is to always interview the company’s best sales person. S/he is typically a fearless rock star.)

Where I tend to get the real good stuff is not when I’m asking less about business success and failure but about emotions and feelings. The questions are hard to defend against. Hard to see coming. And they tend to be answered from the heart. When the guard comes down, the probes following the line of questioning are fluid. And by the time you back someone into the corner and they refuse to answer or waffle, your answer is obvious. Often accompanied by a wry smile. As the kids might say “awk-waaard.”

Pride is a good word to play with in your questions and probes. Admire another good one. Think feelings rather than behaviors. When the overall vibe is one of discussion and interest rather than probe and judgment you’ll find yourself in hallowed planning ground. Peace.


RIP Aggregators.


When I am late, as they say in Africa, I do not want my obituary to say Steve Poppe, a leading marketing and branding aggregator of his time. My first business impression of the word “aggregator” was in the telecom business.  Some smart people decided that if they bought a huge company telephone plan and resold it to small companies they could offer these smaller companies better prices and make lots of money.  They were called aggregators.

These days aggregators, especially in the social web, are people and applications that take other people’s content, package it up and offer it to consumers – usually supported by advertising. This “paster” behavior, different from “poster” behavior, is big business.  Just as plumbing is big business on the internet, providing the pipes and devices through which information is shared, pasting is also a huge money mover. The sharing of other people’s content, however, is a convenience business and I hope short lived. I heard an executive of top tier TV media company refer to Henry Blodget’s Business Insider franchise as an aggregator of other people’s content.

Aggregation will start to peter out.  The content marketing trend is recognizing this.  Good content, be it music (not mash-ups and remixes), video, or writing or analysis is what makes the business world turn. Brands and marketers know they need to be original. Let’s do it.  Peace.


A new kind of ad agency.


In the business world today, putting operations and applications into the cloud is a business-winning idea.  Companies who do so don’t have to spend money on hardware, software upgrades, and training.

In the advertising business, agencies haven’t yet figured out to cloud-ify their services so that small and mid-size companies can partake. You see there is s tipping point at which many smaller companies decide it is cheaper to have an in-house group do their advertising, collateral and digital.  And agencies are leaving a lot of money on the table as a result. And we all know in-house groups are average at best.

So how do agencies use the cloud-based approach? How to they provide great work and a favorable price for clients unwilling to fork over $15-20,000 in monthly fees?  

I think the answer lies in jettisoning the relationship building part of the equation. It’s overrated. If we let fewer people touch an assignment, if we have a tighter brand strategy so the craftswomen aren’t staring at a blank pieces of paper, if we collapse the process the right way, efficiency will happen. As will better work. Perhaps electronic market records (think  electronic medical record) would also improve understanding and value.

I’m not talking crowdsourcing here, I’m talking about a fluid, cloud-based shop, with great people, less hands, less cost and better work.  Tink about it (as my Norwegian aunt might say.)Peace.

Brown. Not the University.


At the Social Business Summit 2013 in NYC yesterday Brian Solis said many smart things. My favorite was, and I paraphrase, “It’s 2013 and we still haven’t figured out how to make a website look good.”  It tickled me because of all the marketing tools in the world, the website and the home page are two of the least effective, dumbed-down tools of all.  Were we to take a glass and pour in all our favorite colors – as we know from being kids – the color would turn brown.  Ninety percent of website home pages today are brown. Providing everything for everybody.

Mr. Solis also reminded us that every Google search done (and there are about 2 million search engine queries per minute) points to a what?  A web page. That’s a lot of brown.

And now most big time web designers and coders are worried about responsive design and how to get that brown to look good on all platforms: mobile, tablets, PCs, Macs, TVs and soon wrist watches.

In my opinon website home pages should look less like pretty tables of contents and more like what the brand stands for. Homepages need to be alive and real time. And they need to further the journey…and prove the journey. They should market. Let’s get rid of the all the brown.  Peace.


Simple leadership.


I wrote an email this morning to someone in the health insurance space referencing an axiom I love “leaders educate.”  I learned it while working at McCann-Erickson on the AT&T business.  AT&T had some seriously smart marketers back in the day. Post-monopoly.

When consumers are confused and change is in the wind, they can make bad choices. Uninformed choices. The sturm und drang favors upstarts and competitors.  It is for this reason that leaders need to step up and organize the explanation. To remove the confusion. Simple is memorable. Simple stories, simple examples, simple “if—thens” are what consumers need.  With this out of the way, marketers can then provide the ability for a deeper information dive. (Think iPhone. Not iMultipleDevices.)

Some businesses benefit from complexity. Law. Finance. Privacy. Accounting. And insurance.  Nothing is too hard to explain and make understandable.  Sometimes marketers are too close and can’t see the simple explanation. This is why technology companies have a hard time branding.


As for the use of education in advertising and marketing, we need to do more. A Dorito chip bouncing around a room on a Super Bowl ad is not educating anybody.  It’s much like sitting in the same class over and over again. Leaders educate. Let’s lead. Peace. 


Micro Vs. Macro


The digital age and big data have created two divergent schools of marketing: the one-on-one message tailored to the data trails of consumers, and the big idea which attempts to insinuate itself into the culture through drum beat exposure.  Of course, the latter has to be an idea with resonance; most are not.

We are still learning how to handle the micro approach and have a long way to go.  Our ability to map consumer twitches toward a transaction and put valued content in their way is a good first step.  That said, it’s complicated, layered and can be more expensive – which is what agencies like, more things to build. 

As for the macro approach, marketers and agencies have gotten lazy, falling for over-production and flat non-confrontational ideas. Most of these so-called flat big ideas lack poetry. The famous Volkswagen Darth Vader spot was brilliant advertising, but I just can’t parse the strategy. So where do they go next?  Another Darth Vader episode?  

This is not an either or thing. We need both micro and macro. They can and should work together. But plotted on an X-Y chart showing strategic values and competitors, these efforts must cluster tightly. Around a brand strategy.  For a presentation of some sample brand strategies, with micro and macro legs, email Steve at whatsthe idea.


Selling business.


Native advertising is defined by some as advertising done to look like the content of the media on which it appears.  The ads are tailored to the media. A couple of decades ago if you made your TV ad to look like a newscast and scheduled it to run on the evening news, standards and practices would not approve it.  It had gone too native. Lately, I’ve seen some cable stations using program actors to promote products in commercial pods during the show.  It’s worth a rewind…until you see it’s an ad.  Smart idea actually.

In the web world, native advertising is doing similar things, allowing marketers to appear to offer site content but then pulling the rug out quickly to reveal a product endorsement. It is a way forward, and if does properly effective yet it will make us callous to the media channel.

I’m all about value…and native advertising has the ability to add a little value to the selling message, but it does detract from the media channel’s integrity.

But here’s the thing.  Today many regular ads aren’t native to their own selling message. So why be native to a media property.  Ads are typically native to humor, to visual extravagance, to performance and story but not the product. Let’s fix that first before we go mucking up other media channels.

Great consumer insights married to emotional and logical selling schemes are the way forward. Let’s not forget we are in the selling business.  Peace.

Twerking the ad agency model.


The Jimmy Kimmel’s You Tube video about the Twerk-and-ass-fire, or whatever it was, as of yesterday had 12 M hits. The video explaining it was a hoax had 9 million. Cool idea for the today’s media socialists.  The idea was just that, an idea…an attempt to get noticed.  Heightened by pop culture.

I love reading Cathy Horyn, The NY Times fashion writer, during NY Fashion Week.  (Sponsored by Mercedes??) She reminds me how difficult and amazing the creative process is.  And how powerful opinion leader coverage can be.  These are things brand planners care about. Things ad agencies (didge included) also should care about. 

Agencies could take a page from clothing design houses.  They should occasionally open up the creative process to random creative development — a la what some tech companies do, allowing employees to dedicate 10% of their time to personal free-flow creative projects.  Agencies should just have a place where people of all disciplines can meet and play and invent.  I’m not saying creative for creative’s sake and slap a logo on in; I’m saying play with the new tools, audiences and insights then see how they might apply to specific client business problems. Where unlikeminds can exercise.

Ad agencies today use a serial approach and it stifles creativity.  Just as clothes designers who play around the cutting table with color, drape, pattern and motion, ad shops need a place to play a little more. Feel me?