Monthly Archives: March 2014

CBS and Google.


A little over 4 years ago I predicted Google would break up into 3 different companies.  It would happen in about 48 months, the non-prescient post suggested. I was wrong. The post had over a 1,000 hits, partly because of a point I made about Google’s culture of technological obesity, a tidbit picked up by Steve Rubel and Life Hacker. Who knew?

Today CBS, a proclaimed content company, has made public its plans to spin off and IPO its outdoor business. A $3.3B advertising and real estate venture, it is deemed non-core. CBS is rolling financially, owning an amazing share of prime time TV viewership as well as a successful film business, a cable channel and online properties. CBS is making the move during a period of earnings strength. It’s still about portfolio focus.  

My Google trivestiture prediction was also about focus. But without any government pressure, Google has decided that a diverse portfolio, kept buoyant by mad ad revenue, is the best way forward.  Google can afford to pizzle away money on Motorola, and self-driving cars and, and, and.  Google is taking the GE approach, becoming a diversified technology company. And I’m liking it.

CBS gets what it is good at — content. Its diversity comes from flavors of content: prime time, movies, cable and online. Google is good at putting the world’s information at our finger tips… yet it is looking beyond the dashboard toward what’s next.  And as long as Google can turn a profit, it’s a brilliant approach. (That’s why Facebook bought Oculus Rift.  It’s non-core, but it is about the future.)

For businesses, focus gets you smarter and better. Diversity gets you smarter and better. No wrong, until the shareholders start to wince. Peace. 

What is a brand brief?


WTI brabd brief masthead

A brand brief is the place where lots of data and learning are boiled down into a simple unique selling idea. The brand brief I use was borrowed from McCann-Erickson while under the reign of Peter Kim in the 90s. As hard as I’ve tried to make it better, I’ve only been able to tweak it. It provides a wonderful logic that when filled in serially (in order) delivers a strong reason to buy. Or Selling Idea as Mr. Kim called it.

I know when I’m not there yet or not fully prepared when tripping over the logic flow of the brief. Each element, an opportunity to create a mini-headline, contains an important insight. Done right, the insights link together like a beautiful song.  

What makes this brief a brand brief rather than a creative brief is that beyond the main strategy idea (claim) lie three support planks. This is an addition to the McCann brief. These planks focus and array the proof, pounding home and cementing the claim in the minds of customers. Claim and proof. There are only three planks because that’s what consumers can remember.

If working with a feisty creative person who doesn’t like long briefs, I can jump the logic and hit the idea. But the logic is telling, so I prefer the long form.

The brand brief is my secret sauce and one only shared with clients…though I am happy to share some of its outputs, upon request. Peace.

Steve at WhatsTheIdea


A long in the tooth brand brief.


I wrote a brand brief 12 years ago for an organization that helps developmentally disabled adults.  The organization wanted a logo, so I wrote a brief.

A couple of weeks ago I read about this same group in the newspaper and decided to reach out to see how they were doing.  I sent an email over the transom to the new head of development, along with the brief.  My hope with all brand briefs is that they will live on and on. They are crafted to do so. Each brand strategy (1 idea, 3 planks) is meant to hold the value proposition together and motivate action and loyalty over time.  Even through agency changes and campaign changes.

The women responded this morning with a lovely long missive. It seems the brand idea is still relevant. Though the organization’s mission has changed thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008, most of the brief elements are still valid, especially the idea or brand strategy. 12 years ago housing was the key goal, today it is employment. The target was broader in the original brief, while today it is focused on donors.  I’m proud of my 12 year old brief. She has grown well and strong.

This little exercise, checking in on briefs and brands of yesteryear, is worth pursuing. In this case it proves “Campaigns come and go…a powerful brand idea is indelible.” Peace.


Camper’s slow build in the U.S.


My son is at an age where he’s buying suits and ties and shoes for work. Never one with much fashion sense, my only fashion-forward advice to him is to buy things that are just a little bit out of his comfort range. I use the advertising and market analogy that if it makes you feel a little uncomfortable, it’s probably good. Noticeable. Unique. 

camper shoes

The shoe brand Camper is one I’ve admired for a number of years. Though the logo looks American the shoes def possess a European flavor. These shoes were hipster before hipsters. They are loud, colorful, not quite garish and that’s what I love about them. I’ve tossed a few strategic ideas over the transom to a sales friend at Camper, with little success. One such idea was to make feet sexy.  

The last time we spoke Camper was not killing it in the U.S. That said, the brand and style portfolio are so strong it can’t help but (take that grammarians). Camper will be a huge in the U.S.  A nice budget would help but, alas, the U.S. is an expensive media market, and canvas and dye don’t grow on trees. So the brand will have to creep along by itself until an unexpected fashion forward group pulls it through the garden hose.  Keep an eye out!


Elevator Speech Vs. Is-Does


A term of art in branding these days is “elevator speech.” It is a reference to a concise explanation of purpose. David Belasco, a great theater impresario, once said “If you can’t put your idea on the back of a business card, it’s not a clear idea.”

The thing about elevator speeches is that they can be poorly constructed. They can meander. They also can be incomplete. Last week I met someone who referred to herself as an educational consultant, when in fact, she counseled high school students selecting colleges. I thought she provided consulting services to K12 and universities. Poor elevator speech.

I get around this by coaching clients to think about their Is-Does: What a brand is and what a brand does.  In this day and age of tech start-ups, it is sometimes hard to know if you are dealing with a company, service, software, hardware or some combination thereof…often referred to as a platform. You are likely to find a company’s Is-Does in the first sentence and “About” paragraph of their press releases. Also on their website About section. But even there, they are not always clear. Not always succinct.

Undercurrent’s Is-Does: “Strategic partner for the 21st century” is a good one. Pregnant with meaning. My Is-Does for What’s the Idea?: “A brand consultancy” is good one, but lacks a benefit a la for the 21st century reference of Undercurrent — read innovation.  

A good way to judge your Is-Does is to think of it as you would a 5 second radio sponsorship. Fill in these blanks. This program brought to you by Brand X, the ________, that ________. Hmm. Maybe I should change Is-Does to The-That.  

Get your Is-Does right…so others can. It’s the first step in good branding. Peace. 


Whither the marketing data nerd?


data nerd

When hired as director of marketing at a company selling interactive whiteboards and professional development to the K12 education sector, I was very excited to build a department for the new digital economy. We already had digital peeps: a coder, a manager, an applications developer, all of whom were smart and proficient.  Also, they were excited to learn how to use the web for marketing good.  

One of the things I wanted to introduce to the department was a data nerd. It was in my plans but not a top priority — not until I got the brand plan right. And not until I had begun the process of enculturating the company (and especially the marketing and creative dept.) with the strategy.  The company, BTW, had over 100,000 records of past customers, with which it was doing nothing. The records were in various forms: paper, Excel, SharePoint, and a few other databases. This was an asset I’d seen at very few companies of this size. The nerd, was to be the cherry on the sundae.  Didn’t happen, my failure, and the company suffered. 

My first data nerd was a grandfatherly scholar at a huge health system. He was the “insight” that drove the brand strategy. He once told me in the catchment area surrounding one of the system’s more up-market hospitals, 50% of the woman gave birth via C-section. Come se convenience?  There was little this dude didn’t or couldn’t know. And he is still killing it 15 years later.

All big dog marketers get the data nerd concept.  When SMBs get it and invest in it, there will be an amazing whoosh in marketing effectiveness. Now, wash your hands an make me another 2 for 1 Tweet.



Plumbing and Mining the Consumer.


Over the years, obesity has been a subject I have studied quite closely. I’ve endeavored to understand and strategize obesity surgery, weight loss programs, post-surgery protein drinks — and I even wrote the brand and marketing plan for a physician-supervised weight-loss modality launch in the United States.

Understanding the personalities and influencers involved has always been part of the deep dive. The obese, their family, physicians, other care providers – even payors (insurance approvers) are all part of the picture. It is an emotional, layered, personal condition with lots of psychological underpinnings. (Guess what the word “salad” means to an obese person?)  And sadly, the weight regain recidivism rate for the obese is higher than prison recidivism. Much.

The ability to submerge oneself into a target, to know the targets’ sensitivities, cues, tells and thoughts is what brand planners do.  As a kid in the business, making ads and taking names, I hadn’t a clue about the target. Today, the target is everything.

When explaining brand planning I say it is a process of understanding what customers care about and what a brand is great at. The hardest part of the process is the plumbing, mining and prioritizing of consumer careabouts.

The payoff?  Better brands, better marketing and better, more humane brand planners. Puh-eace!  

Brand Planning. The Clarity Cure.


claim and proof

In meetings I love to say “I am a simple man.”  Not sure how much good it does me, but it is me nonetheless. My whole brand planning shtick is tied to the simplification of branding. Readers know that means a brand plan is One Claim, Three Planks. The claim is not a tagline, it’s the strategy that drives business. The planks are the array of proof that give consumers permission to believe the claim. Simply put, a brand plan is a coming together of what consumers want most and what a brand does best. Period.

I love brand planners, but some are so wound up in inside baseball terms and theory, they lose sight of the goal: Creating an idea in the mind of consumers that predisposes (and post-disposes) them to a sale.

A brand plan is an upstream thing. Once done, all the follow-on expression of the plan – the tactics – need to be planned as well.  And that, too, is the provenance of the planner. However in all of my travels in the space, I’ve yet to come across one SlideShare presentation, one Plannersphere deck, one Planning Salon video, one Planningness talk that simplifies the upstream brand plan into this 1+3 recipe. So either I’m tripping or we haven’t found the clarity cure yet.  

One claim, three planks is the cure, he said humbly. Peace!


Guns, Sex and Drugs.


A question I always have in mind when doing brand and comms planning for clients is “Who is going to lose the sale you are making?” Often we think of competitors but sometimes, especially with start-ups and tech companies, it is money made in another category.  A carbonated soft drink loss might be won by a cold pressed juice company, for instance.

While reading an item last week and seeing that in 7 large NFL-size cities over $2.4B is being spend a year on guns, sex and drugs I began to think about business opportunities that might siphon off some of that cash.  This data point BTW was from 2007 so I’m sure it has grown considerably. And this number didn’t even include NY, LA or Chicago.

I suspect there won’t be an app for this replacement product, but there could be. What do all 3 of these pursuits have in common? If we say that guns are about protection, aggression or hunting then the motivation is about the self. As are drugs and sex. So this replacement behavior, this replacement product, needs to be similarly positioned. Plastic surgery? Clothing? Exercise? Diet? How about we invent a completely new sport?  How about a sport for the ageing population? Something that might be more fun and active than say walking or the elliptical machine? Something that generates some endorphins? Help me out here.

Hmmm. This one is going to take a while. Any thoughts?

Wren Brand Idea.


Sometimes I enjoy watching ads and trying to back out the brand strategy. While watching the viral video from clothing retailer Wren, entitled “First Kiss,” the desire to figure out the strategy never popped up. The idea was too wonderful, too perplexing; getting total strangers to kiss on video camera for the first time.  Shot in black and white pretty much from the waste up, the video showed the discomfort and comfort of this most intimate act.

first kiss

Watching the video you spend most of your time looking for visual cues as to the couple’s affinity, e.g., their looks, nerves, sexual attraction, etc. Then you start to asking yourself about the act of kissing itself? Is it an act of love? A greeting? Something strangers should share?  Is it alive? Meaning, can it begin one way and end another? You debate the culture of kissing. Fascinating.

And after all of these thoughts, only then do you really notice the clothes…and the style. And stylish many of these people are. (The stylist for the shoot was wonderful.)

Maybe the next day you think about the brand strategy — when you’re back to work.

My take on the the selling idea? It shows how one can make the uncomfortable comfortable. Through intimacy. Through trust. The idea felt like a game of dare…a game of spin the bottle. Wear clothes you like but also clothes that make you feel a little uncomfortable. And to me that’s the brand idea.  Wren…if it feels good.