Monthly Archives: June 2015

Simple. Loveable. And Inspiring.


I scraped this screen grab from Jen van der Meer’s website.

van der meer slide


I’ve never met Jen but after reading these two quotes feel we’re sibs from another mother.

In my approach to branding at What’s The Idea? I take these two truths to be self-evident. And many would agree…yet these guiderails are rarely practiced. Was I to add another ingredient it would be “inspiration.” Inspiration creates feelings and action. Ms. Van der Meer is a data analyst.  It seems to me complexity is the domain of the data analyst. And in my mind’s eye they are all a little ADD.  But when Ms. van der Meer speaks of simplicity and “love of craft” it makes me believe she’d be a great marketer to work with. And a great data analyst.

I often tell clients “I’m a simple man.” It’s a way to self-deprecate and also set the stage that this brand strategy stuff, when complete, is organic, understandable and easy to follow. It’s an organizing principle for product, messaging and experience. Done well it is simple, loveable and inspiring.




A Brand Planning Bobble.


One of my latest brand planning memes is “what customers want most and what you do best.” (Shit, I need to start tagging that phrase.) It almost always drives the work of good marketers…certainly good brand planners. Problem is, most heavy up on one side of the equation. Case in point: A pal came to me recently in a business development situation asking for thoughts on a company he is pitching. He gave me a quick overview and said his agency is already working on some creative ideas. The company being pitched is in the home improvement space.

I asked if he wanted some thoughts on strategic underpinning to help with creative (or selling the creative). He said sure.  I heavied up on the “what you do best” side of the equation by reviewing the website – the only tangible representation of the company I was given beyond the initial 10 minute telephone overview. I neglected to look closely at the “what customers want most” side the house, typically a brand planner’s wheelhouse. (A dive into customer attitudes, motivations and experience.)

This whole exercise was a cursory, non-paid “quickie.” No real rigor. That being said, I dropped the ball by focusing on what was already built — what was already there. My wheelhouse, any brand planners wheelhouse, is the consumer viewpoint. Given the short timeframe, omitting that side of the equation was an error. Lesson learned.



The hacksaw and the bolt cutter.



Here’s a little parable about using the right tool. Our cellar door is held secure by a Master Lock. The Master Lock keys are kept in the key cabinet and have been for decades. Last weekend they were not. So I looked for my hacksaw to do what any able bodied homeowner would do (argh argh argh) and began ripping. And ripping. After a few minutes I hadn’t even come close to marring the hardened steel. WTF.

So I used the web. Logging on to I asked around the neighborhood if anyone had a bolt cutter. No hits after two days. I went to Ace Hardware, where they had two sizes of bolt cutter, the larger of the two priced at a reasonable $39 dollars. I chose to not invest. At home I emailed a friend in construction who came over with is pair. I snipped that lock like butter. Guns of Navarone!

The point of the parable? The right tool can be a crazy time saver. Most small, mid-size and B2B companies do not have brand strategies. They have logos. Ad campaigns. Website “About” sections. They may even have brands. But they don’t have an organizing principle that governs product, messaging and experience. A brand strategy is a fundamental tool. It help marketing cut though challenges like butter.

For examples of successful brand strategies, please write me (Steve Poppe) at


Gap in market intelligence.


gap commercial

The Gap is closing 175 stores and laying off 250 in its corporate offices. The company has a handle on what’s gone wrong but worked perfunctorily to fix it. It’s the product. Women want a tight silhouette in their pants. Gaps, traditionally, doesn’t do silhouette. When you think of Gap you think boxy and baggy.

Here’s the environmental rub –and what should have been a wake-up call for the Gap design team: BMI. It stands for body mass index. The BMI for Gap buyers when the brand was young isn’t what is it today, especially with the target market. There are cities of wide-waisted, big-assed people out there today and they need to be clothed.  The explosive yoga pants phenomenon is a direct result of this. They stretch, they give a person their slimmest possible profile and they’re inexpensive.

I worked on an obesity project a couple of years ago at which time 78M American’s were classified as obese. It probably has gotten worse.

Gap knows what it has to do. The product needs to change with the times. They need to come up with a cool and witty alternative to yoga pants. Rocking around the clock in their ads with khaki pants aflutter won’t do it today. Gap needs to get back in touch with today’s teens and millennials. Apparently product design is in the hands of 30 and 40 year olds. It’s R&D time.



A Note to Twitter’s New CEO.


I love Twitter. It is what it is. As with human lovers the attraction is different for everyone. Chris Sacca, an early investor and dude who is away smarter than me. Okay, way way smarter, suggests the way forward for Twitter and soon to be new CEO is to focus on live events. Farhad Manjoo a NYT tech correspondent agrees. If that happens, I’m afraid the app will revolve around a behaviors that are no doubt powerful and bursty but that will remove the serendipity of Twitter. 300M people are using Twitter just fine thank you. Learn to live with it. Allow it to mature and follow user instincts. Don’t gorge on what I once called the Google’s “culture of technological obesity.”

For me what is so special about Twitter – and this is just me – is that the app truly reflects an individual’s complete personality. It’s not about friends. It’s not all business. It’s not a public picture book. It’s life from every corner.

As a brand planner, when I do homework on a consumer, I’d study his/her Twitter feed. I may look at original posts first rather than retweets and curated OPC (other people’s content). For users with more than 1000 tweets this is a wonderful visage – a view into their soul. It’s a look at the total person. You get to see happy tweets, sad tweets, angry tweets. Indignant tweets.

If we follow Mr. Sacca and Mr. Manjoo’s advice, that visage will be stunted. Please don’t try to fix Twitter. Let it fix itself. It’s alive.

Learn to be happy with who you are. Live within your means. You are changing the world. Peace!


HP and the B Team.


I don’t mean to pick on HP or its advertising and marketing again. But I must.  The company is using arguably the world’s best advertising agency (BBDO) and can’t get out of its own way.  They can’t come up with a sustainable brand idea; an idea that marries what they do best with what customers want most. Today’s new idea, as seen in an ad in the NYT, revolves around the notion of “further faster.”  It is all claim, exposition and pedantic nothingness – not a single sign of proof in the copy. Do HP and Meg Whitman really think IT executives and Fortune 2000 leaders don’t know they have to be faster and more informed in their business decisions? OMG. If “further faster” is the idea — at least it is better than “make it matter,” their last strategic foray. You wouldn’t know it from this ad however.

HP has bigger fish to fry than a tagline and brand idea. They are splitting the company and losing small cities worth of money. That said, someone at the top in the marketing dept. should be trying much harder to deliver a clear, meaningful idea.

BBDO is great at selling consumer goods but perhaps doesn’t truly get B2B. (B team?) This whole mess is really hard to believe. If HP wants to get to the future faster, they had better learn a lot more about claim and proof…and find the organizing principle that helps make more money. Peace.



Houzz, Brand Planners and Ample Asses.


houzz homepage

Came across a cool new website called Houzz. It’s also an app on the iPhone. Someone showed me the app on the iPhone (my first user experience or FUE) where it displayed a picture of a kitchen with lots of scroll over call-outs. You scrolled over a countertop and lots of little bubbles (way too many) popped up – I assumed they were prices, or comments. For the life of me I couldn’t figure the app out. I later went to the website and subscribed and started receiving emails, which I didn’t open. Until today.

It’s a real nice website. Lots of bleed pictures, little text on the homepage, the way I like it. But I still couldn’t tell what the site was about other than home stuff so I dug in and visited the About Page. Here’s what they say:

“We are a platform for home remodeling and design, bringing homeowners and home professionals together in a uniquely visual community.”

Now that made sense. My FUE with the app did not.

The Houzz site (not the app) is an awesome resource. Power kitchen and remodeling users (people with leisure time?) spend a nice amount of energy here. This is exactly the kind of place a brand planner wants to do research. It’s the kind of place where thoughtful helpers, info seekers, and smart sellers spend time sharing. All in one location. Brand planners with ample asses (impolitic, I know) can learn a lot – sans fieldwork – on a site like this. I love finding gems like this in every category.  It’s where Posters go. (Google “Posters versus Pasters”.) Peace.


Celebrate and Inebriate the Biz.


Poor poor advertising. Woe is Advertising. It really doesn’t get much respect. As a kid growing up in the business (before Cable TV and Mad Men), ad agency peeps listed just above car salesmen in term of trustworthyness and job stature. God knows where they stand today. Advertising needs a PR company to remold its image.

Where do you think Google gets its bank? Its campus? Its engineers and PHDs? And, and, and. From ad dollars. Sure AdWords are McAwful. Not creative and mostly DIY. But its advertising. Advertising is a gazillon dollar business.

Advertising needs a boost. It needs a strategy. It needs an event. An event to end all events? How about something that makes South By look like child’s play? How about we fill NYC or Brooklyn with the top creative people in the world? Not an awards show like Cannes, but a celebration of creativity like never before. “Banksy, would you mind lighting the opening bond fire?” “Pearl Jam, could you play at the closing event?” “Steven Colbert, might you emcee a live stream art face-off from McCarren Park?”

I’m not talking Advertising Week where we parade the Jolly Green Giant and Clara Peller? I’m not talking Lee Clow in a duel of words with Rich Silverstein? I’d love to celebrate and inebriate the city with the biggest creative names, people, brands and sponsors of the day. (That day being tomorrow…not yesterday.)

We need a strategy. I smell money.

The Two Most Important Brand Fundamentals.


Two recent clients of What’s The Idea? have provided great strength to my views regarding branding. They affirmed things I’ve learned over time but now provide wonderful analogs for my practice. The first client is a premier geotechnical engineering firm. These men and women create the foundational plans for large buildings, bridges and other load-bearing structures. They keep rivers where they belong and 100 story buildings from settling. They are perhaps the most important, yet unseen, engineers in the world. Genius scientists and creative thinkers walk the halls of this company. It is from this company that I learned about solid foundation. A brand strategy (defined as an organizing principle for product, messaging and experience) requires a solid foundation.

The second client is an arm of a large business consulting firm paid to solve some of the world’s biggest problems. Pandemics. Natural disasters. Huge security threats. This company is paid to create strategy. Articulation of problem. Proof of concept. Solution design. Measures of success. In a word: strategy. They don’t sell stuff. Were this company brought in to help the Red Cross after the Haiti earthquake, more than 6 houses would be built today. Strategy saves time and creates efficiency. Brand strategy, does that same. I joke about making paper. But brand strategy is a paper sale. A PPT sale. When I leave an engagement, clients have a claim and three proof planks to govern marketing. I don’t sell stuff. As the old Chinese proverb says, “Give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for lifetime.” Peace.


A Tale of Two City Websites.


Some projects should never get off the ground. Last year NYC closed down a schools website called ARIS (Achievement Reporting and Innovation System). Parents, by and large, were not logging on to get their kids’ grades and test comments. Amplify, a usually smart education company, was paid $95M over 7 years (development by IBM) to build and maintain this well-intended, but flawed site. In fairness, they stepped in after the project was underway. Someone up front – at the strategy level – should have stopped this project before it started. Once the RFP goes out in instances like this, that’s not likely to happen. Before the RFP goes out — that’s when a business concept need to be vetted. Usually at a price of $1M for a project this size.

Next week a replacement site is launching called NYC Schools. According to the New York Times, the cost was $2M. And note the brand name. If a name needs an acronym, it is probably IBM-friendly not Main Street-friendly. Achievement Reporting and Innovation System? Oy.

Strategy before build. Strategy before investment. Strategy before hiring are all signs of good business acumen. Had Amplify not taken the job in its, then, current state, it would have saved the city time, money and improved educational outcomes. Had it said, “this won’t work” at the beginning, kids in college (or not) would be better off today.

Strategy, be it business or brand, is how smart business works. Invest in it. Peace.