Monthly Archives: February 2019

Branding. Where To Start.


I am flagged as someone who answers questions about branding on Quora. Most questions are from tyro branders.  “How important is brand marketing? How can I promote a Balsami rice in a local market?  When an interesting question comes up, I jump. I love furthering the science of brand strategy.  It’s a most human science.

The first thing I tell everyone is: Branding begins with the product. A good product will sell. A bad product will not repeat sell. An average product may sell. Everything about branding starts with the product.  Songs, color, ad budgets, and market share do not build a brand. Good products, promoted in an organized way, do.

Just as amino acids are the building blocks of protein and muscle, brand strategy provides building blocks for successful brands.  Finding a product’s best features and most desired features is the brand strategist’s way forward. If you can’t find the best, most desired features, you are working on a bad product.  Fix the product. Period. Re-cut the bait. Find new bait. Don’t mess with a bad product.



Benzer Pharmacy. Brand With a Difference.


A pharmacy is a pharmacy, right?  A prescription at CVS is the same as Walgreens, is the same as Rite-Aid. Duane Reade, a venerable NYC brand, sells the same meds as the next girl. Duane Reade, built its marketing around its NYC roots but unless they sell hot dogs with red onions in the store, it’s not much more than an advertising play. Pluck the ethnocentric heart strings. So how would a brand planner build a unique pharmacy brand. 

Enter Benzer Pharmacy, a regional player with national aspirations, headquartered in Tampa, FL. What they say in copy is what other pharmacies say. From the website: “Be The Best Healthcare Provider For The Families We Serve.”  

But here’s what they do: Free home delivery, deliveries to hospitals so patients have meds before discharge, provide education on meds making sure patients have much needed understanding, and they provide a service that maximizes drug and cost effectiveness.

Everybody wants to offer the best care. Few prove it.  Proof in a commodity business is where brands are built.

Benzer Pharmacy gets product marketing. Therefore, they get branding. Next step, create a brand strategy and take on the world.



Show Don’t Tell.


There is an old maxim in advertising and marketing that “showing is better that telling.”  I was in a meeting with a technology group at AT&T Business Communications Services a while back. We were there to set strategy with a group who had not done any real advertising before. Our intent was to validate our understanding, the objectives, and the strategies prior to putting pen to paper and mouse to screen.  After lots of PPT slides, the client asked us when we were going to get to the part where Darrin Stephens (ad guy from Bewitched, a TV show) stands up and shows the boards with words and pictures on them. He clearly wanted to be shown not told.

My brand strategy presentation is unique in that it’s 85% show. I use real brand strategies (names redacted) from past clients so clients have examples. Not theoretical explanations.  I can tell you 20 times that a brand strategy is an “organizing principle for product, experience and messaging.” I can explain the framework as a “one claim and three proof planks,” but when I show people and explain how the values fit, everyone gets it.

In advertising, people approve briefs, but they really want to approve the ads. In branding, they sit through the marko-babble and brand-babble, but really want to see logos, taglines and designs. Show don’t tell.

If you’d like to see examples of real brand strategies in your category, please email




Service Brands.


I was wondering this morning who is doing a good job of branding these days and the question took me to my new home town Asheville, NC with its exciting beer, food and hospitality businesses.  Most of these brands are retail. Retail branding is organic, contained and a brand petri dish.  The owners and operators are on prem. The product is there. The experience is there. Messaging abounds. When you see a retail space that holds tight to an idea, it’s powerful. It’s even more powerful if the product, space, experience and vibe are unique from all the others.  There are 35+ brewers in Asheville, for instance.

If the retailer had done a good job, 75 out of a 100 customers leaving the store will relate pretty much the same value statements.  And words like “cool”  or “awesome” are not what you’re looking for.

So what happens, then, when your business is a service or professional company? A lawyer, doctor or accountant, perhaps? How do you build a brand then? When a tax return is a tax return, how do you influence the experience?

The answer is with a brand claim and proof array. Also known as a brand strategy.  A plan for packaging your service…where no product package exists. If you’d like to see examples of service brand strategies, email me



How To Use a Brand Brief.


If you are doing a marketing video in which you interview customers, let the customers read the brief before the camera rolls. It will help them frame the points you need. Otherwise, they’ll default to their own narrative.

If you are asking a freelance writer to write a brochure. Give them the brief. It will create context for the writing and story.

If decorating the office, give the designer the brief. It will guide decisions that support your business goals — not the designer’s portfolio.

If are tired of your homepage. Give the web designer the brief on the first day.

The brand brief is the most important tool a marketing company has. I know a CEO who shares the brand brief with every new employee.

There are a hundred uses for a brand brief. Use it every day. Plants need water.




Claim About a Brand Claim.


What’s The Idea?, a brand strategy consultancy, provides two key services: brand strategy and marketing plans.  Marketing plans are certainly more of a commodity. What makes ours different from your garden variety marketing plan is the brand idea and proof array are embedded.  In other words, the tactics are intrinsically tied to the brand care-abouts and good-ats.

But the bread and butter, what I get most excited about, is the creation of the brand “claim.”  That’s what sets What’s The Idea? apart.  I’ve been told WTI brand claims offer a bit of poesy or poetry.  They are therefore more memorable. “Low cost provider. Best customer care. Most innovative.” These are not What’s The Idea? claims.  

It’s made me wonder if one can tell a WTI claim apart from that of other brand strategy shops? What would a claim from an Interbrand or Landor look like next to mine? This is going to require a bit of research. I’ll take it as an action item and report back.

Maybe then we’ll do a side-by-side comparison for shits and giggs.



It’s Good To Be Organized.


There are two powerful titles in marketing: Director of Marketing and Creative Directors.  A year or so ago, prior to presenting at Cannes, Tom Morton the CSO at R/GA, asked 100 creative directors what they most wanted as input in order to make great creative.  The answer was a compelling insight.  Insights fuel creative.

Were one to ask 100 marketing directors what they would want in order to create the most effective brand work, I’m betting they would say an organizing principle. Maybe in not so many words, but marketing directors like order. They like predictability. Metrics and science. And that’s what an organizing principle gives them. An insight might lead to an organizing principle (for product, experience and messaging), but without organization the brand diaspora begins.    

Campaigns are also big with marketing directors. Campaigns organize. But they get old. Organizing principles don’t get old.

The insight and organizing principle are the yin and yang of marketing and advertising. Healthy together. Symbiotic. A place where a little tension is good.




Brand Planner Tip #15.


I changed my Twitter profile description today to include “operating at the intersection of never been and nowhere.” Until today it said “I operate at the intersection of nothing.”  The latter reference was a snark at all the people on Twitter who operate at the intersection of two things.  For the strategically minded that may be 10-20% of profiles. 

That’s the more caustic Steve. Today I dialed it back so there’s less cynicism and more focus on an actual idea. The idea relates to operating from tabula rasa. A blank slate. I attempt to come at a branding problem with an unbiased, untainted view of the category or business. Clean.

In most every initial meeting with a client I lead with “I’m a simple man.”  I look at things simply and hopefully without complication. I like to communicate with simple people through simple symbols, emotions and ideas. Done well, done with panache and believability, this approach resonates. (Even in complicated businesses like Blockchain.)

In order to get to simple, you must clear your mind. Cultural anthropologists get this. They watch, listen and go deep on understanding.  With preconceived notions you don’t get to deep. You can often find yourself tangled in complexity.

So I proudly operate at the intersection of never been and nowhere. Try it.





One of my clients is so good at what they do they take a “rising tide” approach to sharing their IP and tools. For free. This soooo goes against everything I was taught as a pup in the business, where “proprietary” and “patented” carried the day.  But the software and services worlds are a changing.  Look at what Satya Nadella has done with Microsoft, opening up much of the company and reaping massive rewards.

I’ve been sharing my brand strategy framework for years. I’ve borrowed from some of the leading lights of the “sharing” age, even meme-ing “open source brand strategy.”

The reality is, brand strategy requires doing something smart with all the data and discovery that goes into it. You can’t just pour the information into muffin cups and start baking.  You have to organize and prioritize your ingredients.  And that’s when a framework turns into strategy.

I share my framework – the claim and proof array – but I’m not nervous it will hurt my business. Sharing is never a negative.




Rising Tide Target.


I’m in a bit if a quandary regarding development of a target in my brand briefs. I learned most of my targeting craft from Peter Kim, head of strategy and number 3 executive at McCann-Erickson in the 90s. His approach to targeting was to articulate all the possible targets that might come into contact with your brand. Then massify those targets into one group, before culling the mass for shared care-abouts. Or as the brief stated “Define the largest grouping of consumers, bound by a single shared attitude or belief, that will be most motivated to buy/consider the product.”

I’ve used this for years as my targeting guide. Until recently, when I began to aim higher in the pyramid. Speaking to a high-minded, influential sector of the target, I’ve concluded, can also be effective.

In K12 education, there is a theory that removing “gifted” student from the class is a good idea. But doesn’t the whole suffer? Gifted students can help the others. As peers, they act as examples. They can inspire. Even in their fallibility. Similarly, in brand targeting, by finding the more aspirational, positive qualities in a high-performing group of consumers, we can create a powerful archetype that creates hope and ability through leadership. Not a watered-down version of every wo/man.

You say influencer, I say Rising Tide Target.

Always thinking.