Monthly Archives: March 2019

Engineered Preference.


Campaigns come and go but a powerful brand strategy is indelible, is a line I wrote for a Gentiva Health Services pitch many moons ago. Gentiva is now owned by Kindred Health for those still counting. A powerful brand idea, is a difference-maker in marketing because it anoints a product or service with a value that only it can claim. Burger King owns “Flame Broiled.”  Coca-Cola owns “Refreshment.”  Google owns the “World’s information in one click.”

Establishing and owning a brand idea is the job of the brand manager. Constantly and without pause, hammering home a key care-about or good-at, seeds the brand idea — building and reinforcing consumer preference. Preference is not the only job of the marketer but it’s an imperative job. I may prefer an Impossible Burger, but if it’s not in my store, no sale.

The job of the brand strategist is to engineer preference. I choose to do it with a model based upon claim and proof. My approach is repeatable. Other’s do brand strategy differently.  Shades of right, I guess. Either way, preference is our goal. Preference makes the revenue.



Selling Brand Strategy.


Selling brand strategy is not easy. First, you have to explain what brand strategy is – “an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging.” Then you have to share the organizing principle, because without a framework an organizing principle is just a concept.  “One claim and three proof planks” is the What’s The Idea? framework.  What’s a claim?  That’s easy. But proof planks? That needs a little ‘splainin’. 

So let’s say you get a marketer to understand the organizing principle of claim and proof planks, now what? Well, you have to convey that the companies most in need of these services are those chaos.  And who wants to admit to that? And if not in chaos, at least companies that are disorganized. Same problem. Few will admit to it.

What marketers will admit to is wanting to make more money. They will admit to some inefficiency and perhaps agree they need to identify more customers. But chaos and disorganization? Not too likely.

One of my biggest challenges is showing companies how they present themselves to the world. How they are perceived by the unknowing public. And in doing so to make sure the findings are not accusatory. To that end, I’m working on a free test for business and brand clarity. I call it Brand Strategy Tarot Cards.  If you’d like to participate in the test please write me at



Brand Around The Love.


I choose to be a lover when it comes to brand strategy, searching for the love of product and service when interviewing consumers and marketers. One of my favorite discovery questions has to do with pride. One day while commuting to NYC on the Long Island Rail Road I noticed the amazingly shiny shoes of the conductors – all of whom were in uniforms. I asked the conductor about the shoes and he explained that sparking shoes was part of the uniform. It was a pride thing. Who knows what Nikes conductors are wearing today but a couple of decades ago it was a thing.

Another question I like to ask in discovery is “What is the nicest thing someone has ever said to you about your job…or the job you’ve done?”  Brand building is best constructed on love.

Marketing, on the other hand, often is about negatives. Competitor negatives. Take for instance the new Bud Light campaign against the ingredient corn syrup. All-in negative. Good marketing. Good advertising. But probably bad for the pasteurized beer market overall. Another classic negative marketing play was Wendy’s “Where’s the beef?”

Brand strategy, when based upon love, can overcome any negative marketing tactics or campaign ploys. But the negs should be monitored because they can drag down the love. (Politics anyone?) Monitoring should be done via a longitudinal attitude study, something I recommend for all clients.

Plan your brand about the good stuff and compete with the negatives, but don’t get carried away.



Insight Beasts.


There is an interview question I use when hiring, “What is your art?”  It’s a broad question and certainly open for interpretation, but therein lies its beauty. Asking the question of myself, I’d have to say my art is uncovering and romancing consumer insights.

Back in the day, when trying to learn from brand planning leaders, I’d send out emails asking for exploratory interviews using my “ear” as the bait. I’d write something to the effect that like a dog who hears high pitch sounds humans can’t, I can sit in a meeting or consumer interview and hear insights most don’t. A super power. Hey, it got me meetings.

Today, it’s still about the ear. My day job is vacuuming up information, usually on the phone or face-to-face. Always prompted by a set of preplanned questions but also following trails laid by interviewee’s answers. An engaged listener is a good listener.  But at the end of the exploration — when all interviews are complete, all data collected, and the boil-down done – the insights left on the table are the fuel that becomes the brand strategy. The care-abouts. The good-ats.

Planners must be insight beasts. Otherwise they’re simple hunters and gatherers.




Branding is not Colon Surgery.


If there is a secret sharable sauce at What’s The Idea? brand consultancy, it’s proof. This business, this branding business, and all the brand strategies built for clients over the last 25 years, owe their being to proof.

Proof is perhaps the most underrated element in advertising. And sadly, well-constructed advertising, if not built on proof, can become a branding element sending brands off the rails.  Flame broiled for Burger King is proof.  The King is not.  The effervescent bubbles coming off a sweating Coca-Cola bottle is proof. Happiness is not.  

My approach to brand strategy is open source.  That is, I share my framework with all marketers: One claim, three proof planks. It’s simple and understandable. Google the words “brand strategy frameworks” and you get an assortment of marko-babble charts and circles that will make your head spin. Even the requisite boxes used in these frameworks are inexplicit. Brand Voice. Brand Personality. Mission. 

This isn’t colon surgery people. It’s selling stuff through a simplified organizing principle. One that gives people proof of why they should purchase and continue to purchase.

Find the proof and you can find your brand.



Brand Minimalism.


I’m a cook who believes in technique.  The more I cook, the more I understand that it’s not recipes that make the best food, it’s good ingredients well presented. If I look at a recipe and see 12 plus ingredients, I click on.  It’s a rarity when so many ingredients come together into something that has a distinctive taste.  Kind of like mixing too many paints as a kid.

In brand strategy, technique varies from planner to planner. Lot’s of behavioral observation. Quantitative numbers crunching. Segmentation.  Interviews with stakeholders and customers. Interviews with subject matter experts – knowing they’re not always your target. And sniffing around the ether, searching for poster not pasters.

But the last technique — the most important technique — is the planning framework. Extending the cooking metaphor, it’s landing on which ingredients to use in your strategy dish. For me, the ingredients are few. One brand claim and three proof planks. The planks are kindred ingredients or proof supporting the claim.  

You build brands with three proof planks. Not four, not five.  It can’t be four and a half. Too many planks ruin a brand. It’s the way the brain works. 

For examples the claim and proof framework in your business category, please write me at Proof.






Silly Billions.


Not sure I expect Apple Entertainment to be such a brand-positive venture. In fact the more I think about it, the more I expect it will not succeed. Maybe even close down in a couple of years. Entertainment is not in Apple’s wheelhouse. Devices are.  Best-on-earth designs are. Entertainment in the form of movies is a hit and miss business. And Apple is not in the business of creating failures.  B or even C+ movies or series will taint the brand.  They will make withdrawals from the brand bank.  You don’t see a lot of dog product designs being sold in the Apple stores.

The entertainment business is about herding content creators. They aren’t like designed and coders. They are not engineers. Not a lot of on and off or ones and zeros in the making of The Color Purple. Or the Star Wars franchise.

I wish Apple would stick to it’s knitting. In-home devices. Maybe medical telemetry devices.  Drones. Stuff.

This event in Cupertino March 25th will be fun and newsworthy. It may even ding the Netflix stock for a few days. But the Apple brand is making a misstep in my opinion. Silly billions.




Hudson Yards and Brand Strategy.


I was reading an amazing piece in today’s New York Times, written by architecture critic Michael Kimmelman.  This is why I subscribe to the NYT. It’s an amazingly constructed criticism of the Hudson Yards project. Nary a mention of state and city tax subsidies, the piece just discusses the beauty (not much) and blight (more than enough) of the project designs. The writer is brutal but fair. No name calling, no Trumpian vilification, but make no mistake he skewers the architecture. Old NY style. This is brilliant reporting and analysis. Bravo New York Times.

At one point Mr. Kimmelman refers to the project as an “architectural petting zoo.” His reference is to a loose federation of structure shapes and designs. (Does one put the zebras next to the sloths?) He makes a point about Rockefeller Center, the last out-sized project of this kind and how at least for that project there was a lead architectural firm — one firm to oversee the vision.

This reminds me of brand management. Good brand craft oversees everything brand. Poor brand craft allows for many hands and agendas in the pot. Just as the Hudson Yards is a “doggy’s dinner” of styles and structures, a good brand needs harmony and continuity as it scales.

Perhaps that’s why the terms brand architecture has stuck for so long.  But as we see from Mr. Kimmelman’s piece, there are architects and there are federations of architects.





Brand Planner Hacks.


Before there was an internet, brand planners had to leave their offices to find insights.  Before Google and the social web, you couldn’t watch buyers engaging sellers from your desk.  Even so, there were time-saving hacks. One of mine was trade journals. Business-to-business magazines that covered the beat.  Magazines for the business side of the industry you were studying: Beverage Industry, Communications Week, Architectural Digest.  Back then you could read a few issues, speak to some editors, track down big customers, find some SMEs (subject matter experts), gather market data and jump- start your learning and discovery. The trades aren’t so viable today.

Windshield time was another hack for planners. (Still is.) Sitting in a car with a sales person, tagging along on sales calls.  The crucible for learning is where buyer meets seller.  Interestingly, windshield time today can take place behind a desk. If your client uses “Live Chat” on the website, brand planners can monitor Care-abouts and Good-Ats with ease.

Agile business and efficiency are important values in American businesses consultants will tell you. Anything that makes business faster and cheaper is worth considering. But I’m still a fan of watching buyers meet sellers live. Smell the fear, taste the joy, experiencing the experience.

Get your bones and all of your senses out of the office.



Brand Strategy Built On Quicksand.


Brand strategy frameworks are a dime a dozen.  All of them are right…to a degree.  This framework, I was told, is from Interbrand.

The brand proposition at the bottom (in red) is also known as the brand idea or claim. As for the stuff above the claim, there’s nothing wrong there — it’s typical brief fodder.  

Interbrand attempts to codify brand strategy across the enterprise, but each office does have some leeway as to its approach. Deviations are allowed because not every brand is in the same place in its lifecycle. Not all targets are the same. Channels are different.  There are a multitude of reasons to tweak a framework, not the least of which is to sell work. I suspect this is the case at many brand consultancies. 

This brand placemat or one-pager is just too freakin’ broad. The proposition, as it should be, is the operative strategy. But there is just so much other stuff going on. 

At What’s The Idea? the framework is brain dead simple. And it is the same for every client. It comprises one claim, three proof planks. A claim is a claim.  Where we differ is that my feeder boxes aren’t values and personality, positions and drivers — they’re proof arrays.  Organized reasons to remember the claim. Reasons to believe. Reasons to argue. Proof creates muscle memory for consumers.

Leave the values/personality/target insights to the art directors and writers. Brand building is an upstream practice that precedes the build out.  If your brand strategy isn’t built upon proof, you are playing in quicksand.