Monthly Archives: August 2019

Branding Is Unfair.


The word unfair is popping up a lot today in business. Gazzillons of dollars, Euros, Yuan, and other currencies are taking hits because of “unfair trade practices.” Markets are moving like the wind.

In America, Certified B Corporations are banding together to make businesses more fair to employees, the planet and mankind by focusing on long-term “good” rather than short term economic performance. And though not Certified B Corporations, Toyota, Fiat Chrysler and General Motors are adhering to president Obama’s auto emissions standards, rather than move backward under president Trump. All in an attempt to be less unfair.

Unfair is most always bad. But it’s a word I use often when talking to clients and prospects about branding.  The goal is to create an unfair advantage for brands…through strategy.  What’s The Idea? is not about cheating, dishonesty, price fixing, or unfair wages; those are deplorable practices. The unfair advantage we look to create is in consumers’ minds. By creating an organized narrative filled with proof of value which predispose people toward client products.  To convince people to drive an extra mile. To wait an extra day. To spend 8-10% more.

Branding is misunderstood. It’s thought of as logos, taglines and marketing buildables. But branding is the result of a well laid brand strategy. An organizing principle for product, experience and messaging.  One catering to what customers care about (care-abouts) and what brands are good at (good-ats).

Be unfair. Be wildly unfair. But do so through (organized) honest advantage and art.




One Concern. Or Two. Or Three.


So there is a really cool company in Menlo Park, CA, called One Concern. They are a bunch of data nerds who’ve raised $22M in funding, already have clients and have received a boat load of press, mostly positive. But here’s why you don’t give marketing and branding to data nerds.  Have a look at their Is-Does from the website.

We are building planetary-scale economic resilience through AI-enabled technology, policy and finance – allowing companies and communities to identify hidden risks and maintain stability in the face of natural disasters.

If you knew nothing about the company, what would you think they did?  They’re a resilience builder. In the technology space. And finance space. And policy space. Anyone have an extinguisher?  My hair is on fire.

A few clicks down there is actually a better Is-Does, this one in English:

While at Stanford University, Ahmad met AI guru Nicole Hu and earthquake expert Tim Frank, and together they channeled their collective passion into figuring out how to apply data science and machine learning to natural disaster and climate change.

I’m going to give these people a pass as they are doing some seriously important work.  Not all the press has been good but they’re clearly in the business of saving lives on a large scale. They are likely, in fact, to save more lives than individual drug and healthcare companies over time. Data don’t lie.

Super nerds need love…and they also need brand strategy with a marketing hand.  




Tarot Card Number 5, Boilerplate.


 Boilerplate is the paragraph in a press release sitting at the very bottom of the page offering a paragraph of information about the company issuing the news announcement. It contains some selling references but mostly recaps the primary business(es), along with key facts, figures, age, ownership, etc.  Here is some boilerplate from The Kraft Heinz Company:

About The Kraft Heinz Company

For 150 years, we have produced some of the world’s most beloved products at The Kraft Heinz Company(NASDAQ: KHC). Our Vision is To Be the Best Food Company, Growing a Better World. We are one of the largest global food and beverage companies, with 2018 net sales of approximately $26 billion. Our portfolio is a diverse mix of iconic and emerging brands. As the guardians of these brands and the creators of innovative new products, we are dedicated to the sustainable health of our people and our planet. To learn more, visit or follow us on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Shelley Spector of Spector and Associates says boilerplate should always remain the same. And it requires a lawyer’s approval at public companies. Good press releases also use a digest of the boilerplate in the first sentence. For instance, Kraft Heinz might start off with “Kraft Heinz, the largest global food and beverage company announced today…”

(A sure sign of an immature company is one that keeps changing it’s boilerplate with every release. A no-no.)

Every brand needs to think about its boilerplate. It is an extended, inclusive statement of business purpose, scale and history. It’s a good place for strategists to begin when delving into brand claim and proof.




Brand Discovery Advice.


Robert Eichner a successful marketer and cohort here in Asheville shared something his dad Arthur told him many years ago “When you ask for advice you get money, when you ask for money you get advice.”

This is some sound counsel. In fact, I’ve lived by it for decades. The money I have made at What’s The Idea? is directly attributable to the interviews I conduct through my brand planning rigor. Until the machines take over it is people who buy stuff. So, it is people who fuel the strategy.  Of course, market data, trends, competition and culture factor in, but it’s the words and deeds people share that form the brand claim and proof array.

I’ve never had to pay people to ask them a few questions about brands, markets and buying behaviors. Never. In fact, once you pay for advice, it’s probably tainted.

Ask questions, ask advice as Arthur Eichner suggests, and you’ll get a wealth of information.  Brand planners are interested by nature. They are not data collectors — they are learners. And organizers. Data only supports and proves our learning.

Ask and you shall receive.




Brand Strategy Tarot Card Number 4.





The fourth tarot card to be turned over during the What’s The Idea? brand strategy demo is the “About” section from the company website. The About page is the most important place to get the brand strategy right, yet it’s often poorly constructed and amateurish. Not so, for large multinationals who have seasoned communications people and PR hands nearby, but it’s often the case among midsize and small companies who tangled in their underwear.

Here’s an About page from nCipher:

nCipher Security, a leader in the general purpose hardware security module market, is now an Entrust Datacard company, delivering trust, integrity and control to business critical information and applications.

Not the worst in the world, but it assumes knowledge of “hardware security modules.”

The Is-Does is fundamental to the About Section. What a brand Is and what a brand Does. Getting bogged down in where, how many, target and the like only confuses. In technology, you are either in hardware, software or platform (web services). Say that. Once you start piling on things like trust, integrity and control, you start to diminish.  

In consumer products be what you are first, then and only then add value qualifiers.

Local brewer Devil’s Foots Beverage Company gets it:

“Devils Foot Brewing. Asheville, NC Craft Beverage Company. All Natural N/A Bevs made with Organic Roots and Fruits.
(N/A refers to non-alcoholic, not North American.) Also, I would suggest beverage over brewing, rather than using both.)  

When you write the About page, don’t get carried away. Tell them what it Is and what it does. Don’t bury it in blather.



Brand Strategy Tarot Card Number 3.


Home pages are tough. As a brand or company landing page, the words, visuals and strategy are the first thing a consumer or searcher sees.  Unless you have the brand recognition of Coca-Cola , Amazon or Taco Bell, I’m a fan of communicating the Is-Does on the home page: what a brand Is and what a brand Does.  The worst thing one can do, leading to a high bounce rate, is not explain the Is-Does on the home page. For a brand, a nice product shot is more than appropriate. If a service, some quick visualization of function. The idea of the home page is to leave no possible confusion as to what one is selling. Of course, naming is important. If the home page says Mission Health System, you can get away with not having doctors on the page. If Blue Point Brewing, you needn’t show the suds.

Once the Is-Does is covered, the other purpose of the home age is to convey the brand claim. Not claims. Claim. There can be only one overriding value of a brand – with all deference to “Tastes great, less filling.” If a home page offers up multiple values, the brand jig is up. Brands are allowed 3 support planks, but all must directly bolster the claim. It’s simple brand blocking and tackling.

If your home page scatters values, you don’t have a home — you have multiple homes. Therefore no home at all.


(There are 6 Brand Strategy Tarot Cards. Brand Strategy Tarot Cards is a diagnostic offering of What’s The Idea? For more information write


Intentional is the New Authenticity.


Oy.  Sorry if I come off as crabby sometimes. I know, I know, life is too short to sit around finding fault with stuff – jesus (lower case j). I live in a town that really cares about sustainability, common sense culture, and egalitarianism.  Also, health and planet. All really good things. But I’m originally from NY and come with a built-in bullshit gauge. And trust me, I’m not saying anyone in marketing who uses the word “intentional” is a bullshitter. In fact, I’d probably like them and want to do business with them over the majority of people. But certainly, we can be intentional without haling it.

As for Authenticity, another marko-babble word that has long irked me, it too has to go.  The only people who talk about authenticity are either the inauthentic or obsessed with it – and that’s a bore.  Let’s just be authentic, shall we?  As in not bullshit. As in be a normal person.

Brand planners are the first to point out the common. And fight against it. When I wrote “For Doers, Not Browsers” for ZDNet back in the day I was fighting the common. Deep down it may have been a commodity claim but it certainly was packaged with sauce.

Let’s stop talking about intention and authenticity and as the anti-gun people are saying “Do something.”




Brand Strategy Card Number 2.


Let’s face it, Google has supplemented our brain power like no other tool in the world. Its mission is something like “organizing the world’s information so it’s one click away.”  Every directory ever published, every map, and phone book have passed into oblivion thanks to the genius of Google. And businesses know this because consumers know this. 

Tarot Card number 2 is a snapshot of the Google results page above the fold (what can be seen without cursoring down) following a search of your brand name. When someone searches for you on Google, with what are they presented?

If an established brand, consumers are likely to see a large box on the right side of the page with company incidentals — what Google and the algorithm have gleaned, e.g., owner, headquarters, inception date, picture/logo, stuff like that.  On the left side of the page is information more controlled by the user — typically beginning with copy from meta tags and labels associated with the home page.  Other copy is hopefully scraped from paragraphs about what the brand Is and what the brand Does (Is-Does) often included there are some other organizing subheads like: About, Careers, Location. This area can be a mess of copy and bullet — not the best presentation of a brand and its value.

One can’t organize their brand’s Google results page because it is part machine driven and part human and coder driven. And in many cases the coders don’t even work for the company.

As all earthlings use Google many times each day, the ability to organize and synthesize your search results page is a key to brand building and brand management.  


(There are 6 Brand Strategy Tarot Cards. Brand Strategy Tarot Cards is a diagnostic offering of What’s The Idea? For more information write


Brand Strategy Tarot Card Number 1.


I am working on a presentation called Brand Strategy Tarot Cards.  My intent is to turn over 6 cards of branded content and do a reading. A reading of what these 6 fairly common pieces of content convey about the brand.  I’ve been playing with what the 6 cards are, but now will lock them down. 

Up first is brand or company Name. The name is spoken more often than not by consumers so the aural version is important. Therefore the first Tarot card will not be a card at all, but spoken words. “Pass the What’s The Idea? please.” “Hey, would you get Whats The Idea? on the phone?”  Of course, there are full spoken names and shorthand names. Coca-Cola and Coke, are famous examples.

After I evaluate the communication value of the name, we can turn over the first Tarot card which will be the packaging of the name — including the logo and tagline, if there is one. We’ll assess what the logo does to convey or reassert the name and then look to see if it conveys or furthers any particular meaning or value. When first introduced what meaning did the Nike swoosh bring to the brand communication for instance.

Lastly, we’ll evaluate the tagline. Has it resonated? Has it changed every few years? Is it an advertising tagline? Many times, when the name is bad and the mark not particularly meaningful, the tagline carries the water. It’s a bail out tactic for branding. A startup I worked at used the meaningless name Zude. The logo was colorful, original typography but to consumers it was meaningless beyond color and playfulness. The tagline “Feel Free” was broadly grounded in the product functionality (a drag and drop web authoring tool) but kind of meaningless without a communicative name and mark.

Fort Tarot Card number 2, tune in tomorrow.




Independence and Brand Planning.


My business is a private business.  I’m not a public company owned by shareholders. What does that mean?  Well, let’s imagine my partner/wife was the boss and she had to move the P&L in a constant upward direction every quarter. I’d be fucked. 

What’s The Idea? has good years and bad years. It’s not always tied to the energy I put into business development. I’m always on. A firm believer in making your own luck, I understand demand for my services is fluid. Educating marketers that brand strategy is a business winning concern is not easy. Because not many understand strategy. They understand tactics.  My board of directors, were I managing 100s of planners, would not completely get that. They would bring pressure. “Work harder. More hours. More outreach.” Pressure. “Increase visibility. Cut costs.”

As a private “single-shingle” brand planner I answer to me. My home is my office. My credit card statement is my expense manager. My checking account, the P&L. Yes, this can be a hand-to-mouth business. But there’s mad learning in that.  We learn when we operate on the edge.  We learn when we operate amongst raging success.  I’m not so sure we learn well when we have outside pressures not of our own making. Learning is the fulcrum of brand strategy.

Independence. As my kid’s used to say “I yike it.”