Monthly Archives: November 2019

Mr. Brand Hammer.


Yesterday I coined the term Mr. Brand Hammer – a reference to the axiom “to a hammer everything looks like a nail.” Mr. Brand Hammer (that’s me) smells a new business name.

It’s a curse being Mr. Brand Hammer, surfing the ether, watching commercials, reading the paper, with an always-on need to make sense of brands and their strategy. It’s like living in a world of generic, plain yogurt. Colorless. Tasteless. Sluggish. Mr. Brand Hammer constantly evaluates how marketers are differentiating their product and services. Asking what’s the plan? When watching Geico commercials everything is humor and call-to-action. Buy us, get a quote from us. But where’s the why? Mr. Brand Hammer understands it’s not easy creating thousands and thousands of pieces of selling content…you run out of ideas. But you should never run out of strategy.

What’s The Idea? is a business consultancy built around brand strategy. What’s the brand claim? What are the brand proof planks (evidence of the claim)?  The lack thereof in marketing drives me crazy. And you can tell it also drives marketers crazy. More often than not there is no discernable plan for selling. For building a brand.

More cowbell. More gecko.



Entrepreneurs Need to Aim Low.

3d render of multiple arrows missing target

I met with a local entrepreneur yesterday who began our conversation wondering how Amazon became such a global retailing force. No stores. No in-the-black earnings. A stock price in the stratosphere. Not exactly smoke and mirrors but Amazon’s arc does seem magical. Mr. Brand Hammer (That’s me. To a hammer everything looks like a nail) posited, perhaps it’s just the creation, care and feeding of a great brand??? That’s magical.

When I worked as director of marketing at Zude the web’s first true drag-and-drop web development tool, I recall standing on the back step of my home telling the CTO that we were about to make a billion dollar decision. It had to do with product focus. Was I tripping? Sniffing too many company fumes? Probably.

Today, thanks to the internet, ecommerce, and lack of proper marketing training, many entrepreneurs aim too high. They are looking at Amazon. And Facebook. And Uber. What they need to do is aim low. One customer, one prospect, one channel partner at a time. By aiming low, at ground level where the people are, we learn from real consumers. We use our senses to understand likes, dislikes, energies and needs. Spreadsheets and market universes are macros, entrepreneurs need to dig into the micros. They need to dump the cache and originate. Aim low me droogies, aim low.



Love is Not a Brand Strategy.


I just bought a Subaru. It’s a cool and powerful brand but much of the heavy lifting has been done by the product.

Back in 1991 I read a book entitled: Where the Suckers Moon: The Life and Death of an Advertising Campaign. Written by Randall Rothenberg, it told the story about a celebrated Subaru pitch by some hot ad agencies. I learned a good deal about the brand and, since then, things haven’t really changed that much from a product standpoint. The cars are still highly reliable, they stay on the road a long time, and perform well in the outdoors. The product is good, the brandcraft is disorganize.

Everyone with a television knows the line “Love. It’s what makes a Subaru a Subaru.” It’s sing- songy. Uses the brand name twice. And who doesn’t like love? Should work, right? But it doesn’t. It’s an okay retention idea, which is probably why it’s been around so long but let’s face it it’s impossible to qualify. Whose love makes a Subaru? The manufacturer? The owner? Everybody? And what is it that people love? For a diffuse love explanation, visit the love promise here.

There is a tagline I’ve seen locked-up in some of my recent communications “Confidence in Motion.” I Googled it and it seems to date back to 2016, but who knows. It could also be an international tagline. The line is the opposite of Love. Very unkempt.

Subaru is a wonderful product for the times. For millennials. The product has outperformed the branding and certainly the advertising. Love is not what makes a Subaru a Subaru. If it was, they’d have a better brand strategy. Peace.


Local News Revisited.


The What’s The Idea? blog began in 2007, a little over 2,600 posts ago. At the time I was up in the grill of The New York Times for being slow to catch on to digital media. As the world’s premier news organization, how could it not innovate in the digital space? When the financial crash happened and the NYT paper-paper couldn’t sell full page ad to save its life — and the sections were shrinking in size — someone finally got their shit together and tazed the online property. (In retrospect, putting Martin Sorrell, an ad guy, in charge was probably not the smartest idea.)

The old gray lady took a couple of shots to the nose, but finally emerged with a strong digital property. Today, the digital NYT is delivering healthy revenue to the bottom line, with paywall subscribers from around the world consuming podcasts, video and other endemic assets – all state of the art. Interestingly, the national edition of the NYT distributed in NC carried not a single (paid) full page ad in the A section today. Guess who is carrying that water?

Gannett merged with New Media yesterday in the hopes of creating better capital positions by moving toward a more digital future. Printing plants will consolidate creating savings and the strategy is to create new revenue by providing local value with a, hopefully, efficient national land grab. The problem is, local is not scalable. My local Asheville-Citizen Times, a Gannett property, is so thin birdcages owners are looking elsewhere. Gannett/New Media can succeed, but not by becoming Angie’s List. Where’s the tazer? Where are the Millennials and Gen Zers geniuses?

Imma put some more thought to this and report back. Local is a positive word in today’s sustainability minded business environment. Digital news should be a solution.




Kylie Jenner’s Coty Deal.


International Cosmetics Company Coty Inc. is paying spokesowner Kylie Jenner 600 million dollars for 51% of her company. Not a bad day at the office for Ms. Jenner. Does that mean Coty is the “boss of her” now? I think so. Not that they would want to piss her off. Easy come easy go… Kylie could mic drop the company (unless contractually obligated) if she feels mistreated.

Kylie is smart. Coty is just one percent smarter. Kylie, in effect, has just signed a deal to be Coty spokesperson for life. It may seem like a Bobby Bonilla deal (Google it), but fast forward a couple of decades when spokespeople are paid even crazier money for their marketability (read, media magnetism) and this one-time payout may seem low. Argentina’s Lionel Messi earned $127 million this year. Ms. Jenner is only 22 years old but at age 42 she may regret today’s rate.

Coty’s main reason for the purchase seems to be Ms. Jenner’s social media following. She has 270 million followers. All In the right demographic…today.

Is this smart business? My guess is it will be for a few years, but without the right business blocking and tackling this move will water down both brands.

C’est la vie.


Net Positive Brand Strategy.


Peter Thiel, he of the PayPal mafia, has been quoted as saying “Competition is for losers.” Billionaires can afford to say that kind of thing, especially start-up fund billionaires, but the rest of the world is not so inclined.

Strategists, especially those in brand development, must be aware of competition. Someone at McCann NY once counselled me to be mindful of “Who is going to lose the sale you’re making?” A brand “claim and proof array” must be based upon market conditions…and market conditions include the competitive landscape.

But I have to say I like Mr. Thiel’s meddle on this one. I favor playing offense when it comes to brand strategy. Playing defense is akin to positioning around competitors.  Brand discovery, and you can peal the onion many ways, really comes down to customer care-abouts and brand good-ats. These translate to brand positives. If they happen to highlight a competitive shortcoming that’s fine. But just as Mr. Thiel wants to invest in companies for which there is pent-up demand and no competition, brand strategy is best done when net positive.

With a net positive brand strategy in place, the tacticians can go to war and sully reputations if need be. But remember “Tastes great, less filling” didn’t say “competitive beers taste like ass and make you fat.”



Brands and Identity.


I was watching the lowly New York Knicks last night and the TNT halftime show announcers were trying to explain why the Knicks were bad. Kenny Anderson and Charley Barkley were riffing on the team’s identity. They had none. Were they a defensive minded team? A half court team? Fast break team?

The fact is, as currently constructed, the NY Knicks are still in gestation. All the new players they brought in are okay, but none stars. So what’s the identity? Is it a player? When Carmelo Anthony was on the team, was he their identity? Can a team’s identity even be determined by one player? If you have LeBron, it can.

I think team identity is more like brand strategy. And that starts with the coach.

Teams like products are existential. They are what they are. Sure you can change the formula, but good coaches and brand managers, first have a plan, second they use what they’ve got. Coach K was the same coach with Zion Williamson, but he also adapted to the player. Brand managers can sweeten the soda a lil’ bit, but shouldn’t be changing the formulary upon a whim. They start with a plan.

Kenny Anderson and Charles Barkley like Knicks coach David Fizdale but without saying it, they implied the lack of identity starts with him.

This stuff isn’t random. Not in basketball, not in branding. A talented, informed and prepared coach, with a plan, is needed in both cases.




Burger King’s Impossible Whopper.


Thanks to high cholesterol I’m a fan of plant based-meats. There’s just so much chicken a man can eat before he grows man boobs. The Impossible Whopper at Burger King is a creature comfort that’s popped up on the landscape for which I am extremely happy. At a certain age you are dealt health cards where you can eat and drink less of the things you love. It sucks. Meat, for me, is one such. (Scrapple please.)

I’ve eaten hundreds of cheese whoppers in my lifetime but stopped cold turkey about 10 years ago. Thanks to Impossible and Burger King, I’m back. I’m so back.

(Picture not linked to video.)

Here’s the thing though. One of the coolest things about Burger King is the brand value “flame broiled.” What’s The Idea? readers know how I feel about the aroma of flame broiled burgers wafting along America’s streets and what a hunger aphrodisiac it is. Flame broiled is a killer differentiator for BK. But my gut tells me Impossible burgers — though they may have conquered the red blood thing with the heme additive – is manufacturing the grease thing a la George Lucas. I’m not sure coconut oil gets them there. The Impossible Burger TV spots do great job of presenting the whopper in a luscious light. But is the “glisteny” juice sprayed on? If so, they should stop. It’s disingenuous. Food stylists live and die by the spray bottle. But the Whopper, Impossible and flame broiling deserve better.

Glisten to me. I know of what I speak.



Sweetgreen and Brand Ballast.


The Sweetgreen brand strategy is a little bit like one of their salads. Lots and lots of healthy things. Take for example the Curry Cauliflower salad, made with blackened chicken thighs, curry roasted cauliflower, shredded cabbage, cilantro, raisins, warm quinoa, organic arugula, Sweetgreen hot sauce, cucumber tahini yogurt dressing. This amazing assort of ingredients provides the tongue with rich tastes and wonderful flavors. Also crunchiness. Sweetness. Warmth. Coolness. In cooking, this approach works brilliantly when done with finesse.

In branding, however, too many ingredients can cause the brown effect. The color that results when adding too many colors together. Sweetgreen, bless their hearts, tries to do so many good things that their insular message is lost. Or watered down.

It’s weird because Sweetgreen does many things so right. But from a brand organization perspective it needs to boil it all down…to three, manageable ingredients.

Here are a couple of lifts from the website:

“We want to make an impact and leave people better than we found them, and we tailor our approach in each market to reflect the needs of the community.” This is a non-endemic mission with no place in brand strategy.

“Create experiences where passion and purpose come together.” Marko-babble, though well-intended. Again, not endemic.

I could go on. This company is well positioned in the marketplace owing to pent-up demand for healthier food options and sustainability. The clientele is loyal, the product outstanding. But those things are replicable. What isn’t replicable is brand ballast. Sweetgreen today needs to double down on it’s brand focus. If so, it will paint a way forward that is indelible and timeless.



YETI About to Get Cold Shoulder.


Say it ain’t so Yeti. You are not really opening up more and more retail stores. It sounds as if you’ve been bitten by the success bug and it could be your undoing. Yeti is a very cool brand name, which I first came across on my handlebar grips. It seems there’s a mountain bike company by the name too. Yeti coolers are a gold mine. Now a public company with board members hungry at the trough, Yeti is looking to grow faster than the laws of nature allow. Hence, retail stores.

The problem is that Yeti is a sales handgrenade for Bass Pro Shops, West Marine, Cabella’s, REI, and Dicks Sporting Goods and an assortment of mom and pop and chain hardware stores across the country. Let’s not even mention Amazon who accounts for 30% of Yeti sales.

These channel partners built displays around Yeti products. Moved prime store real estate and displays around to help build excitement. These partners were your biggest fans. Now you’re trying to take traffic and sales away from them. Yo lo mistako.

It reminds me of when Krispy Kreme changed its channel strategy and started flooding the market with product. “Pick up your cold donuts at the gas station,” was the big growth idea. IPO- and CEO-driven initiatives.

Yeti has a great product but they’ve taken their eyes off the ball. They are going from underdog to over-dog, and their biggest fans will be leading the way.