Monthly Archives: January 2020

What, Why, How. The pitch boil down for startups.


I’m involved with a group called Venture Asheville, comprising a number of local startups seeking help with strategy in preparation for funding. I attended a pre-pitch event earlier this week to prep a handful of young companies for an actual pitch to investors later in the week. Each pitch was 7 minutes. Everyone did a really good job but I noticed a varying degree of understanding about composition of the pitches. As someone in the boil-down business, here is a format I would recommend to all startups doing standup and asking for money.

What. What is the company? Readers of What’s The Idea? know I am a sticker for the Is-Does. Explaining what a brand IS and what a brand DOES. If you can’t easily explain what your company is, the money spigot isn’t likely to flow. You’d be surprised how hard it is for some young entrepreneurs to name their children. And when I say name, I mean figure out what business they’re in. (The iPhone was first and foremost a phone…but tons more.)

Why. Why are you in business? What is it about the market you’re addressing that suggests your success? Is it a new way to do something? A better way to do something. And why?

How? Number three in this serial explanation is how are you going to do it? How will you to build? How does the market organize? How will you invest your funds. This can take one into tangent land, but don’t bite.

Please don’t tell me about your passion. Or your intentional business model. Just explain in a clear, concise way what you are doing, why and how

To misquote David Byrne of the Talking Heads “This ain’t no disco, this ain’t no elevator speech, this ain’t no foolin’ around.”

Great job by Venture Asheville and cohorts. And best of luck to the pitching companies — all of which hit their marks with only a little bit of chaff.




Under Armour’s Lost Opportunity.


There has been a lot of coverage lately about how Under Armour has lost its way. After many years of  20% growth, it was reported today that sales were up less than 1% in the most recent 9 months. I’m a fan of Under Armour. Their training and sport apparel business reinvigorated the sportswear scene. But when they decided to get into footwear I dinged them. And after a good long run, it looks like my initial thoughts may have been correct. You can’t be a master to two kingdoms.

Sneakers are off-piste for a clothing company. Parse the brand name…it’s called Under Armour.

The current trend that Under Armour could have leveraged is Athleisure; an easy evolution from core apparel products. Men’s joggers are one of the hottest men’s wear products around, mirroring the explosive growth women’s yoga pants/leggings. By spending way too much time carving up the sneaker pie, Under Armour lost sight of its core business. The business upon which it built its brand.

Markers have to understand how important focus is — especially in brand-sensitive and brand centric categories such as clothing.

Under Armour cut a new swath in fashion with functional sportwear. Had it stuck to its knitting I’m convinced it may have innovated the legging and jogger categories. It may be too late, but not for what comes next. 



Disorganizing Principle.


I’ve been thinking a bit about the name of my business What’s The Idea? It started out as the name of my blog and continues as such. When searching URLs 13 years ago I considered What’s The Big Idea? but opted for the shorter version, jettisoning “big” for less characters. Also the word “big” felt a touch salesy. 

Here’s the thing. Most marketers aren’t waking up in the morning thinking business success is tied to an idea. They wake up thinking about expenses and sales. Getting them to understand that a brand strategy (def: an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging) will transform marketing activities into strategic selling activities is a leap.

You see, many marketering and comms professionals think awareness, interest, desire and action (AIDA) covers it. But the AIDA doesn’t read “awarenesses, interests, desires and actions.” And that’s the problem. Focus. Without a discrete strategy you are working from a disorganizing principle.

Naming my company “What’s The Idea” was not the best choice. It breaks a few of my time-tested rules. Not the best Is-Does and it doesn’t address Pent-up Demand.

Is it time for a change? Might-could (Southernism).



Pent-Up Demand.


I speak to clients and prospects all the time about what I call pent-up demand. Find where the pent-up demand lies for your product or service, I tell them, and you’ll be chasing success.

A more common approach is to position around a common or commodity demand (or value) and that’s a heavy slog. Often you must rely on advertising to differentiate. And much of advertising today is C+ at best. The worst positioning approach is when there is no pent-up demand for a product value and you have to educate your way there. That’s truly expensive. A classic example of this from my career was in the telecommunications business, selling 800 service to large corporate customers. One of AT&T’s advantages was a faster connect time. It might take 1.8 seconds to connect parties using AT&T while competing services (MCI or Sprint) could take, say, 3 seconds. It took millions of dollars of advertising to educate the market this was a thing. And millions more to educate them it was a valuable thing. There was no pent-up demand; we had to create it. But not everyone has AT&T’s budget.

Focusing on the pent-up demand for your product or service – find something that’s missing or unfulfilled – and use it. That’s good brand craft.




Tactics Should Not Define Strategy.


A marketing plan without a brand strategy to guide it is a mistake many companies make. I’ve written many marketing plans and not one have I undertaken without a brand strategy. A brand strategy (one claim and three proof planks) provides a compass point for obs, strats and tactics. A marketing plan sans brand strategy is like an assortment of puzzle pieces made of one color. Eventually they may fit together, but what does it display?

Startup founders are not brand planners, but they do have a picture in mind (What the puzzle looks like finished.) That’s how they come up with names and logos. But when startup founders are asked to develop a marketing plan, something that translates the business plan to a go-to-market plan, they’re often lost. They turn to tactics-palooza. But tactics have no moral grounding, just commercial. Sell. Mo’ money.

Until businesses understand that brand strategy is not a nice-to-have but an imperative, they will rely on tactics to define the brand rather than the other way around. And that’s bass-ackwards.






I read someone’s bio on LinkedIn yesterday and it referred to them as “A strategic and creative thinker, adept at helping companies execute for growth and deploy brand effectively.” Who wouldn’t want to do business with someone like that? Well, as someone who grew up in the advertising business, this statement might be considered a straddle. Some would argue it takes different bones to build a strategic person than it does a creative person. Back in the day, you were either in the creative department or other less creative departments, e.g., media, account management, or research. So as much as I appreciate the straddle, muscle memory keeps me from believing creative and strategic can live in the same body. Oh, the scar tissue!

Today rather than chose a label I prefer to identify via the process. I am a planner. A brand planner.

In ad agencies, a brand planner’s job it to feed the creative people so the work can shine. Planners provide direction and insights that stimulate great work. Whether that stim is creative or strategic is unimportant so long as the work is effective. And effective for the right reasons. Yet when working directly with marketers who want help with their brands I find they don’t want a creative person at the table or a strategic person at the table, they want someone who understands them and their business. Someone who can deliver a plan for business improvement. A plan they can analyze. And approve. And implement.

There goes another layer of scar tissue.



The Interview.


I’ve built my brand planning methodology around the personal interview. It’s how I get to branding insights. Typically my interviews are with C-level executives, sales people, outside SMEs (subject matter experts), and customers.

Business-to-business clients are different from consumer companies. Large corporations are different from small businesses. Online and brick and mortar also offer substantially different challenges. And startups, that’s a post of different color. But what binds all these client types together is the fact that they all have chiefs, all have sales people and all have customers — the oxygen that gives life.

The questionnaires are different for chiefs, sales people and SMEs. (We’ll get to consumers later.) The chief questions are follow-the-money questions. How to sell more, to more, more often, at higher prices. The sales questions are more transactional in nature. They revolve around removing impediments, building preference and earning commission/money. The questionnaire for SMEs is built to elicit the outsiders view because if your only view is inside the company you’re sniffing your own fumes.

The questionnaires get people talking. Once chatting, the interview can go in many directions. It’s my job to keep the person talking, interested and thoughtful. The last thing you want to happen is to get rote answers. This is where the skill comes in. No matter the person, everyone can be nudged into interesting territory.

Last, is the consumer interview. I’ve done retail intercepts and sold kitchen remodeling, belly-to-belly at Costco, BJs and home shows. And honesty there is no static questionnaire that works. That’s why written consumer research questionnaires are soooo deadly. And focus groups not far behind.

I’ll dive into this topic tomorrow.



A Good Ear and a Good Cull Rack.


I’ve written scores of brand strategies and my success rate the first time out is exceptionally high. That is, stakeholders buy into the brand idea (brand claim) almost always without redirects or word edits. To what do I owe this success rate? Listening.

I once opened the door to a meeting with CEO of Naked Communications, NYC explaining that “Just as the dog hears Flah, flah, flah, flah want to go out?, I hear business building brand insights.” Hearing what is truly important.

Boiling away what’s not important is also a skill. That “boil down” is the brand planner’s day job. In the Gilbert and Sullivan operatic comedy Iolanthe, the title character says “I did nothing in particular, and I did it quite well” – an observation that typifies what brand planners do in the boil down. We remove weeds from the garden.

When I present a brand strategy (one claim, three proof planks), clients are hearing what they know. They’re hearing what they believe. It’s just that the consumer care-abouts and brand good-ats are winnowed and prioritized.

Business consultants are apt to tell clients things they don’t know. Things they don’t necessarily believe. Business consultants are not always good listeners. Brand strategists don’t do organ transplants. For the most part, we work with what we’ve got. We just make it better through focus and celebration.



Free Day of Planning…Asheville Style.


I’ve lived in Asheville, NC going on three years. I’ve met some really neat people. Seen some cool work and rubbed shoulders with beaucoup makers and business owners. Most are quite grounded. Recently, I visited with some people with a graphics and printing business, doing carrier reroute sort snail mail and automobile wraps — and they are absolutely killing it; businesses that wouldn’t have a chance in most places. Must be the water.

I’ve also met some people who are slogging along. Restaurants here are closing almost as quickly as they are opening. Outside investors are coming to town with an eye toward extracting better margins (read: HCA, Anheuser Busch In-Bev, the guys who bought New Belgium). Yet whether slogging or sledding, one thing most businesses seem unconcerned about is brand strategy. They are blocking and tackling so hard they don’t understand the true business asset brand strategy can be – not beyond name and logo.

Mission Health is running ads telling us “people are its mission.” Devils Foot Beverage thinks “keep it simple, keep it fresh” will distance it from other ginger beers. (In a dogfight with creators of complexity and staleness???) And Keller Williams Real Estate positions around “people not properties.” What the…?

This city is pregnant with creative products, services, ideas and money. It’s a bubbling cauldron. I salivate over the possibilities. So I’m going to do something about it. I’m offering any and all businesses in Asheville a free day of brand planning. Open up to me, answer some questions, allow me to dig and speak with some customers and when the day is over – plus a little time to collect and organize my thoughts — I’ll present some cursory insights that will alter your views of branding for years to come.




Brand Names.


There was an article today in the Asheville Citizen Times about the District Wine Bar having to change its name because someone had trademarked District 42 for another local establishment. The rough cost was about $50k not including all the business fallout over Google search rankings and web crumbs like reviews and listings.

The new brand name for the restaurant is Bottle Riot. A more fun name and certainly one pregnant with more meaning. (District is shorthand for the River Arts District, the wine bar’s neighborhood.)

Naming is such an important undertaking. It’s the de facto brand. Sans promotions and signage, it’s how people refer to you. When you go through life with the last name Poppe and people call you Pope, Pope-ee or even Poe-pay, you’ll get what I mean. Have you ever had to tell a friend to meet you at Asheville bar Cursus Keme? ‘xactly.

Naming is best when done using a brand brief or strategy. I never work on a naming or logo project without a brief. When the District Wine bar had to go back to the drawing board, if they had a brief development time would have been cut in half. It also would provide time saving for the art director charged with designing the new logo.

Brands, names, logos and everything else marketing are easier with a brand strategy.

For a sample brand strategy write