Monthly Archives: May 2020

Building Authority.


I’m working on a social media program for a company that happens to be under a great deal of pressure due to the coronavirus. Our triage plan is to use free media to build web traffic and spike some retail sales.

While working on this assignment I ran across a blog post by an old McCann pal of mine who has gone on to have a very nice career. In his post, he spoke of the importance of building “authority” in the social sphere. I know what he’s getting at but the word authority got me thinking. You see, I’m positioning the business owner of my triage project the same way, the difference is I don’t use the word authority. I use the word educate. An early lesson learned while working with AT&T a while ago – a lesson that has become a cornerstone of my branding practice – is “Leaders educate.”

If leaders educate, what do authorities do? Author? And that’s the difference.

Especially in social media where scads of people are authoring and only a few are educating.

I had a turnaround in college after hearing Rod Stewart sing about me, me, me people. The best people are you, you, you people. That’s the difference between educating and creating authority. 




Another Brand Planning Hack.


When I do brand planning for a new client I spend a lot of time interviewing people. Company chiefs, salespeople, subject matter experts, influencers, buyers and sellers. But I am not always blessed with assignments offering that budgetary or time luxury. So I have to hack.

For one of the largest banks in the U.S., working on a content strategy for its corporate website, I wasn’t asked to develop brand strategy. But I can’t do content strategy without brand strategy so I hacked.

My hack was to print out 50 pieces of original content from the existing website, cut them into little squares inclusing attendant pictures, and tape them randomly to an oversized white board. The content included only deeds, proof and evidence, not claims or fluff copy.

The client and team were then to be tasked with doing a sort. That is, to move the content snapshots around the board and put them into clusters or like patterns. Any outlier ideas, one-offs, were to be placed on a different part of the board.

The end-game was to identify clusters, evaluate and prioritize them. Ideally for further research.  This clustering, with active hands and minds, is an interesting exercise. It’s also a short cut to see if a company is as concerned with “customer care-abouts” as they are with “brand good-ats.”



The Difference Between a Product and a Brand.


Do you want to know the difference between a product and a brand? Of course you do.

A product is company-owned. A brand is consumer-owned. Simple at that. Products are the domain of the makers. Brands exist because of consumers. Ipso facto.

The tension this statement points out is intensified when company and consumer are not in synch. And the tension between buyer and seller is often real. Making and selling is complicated. Buying, not so much. When buying becomes complicated, consumers opt out. Or delay.

This is where brand planning comes in.

Brand planning and brand strategy works to align the maker with the buyer. The brand strategy goal is to remove the tension. Remove what complicates.

An early mentor of mine, Fergus O’Daly, once shared a marketing quote attributed to a few luminaries (Peter Drucker, IBM’s Thomas Watson, and Arthur “Red” Motley) “Nothing happens until someone sells something.” I would recast that phrase to say, “Nothing happens until someone buys something.” The brand planner’s job is to focus on the buyer in ways most product people don’t.

Try us, you’ll like us.




Posters of Yore.


I’ve bifurcated the social media landscape into Posters and Pasters. Posters are original content creators: musicians, artists, video creators, subject matter experts and bloggers. Pasters are the other 92% who curate other people’s stuff. Pasters share links.

But there is another group of social media cohorts that have been growing in importance over the past 8-10 years. Part poster, part paster, they have become a cottage industry. The Influencer. Influencers come in many styles and flavors so you know it is a thing. There are micro influencers. Nano influencers. Not to mention mega and macro, all referring to the CPM they are paid to post on their feeds.

But some influencers are tainting the waters. They’re all hat and no cattle as the Texas saying goes. They are more videogenic than thoughtful, truthful problem solvers. More entertainment than value. Ten years ago, the way for an influencer to make money was to monetize through a banner ads and newsletters. It was a craft. Today, they’re paid by ad agencies and product placement companies and have become a media channel all to themselves. (Oh, and they may also be buying their followers.)

Don’t get me wrong, there are a thousand of great influencers out there who put in the time, dedicate themselves to helping educate others, and sharing about the topic they love. The difference is, they are about the love of subject and intimacy with followers, not the CPM. 

They are Posters of yore.




The Yoda Route.


In brand planning there’s discovery and there’s discovery. (Discovery defined as the legwork and research that precedes crafting the brand strategy.) At What’s The Idea?, I use personal interviews with C-level executive, customers, subject matter experts and influencers as well as primary and secondary research, trade shows, user’s groups and any other meetings where buyers and sellers convene.

I’ve built the economics of my engagements so that I can deliver a brand strategy in a month’s time for a fair and equitable fee. Problem is, not all of my clients are able to pay the full freight. And sometime I’ve been known to take on pro bono work. That’s when things have to get creative.

If I must shortcut my traditional process I go the Yoda Route. That is, I rely on one really smart person for all my input; usually the founder or owner. They provide all the grist for the insight mill. It can be dangerous to use only one source — one Yoda — but it can work. The brand planner’s brain is never really off so after Yoda does her/his information dump you use that to build insights which can be massaged through other shortcut piggyback research and some much needed internal combustion. Yesterday I wrote “The only truly bad research is research that misleads,” and going the Yoda Route can mislead. Be careful. Be very, very careful.



Focus Groups. Opinion vs. Communication.


I’ve done tons of focus groups and having done so know how unreliable they can be, if improperly used. Since moving to Asheville, NC I’ve spoken to many entrepreneurs, communications and branding people who love the idea of doing groups. They mean usually mean one focus group. Maybe two. Very sketchy.

Advertising exposure is a focus group type I used a lot. We’d share ads or adlobs (ad like objects) with consumers to see what they communicated. What did the ad say? Did you believe it? How did it make you feel? Did you learn anything? We didn’t want to know if they liked it or how to improve it, we just wanted to understand the communications value.

The second type of group was more opinion-based. We delved into consumer attitudes about products, competitors and the category at large. Questions got into care-abouts and perceived good-ats.

In both cases, it should be noted, findings were always directional – meaning not projectable or scientifically true. The samples were too small and the group dynamic or hive-mind effect could alter opinions.

The only truly bad research is research that misleads. And focus groups that delve into opinion can mislead. It takes a good moderator and good research design to keep it on track. So be weary. There’s a great bromide that states “opinion can make an ass of you and me”…well, um, you know what I mean.





Experiential Research.


I once had a brand planning assignment for an agency that worked on Banquet Foods. Banquet is the frozen food division of Conagra, a mega producer with brands such as Duncan Hines, Birds Eye and Hunt’s under its purview. Banquet happens to be the value brand of the portfolio.

All the agencies working for Banquet, e.g., consumer advertising, PR, retail, B2B, direct marketing and digital, were to meet in Chicago for a big confab and unveiling of the new ad campaign. Everyone invited to the meeting was required to visit a grocery store in advance and plan a full week’s worth of food shopping for $50. My assignment was to shop as a lone bachelor. (I started with a case of beer and worked backward.) One big box of breakfast cereal covered breakfast for the week. Pasta, canned veggies, a frozen pizza, etc. Other shoppers weren’t so lucky, having to plan for a family of 5.

This experiment forced us to look at shopping from a different perspective. Most agency people are fairly well off. This was a visceral, important awakening for all participants. It was experiential research, a vital tool in the brand planner toolkit.

Here’s some advice for any-and-all business owners: always do experiential research. Not just paper or phone research. Get out into the land of the buyers and sellers. Buy and sell. Watch and listen. If a picture is worth a thousand words, experience is worth a million.




Clear Idea.


Robert Scoble has a question he asks every interviewee for his video blogs: “Who are you?” Answers always included name and title, but as Mr. Scoble mostly interviews heads of start-ups, many of which are somewhat anonymous, the “Who are You?” question also elicits a brief boil down of the product or service.

If asked “Who Are Your?” my response would be Steve Poppe, brand planner. If speaking to people unfamiliar with brand strategy and brand planning I’d expand it with “I develop brand strategies that guide product development, customer experience and messaging.” 

In my branding practice, nothing starts until we identify the product Is-Does. What a product Is and what a product Does. It’s branding 101. If the Is and the Does are not clear from the get-go you have a brand strategy problem. The Is-Does is mostly a functional description. It may not seem like a hard task, but it can be. Especially with first-of-a-kind products or services. It can also be hard for products with layered value propositions and for products in mature product categories introducing a new wrinkle or feature.

David Belasco, the famous theater producer, is credited with saying “If you can’t write your idea on the back of my business card, it’s not a clear idea.”

Get the Is-Does right and we can go to brand planning.




Brick and Mortar Reopening During Coronavirus.


No one is shopping during these days of the Coronavirus. But everybody is buying. If you are in a store today you are not browsing the aisles, you’re looking to grab something(s) and check out. It’s a life or death pursuit, even for deniers. In brick and mortar stores today, “This ain’t no Amazon.”

So here’s how retailers should be responding on prem (sorry, in store). Help by walking around. Disinfect areas that have high likelihood of being touched. Offer hand sanitizer. Nudge people to be 6 feet apart – using an approving eye. Do everything you can to help customer know their health and safety is your biggest concern. Sure, answer where the potting soil or gnocchi are but understand your fist job is to let customers know there is a deep undercurrent of safety at your retail location.

This is how we transition customers toward more shopping, which we all know leads to even more buying.



Trickle Down Brand Strategy.


I’ve come to the conclusion that the single most important person needed to implement brand strategy is the CEO. Not the marketing director. Ask any rank and file employee at a company what the director of marketing does and they will answer “marketing.” Ask them to elaborate and you’re likely to get “they make marketing materials.” “They make the stuff the salespeople use.” “They do the website and ads.”

Most marketing directors, even those who really understand brand strategy, are not sharing it throughout the company. It’s not even trickling down. Marketing directors guard brand strategy. And for odd, odd reasons they keep it to themselves; perhaps sharing it only with vendors as a way to keep them organized.

Getting the CEO onboard with the brand strategy framework (one claim, three proof planks) sets up an oversight litmus test that marketing must pass as they invest company money. It creates a litmus test for all other departments making changes and/or improvements. And it offers up to HR a way to gauge company fit for new hires. In short, it operationalizes the strategy well beyond the marketing bullpen.

The best brand strategies are known throughout the company. Originally applied to consumer packaged goods, today they’re crucial in services economy and B2B businesses.

At its best, brand strategy does not trickle down — it’s a force of business nature that sluices and gushes straight to the bottom line.