Monthly Archives: July 2020

Leadership During The Pandemic.


Smart business leaders learn a lot about their business while under duress.  And there’s probably been no bigger moment of duress around the world in my lifetime, than the Corona Virus.  9/11, some might argue, was bigger. And the financial banking collapse is certainly in the running. But the pandemic is touching almost everyone on the planet.

Leaders are grappling with supply chains. Employee reductions and furloughs. Bank credit, taxes and consumer demand drop-offs.  So many pucks are being fired at leaders at the same time, it’s hard for them to think about positive things. But good business leaders are looking out for any business positive issues that rise to the surface. Good ideas about work-arounds. New offerings to help customers. More efficient ways of doing business. Delivering business. And improvements to the business experience.

Learning while under duress is powerful learning.  Politics aside, the government is trying to do its best to help small and large businesses.  Much as we came out of the financial crisis stronger and with better governing principles, we will also emerge from the pandemic better prepared.

New business leaders and government leaders will emerge. They can’t help but.



Vision Quest? Nah.


I am beginning to think I need to get out of the strategy business and into the vision business.  Everywhere I turn when talking about brands there are people talking about vision. Vision statements. Company vision. Brand vision. Business vision. Professional vision statement.

It’s tiring. To me it seems like vision is for people who have a hard time identifying a strategy with acuity. Vision seems a little unfocused, a little blurry.  It can be malleable with moving parts.  Vision for me is antithetical to focus. And focus is strategy.

Our vision is a better life, through banking.

Our vision is a healthier society, through better eating.

Our vision is the American dream, through clothing.  

I guess if you need to convince yourself, your employees and custies that you are a good company, it can’t hurt to go on a vision quest.  But at What’s The Idea? we don’t have time for that. Plus, most brand planning customers don’t really want to pay for that. What my customers care about is building brands. Brands that have bank. Brands that earn.

So we are in the focus business. Not the gauzy vision business.

Try getting bank loan, from one of those people who want you to have a better life, using your vision statement.




Roots Rock.


I’ve got it — another brand strategy metaphor. Hee hee. You can finally get some sleep tonight.

Late last year I was speaking with an agritech business.  If we are to ever truly sustain and be a resilient planetary organism, we are going to need agritech businesses.  Agritech, cleantech and sustain-tech are the planet’s future.  As is brand strategy.  JKJK.

So here’s the metaphor borrowed from agritech.  Roots. Not Americana music with a little mandolin — plant roots. Roots are fundamental to plant life.  They are adaptable. They are life giving. They are the root of all flora.  When I hike I sometimes see trees growing out of, and over, massive granite rocks. The roots sometime envelope rocks.  Roots give stability to a plant or tree. And nourishment. Well that’s what band strategy does for products and services.  It creates roots. And strength. And nourishment.

The biggest problem with brands today is that the roots are shallow. To much change. Brand strategies often changes when the ad campaigns changes. And then one has to start all over again.

Campaigns come and go. Directors of marketing come and go. CEOs come and go. Ad agencies come and go.  A powerful brand strategy is indelible. Roots!




Is Your Brand Strategy Earning?


A topic I like to plumb with clients is compliance. Or adherence.  Two words borrowed from healthcare meaning is the patient listening to his/her doctor and following treatment. It’s a problem in healthcare. It’s similarly a problem in branding.

Are brand managers and marketing cohorts adhering to the brand strategy? Are they using it to guide tactics, deeds and experiences?  If they are then the brand strategy should be earning. That is, delivering value to the bottom line.

After all, that is what brand strategy is meant to do. Deliver value – shekels – to the bottom line. 

The minute Patrick Mahomes signed a $503M contract is the minute the owners and payers start asking if he is earning it. Everyone watching Patrick for the next 10 years will wonder if he is worth it. Is he earning?  Well, that’s how we have to look at brand strategy. Is it earning? Is it worth the investment? 

No one ever asked if a logo earned its keep. Or a name.  Rarely do brand managers and CMOs ask if their brand strategy is earning.  That needs to change.

Evaluate it. Dissect it. Monitor adherence. Monitor value delivery.  It’s a big part of the job



Retrofitting Strategy.


For new business and startup owners there is nothing more exciting than jumping into marketing. Naming, logo development, your first retail or business sign. Don’t forget leasing space and buying furniture and equipment. Picking carpet maybe. It’s a flood of exciting choices. 

The excitement is not unlike buying a new car. All you want to do is drive. No time for the owner’s manual. That is often reserved for a rainy day.

Well when it comes to start-up and new businesses owners, the single most common error is putting off strategy development. Brand strategy development. Because brand strategy undergirds all marketing efforts. And everything is marketing. From the product or service name, to the logo, retail experience and everything all the way to your first announcement ad. 

But few new owners start with a paper strategy; something that acts as an organizing principle for all decisions. Brand strategy first should be in every business book.

Many of my customer engagements begin after a company has been around for a while. And that’s okay. Everyone needs to get organized. Everyone needs marketing obs and strats. Better to get organized later rather than never.  So, in the brand building business there is a lot of retrofitting going on.  But it’s always best to plan up front.



Fines for Brand Strategy Noncompliance.


What if brand strategy noncompliance came with a monetary fine?  Rules are made to be followed.  Fines work in banking, why not branding?  And we all know adherence works best when there is a carrot or stick involved.  Well, in brand management the carrot doesn’t seem to work. Creative people believe in campaigns but they are usually put off by strategic structure.   That’s why lots of creative people don’t like briefs.  “The shorter the better they say.”

I want the absolute best out of my creative people.  I want them amped and excited.  But I also want my artists to be hitting the positive brand-building values set out in the brand strategy (one claim, three proof planks.)  And it is not good enough to just kill work as a brand manager. Killing work is a cancer at an ad agency. Letting work fly, regardless of strategic intent, is cool.  But it’s not. That’s not how you build brands.

So why not hit the team with a fine each time they provide a solution off-piste. Money and compensation make the world go around. Why not consider using commercial disincentive to keep teams on track?

Probably my worst idea ever. I love it.





Brand Planning Tips


Hank O’Brien, was a Group Director of mine at McCann-Erickson NY in the 90s.  He had great chops for a Mad Man and a good intellect.  One thing he once said to me while doing some brand and marketing planning was “Who is going to lose the sale, you are making?”   It was an interesting way to pose the question about the competition.  And it didn’t always target a direct competitor. If you were advertising a new product or service, something that had no direct competitor, you might be talking sales from another category. Or two.

The fact is and was, the money has to come from somewhere and it’s good to know that somewhere. It lends behavioral context.

Uber, for instance, takes money away from cab companies.  That’s a clean take-away. Netflix, takes money from movie theaters and cable companies and network television. It can also take money from bars and restaurants. Not so clean.

Good planners follow the money.  That too, is good advice.

When you are making your touchy-feely brand value decisions, it’s always important to align them in some way with commercial advantage. We are not mercenaries, but our clients are.



Gartner’s 2020 Annual CMO Spend Survey Research


I love this chart.  I freakin’ love this chart.  For CMOs to acknowledge the importance of brand strategy, overtaking analytics and all other measures, is a powerful endorsement of brand work. Gartner’s study queried 432 CMOs.

I could get caught in the weeds asking questions like “How do the CMOs define brand strategy?”  or “What does your brand strategy framework look like?” but I won’t. I’ll just bask in the glow.

Apparently, brand strategy was near the bottom of this list when asked in the 2019 Annual CMO Spend Survey Research, so this is quite a leap up in importance.  Now, one could say the Covid-19 Pandemic is playing a role in this leap; the logic being, when marketers cut budgets and activity, strategy becomes more important — but I am going to take the win here.

Great job Gartner. Great job CMOs.




Resist Templates.


I hate templates. I love templates. There you have it. Shit ain’t always binary. 

I built my business around four key tools. The 24 Questions. A Fact Finding questionnaire for brand discovery. A brand/creative brief taken with me from McCann-Erickson, NY. And a marketing communications plan bequeathed me by Mark Pritchard (not the P&G one) who himself took it from Ammirati and Puris.  All are fill-in-the-blank templates.

That said, it’s what goes on between the ears, using these templates, that makes the money — but a man has to start somewhere.

I tried to build another business ( doing the opposite: allowing online users to build websites without templates. My heart was in the right place but it didn’t work. Facebook used databases and a template in the background to kick our ass.  You have to pick the right battles.

Templates are what humans want. It’s how they organize and get started. Even a musician creating music must have a template in his/her head. A template of something.

If you ask me, templates are diminishing creativity. And as our heads and machines are getting more and more filled with data, we must resort to templates for order.  Resist. Invent. Resist. Invent.  This is how we get to better work. This is how we get to more artful work.



When is Bias Positive?


A friend and early mentor of mine, Eric Keshin, used to talk about creating “bias” for a product or service.  Bias has a bit of a negative connotation today but as a strategy in branding it is spot on.  One can attempt to position a competitor by denigrating them, creating a negative bias — or, stay closer to home, and elevate one’s own product, creating a positive bias.

Done well one can accomplish both.  That is, focus on elevating your brand and by inference diminish the competition. Don’t spend time talking about your competition, but attempt to find a perceived weak spot and play to it. Burger King did this so well with Flame Broiled. Everyone knows McDonalds grills. Coors did it with mountain fresh water. Everyone knows Budweiser and Miller aren’t brewed in the mountains.

Finding ways to create positive bias toward your product or service is the primary job of the brand planner.

C’est fini.