Monthly Archives: September 2020

Free Day Of Planning.


I was talking to a brand planner at a big agency in NYC a while back and offered him a “free day of planning,” a way to introduce my skillset. The hope was to pick up some additional work.  His response, and I paraphrase, was “What can anyone learn about a brand in one day?” His firm digs very deep and he couldn’t see any one turning up any value in a single day.  Looking back, I find it hard to disagree with him. Though rules are made to be broken. And if a planner can uncover a key insight in a day, imagine what s/he can uncover in a week.

Recently, I offered some folks a free day of planning and it worked out just fine. It was a small but complicated business and the stakeholders found it very hard to explain their model in a few words, especially to potential investors. So they explained in paragraphs. Long paragraphs. They agreed they needed focus and a boiling down of their value proposition.

When I started the clock, I interviewed one of the stakeholders for about an hour and a half. On another day, I interviewed the second stakeholder for an hour and a half. I also interviewed a key software vendor of theirs, someone with hundreds of hours on the street – so as to get an unabashed view of the business. About half an hour. Then I cleaned up all my notes, I’m a horrible typist. Half hour.

Following a review of some competitor websites, another hour, I slept on it. These efforts took place over the course of a week or so, due to others calendars.

When time to begin planning, I read all my notes and started to circle any activities, stories or evidence of value. I call this proof of value. As clusters of value became clear I broke out the colored highlighters. Add two more hours.

Then I slept on in. Early one morning I woke up with an idea. An idea that was the beginning of the brand claim. I can’t count sleeping hours, so this was a freebie.

Over the next day or so I began to craft a few slides of a PPT presentation while massaging the brand claim. The proof planks, organized while doing the value clusters, in the earlier session already existed.  All totaled about an hour and a half to put the PPT together. Total time was 8.5 hours. A day of planning according to the clock.

This piece of pro bono work was strong. The clients were effusive in their praise and thanks.  I never wrote a brand brief — a no-no — but time did not allow for it.

Had I the 3-4 weeks typically needed to do this work it may have been different, certainly more nuanced. And deeper. But is was a job well done. And a brand strategy well received.

Who said Rome wasn’t built in a day? Peace.


Flaccid Marketing Plans.


I would venture a guess that the majority of marketing plans find their way into an Excel spreadsheet that sits on the desk or computer of the company’s financial officer — and from year to year that spreadsheet doesn’t change very much.  The numbers associated with each line may scooch up or down and the cumulative number may as well, but the plan items stay relatively the same. Just as likely, the total budget may go up or down by percentage points with the individual lines correspondingly so.

Static marketing plans, with immovable tactics are the result of not having a vibrant brand strategy. It’s paint by numbers.  When driven by a brand strategy a marketing plan is tied to brand values not line items. That’s because the marketing objectives are tied to brand values, tethered to business winning strategies.

For a very successful billion dollar health care system, the marketing plan was built around business winning values like “better surgeons,” “superior protocols,” and “faster recovery and discharge” not brand recall, procedures logged or time-on-website.

When building a marketing plan, budget by brand values not line items.

Oh, it helps to have brand values, Codified. Explicit. And in writing.



How To Build A Brand Strategy.


Yesterday I wrote about brand insights, oxygen for the brand planner. I also explained the difference between a master brand strategy and individual tactical strategies driving marketing communications tactics.

When creating a master brand strategy, the planner must amass many, many insights.  Insights broken out primarily into customer care-abouts and brand good-ats.  Where the heavy lifting comes in and also the magic, is culling through those care-abouts and good-ats, and render a single-minded value proposition or claim. The claim is the foundation of brand strategy. (Some have called it a promise.)

I often denigrate claims in advertising, saying that most ads are all claim, no proof. And that’s true. But in brand building the claim is the key memory device. It’s the key take-away of all marketing efforts. The way to set the claim — to create an indelible understanding of the brand claim — is through proof. In master brand planning, part of the culling process is selecting three proof planks that support the claim.  Not 4. Not 5. And there must be tight linkage between the claim and proof planks.

For brand planners or marketers interested in seeing real life claim and proof arrays, please write





Insights are the oxygen of brand planning. Insights about the target. Insights about product features. Insights about the competition. I could go on…and I will. Insights about the market. Insights about prevailing category attitudes. And insights about culture.

Every planner mines insights. It’s what we do. And it drives the brand planning sector of the business. The fact is though, 95% of current planners’ jobs revolve around insights that drive tactical successes. By the project. By the pound.

At What’s The Idea?, the job is upstream of marketing tactics. We set master brand strategy. That is, we establish an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging. Once that organizing principle (read, brand strategy) is developed – our job is done. It can effectively remove the need for brand planners to oversee much subsequent tactical work.  Now, I wouldn’t recommend that — brand planners are still the people most likely to find deeper strategy insights to refine important tactical executions, but it’s a thought.  

I was once at meeting of Conagra’s Banquet brand with all of its agencies. Must have been 40 people in the room. Maybe 8-10 strategy/planner types. Far be it for ConAgra to tell its agencies who to bring to a meeting, but a tight, defined brand strategy would have saved them some time, money and danish.  




A New Offer.


One of my best promotional offers is a “Free Day of Planning.”  It’s a bit of a try-me-before-you-buy-me thing which has opened a number of doors. But I’m looking for a refresh and thought I might create new promotion a little more specific to brand planning outputs. By the end of this post I’ll probably have a name for the offer, but for now I’ll just ‘splain it. Can you tell I’m an “I Love Lucy” fan?  

My brand consulting practice offers two serial products: 1. Brand Strategy and 2. Marketing Communications Plans. I won’t do the latter without doing the former.  Strategy first. While few people really know what an actual brand strategy framework is, most everyone knows what a marketing communications plan is.  What’s The Idea? clients are privy to how closely knit together these two things are. That is, the marcom tactics all and always support the brand claim and proof planks. Nothing is untethered.

But seeing is believing so the free offer is to present to inquiring prospects a presentation brand strategy and an accompanying marketing communications plan. 

People who just want a brand strategy sometimes want to know what to do with it. What to do next.  Well, you have to build marketing stuff. Marketing programs. The new “No Tactic Left Behind” offer will demonstrate just that.  

For your free presentation of this new offer, please write (Some discretion may be involved in selecting recipients.) A thousand thanks.



Love. It’s what makes a brand strategy a brand strategy.


Much has been written lately about empathy in brand planning. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. Empathy makes us humans. Or good humans, at least.  Without empathy we’re disorganized personalities. The fact that we need to write about dialing up empathy in brand planning suggests there may be a problem somewhere. But I’d like to take, actually, take empathy to the next level. And that is love. Not “It’s what makes Subaru a Subaru love,” for I don’t really know what that brand claim means – and I’m an owner.

When working on a brand strategy I tell clients that I need to fall in love with their brand. Sounds corny, but it’s true. I work past any and all negatives and search for things to love. It’s only when I find the good in a brand, be they superlatives, great-to-haves, or other endearing qualities, that I can begin to develop an attraction. And then I work to expand that attraction to a kind of love.

That’s how I work.  It’s not how consumer’s work. In fact, many consumers are more glass half empty, so it is up to the brand planner to position a product or service in a way that fills that half empty glass.  So we must search for positivity.

If you can’t find a way to love the brand for which you are planning, either don’t take the job or explain to your client what impedes your love and give them their money back.



Walking the Planks During a Pandemic.


Yesterday I spoke of using brand strategy to help mitigate business disruptions associated with the pandemic. Readers know my brand strategy framework comprises “one claim and three proof planks,” the so-called organizing principle to guide business.

When making tough decisions about cutbacks and reducing business expenses you must stay true to your claim. Back in the day, working with AT&T’s business services, the claim was “creating business certainly.” Much of business then, as now, ran on phones and data line. During a pandemic, this message would still be powerful. The proof planks were network reliability, competitive price, and tech tools to grow your business.  Science suggested these three measures moved positive revenue. When cutting back on personnel, promotion and other during a major business discontinuity, it is the planks that have to give. They all work together, much like a recipe, but some offer more value to customers than others. Managing cutback by plank is how you make business decisions. Don’t invent new planks. Don’t reinvent your claim.

Stick to the plan. Manage strategically. Manage to brand science.




Managing a Brand in A Pandemic.


Managing a brand in a pandemic starts with having a brand plan. And at the foundation of a brand plan is a brand strategy.  If you don’t have a brand strategy and you are under financial duress, you are likely flailing at the software books and ledger line items, as if at black flies. Everything is important, financially, but it’s the big line items that can bring your business down.

With a brand strategy in place your business decisions are at least grounded in the things that are of value to you and of value to your customers. If the pandemic requires that you reduce operations, the brand strategy will help you decide which operations.  It will help you focus.  For one client it was decided to focus on one high-margin area of production, and let scores of other SKUs sit fallow. It was a bit of a re-po (re-position) but helped muster resources.  This small business owner, after furloughing a number of people, scaled down and managed solvency. 

Companies under duress during the pandemic need to make business-saving decisions almost hourly. And they must do so with frayed nerves.  With a brand strategy to organize their efforts, decisions are based on business value and science. 




Your Biggest Business Decision.


Let’s face it, most business decisions are relatively mundane, shaped by the degree to which they affect making money. Will the pay out pay in?  Other’s are rote supply and demand  choices.  But the big decisions are the ones that keep you up at night.  Personnel. Real estate. Infrastructure investments. Marketing strategy. 

These big decisions haunt small and mid-size business owners because pass or fail the weight comes down on them.  Sometimes the weight is so heavy it keeps decision from being made. And stasis occurs. Insert shark metaphor here.

Well I’m here to tell you the biggest business decision you can make – one that will make all other tough decision easier – is to have a brand strategy in place.  With “an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging” in place big go/no-go decisions are easier.

The organizing principle derives from the most important customer care-abouts and the strongest most compelling brand good-ats.  These agreed upon planks (only 3) are the fuel for brands and the fuel that builds businesses.

Tired of filling in an a lengthy pros and cons Excel chart before flipping a coin? 



The IS and The DOES.


The IS is a foundational brand element.  It is a clear explanation of what a product or service IS.  If you are a restaurant you are not a bar. If you are an Italian restaurant you are not a French restaurant. If a professional services provider, say in the insurance business, you are not an accountant. If you only sell property and casualty insurance, not health, you must make that known in your marketing and branding. It’s part of the IS. I learned a lot about the IS when working in the technology sector, especially with start-ups. Apple’s iPhone was way more than phone, but that is what they chose as their IS, to launch the idea. Service companies have trouble with the IS.

Now for the DOES. The DOES is what the brand or service does. It offers up a key value or consumer benefit. When deciding upon the DOES marketers often fall prey to the “Fruit Cocktail Effect.” They like to think they’re good at so many things that they position around all those things, and none stick out. And the cherry tastes like the grape, which tastes like the peach and pear…a sugary confection sans any individual taste at all.  So software tools default to productivity and fast food defaults to convenience.

Getting the Is-Does right is basic blocking and tackling in branding. It may sound simple, until you try it.