Monthly Archives: December 2020

Marketing Background, Need Not Apply.


I don’t come from a traditional marketing background, not that there’s anything wrong with that.  Some very important learning took place for me while at McCann-Erickson back in the 90s.  A number of account supervisors from around the country were treated to a few days in Miami at a fine hotel where we were trained in marketing. A text book was provided, teams and competitions established, and we were introduced to a number of MBA-like concepts the likes of which typical ad people weren’t privy.  It helped us understand that product marketing and product management people weren’t put on this earth to approve ads. They had other jobs. Price elasticity anyone?

But I digress. I don’t come from a marketing background, which for some is a generic business title. To some it means you make marketing materials. To others it means you get in the way of the sales people. It can mean you manage the promotion budget.  But it is often a generic work title.  That’s not me. When brand planning, when developing brand strategy (one claim, three proof planks), I am someone who works in your line of business. You, being the client.  I’m in specialty pharmaceuticals, children’s character underwear, cybersecurity to name a few. That’s my job. Your job.

Only when I understand your line of business, your customers, your competitors and sales processes can I do my job.  Brand planning is not about background, it’s about foreground.



Anthropology and Brand Planning.


Cultural anthro-pology is something I learned to love at Rollins College. Margaret Mead was a superhero of mine. Watching people, understanding their behaviors from a functional and symbolic standpoint and recording patterns is not easy. But it can be dull.  Hee hee. This college line of study helps me quite a bit in my current brand planning practice.

When working with retailers with multiple SKUs (products), it’s not unusual for a client to try to wants to sell one piece more than another. Usually it has to do with higher margins. Sometimes it’s ease of production — as in, it used less materials, energy, manpower. Passion and ego also come into play. It’s important to know these things. But what is even more important to know is what “customers want to buy.”

I call this pent-up demand or simply demand.

The anthropologist in me says to study consumer desires and needs. Why they desire and/or need the product? How they manifest that desire? What role it fulfills in their lives, both functionally and symbolically.

Marketers may like to sell product A but if consumers want to buy product B the marketer needs to readjust. Once the marketer understands the purchasing motivation, s/he can choose to evolve product A or back-burner it in favor of B.

This is brand work. This is behavioral work. This is removing one’s self from the marketing equation…one of the first lessons of anthropological study.




Are KPIs a Brand Tool?


KPIs (key performance indicators) came into active use in the 90s, though codifying business objectives has been around since the 1800s. In an interview by Ana Anjelic of two founders of South Fork Pottery here in Asheville I noticed a reference to establishing KPIs for each department. Measurement dashboards are au courant. But that means lots of KPIs. How many KPIs is too many I wonder.

Jeff Finkle a smart VC and finance dude came up with a wonderful performance objective a number of years ago I have used with clients for years. It’s a key branding objective really and it is tied solely to the brand claim.

Every day, at the end of work, as each employee is walking to their car, that person should ask themself “What did I do today to (insert brand claim here)?” If they did nothing to advance the brand claim, it wasn’t a great day. It was a day they could have been more productive.

Sharing the company or product brand claim with every employee is free. Reminding them they are there to advance the claim is free. Creating incentives and culture around a brand claim is business-winning. It puts the entire company into the marketing effort.

KPIs are for spreadsheet and dashboards. Brand claims are for the people…and the bank.    



Do It Yourself Marketing.


I was reading this morning about the growth of the DIY (Do It Yourself) culture in the face of the Covid pandemic. Did you know the price of retail wood has tripled in the U.S. because people are renovating their own homes. In the UK, 50% more businesses started up in June 2020 than in June of 2019.  And on and on…

YouTube is answering the call with a new TV campaign celebrating all the people searching its site using the words “How to?” Doing it yourself, win or lose, is very fulfilling — whether replacing a bathroom light switch or porch stairs. Both How-Tos are available on YouTube.

I’ve come across a number of young entrepreneurs who are DIYers when it comes to marketing. Many believe with a little research they can cobble together a free website. Build a list of search terms and run Good AdWords. Create a logo using design templates. And set up a marketing engine to support their good business idea. All for a few hundred dollars.

But marketing is not an undertaking for the weekend warrior or the Covid free-timer. Unless they begin with a strategy. A brand strategy, more specifically. As an “organizing principle for product, experience and messaging” it undergirds each and every tactic of marketing. Tactics sans strategy are an Excel flowchart and nothing more.

If you are a DIYer getting ready to launch a business, set your brand up to succeed; get the strategy right before you start doing.




Brand Strategy Trifecta.


There are many things to love about being a brand strategist. But if pushed to highlight best, I’d have to say it is the learning.  Learning the product, the category and the consuming behaviors of the market. 

I start many meetings with customers and prospects explaining I’m a simple man.  I strive for simple solutions that are easily understood. Complexity is what ruins most branding efforts.  Complexity supports multiple values. Complexity makes it harder to create order. Complexity makes it harder for decision-makers to lock down on order. Simple order is what consumers crave when making brand decisions.

What I like to think I’m good at is creating compelling order. Prioritizing customer care-abouts and brand good-ats into three reasons-to-buy is part of my framework. But finding those 3 reasons or values that are most compelling is the secret sauce.

I love learning and creating compelling order. The things are inextricably tied. Learning by itself doesn’t work. Creating Order by itself doesn’t work. Compelling by itself doesn’t work. The trifecta is built upon all three.




More Science in Branding.


Yesterday I wrote about a famous ad campaign for Dawn Dishwasher Detergent and its use degreasing ducks following oil spills.  I mentioned that the key ingredient in Dawn, the one that cuts the grease, is a surfactant. (When a kid in the ad business I did advertising for Union Carbide Corporation surfactants.)

As a brand consultant that touts proof in its strategy framework, you can expect I would lock on to surfactants as the proof of grease cutting. A surfactant being defined by Wikipedia as: “Compounds that lower the surface tension between two liquids, between a gas and a liquid, or between a liquid and a solid.” But the fact is, in the Dawn commercials there was no mention of surfactants. Likely, there were not even scrubbing bubbles diagrams or animations about surface tensions being broken down. Someone decided to remove the science from the spots. Just greasy ducklings then clean, happy ducklings for our viewing pleasure.

As smart and creative as those spots were, there was a missed opportunity to educate the dishwashing public about the solution (pun intended). When someone asks why Dawn degreases better than other competitors, a reason why is always a good thing to convey.

Science is the new black. And it will only continue to get stronger…ahem.



Strategy Must Be Interesting.


The foundation of What’s The Idea?, the eponymous brand consultancy attached to this blog is strategy.  It is about a particular framework that organizes product, experience and messaging.  Brand strategy is binary. You are either off or on.

The fuel for brand strategy here at What’s The Idea? is “proof.” Or evidence. Proof is tangible. It builds conviction. If I say my cleaning liquid cuts grease better than competitors I need to explain what a surfactant is. And how it works. That’s what Dawn Dishwasher Detergent has done so well. For me, the duck befouled by an oil spill, cleaned by Dawn, was the perfect demonstration of proof.

But here’s thing. Proof and evidence by themselves are great in a science project. But they are not necessarily compelling theater.  That’s why the creative side of the business is so, so important. It’s why we need writers and designers. It’s why we need smart creative directors. Strategy must be interesting or it lies fallow.

To build your brand properly, you need a motivating strategy then you need to land that strategy with brilliant, on-piste creative. It’s a time-tested formula.





War, Peace and Brand Planning.


You don’t develop a peace plan unless there is war, yes?  Well for the most part, businesses don’t create brand plans unless there is marketing chaos. Or at the very least, marketing disorganization.

First let’s state that brand plans are not marketing plans. They don’t include tactics. Brand plans are all about values. Values that when strengthened create sales and build loyalty. So, brand plan = strategy. And marketing plan = tactics.   

Brand plans don’t have to be developed however only when things are going poorly. As triage. They are best created when things are going well. Organizing and prioritizing consumer care-abouts and brand good-ats when business is poppin’ is easier than doing the same when things are sliding downhill. In the latter situation there’s a taint. A pall.

CMOs and CEOs who see lack of organization of key values during good times are the ones I love to do business with. They have vision. Those who only see it from the lens of chaos or downtrends are a bit twitchy. Brand planning should be a proactive pursuit.  

Margaret Mead when running The Museum of Natural History asked all her employees to visit with a psychiatrist. Healthy or not. Her logic? Only good can come from being in closer touch with your feelings.




Brand Science.


There has been so much talk this past few years about fake news and fake facts that I thought I’d slide that discussion into the business I am in and the business of most commercial products: Branding. Lots has been written and discussed about brands. An entire lexicon has developed about the art of branding. The processes. The journeys. The architectures, components and touchpoints. But all if it is for naught if, to borrow some words from Sergio Zyman, the efforts don’t sell more, to more, more times at higher prices.

Sadly, there’s tons of fake branding and there shouldn’t be. Because done properly branding is a science. In marketing and communications, you are either putting deposits in the brand bank or you are making withdrawals. You are either adding value – organized value – or removing it.

Branding as a science is provable. Replicable. It’s binary. Off or on. It’s also formulaic.  That is to say, once a brand strategy is established (one claim three proof planks), the way forward — the way to establish value in the minds of consumer — is clear. But in order for everything to work, you have to get the formula right. And once the formula is right it shouldn’t change, not until the product changes.

You don’t build a house without a foundation. You shouldn’t build a brand without a strategy.