Monthly Archives: February 2021

Jeep Grand Cherokee Brand Controversy.


Representatives of the Cherokee Nation have asked Stellantis, the car manufacturer that owns Jeep, to stop using Grand Cherokee as a brand name of the top-selling SUV. Stellantis by the way, is the name resulting from the merger of the Fiat Chrysler company with Peugeot. (I’ve got to get out more.)

Living not too far from Cherokee, NC and having read up on the Tribe’s history, e.g., Trail of Tears, broken treaties, deforestation, racism, I understand their sensitivity. It’s time for a change.

Naming is tough. Just look at the moniker of Jeep’s parent company. Hee hee. And it will take fortitude to rename this car brand with such a strong heritage. All the more reason to do it right. And with permission. Perhaps negotiate with the Cherokee nation and use something from their native culture. It’s a respect thing not a money thing.

Most Grand Cherokee owners will not be happy with the name change. That’s up to them. Jeep is a powerful master brand and will lend a hand to any car name chosen.  But my recommendation would be to celebrate the Cherokee Tribe with a commemorative name, approved by the Tribe, that suits the car and strengthens it’s Americana cachet.




Print Journalism


I subscribe to The New York Time national edition.  I counted 1, 3/4 pages of advertising in the first book or section this morning. The print newspaper business is in trouble. You know it. I know it. Luckily, after a slow start, NYT online is going gangbusters. If you search my blog posts from 10-12 years ago you’ll see I held out great hope for the online property – even when it was slow to adapt.

If “All the news that’s fit to print” isn’t booking serious ad revenue, the paper-paper that is, what must be happening to newspapers in secondary and tertiary markets?  It’s scary.

One solution might be to hire and promote the absolute best journalists in the land. And make them rock stars. Maggie Haberman may be the closest thing the Times has to a rock star. But there are scores and scores of other writers who need elevated personas and reputations. I know it cuts across the grain of the Old Gray Lady to take second chair to an individual writer, but it’s a potential solution. 

Where will the money come from to pay and promote these stellar writer? From the budget that fills some of the other floors at headquarters. Cut the masthead by a third. Sell more stock. I don’t know.  Twitter is already helping writers grow their reps. Double down.

We need great journalism. We need great writers.



Health System Brand Strategy.


Brand planning for a health systems is not easy. When weighing customer care-abouts there are few. Well actually, just one: make me healthy. And deciding how best to serve up the health system good-ats, which stakeholders tell you are many, until you ask them specifics. And they all say “It’s our quality of care.”  You have to be a surgeon to extract true evidence of differentiation and superiority. Not easy.

I got into health care and health system brand work by telling a system it had a great strategy  “Setting New Standards In Healthcare,  but horrible execution.  None of their advertising and marketing material showed the system setting new standards. Imagine that? Having a strategy then ignoring it.  You know what’s worse? Not having a strategy. And even worse allowing your public image to be developed by an advertising copywriter. An advertising person who supposedly knows words but not your business.

Advent Health, a system in the southeast, uses the tagline “Feel Whole.” Part of the system’s value proposition is its commitment to “the healing ministry of Christ.”  I didn’t know that until I dug deep into their website. A wholistic, spiritual approach to healthcare makes sense for Advent. I get it. I’ve worked with religious health systems before and they take their missions seriously – even to the point of not performing abortions or treating addiction. It’s not why I’d go to a hospital, but hey.

If Advent wants to heavy up on Christianity, that’s their decision. But then at least deliver it in your branding and communications. Don’t go all x-ray equipment and prescription technology on me. Spiritual wholeness is your wild card. It’s what makes you different. Celebrate it. Don’t then act like every other hospital system.

Did I mention hard?




Close Your Eyes.


A good deal of my brand planning discovery is spent delving into brand good-ats.  Things at which the brand or org is good. The other half of the discovery rigor looks into customer care-abouts which, at least with less expansive engagements, get a bit less attention.  For full on branding assignments, we recommend a strong quantitative research component, but many clients choose to pass on that expense.

Anyway, when looking at the customer side of the brand discovery equation there are lots of tools: customer interviews, purchase analytics, marketing and sales team input, retail observations, secondary research, etc.  And let’s not forget filling out the customer journey templates – a big pop marketing tool. But there is nothing in the world better to finish off your customer care-about research than sitting in a dark room and thinking like a customer. Take the time to place yourself in the life of the consumer. Thinking thought their day. The whole person. The day parts. The family. The leisure. Close your eyes and sit with it. For a while.

A big “learn” for me in brand planning occurred when I was told how unimportant my product was in the whole life of the buyer. Context creates insight.

Close your eyes and be the ball.



Strategy in A Pandemic.


Let’s face it, no business person was ready for the havoc caused by the pandemic in 2020. Certainly not the airline industry that needed a 30-40 billion dollar bail out. And not local restaurants that had to close doors for months before being allowed to open with limited guest numbers months later. And any business that didn’t have a year’s worth of rent in the bank was screwed. Leveraged businesses with big equipment loans better have had serious cash on hand. The words “cash is king” never rang truer.

The pandemic changed everything for everybody. Especially business.

At What’s The Idea? brand strategy follows a key Patti Smith principle: “I don’t fuck much with the past but I fuck plenty with the future.” Brand strategy must be malleable and forward-looking enough to weather not only market discontinuities but acts of God. The “one claim, three proof planks,” framework was developed so it offers some guidance for operation during a disaster. When revenue is gutted, business must change…but the brand’s sole will not.  One of the proof planks, if not more, will still apply and assist in decision making. Across all aspects of the business.

Everyone has s strategy until they get punched in the face, Mike Tyson said. But when dazed and confused, it’s better to have a plan.




Optimism in Brand Planning


Many perceive automation as a reducer of jobs. And for plant workers, robot is a bad word – one causing nightmares. As America and Europe begin to change over from a fossil fuel economy to a natural energy economy, folks worry jobs will decline. When 1/3 of all moving parts in a car are lost due to more efficient electric car component, that’s a negative tick mark on the jobs ledger. But this and other automation advances do offer great upside.  Electric cars will not simply be combustion cars with batteries. They will be appliances. Appliances that drive themselves. The appliances market and the things they plug into will generate lots of new jobs. Perhaps more than those lost.

I’m pretty pumped about the future. Most brand planners are. We have to be optimistic – it’s our job. And a good job it is. A healthy job. The problem is, if there is one, what do we do with all that positive energy when our brand optimism isn’t requited? Or falls short of reality. Well, then we keep on grinding. We keep on proving. And searching. But we don’t give up. (I still sweat brand strategies I wrote 20 years ago.)

Optimism is our job. The Fear, Uncertainly and Doubt pop marketing gambit of the nineties is not where brands need to play. We needn’t be Pollyannaish, either, but we must always look to the light.

It’s a brand planning fundie.



Brand Planning and Brand Strategy. Perfect Together.


Lately, I’ve been hearing a little undercurrent that brand strategies are almost secondary to brand planning — the act of preparing a brand strategy.  The act of preparing insights, observations and conducting research is more important, so the implication goes, than the actual strategy itself.

Martin Weigel recently tweeted to @phil_adams, who had posted that he had done a particular strategy, “Yeah, but did you do the planning?”  Suggesting that anyone can poop out a strategy but the hard work is the foundation – in the planning. 

It would be had to disagree having a smart rigor to get you to a brand strategy is important. But conversely, you can rigor your ass off for months and come up with a goofy, off-piste strategy. Both are needed.

Foundation is critical. And so is the idea. And the “proof planks” that create evidence in support of the idea.

Good prep leads to good work product. It doesn’t insure it.




New Foxtrot Market Campaign.


So I came across what looks to be a fairly new retail brand in Chicago called FoxTrot. Nice name, great logo, smart targeting (urban millennials) and a good deal of energy. Also, some marketing peeps with good provenance. They offer some small, welcoming, design-forward brick and mortar stores and a very fast delivery system. All supported by an app.  One hour delivery, in fact. Sales were growing nicely before the pandemic, but now I’m sure they’re scorching.

Foxtrot just launched a new ad campaign entitled “Good Stuff Delivered.” Not a very high bar they’re setting, with that line though.  And I dare say calling your up-market products “stuff” is not the best of positioning ideas, even with a little millennial je ne sais quoi.

An article discussing the campaign references a “surprise and delight” strategy. Yet, searching for evidence of same I couldn’t find any. A free gift card? A gratis cup of coffee?

This is an example of a strategy work that appears to be lead by the ad agency not the brand people. Perhaps, this is my bad for relying on a trade magazine for information, but my antenna go up when I hear surprise and delight.

I love the business idea. It has legs. But the ad campaign feels a bit helium-based, rather than foundational. Give millennials more credit.



Humanity and Branding.


I was in a group meeting earlier this week and an ice breaker question used to loosen us up was “What new behavior have you learned as a result of Covid-19?”  Yesterday, standing on a Starbuck’s line the perfect answer hit me. “I’ve learned to smile more with my eyes?”  Most smiles behind a mask go unrecognized, so I make an effort to do my smile big – and with my eyes.

How does this apply to branding?  Well, typical marketing is one dimensional. Convey selling information clearly and concisely before asking for the order.  Advertising done well offers a few more dimensions: maybe some music, some emotional hints, perhaps a story. But not all marketing is advertising. And frankly, most advertising is poorly constructed — infomercials in 30 seconds. 

So if most of marketing these days is sales focused, then metaphorically we are covering up the humanity of our efforts with a mask. While our jobs are never to lose the mask, we must work hard to lets our eyes convey the humanity. Convey a smile. Inklings of humanity throughout our marketing and branding – be they search terms, packaging or naming – are worth the effort.

Keep smiling.




Consumer Experience.


A musician is never more in touch with his/her art then when standing on a stage performing.

A chef is never more in touch with her/his art then when watching people eat their food.

Authors are never more in touch with their art then when listening to readers discussing their work.  

And film makers never more in touch with their art then when sitting in a full audience watching their movie.

So what is the moral here for marketers and brand builders?

Watching and listening to consumers.  Especially consumers experiencing your product in real time. In situ, is best.

Consumer experience is at least half of brand planning. Brand planners can’t process consumer experience listening marketing executives. And ad executives. And quantitative research professionals. It’s the fieldwork component.

And, while the brand planners understand consumer experience is only half of the equation, they know it to be the most important half.