Monthly Archives: March 2021

Discovery Tip #8.


One of my discovery tricks is to interview top trade magazine writers who cover the category beat. If doing an assignment on energy drinks or beer, I run down the top writer at Beverage magazine and attempt to interview them. There are trade publications on every topic under the sun. It’s best to read a few of their stories before contacting, showing some interest and awareness of their craft, as well as picking up on language. One way to find out if they are a top writer is to see if you can gather up readership reports from the publication. Many trades report on their best read pieces, departments and writers. It’ a neat short cut.

Also, these writers have a many smart connects they interview and quote for their stories. Track them down. Today, one might call these quoted people influencers; I prefer to call them experts with skin in the game.

It’s a great way to begin to cast the net. Not only for ideas, but sources.



Truth and Conspiracy.


Brand planners pay close attention to popular culture in an attempt to massage their ideas and selling schema into it. One hugely impactful, popular cultural construct today is demand for disinformation, especially related to politics and conspiracy.

Disinformation, it seems is much more interesting than typical truthful information. And when I say truthful information, I’m here talking about advertising. Nobody needs to hear me talk about advertising bombardment, it’s a given. And add to that, eighty percent of advertising is bad.

Bad advertising shares commodity claims with little proof. “Fred Anderson Toyota offers the best customer service,” for instance. Is that misinformation? Prolly. Multiply that by 100,000 and you begin to see why consumers are not real believers in the craft. But in today’s environment, uncover a little conspiracy and you have a person’s attention.

In a recent strategy written for a potty training company, I uncovered a conspiracy worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Diaper companies were productizing and strategizing ways to keep children in diapers longer. And it worked. Fifty years ago kids were out of diapers by 18 months. Today it’s closer to 36 months.

Manipulative, greedy marketing is the worst type. People don’t want to be pushed around.

We are still up to our asses in diapers (hee hee), but this conspiracy has gotten more than a few mothers angry and we’re moving in the right direction. Truth Well Told.

Not every advertising and market campaign can be a movement, but it won’t hurt planners to dig a little deeper and give the people the drama they crave.



Service Companies Need a Brand Syllabus.


Branding in consumer goods and packaged goods is very different than branding in a service business. Products that are produced on an assembly line all come out the same. Their packaging is the same. Their product names are the same. Variability is negligible. But in a service business the delivery vehicle is people. And they are not the same. Sure you can dress up employees in uniforms but that doesn’t insure similar service delivery. And of course there’s training. But that doesn’t insure standardized service delivery either. People are people. Every one is different.

So how do you create a brand strategy for a service company? Through education. Using a brand syllabus. And every day is a school day. The classes aren’t led by teachers but by employees. Brothers and sisters in arms. And that syllabus? It’s pliable. It’s owned by the employees.

It all starts with an “organizing principle for product, experience and messaging,” also known as a brand strategy. The organizing principle creates a culture around inherent company values and good-ats. It develops its own language and muscle memory. The best service companies are like sculling crews with everybody pulling oars together at the same time. All working to fulfill and further the organizing principle.

For examples, please write




Fertile or Fallow.


Templates are the savior and bane of the brand planner; and when I say brand planner I mean me. We are all different. Ish. I have a few Word files I go to time after time, which help me amass discovery information and insights.  What’s The Idea? readers know I immerse myself in customer care-abouts and brand good-ats during discovery. And from this information I boil down and cull. Then, using other templates, primarily briefs, I organize the info into a brand value template called a claim and proof array.

But not all questionnaires work across all categories. For instance, when interviewing world-class security hackers – Are there other kinds of hackers? – I need to learn their language. It’s a culture thing. Or when talking to morbidly obese people it’s imperative I understand their life, trauma and culture. Can’t get there with a templated set of Qs. So you create a new set. Tabula Rasa. Ish.

I wrote recently of some short cuts used to get to “claim and proof” without my normal templated outputs. This approach can be dangerous but sometimes budget requires we live dangerously. That said, going off-piste or off-template can be exhilarating.   

This ability to adapt to new situations, including short-cutting the process, is the art of brand planning. The resulting are sometimes fertile, sometimes fallow. Good planners know the difference.




Education and Branding.


I’m working on a branding assignment for a K12 tutoring company and feel the need to share my excitement.  I’ve worked in Ed Tech before and fell deeply in love with .edu.  It’s a marketing category like none other.  All these marko-babble people talking about “intentional this” and “intentional that” would do well to spend some time in the K12 space.

Anyway, this tutoring business is online only… no face-to-face tutoring. As such, they were well-positioned for Covid.

I’ve always wondered about face-to-face versus remote interviews in my business. I’m a big fan of the former. I want to see their offices. I want to know their taste in clothes and style. Want to feel what’s important to them, how they surround themselves. And I want to look into their eyes, watch them smile, do the whole body language thing. So it got me wondering about online-only tutoring.

But what’s interesting about this tutoring firm’s approach — at least the way I understand it — is that using online, real time whiteboards allows the tutor into the heads of the students. They can’t hide. “Tell me what you’re thinking” might be a great query for a student with an inactive stilus. Spelling stylus wrong might be telling. Observation by doing.  

When I interview people remotely for brand discovery, I’m hearing them, perhaps seeing them via video, but not seeing them work and think. Maybe this tutor is teaching me some tricks.

That’s why I love .edu.



What Really Matters…Is Everything.



If I’ve read it once, I’ve read it a hundred times.  “Use service X and it will free you up to do what really matters.” 

I first ran into this strategy when working on an AT&T Outsourcing business years ago. It was probably a precursor to hosted web services with some consulting thrown in.  A typical B2B strategy, this presumes ancillary business practices aren’t as critical as is your main business. Cheese makers make cheese, it’s their passion. Retail, shipping, human resources, marketing are plumbing; some might say secondary, and as such outsourceable. Or automatable.


Trying to automate or outsource parts of your business so you can do something you are “good at” is a cop out. You need to be good at all parts of your business. It’s the required heavy lifting that gets you to success.  Everything is important. The entire body must work together. Every vessel. Every organ.

Where it gets to be fun for me is when a client sees this and uses brand strategy to infiltrate each and every department. This is how to build corporate muscle. When every department is valued and working toward the same end it build antibodies, to carry the metaphor even further.

Don’t outsource anything. Not your social media. Not your hiring. Not your financial oversight.

Love and build your entire business.





Ana Andjelic wrote this about brand valuation in her newsletter The Sociology of Business:

Brands build awareness for a company beyond its target audience, hopefully propelling it in the domain of culture and increasing its chances to be part of the consumers’ initial consideration set. Through its brand promise and brand values, a company can reach customers who ordinarily wouldn’t consider its products.

She was talking about expanding the size of the addressable market.

Truer words about brands have rarely been spoken.  An indelible brand strategy sees all targets, current and future and attempts to corral value that appeals to them all. Discussions getting into culture are a bit haughty, if you ask me, but I get it. We play in culture. Inform using culture, but I’m not so sure we make culture. Society and communities make culture. Geography makes culture. Not language. Not product design.  Anyway, it’s not worth the quibble.

Peter Kim a mentor of mine at McCann-Erickson talked about outlining and understanding all the different targets that will come into contact with your brand. Looking at each target individually then culling to find common values (or care-abouts) concerning the brand. He suggested take all these different targets and “remassify” them. Into one. Finding a shared higher-order value.

Dangerous? Might it omit some more potent value? Yes.  But will it speak to more people in simpler language? Yes. Language that builds a brand appreciated by more targets. 

Tink about it, as my Norwegian aunt used to say.




Brand Strategy Lite.


Yesterday I wrote about shortcutting my normal brand planning rigor, as necessitated by lack of time, budget, client situation or act of God. I don’t like to do it but sometimes an organizing principle lite is better than nothing.

One of the tools I tend to do without when doing planning lite is the brief. My brand strategy brief, a borrow from the NY office of McCann Erickson, has been slightly modified over time.  It’s a linear or serial document which navigates things like brand position, brand objective, target, key desire, role of the product, reason to believe, the ephemeral brand essence and brand claim. I call this a serial document because when complete, starting at the beginning, the brief tells a reasoned, logical story or path to the claim. That doesn’t mean the components always fit together right away. Sometimes they need to be burnished. Sometimes revised.

When I do brand strategy lite and overlook the logic ladder (brief), it can still work.  But I kind of feel like I have a hole in my pants and no underwear on.




Mentoring and The Deep Dive.


I am a mentor in a program called Elevate. It’s a wonderful group of men and women who donate time and experience to help startup entrepreneurs in the Asheville, NC area. Supported by Venture Asheville, an economic development coalition of Buncombe Country and the Asheville Chamber of Commerce, it uses a mentorship framework developed by MIT.

One thing the brand planner in me is finding difficult is completing the discovery process I use in my day job. That job is to define brand strategy which guides product, product experience and messaging. Getting to that strategy requires a deep dive into business metrics, customer care-abouts and brand good-ats, which when culled and refined make all tactical decisions easy — from hiring to web design to product extensions and more.

But as a mentor, I’ve found instances where we only talk tactics. The deep dive discovery I’m used to is not part of the rigor. Flying by an instrument panel, if you will, rather than eyes open with the landscape before me.

With brand discovery typically requiring 75-150 hours to wrap my head around the business, its problems, challenges, and opportunities (which isn’t practical) I sometimes feel the need to scratch my head. 

So what do I do? Well, I try to innovate. To short cut. I asterisk my recommendations. But most of all I sponge up as much as I can and rely on fellow team members. It’s a different approach. And different is good. It sharpens skills.




Feels and Shares.


Unilever just made the news by agreeing to remove the word “normal” from its marketing materials in the health and beauty categories.  It, rightly, is offensive to people who feel they may not be normal. And who may feel excluded. Bravo. Everyone is normal if alive. All part of the gene pool.

That said, normal is a not a word I would every use in brand strategy, unless I’m trying to position against it. (Said the fairly normal white guy.) In brand strategies for clients, I want everyone to feel special. To feel their own flavor of special. To feel special when using client products or services.  Yet, to feel special one needs to first feel. And therein lies the secret sauce of great brand planning.  Don’t treat consumers as cardboard users. Or data points. Or metrics on a dashboard. That’s for accounting. Brand planners look into the souls of consumers. We cherry pick feelings we believe to be shared within the confines of our product category. And that’s hard. Not everybody shares the same feelings because life is not equitable. But we try.

It is the lifeblood of the brand planner. Feels. And Shares.