Monthly Archives: November 2021

Brand Strategy Building Blocks.


In an article about the promotion of Parag Agrawal following Jack Dorsey’s step down as Twitter CEO, the NYT referred to Parag as “…having stood out for his strong skills in math and theory. If you are good at the theory, you can have the ability to be analytical, to reason, to make decisions.”

Math and theory or science and theory are also critical competences of a brand planner.  The science part is unquestioned, but often underdeveloped. That is, we are all supposed to create strategies that predict success. Be it in sales or preference. That’s science. Finding replicable “if/then” equations.  But theory — theory is where brand planning gets a little dicey. The abilities to be “analytical” and to “reason” are critical but the ensuing “decisions” or last mile are the planner’s secret sauce.  And that last mile often lacks science. Planners, you see, talk about science and art. While the science may be right the art can derail it.

Rather than provide science and art in brand strategy, I suggest we provide a science and theory strategy…and leave the art to the creative peeps.

At Whats The Idea? brand strategy comprises one claim and three proof planks. Claim without proof, goes the logic, is entertainment. Yet a strategy built around one claim and three proof planks is theory — not art.  And when that theory is tied to science, you have building blocks. You have things to measure.

I love when I hit a creative triple or home run. It’s not my job. Science and theory are my job.





Thanks and Giving.


Fresh off a really neat brand strategy assignment, I wanted to share a few “tings” (as my Norwegian aunt Inger would say) for which I am thankful. Over the years I’ve probably met with a hundred people in the brand planning business who didn’t know me from Adam. These planners were kind enough to have a coffee with a needy planner-wannabe and toss me enough knowledge and crumbs to keep me on the trail.  I learned my craft from all of you. I made a living because to you.

The planning community is really a curious and friendly lot. It’s a community that likes to teach and learn. You all inspired me in one way or another.

Then there are the friends and colleagues who kept up the lines of communication. One, a co-worker from 20 plus years ago, recently introduced me to his son who partook of the What’s The Idea? planning rigor. Learned a lot from that young ‘un.

I’d like to thank friends with ad agencies who used my services and reupped from time to time. Also, those who used me once. I worked on some of the most amazing brand because of you. And I’d like to thank the little guys who entrusted me with their brands and budgets. Also thanks the pro bono brands from whom I learned tricks and ways to plan on a shoestring.

Since I started brand planning under the sobriquet What’s The Idea?, I’ve worked with scores and scores of brands and interviewed thousands of people. The key to success is — and it may sound hokey – allowing myself to fall in love with each brand. That’s how you care enough to invest.

To all the peeps who invested time in me. I thank you. Paying back your kindness, passing it forward, is and will continue to be my greatest pleasure.

Happy Thanksgiving Megan, David, JoAnn, Kevin, Bob, Pat, Amber, Faris, Sean, Heidi, George, Marianne, Tom, Peter, Cory, Eric, Ty, Jonathan, Scott, Jane, John Durham …


Brand Strategy Tools.


I learned a neat lesson while working at FCB Advertising, which I’ve shared a number of times, worth repeating.  It’s a tool to see how “tight” your ad campaign is. But it has legs for other content as well.  

Take all your ads from a given campaign and tack them up on a wall. The exercise works best for print ads.  Then review them together in real time. See if, combined, they tell a story. Or do there appear to be outliers to the story. To the main idea. Outliers water down the story mission.

I once did this for JPMorgan Chase and its corporate website. I printed out 50 pieces of content and randomly placed them on a wall. Content JPMorgan Chase felt worthy of its corporate story. The exercise was to have JPM marketing people re-pin the content pieces into clusters — areas of similar intent and customer value. Quite telling.

Today as a brand planner I use the same tool to see how tight or loose a company or product message is. In fact, I’ve developed a tool I call Brand Strategy Tarot Cards — a shortcut exercise to identify problems.   (Google Brand Strategy Tarot Cards for a primer.) Or write me,

A randomized story is the bane of all brand planners.



Brand Planning Bracketing.


Let’s face it, every account planner is different. No matter the mentor or the shop one comes from, each planning point of view has to be, like a snow flake, different. But one thing that might bring a cohort of planners together is age. I’m 66. I’ve seen a lot of stuff in marketing. My skin may be thicker than that of a 20 something planner. How could our worldviews not be different?

I love the idea of putting brand planners of different ages on an assignment. Photographers call it bracketing: the process by which one takes the same shot with different exposures.

Were I doing new business at a large ad agency with good resources, I’d love to put a 45 year old planner on an insight assignment at the same time as a Gen Z planner — independent of one another.  Not a race or competition, just a bit of bracketing.    

Ad shops aren’t organized this way. They are organized by hierarchies. Senior to junior. Group director, director, associates. Let’s mix it up a bit. Age perspective might turn up some interesting discontinuities. Or continuities.



Advertising Success Lies in Proof.


People who know me have heard this one before “Advertising is 90% claim and 10% proof.”  That miscalculation is the foundation of What’s The Idea? That, plus the propensity for most advertising agencies and marketers to utilize the lazy tactic of benefit shoveling (see post earlier this week).

When you shovel benefits or advertise by bullet point you lose focus. You water down your idea. One of my mentors, Dick Kerr, once told me Joe Louis never knocked anyone out with his first punch.  It was always the second punch. (He was talking about media buying, but it pertains to strategy as well.)  Don’t claim something then move onto the next benefit. Say it then prove. Then prove it again. This is how you communicate an advertising message. Advertisers who make a living proving their claims are advertisers getting their money’s worth.

In a study published last month called the Better Briefs Project, it was reported that 33% of marketing budgets are wasted due to poor briefs. And 7% of agencies felt they were poorly briefed.  When you don’t have a sound, differentiated positioning idea what do you do?  You get the work approved by breaking out the shovel.






Brand Claim Efficacy.


Having spent 2,900 blog posts explaining the importance of brand strategy, it might be time to talk about what makes a good strategy. If you may need a refresher on what a brand strategy framework is, it is a simple claim and proof plank array; one claim (a boil down of customer care-abouts and brand good-ats), and three proof planks.

What makes a good brand claim?  My fallbacks when teaching claims are “Coke is refreshment” and “the worlds’ information in one click” for Google.  What makes these claims so great? Well, obviously they meet the care-abouts and good-ats criteria. Also, they are endemic values which makes the claims ownable and defensible. But another critical indicator of a good claim value is measurability. A claim has to be measurable.

The Google claim is perfectly tied to the product using one click and information. “Coke’s is refreshment” perfectly pairs the product (name) with the claim. In both cases a researcher can measure consumer belief of these claims – on an agreement scale. And we know attitudes precede behavior.

But when claims are generic or are restatements of the ad campaign they’re wasteful.  “The best cancer care anywhere,” for a long time was the brand strategy (and tagline) for Memorial Sloan Cancer Center. It was provable from an attitude and clinical standpoint. Geisinger Health System’s “Better health, easier” is an indistinguishable claim. (Better than what?) It’s also a dual claim. Building demonstrations around a word like “better” in a crowded healthcare category is average brand craft at best.     

When selecting your claim, make sure it’s not generic and make it measurable.



Benefit Shoveling is Not Branding.


I received a lovely mailer today from my financial investment company trying to get me to move my credit card over.  The art direction was great, the copy good, but the strategy lacking.  You see, the promotional piece suffered from something I call benefit shoveling — the listing of consumer benefits ad nauseum. The bennies weren’t organized in an discernable way, other than, say, most impactful first. Plus they weren’t arrayed in a way that was brand salient. They were shoveled, one after the other.

I work with a financial client in a similar business.  We have just landed on a claim and proof array (brand strategy) that captures what consumers want most and what the brand does best.  When I look at the credit card promotion-piece I received, it became perfectly clear to me how a brand strategy would have helped. Rather than shoveling benefits, a strategy would have built the benefits into a coherent story. A story that only one institution would tell.

In fact, were I to rewrite the credit card promotion with my own client’s strategy, the shovel would disappear and the cement ready for mixing – as the strategic building blocks were already in place. That’s brand strategy at work. As Marilyn Laurie, world famous AT&T brand expert would say, “Make deposits in the brand bank.” Shovel no more.