Monthly Archives: December 2022



I’m not the smartest guy on the planet. Sometimes it takes me a beat to get a joke. I didn’t get As in college until my senior year.  I can’t finish the NY Times Sunday crossword puzzle (but I do help my wife finish it). This somewhat average acumen serves me well in my brand strategy practice.    

I can tell a story, I have an ear for consumer likes and language, and have good taste in styles – all assets that contribute to my business. So there’s that.

H.L Mencken once wrote:

“No one in this world, so far as I know — and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me — has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.”

You’ve heard the expression “dumb down?” Well, when crafting brand strategy for the masses, you don’t want to be the smartest person in the room. Brand planners who are off-the-charts smart sometimes overthink and overcomplicate brand strategy. Whether challenging themselves or making points with the client or creative team it hurts the work.  Conversely, other planners who get that 330 million Americans come in all shapes, sizes and aptitudes, work to “dumb down” brand strategy to a lowest common denominator.

I take issue with both these approaches.

The opposite if dumb down is smarten-up. In my planning rigor, I boil down brand strategy to one claim and three proof planks.  The claim may border on common but the proof planks are certainly the “textures of belief” that appeal to consumer smarts.   

So brand people, smarten-up your strategies. And H.L. Mencken be darned.



Startups and Pent-up Demand


Pent-up demand are my two favorite marketing words. I love brand planning on products and services for which there is great unmet demand. And when that demand is pent-up, I’m even more stoked.  Conversely, positioning products that consumers don’t know they need is a two stepper. Much more complicated. And much more expensive.  

I once worked at a social media startup that allowed website building without knowing code. We were funded to the gills. Quantitative research told us there was great demand for our tool, yet we flamed out in less than two years. One woman’s pend-up demand is another woman’s crash and burn. So let’s just say, all pent-up demand isn’t the same. 

There is a difference between pent-up demand in a mature category (lite beer) and that in an emerging category (web authoring). Savvy brand strategy has to account for that. Just as every mother thinks their baby is beautiful, every entrepreneur thinks their startup is beautiful.  Understanding demand, pent-up demand and the alternatives is a critical first step.




Brand Value Triad.


I was reading some material on a solar panel company recently and through reverse engineering discovered their brand values to be integrity, hard work and customer service. These are all great qualities… but horrible, undifferentiated brand values.  Also note, none of these values are endemic – physically tied to the product or service. As such, any service company could use this triad of values. It’s, therefore, meaningless. In fact, it’s harmful – burying one in a sea of sameness.

Pop Quiz.  Name a solar panel installer known for integrity, hard work and customer service. Name and financial planner known for integrity, hard work and customer service. See where I’m going with this?

I did a brand strategy for a service company in the commercial maintenance business. They clean commercial buildings, mow lawns and remove snow, among other things. Their brand strategy claim was “Navy seals of commercial maintenance” and their values (I call them proof planks) were “fast,” “fastidious” and “preemptive.” Now fast may not sound very differentiated, but when you balance that with fastidious and add the very unique preemptive, you have a value triad that kills. Are these values endemic to a cleaning business? Maybe not, you got me. But they are sure what customers care-about and what the commercial maintenance company is good at. Good-ats and care-abouts.

(When dealing with business-to-business service companies endemic is important but less important.)






Marketing and advertising would be much better if they focused solely on proof.  Proof of value. Demonstration of value. Honestly, you needn’t even be best-in-class, you just need to support your value claim.  But 90% of advertising today tells consumers what to believe but doesn’t show it.   

There was a time when you could sing your product’s praises and it sold. That was the era of “We’re here” advertising.  If you were simply top-of- mind, you won.  It’s a strategy Geico still employs. But ladies and gentlemen, we live in an era of analytics. Of measurement. Of Finite-osity.  There are ways to prove a claim. 

Analytics are the friend of proof. 

If you say you are the best-selling dishwasher detergent, there’s data to prove it.  If you say you are the hotdog eating champ of Brooklyn, there’s a contest. Most snow in Utah? NOAA measuring stick. But for some reason we still prefer to sing the praises of our products.

My job as a brand planner/brand strategist is to rid the business of this horrid and wasteful selling practice. My job is to organize product and service values into groups of proof which existentially (there’s that word again) reflect a product’s superiority.

Love to show you how it works and prove how it has worked for clients.






On a recent assignment my client and I spent a good deal of time on the target. The What’s The Idea? brand brief refers to the target as follows:

Living, Breathing Target (Define the largest grouping of consumers, bound by a single shared attitude or belief, that will be most motivated to buy/consider the product? Provide a description of the target, not title or demographic.)

Peter Kim a long-ago mentor used to refer to the target as a large group of various targets, with many different buying motivations.  But he then suggested “re-massifying” them back into a single group, with one shared care-about. I loved the word re-massify. Out of many one kind of a thing. Peter’s knew this was how you built a brand – reach as many people as you can, with a hopefully compelling value proposition.  That said, when re-massifying the target, trying to find a single shared care-about, one can water down the principle value. It’s hard work.  (And sometimes, you just have to eject part of the target, so as to keep your key claim compelling.)

Well, on the recent assignment, my client added great value by not simply approving the presented LB Target, he pushed. And yes, we did lose some people when re-massifying. But it made for a more compelling brand brief and brand story. This additional targeting work made the creative process easier for the creative teams. An important result to be sure.

I’m convinced the target description is one of the most important parts of the brand brief. Even more so than the “Core Desire” which is a distillation of the LB Target’s most important need.

Get the Living Breathing Target right and most other pieces should more easily fall into place.




Brand Strategy Proof Planks and Interdependence.


I studied Anthropology in college.  Cultural anthropology – the fieldwork, the unfettered observation of people and cultures has helped my brand strategy practice.  But so has physical anthropology, the study of the adaptation to change by living things.  You know, the ascent of man stuff.

In his Op-Ed column this morning, Thomas Friedman talked of climate change and how it is not the strongest or smartest species that survives climate change (dinosaurs, for instance), rather it is the most diverse,  “…the most adaptive ecosystems are usually the most diverse, offering different ways to adapt. They thrive because they’re able to forge health interdependencies among the different plants and animals, and in doing so, maximize their resilience and growth.

Brand strategies, too, must offer a diverse and interdependent way forward. The secret to my framework is three proof planks. Taken together these planks create the business-winning proposition. Individually they are ads — or floating claims in a kelp bed of marketing. Brand strategy is a long-term game. Sometimes the 3 proof planks can be at odds. One may diminish the other. But life is messy and branding can be too. Yet taken together, in support of one claim, three well-thought-out brand planks provide a healthy interdependence that can last the tests of time. And the test of change.


PS. For examples of how planks can be at odds and yet work together write



Experience, the Forgotten Branding Tool.


I define brand strategy as “an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging.” Product is a given and more often than not, reverse engineered into the brand strategy.  Messaging is another given, in that most marketing and advertising budgets are spent there.  The problem I most run into with advertising is it takes on a strategy of its own, independent of brand strategy.  (If there even is a brand strategy.)  Many companies use advertising as their de-facto brand strategy, co-opting the ad campaign tagline as the brand tagline.  Bass-ackwards.

But it is in the experience where many brand builders fall short.  If you are a singular retail brand, you configure and design the experience around the in-store footprint.  Think LL Bean. Or Starbucks. If you are a business selling to other businesses (B2B), it’s your salespeople who create the experience. And that can often be subjective. Salespeople are chameleons, tailoring the pitch to the customer. In service and professional industries, e.g., doctors, accountants, lawyers, the experience is even more haphazard. Lastly, there is online or ecommerce businesses, where the digital experience is one-dimensional and self-serve.

So, one third of brand strategy (experience), I’d venture, is underserved. And it’s a big mistake.

Every brand needs to find a way to connect with their consumers. Much as they would if given the time in a face-to-face relationship. I’m not talking about thank you emails or loyalty points, I’m talking about real interaction. Gifting is nice. A random phone call perhaps. Holiday cards, no thanks. It’s a human thing. Facilitate a human contact. Above and beyond. Think of retailers who knows your name. Or an accountant who emails you when s/he sees an article in the local paper about your kid. Human stuff.