Brand Planning

    Imposter Syndrome.


    There’s a phenomenon in brand planning called Imposter Syndrome. If I understand it correctly, it’s when planners feel that their work is undervalued and, perhaps, they are imposters in the process of creative content development. Leave it to planners to be so sensitive that they question their own work. Question everything, after all, is our mantra.

    I know how this has become a thing. It’s mainly because we give our work product to creative departments who are often beholden to nothing other than their own creative whims. Of course they want input. Of course they want validation from approvers. But foremost, they want to please themselves. Through creativity. The result? The work doesn’t always reflect the strategy. If the work sucks, we tell them it’s off. If it’s good we smile and congratulate.

    Here’s the thing: a brief for a project has numerous touchstones for creative. It’s not always the main idea that drives the creative content. It could be a target insight, a needs assessment, an endemic cultural insight. If it contributes to good work, we’ve done out jobs. If it sparks an idea for good work, we’ve done our jobs.

    We can’t be too sensitive. If our briefs and insights suck, we get fired. If we continue in our job, then our objective is to learn and get better at providing stimulus every day. “Be in it to win it, like Yzerman.”

    Imposter Syndrome be gone. Otherwise it’s therapy time.



    Under Armour’s Lost Opportunity.


    There has been a lot of coverage lately about how Under Armour has lost its way. After many years of  20% growth, it was reported today that sales were up less than 1% in the most recent 9 months. I’m a fan of Under Armour. Their training and sport apparel business reinvigorated the sportswear scene. But when they decided to get into footwear I dinged them. And after a good long run, it looks like my initial thoughts may have been correct. You can’t be a master to two kingdoms.

    Sneakers are off-piste for a clothing company. Parse the brand name…it’s called Under Armour.

    The current trend that Under Armour could have leveraged is Athleisure; an easy evolution from core apparel products. Men’s joggers are one of the hottest men’s wear products around, mirroring the explosive growth women’s yoga pants/leggings. By spending way too much time carving up the sneaker pie, Under Armour lost sight of its core business. The business upon which it built its brand.

    Markers have to understand how important focus is — especially in brand-sensitive and brand centric categories such as clothing.

    Under Armour cut a new swath in fashion with functional sportwear. Had it stuck to its knitting I’m convinced it may have innovated the legging and jogger categories. It may be too late, but not for what comes next. 





    I read someone’s bio on LinkedIn yesterday and it referred to them as “A strategic and creative thinker, adept at helping companies execute for growth and deploy brand effectively.” Who wouldn’t want to do business with someone like that? Well, as someone who grew up in the advertising business, this statement might be considered a straddle. Some would argue it takes different bones to build a strategic person than it does a creative person. Back in the day, you were either in the creative department or other less creative departments, e.g., media, account management, or research. So as much as I appreciate the straddle, muscle memory keeps me from believing creative and strategic can live in the same body. Oh, the scar tissue!

    Today rather than chose a label I prefer to identify via the process. I am a planner. A brand planner.

    In ad agencies, a brand planner’s job it to feed the creative people so the work can shine. Planners provide direction and insights that stimulate great work. Whether that stim is creative or strategic is unimportant so long as the work is effective. And effective for the right reasons. Yet when working directly with marketers who want help with their brands I find they don’t want a creative person at the table or a strategic person at the table, they want someone who understands them and their business. Someone who can deliver a plan for business improvement. A plan they can analyze. And approve. And implement.

    There goes another layer of scar tissue.



    The Problem With Brand Planning Tools.


    The world of branding is much like the real world in that there is science and everything else. What does that mean? Science undergirds the physical world, predicting the result of actions. Science repeats itself. Science predicts outcomes. Mathematics, physics, biology are all means to codify the physical world.

    A recent engineering client of mine taught me that tools fix things that are broken, but science precludes what’s broken. Cancer can be cured, we just haven’t figured out the science yet. Global warming can be dealt with, we just haven’t been able to muster the science and will.

    Many brand planners are tool-centric. I am pleading for us to be more science-centric. And that means starting way upstream of any tactical deliverable. Upstream of any buildable. In fact, it may be upstream of addressing a business problem. Because problems beget tools.

    Upstream means planning the master brand strategy. The organizing principle for product, experience and messaging. So many brand planners write briefs in support of a tactic. That’s downstream. Better to begin at the base level. At the foundation. Where the science is set.

    As you move your way up the stack (technology reference) or upstream toward the purchase, toward the tactic, you lose the science.

    Why is this a good approach? Because science is predictable. And predicting marketing outcomes is what is sorely lacking in our business.



    Syllabus For Brand Planners.


    A brand strategy is best delivered through a syllabus. A lesson plan for brand building by way of education.

    Teachers know the most efficacious education revolves not around rote recitation of lesson, but participation and interaction.  

    I was lucky enough to work as marketing director at an ed tech company that made most of its money selling interactive white boards. They brought me onboard to help flip the business model from hardware to professional development – that is, to teach teachers how to use technology more effectively to improve learning.  I dove into the science of teaching (pedagogy) with the goal of understanding learning. There is bad teaching but there is no bad learning.

    This whole deep dive had a vigorous impact on my brand planning practice. In my brand brief, the keys to learning were improved “classroom design,” “better teacher-student relationship” and stronger “parental/guardian involvement.” With learning the goal and teaching the vehicle how I thought about marketing was recast.

    Teaching had for too long been about broadcasting information at kids. And marketing the same. Using education as an analog for marketing, classroom design became the media or the experience (retail). The student-teacher relationship translated to consumer care-abouts and attitudes (a long-standing brand planner tool). And parental involvement aligned perfectly with marketing influencers.    

    Now these three notions are not foreign to brand planners but they aren’t always part of the syllabus. To develop brand value faster and make it more everlasting, one needs to focus on consumer learning, not marketer teaching.  That takes a new syllabus.



    Tangential is Good. And Bad.


    In brand planning tangential is something to which you want to pay attention. Learning comes from everywhere. The broader you cast your learning net the better. Anything to spark and idea. Any new way to look at data, information and opinion.  Faris Yabok a learned and smart brand planner will be the first to admit his bailiwick is recombinant information and ideation. He calls it genius steals. To Faris nothing is new and everything is new. Tangential can be a good living…to a planner.

    In business however, tangential is not a strength. Dan Guido, CEO of Trail of Bits, understands this. Dan is a master brand builder and world class infosec leader. He lives his business goals and plots the path there with rapt attention…minimizing distraction. He knows he can morph and slide the business based on demand and futures, yet tangents to core abilities need not apply.

    You don’t get to be Faris smart or Dan smart without living with tangential awareness. The key is knowing what to do with it. On or off.




    Focus Your Roll.


    I went to a networking event last night called Mojo Connect. One of those speed dating deals where you sit and talk with people for 5 minutes before moving to the next station.  People aren’t brands but when a brand planner you tend to do discovery on them. Especially, if looking for talent, opportunity and/or to lend some assistance – all brand planning modus operandi.

    One person I met stated she was a travel writer.  Then she said she spent a good deal of her career in corporate communications. She added consultant to the list of good-ats. Business consultant. But also a lover of photography, which went nicely with travel writing.  Very nice women mind you. And I’m sure she was good at all these things. But focus was not her strongest suit. The net she cast was wide.

    This reminds me of a time when I was a pup in the ad business and asked by my dad to interview a soon-to-be college graduate who happened to be the son of our biggest client Youngs Drugs, makers of Trojan Condoms. Perhaps this foretold of my career in brand planning.  The young man said he was good with people (account). He also liked to write (creative). He added an aptitude for numbers (media) and the list went on. A fledgling myself, I offered up the supreme strategy of focus. Pick a spot.

    What goes around…






    I know it may be sacrilege but I’m not the world’s biggest Beatles fan.  The Stones were my thing growing up. Perhaps less controversial, I was not a fan or follower of Queen. So shoot me.  But let me say this, having seen the movies “Yesterday” and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” I am a big Kool-Aid drinker now.  Could it be that I’m older and more accepting — more Zen-like? Maybe.  But the amazing backstories and cinematic storytelling driving those two movies turned everything for me.  In fact, I went to the see “Yesterday” thinking I wasn’t going to like it — the trailer not being its greatest sales piece.  In both cases the movie-making craft, the backstory was brilliant.

    Those in the business of selling things and building brands need to understand the craft of backstory.  Not just story. But contextual backstory. If we jump straight to advertising, you might correctly argue it’s hard to do backstory. Especially in a :30 spot or page of print. But the good ones try. And the good ones can deliver deep context quickly.

    If you want to convince someone of something new or change their opinion of something old, you can’t spend your time selling. You have to deliver some humanity. Some subject empathy. True thought stimulation. Make the viewer a participant, not a consumer. That’s what backstory does.




    Brand Glossary


    I started my first big boy job at a top advertising agency in NYC, McCann-Erickson. Working on AT&T. While most of the team was handling TV work and producing print ads for The Wall Street Journal, Fortune and Time Magazine, I was hired to do the technical products: data lines, network management and software defined networks. I was the B2B guy, which suited me. It’s from whence I came. But AT&T and McCann were the real deal and I was scrambling.

    At my first meeting in Bridgewater, NJ, I became inundated with acronyms and telecom terms I’d never heard before.  It was like moving to the Ukraine.  My head spun.  I had to quickly invent a game plan in the pre-internet era.  Laptops were few and far between. First step was to create an acronym glossary. One based upon AT&T jargon. When complete the glossary was probably 20 pages long filled with paragraphs of arcane descriptions. I brought that baby with me everywhere. As my team grew, it became a shared resource.

    When the Bell Labs and AT&T marketing people saw me with my glossary they giggled but appreciated that I cared. I asked lots of questions; they never held back.

    I write a lot about learning the language of the target. In account or project management, learning the language of the client is the first step. Only then can you translate that into the consumer dialect.



    Outside Baseball.


    Get a bunch of brand planners in a room, say at one of Faris Yakob’s beer drinking meetups, and they’ll likemind the shit out of each other.  Similarly, create an event among Mark Pollard’s Sweathead listeners and everyone will speak the brand planner patois. Brand planners will share tools, stories, cases and tricks at the drop of a hat, yet to most business people it’s all inside baseball.

    The primary problem for freelancers and consultant brand planners is no one outside our sphere really gets what we do. (We are partly to blame, due to lack of intelligible frameworks.) More to the point, there is not a lot of pend-up demand for what we do. In small and mid-size businesses nobody is talking brand strategy. Brand maybe, but not strategy. And at Fortune 2000s only a shot-glass full of people understand brand strategy – and the CEO typically isn’t one of them.

    So we are selling something that is not easily understood and not in demand – not prerequisites for VC funding if you ask me. So how do we respond?  We continue to talk to each other.

    No more. This blog has been about talking inside baseball to believers. I am now going to start targeting and contenting (word?) non-believers. Once I explain to small and mid-size companies how brand strategy (claim and proof array) will improve company efficiency, reduce wasted time, make marketing more productive and accountable, I’m likely to gain their ear.

    My new goal. Outside baseball.