Brand Planning

    Learning From the Future.


    Ah the future.  Every good brand planner takes it into consideration. And the best look mostly to the future.  I break down the 4 types of strategists this way: rearview mirror planners, sideview mirror planners, dashboard planners and beyond the dashboard planners. What is strategy if not about predicting the future? 

    But the future goes counter to the one thing strategists care most about: Science.  Science is about finding evidence that is replicable so that predictions aren’t predictions, they’re constant outcomes. The future in marketing doesn’t roll that way. Or role that way?? If this sounds a little chicken and egg, it is. That’s why the future is the brand planners’ nemesis. But we need to embrace it. Because that’s what marketing wants.

    I read recently that when the radio was invented, the three NY baseball teams refused to broadcast the play-by-play.  They thought it would cut into attendance revenue. Doh! Today, baseball games are interminable, most lasting three hours plus. So, the powers that be at MLB are considering a pitch clock to shorten the game. But what will happen to hospitality revenue when the games are shorter? There’s incentive for most owners to have longer games.

    A number of years ago I told the director of marketing of the New York Mets he should incorporate social media in home games somehow.  At the time 15% of attendees where head down in their phones during the game…especially the young women. “Nah,” was the answer.

    Those that fail to learn from the future are doomed to repeat it. And you can quote me on that.



    Love. It’s What Makes a Brand Plan a Brand Plan.


    On my website and bio I let everyone know about the high-profile brands I have worked on: Microsoft, JP Morgan Chase, Abbott Nutrition, Northwell Health, Pricewaterhouse Coopers, ConAgra, Newsday and Sunkist.  But that’s me showing off. 

    A lot of the work I’ve done and enjoyed has been for lesser-known brands: Excel Commercial Maintenance, Sweet Loren’s, Biz2Credit, Trail of Bits, Handcraft Manufacturing, and pro-bono Appalachian Specialty Pharmacy to name a few.  I’ve written before that a brand planner has to fall in love with the brands s/he works on…and it’s true.

    You don’t set out to love them but it just comes naturally. The more you know the more you warm up.  Knowing you are searching for ways to shed them in the most positive light helps. That’s not to say you overlook any shortcomings or negatives but it’s our job to accentuate the positive. And that becomes easier as you grow more acclimated and more predisposed. Love may sound a little over-the-top, but it’s not. It comes with time and effort.

    Sometimes the smaller brands are easier to love. They come with less baggage. Less complication. It’s all good. They are all fun. Love is love.




    One stop shopping.


    One stop shopping. One stop shopping.  If I’ve heard this statement once, I’ve heard it a thousand times.  Everyone uses it as a positive. I’m the debunker. One stop shopping is the enemy of the brand planner.  And, blushingly, I’ve used the words myself.  Bad doggy.

    One stop shopping is not a position.  It’s multiple positions. All without provenance. Or the provenance is everything-ness. Hence nothing-ness.

    The brand planner takes brand good-ats and consumer care-abouts and gently places them in a stock pot. Then, starts the boil down. When all extraneous flavors are boiled away, we’re left with one super flavorful “value.” One.

    So, from here on out, please don’t use one stop shopping in your brand planning rigor.

    This consultancy is What’s the Idea? Not What Are The Ideas?



    New Normal.


    If we have learned anything as businesses the last couple of years it’s that we have to account for the new normal. And by new normal I mean pandemic and war. Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, “padded” and stockpiled money in the face of this new normal, setting aside $902 million dollars in a so-called “rainy day fund.” How many small and mid-size businesses can say the same?

    As a brand strategist who designs business-building guidelines for product, experience and messaging, I understand the importance of accounting for the new normal. Brand strategy informs how a company deals with and responds to the new normal. It goes beyond setting money aside, it provides a framework for action plans and change management plans – all of which are on-brand.

    Brand strategy provides a security blanket in tough times. A place of comfort from which to make difficult decisions.




    Aspire. Don’t Dispire.


    As a group, I think brand planners are pretty good at delving into feelings and psyches. Reading people. Especially excitements, highs, lows and anxieties.

    The best of our questions when doing brand planning interviews hit personal hot buttons. Not just likes and dislikes but prides and prejudices, favorites and heroes. I personally like to inject my excitement into an interview to trigger others’ enjoyments.  Downer or negative interviews are the wrong footing for good brand planning. We aspire, we don’t dispire (new word). Brand planners do best when shining light.

    Brand strategy done right creates muscle memory around positive attitudes. Attitudes that create brand predisposition.  That’s my secret.  Don’t pass it on.  Hee hee.





    Trust and Story.


    I was reading an article in The New York Times (paper paper) on cryptocurrency this morning and it almost convinced me to buy a Bitcoin.  For $39k.  I index as kind of cheap so this was pretty scary. It got me thinking about how many things I chose to do because it was recommended or reported by The New York Times.  I watched a wacky show on HBO Max last week because a reporter said it might be the best thing on television. I spend money of Amazon for hiking gear I read about on the NYT. Wirecutter has helped me with various purchases. I’ve taken vacations and read books and and and, all because I trust the writers of The New York Times.

    I do not like shopping, but apparently I am an impulse dude when it comes to trusted sources.

    Trust, trusted content, and powerful, clean, articulation of a story are the beacons of commerce. And persuasion.  

    I work in brand strategy. In my work I create an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging. The organizing principle is, by my methodology, one claim and three proof planks. But my work is not the story. It’s not the narrative. Sure, the proof planks are the persuaders. But sans story, they are words and scientifics on paper.

    There is not better feeling than seeing a brand strategy brought to life.  And that is the job of the brand planner. Prompting, coercing and encouraging a great story. From a great creative ad agency.


    Cultural Strategy.


    I was listening to the Fergus O’Carroll’s On Strategy podcast with Harvard professor Douglas Holt yesterday and heard some cool insights on brand planning. Mr. Holt has this thing he calls Cultural Strategy which as a student of anthropology interested me quite a bit. Brand planners have to be cultural anthropologists, as they try to nestle their selling schema into current culture — with an eye toward creating future culture. (An academic would blast me for the last part of that statement. Culture is organic, not man-made, they would caution.)

    (Pictured here, Franz Boas, father of cultural anthropolgy.)

    One of Douglas’s thoughts is worth dissecting: “Whoever is the symbol of the dominant ideology in the category, controls the category.” (Clearly a challenger mentality, evidenced by his follow-on point that you need to disrupt the category leader who can outspend and out-media all challengers.) 

    Two differing examples, the first supports Holt’s Cultural Strategy notion: when Oatly plays its save-the-planet card in oat milk messaging, that’s not an endemic product quality sell, it’s a culture sell. When I used the word “nestle” above, my point was one needs to nestle an endemic product value into the cultural lever — not use the cultural lever as your main value. With my client Handcraft, maker of the Potty Genius Potty training kit, we didn’t position around reducing disposable diapers in landfill, a cultural lever. We led with the “joys” inherent in the accomplishment.  The landfill claim was a support, albeit a very good one.  

    Douglas Holt is certainly onto something. Most planners agree culture (and category culture) are robust insight mines.  But don’t pray tell forget what is popping off the production line. Product always needs to be at the heart of any claim or proof plank.






    Voice. Tone. Personality.


    This may be sacrilege in the brand planning community but I’m not a big fan of tone, voice and brand personality.  I believe those are words born of ad agencies not true brand strategists. Tone isn’t a strategy.

    Tone and voice are the domain of the creative agency. Of the campaign.  That’s not to say those things aren’t important, they certainly are. Tactically.  So long as they advance the brand strategy: “an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging.”

    Brand strategy defies what is business-winning in the market pursuit. Creativity in delivering that strategy is what agencies do. Making the claim and proofs original. Interesting. Captivating. And those pursuits may require a change in tone and voice from time to time.

    George W. Bush once used a phrase I loved talking about cowboy wannabes. “All hat and no cattle.” My brand planner take on that when disparaging a marketing campaign would be “all voice no strategy.”

    Peace be upon you.



    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 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.