brand planning tips

    Zoom and Brand Research.


    Brand strategists are always on the lookout for trends and cultural developments. One such trend, resulting from the pandemic, is the growth of Zoom meetings. In my last post I discussed how less meetings and more independent work are not the most productive ways to work in today’s world – though there are certainly positives.  But recently I was on a Zoom call and noticed a neat strong positive to working remotely, albeit it was a bit embarrassing.

    Last week I was on a Zoom webinar sponsored my alma mater Rollins College on the topic of diversity, inclusion and equity; a topic on which I need mas training. For a change most of the postage stamp heads were black. (Is it me or do other white people look at rooms filled with white heads and feel uncomfortable? White much? is a meme I like to use.) Anyway, the webinar guest, activist Sophie Williams from London, was explaining that decades ago the gov’t tried to recruit blacks to live in the U.K. by running ads in the West Indies, highlighting all the wonderments of UK life. Sophie went on to say it was effective advertising though it never mentioned that life for blacks in the UK was going to be “shit.” I giggled at her expletive. No one else did. Zoom allowed me to see that. Big ass faux pas. Insensitive me. Had, in real life, I been in a row of students looking at the back of heads I would never have known my mistake.

    While working at Zude, a social media startup, years ago and attempting to recruit musical acts, I uncovered an important planning insight: “never are musical artists more in touch with their art than when looking into the eyes of the audience.”  Zoom lets you do that. Used properly it can be a great research tool.  



    Hunt For Heroes.


    If you haven’t yet guessed, I’m a big fan of brand planning. It’s a fundy (as Keith Hernandez would say) for proper marketing.  One of my favorite brand discovery pastimes is hunting for heroes.

    My enthusiasm for heroes goes way back. While working at McCann-Erickson one of my favorite interview questions was “Tell me about one of your heroes.”  A fairly opened-ended question, it helped me discern a candidate’s social and/or professional proclivities. And the depth of those proclivities.

    Today, in brand discovery, I’m always looking for category heroes. When social media first came along, I hunted up Posters. Original content creators.  Finding heroes was easy then. They had big audiences and important ideas to share. Heroes, shared for the betterment of the public. It started with people like Kandee Johnson, Melting Mama and dana boyd. But then the social web begat “influencers” whose intentions were more personal and skin deep. Less heroic. Posters also begat Pasters — people who curated others’ thoughts — also making it harder to finding category heroes.

    Heroes tend to be selfless. Their agendas are the agenda of the people. (Not unlike Native American chiefs.) Heroes, like the tide, lifts all boats. Finding heroes helps me through my thought process. It quickens the blood. Makes my insights tighter. More real.

    One of my contemporary category heroes is Aisha Adams.  She works in the area of Diversity, Inclusion and Equity. She’s consumed by the topic. She shares to a fault, has an amazing sensitivity, and is most definitely part of the solution.  Heroes are out there — it just takes a little more work to find them.

    Wake up every morning during your brand planning assignment and hunt up some heroes. It’s sooo worth it.



    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.





    An Exercise.


    Boilerplate in the marketing world is the copy used on press releases at the end of a press announcement. It usually is preceded by the word About (insert name of company.) Boiler plate is almost always unimaginative. It usually contains a rote overview of company history, highlights, accomplishments and scale.

    The exercise I am suggesting for brand planners is to ask company stakeholders, during discovery, to cobble together some boilerplate for their place of business or brand.  As an exercise, it will probably be best to have the stakeholder do it before the interview, as it will really bring the session to its knees. It’s hard work.  It might also be good to have the writer limit the boilerplate to three sentences. Last week I posted about what makes a brand or company “famous.” Crafting boilerplate is an extension of that idea.

    Most people go through this exercise when creating their personal LinkedIn presence. It’s a boiled down overview of one’s self for the profile.

    Doing boiler plate for a person is harder than doing boiler plate for a company. In both cases it’s an exercise in concision…and an exercise in branding.



    The Recipe for Behavior Change.


    I’ve had some time to think about my post from yesterday asking whether brand planners should focus on behavior change or attitude change and I have decided upon attitude change. Behavior change unbacked by a set of values is simply a transaction. A default to ease-of-use. A reflex. These can and do drive a lot of commerce, don’t get me wrong. Habit is something to be sought in marketing.  But brand planning is about ingrained habits. Emotional habits. Cognitive habits. And those come from thoughtful cognition.

    I’ve written hundreds and hundreds of brand strategies. My framework uses one claim and three proof planks. Claim without proof is not branding, it’s advertising. I’d venture to say 95% of my proof planks are attitude based. One A Day Vitamins, named after a behavior still needs to support the behavior with a why. Got Milk still has to support the behavior with a why.

    Trust me, changing behavior is a critical goal in marketing. But changing attitudes is the brand planner’s job. It’s the recipe for behavior change.



    Brand Planning Tips


    Hank O’Brien, was a Group Director of mine at McCann-Erickson NY in the 90s.  He had great chops for a Mad Man and a good intellect.  One thing he once said to me while doing some brand and marketing planning was “Who is going to lose the sale, you are making?”   It was an interesting way to pose the question about the competition.  And it didn’t always target a direct competitor. If you were advertising a new product or service, something that had no direct competitor, you might be talking sales from another category. Or two.

    The fact is and was, the money has to come from somewhere and it’s good to know that somewhere. It lends behavioral context.

    Uber, for instance, takes money away from cab companies.  That’s a clean take-away. Netflix, takes money from movie theaters and cable companies and network television. It can also take money from bars and restaurants. Not so clean.

    Good planners follow the money.  That too, is good advice.

    When you are making your touchy-feely brand value decisions, it’s always important to align them in some way with commercial advantage. We are not mercenaries, but our clients are.



    Teaching and Learning.


    Those who follow the What’s The idea? blog know how I view education. Having worked at a K12 Ed Tech company I realized there is a big difference between “teaching” and “learning.” One is the means, the other the end. After scores and scores of teacher interviews, I understood there can be poor teaching, but no poor learning. Learning is always positive.

    So, I took that learning to heart and incorporated it into my business model. Consumers are more apt to favor a brand they learn from than a brand that sells them. Great marketing helps consumers learn about brand value in other words. Learning they can articulate themselves and, perhaps, even conclude.

    So just as learning is a touchstone for consumers in terms of product preference, it should be so for marketers. A new question I’ve decided to use in brand discovery with marketing stakeholders is “Tell me something you still need to learn about your business or consumers?” Implied with the question is that this learning will help business.

    There’s another learning question in my brand discovery battery but it’s slightly different. Not to give away too many secrets — but we are in the middle of a pandemic. The question is “Walk me through your education at the company. What was your top “aha” learning moment?”

    Okay enough learning for the day.



    Mr. Brand Hammer.


    Yesterday I coined the term Mr. Brand Hammer – a reference to the axiom “to a hammer everything looks like a nail.” Mr. Brand Hammer (that’s me) smells a new business name.

    It’s a curse being Mr. Brand Hammer, surfing the ether, watching commercials, reading the paper, with an always-on need to make sense of brands and their strategy. It’s like living in a world of generic, plain yogurt. Colorless. Tasteless. Sluggish. Mr. Brand Hammer constantly evaluates how marketers are differentiating their product and services. Asking what’s the plan? When watching Geico commercials everything is humor and call-to-action. Buy us, get a quote from us. But where’s the why? Mr. Brand Hammer understands it’s not easy creating thousands and thousands of pieces of selling content…you run out of ideas. But you should never run out of strategy.

    What’s The Idea? is a business consultancy built around brand strategy. What’s the brand claim? What are the brand proof planks (evidence of the claim)?  The lack thereof in marketing drives me crazy. And you can tell it also drives marketers crazy. More often than not there is no discernable plan for selling. For building a brand.

    More cowbell. More gecko.



    White Room (No Black Curtains.)


    A cultural anthropologist, brand planner and journalist walk into a bar. Well maybe not the journalist. The bartender says what would you like. They all three say nothing. That sounds like a bad joke but it’s the topic of this post. When you come to a people, a consumer set or news story, you should aspire to bring nothing to the table.

    One thing I’ve learned about brand planning is to go all tabula rasa or clean slate on an assignment. That is, I don’t bring any preconceived ideas with me about the people, the market or the selling environment. It’s so hard.

    Many years ago, I was selling ads to the CEO of AT&T Microelectronics. In his spacious Berkley Heights, NJ office, standing right by the table was a cardboard cutout of a man. A customer, he explained. To always remind him of their importance.

    If I ever leave the confines of my home office for a real office the first room I build will be a white room. There will be no adornments. No pictures. No stimuli. No nothing. A white table, white chairs and white walls. This will be a collective reminder that we (client too) must come at an assignment without bias.

    (At another AT&T meeting, this one at AT&T Consumer Products, I was given a tour of a room in the R&D facility that had zero echo. The floor was suspended, the walls baffled. Total sound absorption. No echo. This might be my second conference room investment. Hee hee.)

    Coming to an assignment clean is critical. It maxims freshness.



    Brand Discovery Advice.


    Robert Eichner a successful marketer and cohort here in Asheville shared something his dad Arthur told him many years ago “When you ask for advice you get money, when you ask for money you get advice.”

    This is some sound counsel. In fact, I’ve lived by it for decades. The money I have made at What’s The Idea? is directly attributable to the interviews I conduct through my brand planning rigor. Until the machines take over it is people who buy stuff. So, it is people who fuel the strategy.  Of course, market data, trends, competition and culture factor in, but it’s the words and deeds people share that form the brand claim and proof array.

    I’ve never had to pay people to ask them a few questions about brands, markets and buying behaviors. Never. In fact, once you pay for advice, it’s probably tainted.

    Ask questions, ask advice as Arthur Eichner suggests, and you’ll get a wealth of information.  Brand planners are interested by nature. They are not data collectors — they are learners. And organizers. Data only supports and proves our learning.

    Ask and you shall receive.