brand planning tips

    Mr. Brand Hammer.

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    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.

    Peace.

     

    White Room (No Black Curtains.)

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    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.

    Peace.

     

    Brand Discovery Advice.

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    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.

    Peace.

     

     

    How the Web Affects Marketing.

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    I am old enough to know what marketing was like before the advent of the internet. Before Google. When the telephone and printed business directories were the consumer research tools of the day. I speak to tons of marketing newbies and for most of them the “go to” tactic is search. Paid and organic.  It’s what they know, what they were weaned on.  But the web is a giant ocean with bays and tides and marshes and an array of currents that make successful search complicated and difficult.

    So-called search experts, who are mostly coders and analytics nerds, some with a bit of design sense, are the primary vendors of choice for small businesses today. These experts position themselves as search scientists but are really website developers.  Certainly, not marketers. Go to their websites and sniff around. Very little marketing finesse.

    Before the web, marketers had to be more strategic. People were their customers, not the algorithm, not search terms. The product and its inherent value were the foundation of marketing. Not the ebb and flow of the internet. I’m not advocating old school shit. I love the web. (It’s the only way one can collapse all the steps to a sale into a single transaction.) But it’s best used downstream as one arrow in the quiver. It’s not the quiver.

    Product. Place. Price and Promotion should still rule the day. (Positioning, the key to brand planning, is a function of all four.)

    Peace.

     

    Brand Planning Interview Starters.

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    Yesterday I wrote about the need to understand the language or dialect of the customer.  

    Marketers thoroughly understand the language of the product and speak it exhaustively in their building but it’s only when they get into the field that they’re able to know if it syncs with the language of the customer.

    Companies that want to learn the language or dialect of the customer hire a brand planner.

    When attempting to learn language in a new category I start by breaking out one of my trusty questionnaires. But those question sets don’t always help me learn the category, which is prerequisite of learning the language. Hence some customization has to take place,

     

    A tip.

    On a recent technical engagement, I popped out this little discussion starter, “Write the headline that captures the most important news in the ____ business today.” The headline (and it must be a headline, not a run on) set up the next question or six. Another clarifying question I used was “In what segments of the _____ business would you say (company name) operates?” And I riff on that.

    Learning starts every brand planning party.

    Peace.

     

     

    Brand Planner Tip #15.

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    I changed my Twitter profile description today to include “operating at the intersection of never been and nowhere.” Until today it said “I operate at the intersection of nothing.”  The latter reference was a snark at all the people on Twitter who operate at the intersection of two things.  For the strategically minded that may be 10-20% of profiles. 

    That’s the more caustic Steve. Today I dialed it back so there’s less cynicism and more focus on an actual idea. The idea relates to operating from tabula rasa. A blank slate. I attempt to come at a branding problem with an unbiased, untainted view of the category or business. Clean.

    In most every initial meeting with a client I lead with “I’m a simple man.”  I look at things simply and hopefully without complication. I like to communicate with simple people through simple symbols, emotions and ideas. Done well, done with panache and believability, this approach resonates. (Even in complicated businesses like Blockchain.)

    In order to get to simple, you must clear your mind. Cultural anthropologists get this. They watch, listen and go deep on understanding.  With preconceived notions you don’t get to deep. You can often find yourself tangled in complexity.

    So I proudly operate at the intersection of never been and nowhere. Try it.

    Peace.  

     

    The Commodity Promise.

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    The brand promise or in my lexicon “claim” is often a very common promise. The common or commodity promise is a blight on the branding world. Let’s look at healthcare or hospitals as an example – a place where doctors do medical procedures.  Docs and hospitals often share the promise “making patients well.”  If you were to wrangle all the healthcare promises in the country, 90% will be the same.  A commodity promise.

    Getting past the commodity promise is hard work. And work not easily done by marketing staffers; it requires a specialist. A deep-digging brand planner.

    A big hospital in the northeast had a marketing director who fancied himself a creative person. He decided he wanted the hospital tagline to be (and I will paraphrase a bit) “Your wellness means the world.”  Say it enough times in radio and TV ads and people might just believe it. That’s adverting not branding.

    After having done some a little bit of discovery on the brand, I came up with a competing promise “Where every bed is precision.” It’s not a tagline, but a brand strategy.  With this as the claim, supported by three proof planks, the hospital would have had a brand strategy. See the difference? Not a commodity promise.

    Peace.

     

     

    Brand Strategy Boil-Down.

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    My wife suggested reusing an Amazon bag for shipping something to my mom. The wifus is a smart lady. There was a lot of noise on the outside of the bag including printed bar codes, markings, and UPS truck soot.  Her idea was to put a new label over the old Amazon label and let it fly. Save a tree, use a proven vessel, a good idea.

    I suggested turning the bag inside out, which I did. The inside was pristine gray.

    This story is a bit metaphoric (sophomoric?) for my approach to brand planning. When doing discovery, you want to look at all sides. Inverse. Obverse. I’m sure there’s another verse.  The point being, and this is certainly true for creative problem solving, more perspectives are energizing.  Sometimes typos can be informative. Especially so for me.  Sort of like the 3M person who spilled mixatives and created the Post-It note. (Is mixative even a word?)

    Brand planners know their own process. Amass information then do the boil-down. Everyone should boil from a bigger pot. Let the fun begin.

    Peace.

     

    Apocryphal Brand Craft

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    I was reading some marko-babble on a research company website the other day and my bullshit meter went off. The sentence that woke it was “Turn your brand into a religion.”  Yeah, no.  

    Most marketers would warm up to a sentence like this. Who doesn’t want a fealty to their brand that sticks to the soul? But face it, it’s an overpromise. When we are talking this type affinity we are talking about a product or service, not a brand.  I’ve brought Hellman’s Mayonnaise all my life. The New York Times is my only life-long newspaper subscription, my tents and ski jackets are all Marmot. Not because of the brand managers, but because of the product. Read: product preference.

    It’s aspirational to want an almost religious attachment to a brand, that I get. But when you put brand before product, it’s because you don’t have a really good product. Once you remove the brand from the product and promote the former, thinking it’s some ethereal and malleable construct, you’re kidding yourself. You are storytelling.

    Brand management is hard work. It’s scientific. Measurable. Rules-based. But religion? Yeah, no!

    Peace.

     

    Learn Baby Learn.

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    I’m all about systems. When developing a marketing plan I use my proprietary “24 Questions,” a follow-the-money rubric.  When working on a brand, I have a form simply called “Fact Finding Questions.” Broken into two sections, one for C-level executives, the other for top sales people it asks generic things, e.g., “If you were to get a job at a competitor, how would you deposition your current company?” Stuff like that. Good, but generic.

    When working in a new category and having to learn a new language – a language in which I am illiterate – generic doesn’t always cut it.

    I’ve worked with a magician and I’ve worked with a top two professional services company.  The questions that work for a teeth whitening company don’t translate. So my question framework almost always needs to go off the reservation.  The off-the-rezzy questions are always works in progress. They require listening, parrying, redirection and often a good deal of bi-directional story telling.  

    When I ask an executive or sales person a question that spikes their blood pressure, it’s a hit. Follow that trail. If a hospice nurse is explaining how to tell whether a patient is minutes or hours away from passing, feel the mood. The sanctity. 

    Learning is the absolute best part of brand planning.

    Peace.