brand planning tips

    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.

     

    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.  

     

    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.

     

     

    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.

     

     

             

    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.

     

    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 Planning Tips

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    merle haggard

    So I was listening to Merle Haggard yesterday and the old coot was doing a duet with Jewel and, by God, he changed his vocal treatment – his voice — on the song. It was Merle but he was trying to impress her, trying to woo her. Men! There was a gentleness to his voice that you won’t hear in most of his tunes. The tone send a message. So I’m thinking if he can change his tone and impart different meaning, sub rasa meaning, so can the rest of us. Why not use it as a brand planning tool?  So I’m playing around with an interview technique that will prompt interviewees to answer questions in various voice types. You know the voice you use when someone is confiding tragic personal news to you? Or the voice used to encourage a child who needs support? Have you a sexy voice? The key is to get the interviewee to use a topic-appropriate voice in an interview to impart greater meaning.  To do so you have to put them in a zone; coach them like an acting coach. Get them to a place where they are feeling an emotion then get them to answer your question, truthfully, but that particular voice.

    Try it, I certainly will. Peace.

     

    Brand Planning Technique.

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    Salman Khan, founder of the Khan Academy an online educational video tutoring site, began his business by uploading math instruction videos to YouTube. Part of his secret sauce was making math instruction interesting.  If instruction lacks vocal intonation (drone, drone) it didn’t connect.  Been there.  If it was overly flourished, same thing. His approach, like that of other good teachers, was to be in the middle. Connect. Watch what students tuned in to and package that using good pedagogy.

    As a brand planner, I sometimes go into situations where the topic is less than exciting.  Healthcare and banking come to mind. When interviewing SMEs (subject matter experts) or consumers using Salman’s approach is important. The interviewer needs to show interest; not academic interest but true category interest.  The interviewer needs to find ways to bring the subject to life. To be engaged and earn trust. Personal stories are a good way to prime the pump. Hearing them. Telling them.  Some will say interrupting people when they talk is not polite, however in this case it shows energy and interest. (Do it carefully however.)

    Be a good listener, a careful watcher of body language, and most of all be human. React, respond, find emotional attachments. Joy and happy endings are also nice, though may not in all cases be appropriate.

    Once again, good teaching and learning practices come into play in brand planning. Peace.

    The power of but.

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    David & Goliath talks about “brave.”  Jean-Marie Dru writes and talks about “disruption.”  Lots of ad agencies try to find a word to describe themselves as outside the box thinkers.  I was searching this morning for a video about a young Israeli illustrator who wanted to get published in The New Yorker… his one word is “no,” his story about its power to motivate.

    Brand planners have a word too.  It’s the word “but.” Even in our quest to find brand-illuminating patterns, we are wowed by the word but.  The word takes what is considered known and understood and it angles that understanding.  It reorients it in a new way. In a fresh way with a little friction. And as you know friction causes heat.

    Sp read your briefs planners, and search for the word but. Wherever you see in on your paper you can be sure you’re  getting close to the idea.   As my Norwegian aunt might have said “tink about it.” Peace.

    Biggest critic.

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    I’m always on the lookout for new ways to extract important information from executives about their companies. My 24 Questions, designed to follow the money, are not great at generating stories… and stories (aka proof/examples) are what create context and power for brand planners.  A flesh vs. bones thing. So the latest question I’ve been dabbling with is “Who is the industry’s biggest critic?” Or, “Of all the opinion leaders in your business, whose approval do you hold dearest and why?” I’ll probably test it out both questions. The first is the more open of the two and presumes a critical but, honestly, I am more eager to hear about praise. It is an open question and can be easily toggled.

    Most people, be they executives or consumers, can articulate the opinion leader they most admire. That person is a good source of brand planning study. That person may not want to share all his/her secrets, but often provides shortcuts to pearls of wisdom and grist for the narrative mill.  Successful home brewers’ opinions are worth more to the average beer drinking Joe than are sports stars. An IT professional’s opinion is more valuable than a Best Buy salesperson.  Think “expert witnesses” in a jury trial, to the max.

    Find these people, learn why they are great critics, and get their stories. Probe the “doing” part of their role rather than the “critique or praise” itself. Probe for story. Peace.