Brand Strategy

    Brand Strategy Proof Planks and Interdependence.


    I studied Anthropology in college.  Cultural anthropology – the fieldwork, the unfettered observation of people and cultures has helped my brand strategy practice.  But so has physical anthropology, the study of the adaptation to change by living things.  You know, the ascent of man stuff.

    In his Op-Ed column this morning, Thomas Friedman talked of climate change and how it is not the strongest or smartest species that survives climate change (dinosaurs, for instance), rather it is the most diverse,  “…the most adaptive ecosystems are usually the most diverse, offering different ways to adapt. They thrive because they’re able to forge health interdependencies among the different plants and animals, and in doing so, maximize their resilience and growth.

    Brand strategies, too, must offer a diverse and interdependent way forward. The secret to my framework is three proof planks. Taken together these planks create the business-winning proposition. Individually they are ads — or floating claims in a kelp bed of marketing. Brand strategy is a long-term game. Sometimes the 3 proof planks can be at odds. One may diminish the other. But life is messy and branding can be too. Yet taken together, in support of one claim, three well-thought-out brand planks provide a healthy interdependence that can last the tests of time. And the test of change.


    PS. For examples of how planks can be at odds and yet work together write



    Advertising versus Branding.


    For years I called myself a brand consultant, a title conveying something different than does my current title brand strategist.  Both deal with brands but only the latter deals with brand position, brand value and key proofs. 

    The market has been conditioned to think of brand consultants as artists and developers of design flourishes surrounding a product. Brand strategists, on the other hand, are the boring ones. The writers of dull, business prose – albeit prose whose sole purpose is to “sell more, to more, more times, at higher prices.” (Thanks Sergio Zyman.)

    I love great design. I love great creative. I love selling that challenges the status quo. All things good advertising does. But my job as a brand strategist is to lay the groundwork for the sales art. To give it a purpose. A goal. A strategy. Art without purpose belongs in a museum or living room. Art with a purpose is marketing. And the best marketing is based upon brand strategy. It gives you something besides sales to measure. If your only measures are advertising and sales you are fishing without bait.   

    If you think your best sales tool is advertising, you are missing the big picture and the little picture. Brand strategy is the foundational tool.



    Believability Vs. Recognition.


    I recently came across a brand consultant who rallied around the concept of neuro marketing. Another planner in the brand space whom I really admire is also a fan of the brain and refers to the amygdala a lot in teachings and sellings.

    What sets these two smart people apart from a number of brand strategist is that they, apparently, are selling to people with brains. JKJK.

    All planners work our brand strategies for people with brains but we must realize those brains are so inundated with sales messages, ad claims, and sales memes, that consumers have become inured to most selling efforts. At the same time marketers have become so attention deficit disordered that they change horses in the middle of the race.  Yearly. Monthly. Sometimes weekly.  And with Google AB testing, even hourly.

    This can mess with the amygdala.   

    When swimming in an ocean of marketing, where creative is often the differentiator, it is vital to have a selling idea. A selling claim. And it’s not just good enough to say your claim over and over again, you must prove it. Believability is different than recognition.

    With all deference to the intricate workings of the brain, brand strategists need to help marketers simplify brand value propositions.  Create patterns of value. And bring them to life through creative means. Without this discipline marketers are shouting into a tornado of wind.




    Nonbinary Selling.


    There are two kinds of selling. Demand selling where people are actively shopping for a product. And interruption selling where the consumer is not shopping just living their life and you attempt to connect and convince them to buy from you. Think having your credit card in hand and your browser open to Amazon (demand) versus eating dinner and having a solar panel salesman knock on your door (interruption).  

    The latter type of selling is harder because first you need get the consumers’ attention. Then you must convince them of the need for the product. And lastly, you have to convince them why to buy your product. A three stepper.

    The toughest job I ever had was as a consumer salesman.  Working for a kitchen remodeling company, I was tasked with intercepting consumers at big box stores and signing them up for in-home free estimates. It took me months to figure out how to get people to stop and talk  — only then after breaking the ice could I begin to sell.  

    A great deal of advertising today is about capturing attention. Think Geico. It’s 90% attention 10% sell.

    Branding strategy is way different than advertising. Brand strategy is totally focused on convincing consumers “why” your brand. Brand strategies that spend time garnering attention or trying to convince consumers to buy a product they’re not shopping for is someone else’s job. The agencies job.

    And brand strategies that promise consumer happiness as a brand value are ridiculous. (Unless selling Xanax.) Brand strategy is about selling product. Not movements. Not emotional outcomes. Not attention. It’s about positioning your product, de-positioning competitors, and as Jack Trout and Al Ries would say, establishing a unique place in the mind of consumers tied to an endemic brand advantage.

    Brand strategy development is nonbinary. Find your single, key consumer benefit and lock it down.



    Shell Life of Brand Strategy.


    Brands grow up just as people do. Company employees change. Products change. Consumer behaviors change. And brands mature. It is the job of brand strategy to hold it all together but also to keep the brand relevant. Well-crafted, the deeply identified values of a brand strategy live on as a brand matures. A good master brand strategy keeps a brand from aging.

    Brand strategy defeats the aging process by offering brand managers a way to constantly revive and make more exciting an evergreen handful of product or service values.  And lest we think these values are rules which impede creativity, think again. Creativity is as deep or shallow as the purveyor allows. Brand strategy provides an ownable lingua franca, in an overly confusing world of salesmanship.

    The best brand strategies live forever. The brand strategy written for ZDNet nearly 25 years ago “For Doer’s Not Browsers” can still be seen in the current line used as a tag on the website “Tomorrow belongs to those who embrace it today.” Sounds like doers to me.  Brands should never dull. They should stand as pillars to the values they impart to consumers. And hang tough.   



    Marketing Coach?


    I often speak about “pent up demand” and how important it is to brand and marketing strategy.  If people are clamoring for your product or service you only have to position it and promote it.  But if people don’t know they need your product or service — perhaps it’s a new category, or a complicated value proposition  — then you first need to educate them. Only then can you sell them.  It’s a two-step approach and much more expensive.

    What’s The Idea? was initially positioned as a band consultancy. Then it was repositioned as a brand strategy firm. The latter position making it clearer I didn’t design logos or websites or collateral. I do strategy. Everybody knows what strategy is. But brand strategy?  Even brand strategists have a hard time explaining it. 

    My problem is brand strategy is not easily explained on the back of a business card. Nor is it something people wake up in the morning thinking about.  It doesn’t directly solve a common problem.  But do you know the problem it does solve?  A problem that most marketers have (pent up demand)?  Poorly performing marketing.

    I’m giving serious conside-ration to another reposition: marketing coach.  Everyone knows what marketing is. Everyone knows what a coach does. Two words, no ambiguity.

    And guess what my key tool will be as a marketing coach: uh huh, brand strategy.  AKA “an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging.”



    Brand Strategy and Market Discontinuity.


    Whenever there is a market discontinuity, it effects brands. The supply chain crisis is one such discontinuity.  Many American companies, caught with their pants drooping, have made huge investments in reshoring or bringing manufacturing back to the States. Though some industries are addicted to manufacturing overseas, such as clothing, sneakers and electronics, smart large-scale companies have decided to build at home.

    When big changes like this occur brands that invest in reshoring are apt to think about changing elements of their brand strategy.  Made in America will, no doubt, become more prominent. Delivery guarantees more common. Free shipping, quality, and longer warranties are also likely to be used more.  When markets are in transition these values are important. Especially when prices are rising. And not just because of inflation but because we are making higher quality products (hopefully).

    I caution manufacturers not to alter their brand strategies from heritage values as a result of reshoring. I’m certainly open to change, but when change is everywhere, individual brands are best not to follow the wind. 

    Stick to your plan. Stick to your current Claim and Proof array.  Brand strategy is built over time.

    Tactics are fine, strategy finer.




    Develop a Brand Strategy and Cut Once.


    Brand strategy is a unique undertaking.  It’s not many things, it’s one thing. Full stop.

    When done correctly, brands have one strategy.  One “organizing principle for product, experience and messaging” that is sacrosanct. Inviolate.  At What’s The Idea? brand strategy is constructed using one brand claim and three proof (or support) planks. With this construct in place, every tactic thereafter is on strategy or off. It’s simple. Once the master brand strategy is done and done right, everything thereafter becomes additive and brand positive.  Everything thereafter becomes brand management. Not rethink.

    At ad agencies today, departments of brand planners oversee project tactics. They enable creative team to do good work, providing them counsel on interpretations of the strategy.  It’s not necessary. Everyone in marketing is a strategist. Creatives. Project managers, Accountants. In their own little way.  With a brand strategy in hand all team members can officiate execution. No matter their function.

    In carpentry, there’s a saying “measure twice cut once.”  Master brand strategy is the measure and tactics are the cutting.




    Mutations and Evolution.


    I’m a closet anthropologist and someone who likes to think about evolution. A professor at my alma mater Rollins College explained taught me one of the forces of evolution is gene mutation. Natural selection being another important force. Human evolution takes hundreds of thousands of years and even though my brand strategies are designed to be future-proof, they won’t stand up to that timeframe. Hee hee. So, we should always entertain the notion that brand strategies can evolve. To that end we must always keep an eye out for mutations. 

    Our job as brand planners is to watch out for the signs. One way to do this is to constantly update and refresh the proof plank.  Keep a history or archive of your proof planks over time and then look back to see how they have changed. 

    If the market changes in a way that one of your planks seems less of a care-about or good-at – or if that particular plank is lagging in activity — consider a new plank. Remember evolution is slow. And that can work in your favor. Just don’t assume everything stays the same forever.  

    If you feel a new stronger brand plank coming on, test it. Do not add a new plank to the mix. It will only confuse your target.




    Be Ambitious With Your Brand Objectives.


    At the end of my brand strategy presentations, I like to make sure the claim is well received.  I offer up slides listing all the pros and all the cons.  At present, I don’t ask C-level management and approvers how they feel the claim will perform against key product objectives. That needs to change.

    Of course, understanding the KPI is critical to this step.

    Much work in brand strategy work focuses on one overarching problem. I like to walk and chew gum.  What’s The Idea? brand strategies are intended to accomplish numerous things. All tied to top company objectives. Not just one.

    A healthy discussion of how key objectives are met by the brand claim and brand planks proves the worth of the strategy.  Presentations meant to simply earn a go/no go decision are weak. Once the strategy is approved the hook has to be set. It has to show its business-winning nature.

    I once worked on a huge healthcare brand and presented 15 plus objectives I believed the strategy could accomplish.  The client was nervous and made me pull back.  He didn’t want to his boss to think we were overly ambitious.  And he didn’t want to fail. Oh my!!