Brand Strategy

    Fertile or Fallow.


    Templates are the savior and bane of the brand planner; and when I say brand planner I mean me. We are all different. Ish. I have a few Word files I go to time after time, which help me amass discovery information and insights.  What’s The Idea? readers know I immerse myself in customer care-abouts and brand good-ats during discovery. And from this information I boil down and cull. Then, using other templates, primarily briefs, I organize the info into a brand value template called a claim and proof array.

    But not all questionnaires work across all categories. For instance, when interviewing world-class security hackers – Are there other kinds of hackers? – I need to learn their language. It’s a culture thing. Or when talking to morbidly obese people it’s imperative I understand their life, trauma and culture. Can’t get there with a templated set of Qs. So you create a new set. Tabula Rasa. Ish.

    I wrote recently of some short cuts used to get to “claim and proof” without my normal templated outputs. This approach can be dangerous but sometimes budget requires we live dangerously. That said, going off-piste or off-template can be exhilarating.   

    This ability to adapt to new situations, including short-cutting the process, is the art of brand planning. The resulting are sometimes fertile, sometimes fallow. Good planners know the difference.




    Mentoring and The Deep Dive.


    I am a mentor in a program called Elevate. It’s a wonderful group of men and women who donate time and experience to help startup entrepreneurs in the Asheville, NC area. Supported by Venture Asheville, an economic development coalition of Buncombe Country and the Asheville Chamber of Commerce, it uses a mentorship framework developed by MIT.

    One thing the brand planner in me is finding difficult is completing the discovery process I use in my day job. That job is to define brand strategy which guides product, product experience and messaging. Getting to that strategy requires a deep dive into business metrics, customer care-abouts and brand good-ats, which when culled and refined make all tactical decisions easy — from hiring to web design to product extensions and more.

    But as a mentor, I’ve found instances where we only talk tactics. The deep dive discovery I’m used to is not part of the rigor. Flying by an instrument panel, if you will, rather than eyes open with the landscape before me.

    With brand discovery typically requiring 75-150 hours to wrap my head around the business, its problems, challenges, and opportunities (which isn’t practical) I sometimes feel the need to scratch my head. 

    So what do I do? Well, I try to innovate. To short cut. I asterisk my recommendations. But most of all I sponge up as much as I can and rely on fellow team members. It’s a different approach. And different is good. It sharpens skills.




    The Tutor and the Brand Planner.


    I’m working with a startup in the math tutoring space.  I did a Q&A interview yesterday of the key company stakeholder.  Having done a deep dive in the K12 education space in a prior engagement, I was eager to hear how this young man approached the problem of educating kids in need of improved math skills.

    A critical starting point for his organization is to get a level-set on where the student is in the learning process.  That is, what they know, what don’t they know, and what type of learner they are. Good pedagogy tells us not all students are the same and not all students learn at the same rate.  Makes sense. The best teachers teach to the student’s aptitude and place on the learning curve. It requires a lot of listening on the part of the teacher/tutor.   

    The approach is not dissimilar to that of the brand planner. We don’t just begin outlining some formula for brand positioning and success.  We begin by plumbing the depths of the brand owner’s understanding of the product/service.  Then we gather information on their aptitude and ability to deliver key value(s). We listen. We learn. And we build trust. Ultimately, we use the foundation of that learning to guide our planning rigor. That’s not to say we’re changing the algebra. Or our formulas. But we are learning who the brand owner is and taking our cues from him/her.  Only when they trust us, will they follow us. Trust the process. Understand the pupil.



    Marketing and Branding Are Different.


    I was listening to a segment on Fox Sports Radio…I said sports radio… and one of the guys was talking about the NBA logo and its value.  I may have misheard but its possible someone had suggested putting Kobi’s likeness in the logo. The talk show host, it might have been Ben Maller, was against the idea suggesting it’s bad business to mess around with a very recognizable logo — one with so much brand equity.

    He went on to say “Marketing is the battle of perception not products,” and I go all “Whoa, hold up.”

    Au contraire sir.  Marketing is, most definitely, the battle of product. “Sell more, to more, more times, at higher prices” said Sergio Zyman.

    Brand Strategy is the battle of perception. Brand Strategy is the brain work, the mental conditioning, the preference creation that leads to predisposition.  Brand strategy is words on paper that directs the mental outcomes that change consumer behavior.  Moving a consumer closer to a sale. Marketing encompasses the tactics – governing product, price, place and promotion – that activate a sale.

    These words are not interchangeable. Brand Strategy is strategy. And marketing is the mission critical plumbing that makes it happen.



    Jeep Grand Cherokee Brand Controversy.


    Representatives of the Cherokee Nation have asked Stellantis, the car manufacturer that owns Jeep, to stop using Grand Cherokee as a brand name of the top-selling SUV. Stellantis by the way, is the name resulting from the merger of the Fiat Chrysler company with Peugeot. (I’ve got to get out more.)

    Living not too far from Cherokee, NC and having read up on the Tribe’s history, e.g., Trail of Tears, broken treaties, deforestation, racism, I understand their sensitivity. It’s time for a change.

    Naming is tough. Just look at the moniker of Jeep’s parent company. Hee hee. And it will take fortitude to rename this car brand with such a strong heritage. All the more reason to do it right. And with permission. Perhaps negotiate with the Cherokee nation and use something from their native culture. It’s a respect thing not a money thing.

    Most Grand Cherokee owners will not be happy with the name change. That’s up to them. Jeep is a powerful master brand and will lend a hand to any car name chosen.  But my recommendation would be to celebrate the Cherokee Tribe with a commemorative name, approved by the Tribe, that suits the car and strengthens it’s Americana cachet.




    Print Journalism


    I subscribe to The New York Time national edition.  I counted 1, 3/4 pages of advertising in the first book or section this morning. The print newspaper business is in trouble. You know it. I know it. Luckily, after a slow start, NYT online is going gangbusters. If you search my blog posts from 10-12 years ago you’ll see I held out great hope for the online property – even when it was slow to adapt.

    If “All the news that’s fit to print” isn’t booking serious ad revenue, the paper-paper that is, what must be happening to newspapers in secondary and tertiary markets?  It’s scary.

    One solution might be to hire and promote the absolute best journalists in the land. And make them rock stars. Maggie Haberman may be the closest thing the Times has to a rock star. But there are scores and scores of other writers who need elevated personas and reputations. I know it cuts across the grain of the Old Gray Lady to take second chair to an individual writer, but it’s a potential solution. 

    Where will the money come from to pay and promote these stellar writer? From the budget that fills some of the other floors at headquarters. Cut the masthead by a third. Sell more stock. I don’t know.  Twitter is already helping writers grow their reps. Double down.

    We need great journalism. We need great writers.



    Strategy in A Pandemic.


    Let’s face it, no business person was ready for the havoc caused by the pandemic in 2020. Certainly not the airline industry that needed a 30-40 billion dollar bail out. And not local restaurants that had to close doors for months before being allowed to open with limited guest numbers months later. And any business that didn’t have a year’s worth of rent in the bank was screwed. Leveraged businesses with big equipment loans better have had serious cash on hand. The words “cash is king” never rang truer.

    The pandemic changed everything for everybody. Especially business.

    At What’s The Idea? brand strategy follows a key Patti Smith principle: “I don’t fuck much with the past but I fuck plenty with the future.” Brand strategy must be malleable and forward-looking enough to weather not only market discontinuities but acts of God. The “one claim, three proof planks,” framework was developed so it offers some guidance for operation during a disaster. When revenue is gutted, business must change…but the brand’s sole will not.  One of the proof planks, if not more, will still apply and assist in decision making. Across all aspects of the business.

    Everyone has s strategy until they get punched in the face, Mike Tyson said. But when dazed and confused, it’s better to have a plan.




    Brand Planning and Brand Strategy. Perfect Together.


    Lately, I’ve been hearing a little undercurrent that brand strategies are almost secondary to brand planning — the act of preparing a brand strategy.  The act of preparing insights, observations and conducting research is more important, so the implication goes, than the actual strategy itself.

    Martin Weigel recently tweeted to @phil_adams, who had posted that he had done a particular strategy, “Yeah, but did you do the planning?”  Suggesting that anyone can poop out a strategy but the hard work is the foundation – in the planning. 

    It would be had to disagree having a smart rigor to get you to a brand strategy is important. But conversely, you can rigor your ass off for months and come up with a goofy, off-piste strategy. Both are needed.

    Foundation is critical. And so is the idea. And the “proof planks” that create evidence in support of the idea.

    Good prep leads to good work product. It doesn’t insure it.




    New Foxtrot Market Campaign.


    So I came across what looks to be a fairly new retail brand in Chicago called FoxTrot. Nice name, great logo, smart targeting (urban millennials) and a good deal of energy. Also, some marketing peeps with good provenance. They offer some small, welcoming, design-forward brick and mortar stores and a very fast delivery system. All supported by an app.  One hour delivery, in fact. Sales were growing nicely before the pandemic, but now I’m sure they’re scorching.

    Foxtrot just launched a new ad campaign entitled “Good Stuff Delivered.” Not a very high bar they’re setting, with that line though.  And I dare say calling your up-market products “stuff” is not the best of positioning ideas, even with a little millennial je ne sais quoi.

    An article discussing the campaign references a “surprise and delight” strategy. Yet, searching for evidence of same I couldn’t find any. A free gift card? A gratis cup of coffee?

    This is an example of a strategy work that appears to be lead by the ad agency not the brand people. Perhaps, this is my bad for relying on a trade magazine for information, but my antenna go up when I hear surprise and delight.

    I love the business idea. It has legs. But the ad campaign feels a bit helium-based, rather than foundational. Give millennials more credit.



    Humanity and Branding.


    I was in a group meeting earlier this week and an ice breaker question used to loosen us up was “What new behavior have you learned as a result of Covid-19?”  Yesterday, standing on a Starbuck’s line the perfect answer hit me. “I’ve learned to smile more with my eyes?”  Most smiles behind a mask go unrecognized, so I make an effort to do my smile big – and with my eyes.

    How does this apply to branding?  Well, typical marketing is one dimensional. Convey selling information clearly and concisely before asking for the order.  Advertising done well offers a few more dimensions: maybe some music, some emotional hints, perhaps a story. But not all marketing is advertising. And frankly, most advertising is poorly constructed — infomercials in 30 seconds. 

    So if most of marketing these days is sales focused, then metaphorically we are covering up the humanity of our efforts with a mask. While our jobs are never to lose the mask, we must work hard to lets our eyes convey the humanity. Convey a smile. Inklings of humanity throughout our marketing and branding – be they search terms, packaging or naming – are worth the effort.

    Keep smiling.