Brand Strategy



    A brand planner is a lot like a chef.  One must amass lots of information, or using metaphor, ingredients and assemble them into a unique, tasty dish.  The brand planner’s ingredients are the language — the spoken or written words assembled by the planner. Listening to customers, prospective consumers, stakeholders, SMEs (subject matter experts) and journalists yield language from which to cull insights and establish key care-about and good-ats.

    It is the culling or boiling-down (another cooking metaphor) of those words that moves the planner closer to a positioning idea and strategy. But it is the language that helps the planner get closer.  Specific words resonate. Specific product or service patois. Words and phrases that move the interviewees Galvanic Skin Response — monitored or simply gleaned. This is what we are listening for.  Blah, blah, blah language is just that. Excitement, passion and emotion are the “tells” we seek.

    Keywords: listen, language, repeat.


    PS. No humans were tested for this blog post. Ever.

    Why Three Proof Planks?


    Yesterday in my post about brand strategy framework (one claim, three proof planks), I said the reason for three proof planks was that was what the mind could process. It’s not like consumers are sitting around parsing advertising and consumer communications all the-live-long-day.  If fact, the opposite is quite true.  With all the pablum being spoon fed to consumers each day on their devices and in the media it’s no wonder people can’t remember any brand values.  Add to that, the need to create so-called creative ads to gather attention — ads that bury product values — and you can see the dilemma.

    If a marketer had a $75 million annual budget, it would be easier to establish three proof planks beneath a brand claim — but most mid- and small business are lucky to have a quarter million in marketing spend. Therefore, 3 proof planks for a brand strategy may seem ambitious. That said, most smaller businesses aren’t national and can make a fine living targeting smaller customer bases, using lesser budgets. 

    Brands are built by owning a space in the mind of the consumer. A brand claim is the fastest way to that space. The proof planks are the way to make that claim believable. To make that claim salient.  To make that claim stand out.

    For more information on claim and proof as a brand strategy framework, please write Steve at WhatsTheIdea.




    Under-complicate Your Brand Strategy.


    I am a simple man.  It’s something I often say at the beginning of introductory meetings with perspective What’s The Idea? clients. What are the negative implications of this lead in? I’m not smart. I don’t think things through all the way. Perhaps my education is lacking? It may not be the best foot forward, yet it works for me. You see, it is an everyman, everywomen, everythey statement that fits nicely into brand strategy.

    The US collective consumer does not have time to overthink every purchase.  In fact that statement has given rise to branding itself: consumers attach value to brands so they don’t have to examine every purchase.  It simplifies their lives.

    My brand strategy framework (one claim, three proof planks) simplifies branding so consumers make quicker assignations of brand values. They don’t have to overthink a purchase. Consumers get what the product is — something particularly important in the digital/technology age. And, they quickly get the product value/advantage.  Moreover, they get that advantage and can articulate it with proof…not advertising superlatives. Proof is the fuel on which What’s The Idea runs.

    If you make your brand simple to understand, then give consumers a clear array of reasons to believe its value, you win.

    Under-complicate. Be clear. Be selective in your key values. See? Simple.




    Everything is a brand.


    …and nothing is a brand. Hanging out in social media as I do and with my business proclivities, I often come across people talking about “people as brands.” I scoff. I’m very protective of my turf.

    As an early user of social media in market research, I made some serious money understanding its power to influence consumers.  That said, I like to think I’m an early adopter of the notion that today’s “influencers” are kind of a sham. Especially those who use influence for influence’s sake.

    I do, however, love the early influencers on social.  Those people with key motivations behind their postings: Emo Girl, Melting Mama, Kandee Johnson, Bob Lefsetz, Robert Scoble and dana boyd. They were/are SMEs. And if not exactly SMEs, they were certainly capturers of attention.

    Faris (Is it too soon to use only his first name?) likes to say we live in the attention economy. And, yes, having curators helps. But influencers? To me the title has a bad reputation. Today’s influencers and their acolytes use the word brand too much. To them everything is a brand. And when everything is a brand, nothing is. I like my social media influencers rare. Not medium or well done.

    Share. Not to make money but to make life better. More entertaining. Interesting. Fulfilling. Don’t share your shit to make yourself more commercial.



    Symbolic Value and Real Value.



    I was listening to the Sweathead podcast interviewing Ana Andjelic, chief branding officer at Esprit, and she mentioned a branding notion of “assigning symbolic value.” It immediately gave me pause.  My brand-o-babble alert went off. Buttttt, the more I thought about it the more I appreciated the idea.

    I am a brand strategist. I make words. And those words are about positioning products and services in the minds of consumers. Symbols, not so much. Symbols I leave to creative parties.  My business has always been anchored by strategies tied to “real” values. Endemic values. Coke is refreshment. Real and endemic. Swallow a big gulp of cold Coca-Cola and you are refreshed.  

    Butttt…Ana isn’t wrong when dabbling in symbolic value. Symbolic value can be part of an organizing principle. But it’s best worked on a mature brand.

    A strategy I wrote for Zude, a drag and drop web authoring tool, positioned it as “the fastest, easiest way to build a web page.”  The creative/tag line was “Feel Free.” Freedom was ancillary yet endemic inside the category. Freedom was symbolic. For those not experiencing the brand within the category or never having heard of Zude, “Feel Free” was meaningless.

    Branding is first about real value, then about symbolic value.  It’s a serial thing. A less expensive thing. A commercial thing. Nobody knew who Zude was, so “Feel Free” was a bridge too far. Had we $20 million in the budget the bridge would have been closer.

    Build a bridge (to consumers) first with materials then with dreams and symbols.




    UBS and Craft.


    I love multi-page print ads. Often, campaign or brand- launch units, they’re a brand planner’s playground.

    (Full disclosure, UBS is my financial firm and they are great.) 

    This past week UBS launched a 4-page ad in The NY Times.  My brand strategy rigor is simple: one claim, three proof planks.  Reverse engineering this effort, I would have to say, the brand claim is “Banking is our Craft” and the three proof planks are: advice, managing wealth, and investment experience. Each topic gets its own page. The operative word in strategy is “craft.” (Don’t get me started on the word “banking.”)  

    Page one ad copy reads:

    Craft matters. In small ways. Like how a coffee is brewed. How a chair is built. In not-so-small ways. Like, how your money is cared for. It’s a conscious choice in in how we perform our work. At UBS, we elevate our banking to a craft blah, blah.

    The planner in me says “craft” is not a terrible word. It can be emotionally and logically brought to life as a metaphor for managing money. But not through empty copy. Only through deeds, tasks, processes and evidence can one begin to believe managing money is a craft. As for the proof planks, the ones selected are departments not values. Or as I like to say “good-ats.”   

    As I read the copy, mining for proof, it is de minimis.

    An example: Always delivered with passion, care, unmatched expertise, and meticulous attention to detail. With our clients at the heart it all.”

    This effort does not pass the sniff test.  It’s copy, not advertising. Persuasion requires proof. Craft may be an idea. May be an idea. But this souffle certainly isn’t cooked.

    Not a good investment in branding. Or marketing.  




    Generational Sales and Brand Strategy.


    Per their own in-house research team, ad agency EP+Co learned that 84% of furniture buyers experience regrets, an interesting and actionable insight.  

    EP+Co client Havertys Furniture, initiated a “Regret-free Guarantee” that fits that insight like a glove. It’s a strong, committed move. And it supports the existing tagline “We Furnish Happiness.” It is however, an example of good insight, poor brand craft.

    Let me explain. The first mistake is trying to own “happiness” as a brand claim. It’s too broad a promise. Also, it’s not endemic to the furniture business. (Coca-Cola spent billions positioning around happiness. Don’t get me started on that mistake.) A creative director might argue “Furnish” in “We Furnish Happiness” is a furniture word. I would not.  While the Regret-free Guarantee, packaged as a brand differentiator, is a smart move, it’s also nonendemic. Anyone can guarantee. So neither happiness or a satisfaction guarantee are tethered directly to furniture.

    It’s easy for me to sit on the sideline and throw darts. Especially after less than an hour of analysis. But science is science. Consumer pre-disposed to purchase, then repurchase, and purchase again is not tactical. It’s a long-term effort. Brand loyalty is the holy grail.  Little mistakes lead to tactics-palooza. Then agency-palooza. Then CMO-palooza. Brand strategy, well-defined and well-executed builds loyalty. And generational sales.



    Chipotle and Proof.


    Steve, the one trick pony here.  The one thing that sets my brand strategy practice apart from others is the foundational concept of “proof.”  I mine proof that drives belief and muscle memory of brand claims. Proof makes the brand go round.  I was watching a commercial on the TV yesterday done by Chipotle and ad agency Venables Bell (Source: Google) and for the first time ever, heard Chipotle reference the proof point: no freezers.  In the past they’ve told consumers their meat is never frozen but that is not the same proof point. 

    It’s not a stretch to say Chipotle’s brand strategy is built around “fresh.” At the very least, fresh is one of the three Chipotle proof planks.  So, let’s look at what No Freezers conveys about Chipotle. One, they are super, super committed to freshness. Two, this may be the first claim and behavior of its type ever in fast food. (I believe Wendy’s claims the meat is never frozen, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have freezers.) Three, it’s unique…I’ve never this proof point before. Four, it’s memorable. Lastly, it’s probably gets them credit for being sustainable.

    I often say advertising is 90% claim and 10% proof. Good brand strategy uses proof to drive the train. 

    Peace. And Happy New Year.



    To Big or Not to Big?


    When naming my company, I debated using What’s The Idea versus What’s The Big Idea. Donnie Deutsch used The Big Idea in his cable TV series many years ago but that didn’t really factor in.  I opted out of the word “big” because it sounded boastful and braggartly. Plus, big is in the eye of the beholder. And frankly.  Most barns don’t even have an idea, let alone a big idea. Plus dropping big made the URL shorter.

    A brand idea doesn’t need to be big to be good.  It just needs to convey the appropriate consumer value and position of the product. If it does, then it’s up to the marketing team and agencies to make the strategy big and ring the cash register.

    Leave the tactics to those paid to create interest and sales. Leave the idea to the brand strategists.

    Is “refreshment” a big idea for Coke or just an idea?

    Is “The world’s information in one click” (Google) a big idea or just an idea?

    How about “safety” for Volvo?

    Or “love” for Subaru.  (Just kidding, that one’s a clunker.)

    There are lots of little brand ideas out there.  Let’s start by crashing through that ceiling.



    Nike’s “Just Do It” Is Not a Brand Strategy.


    A fellow brand strategist recently wrote a LinkedIn post about “motivating” an expected customer behavior.  It made me think.  I get doing a deep dive on what motivates customer behavior — but I’m not sure I want to build motivation in to my brand strategy claim.  This may go against the grain but “Just Do It” is a great advertising line but in my mind it’s not a good brand strategy claim.

    Bear with me here.

    When gathering and developing insights that feed the brand claim, I delve into customer Care-abouts and brand Good-ats. By addressing these values my hope is it results in motivation. By jumping straight to the motivation or promoting the desired behavior I believe we’ve defaulted to advertising. I repeat, by jumping to straight up motivation, we’re advertising.

    “Improve your ass” might be a better brand strategy claim for Nike.  It encourages proper advertising. Is it motivation? I don’t think so. It’s a declarative statement, a scold. It’s a Care-about. “I want to improve my ass.” “If I improve my ass the rest will follow” or whatever. 

    I can build three proof planks around “Improve my ass” where I can’t (not easily) around “Just Do It.”

    Brand planners need not motivate. Their efforts are best spent creating an environment in which motivation results. Let the ad agencies motivate. How do we do that? By immersing oneself in the Careabouts and Good-ats.