Brand Strategy

    Follow Das Money.


    One of my brand planning tricks is to fully understand a business’s financials before I dive into the consumerism of the brand.  Back in the day, when working at McCann -Erikson NY, I was asked to be on a task force pulled together by AT&T and McCann to help write marketing plans for a number of emerging new business services.  Collectively we came up a rigor which I have refined over the years and renamed 24 Questions — all of which are follow-the-money questions to help understand the balance sheet and the opportunity.

    I’ve been using the 24 Questions as part of my brand planning discovery for years. When you understand how money is made, you have credibility with the chiefs of a company. And that is critical when discussing strategy. And justifying strategy choices.

    Don’t ever forget to follow the money when brand planning. Plumbing the depths of brand voice, purpose, personality and narrative are but brand strategy tactics.  Money is the composition.  


    PS. For a copy of the 24 Questions, write


    Persuasion and Benefit Shoveling.


    I, and many other people of the technological age, have a problem with the word “selling.” My belief is marketing is best done, not by selling, but by educating.

    When marketers give consumers the kind of information which predisposes them to purchase from you, you’re doing everyone a service. When you slather them in overused, meaningless sales terms you’re wasting breath, time and money.  It’s like the dog that hears a master say blah, blah, blah, blah, want to go out?, blah, blah. Consumers today have become inured to sales pitches.  Not only do they not hear them, they’re often repelled by them.

    Brand strategy — the “organizing principle for product, experience and messaging” — positions a product for success. The process by which one builds such a strategy is drive by boiling down “customer care-abouts” and “brand good-ats.”  But here’s the catch: those care-abouts and good-ats must be values that persuade.  Values that move a customer closer to a sale.  They can’t be generic values, e.g., best tasting.  And they shouldn’t be non-endemic values, e.g., best customer service.

    I’ve coined the term “benefit-shoveling.”  When marketers shovel benefits at consumers, and they haven’t spent time boiling them down or choosing persuasive benefits, they are not building a brand.  They are tearing it asunder.   




    Tell Me About Your Advertising.


    Where the rubber meets the road in my brand strategy practice is in the questions and answers. I have a battery called 24 Questions that revolve around money.  How do you make it? Where does it come from? When competitors get your money, why? Margins? Low hanging fruit? Recurring? You get the idea? When I have answers to these kinds of questions, it’s easier to build a case for strategy when selling senior executives.

    But I use a whole other battery of questions for brand strategy input. Some are sales focused. Others management focused. And others target focused.  For instance, when I’m interviewing cyber security experts, I’m conversing more as a tyro colleague than, say, Uncle Lou at Thanksgiving. That takes some prep.

    Lately, one question I’ve been thinking about asking is “Tell me about your advertising?”  An open-ended question, this presumes a company actually does advertising. People in the marketing dept may be able to answer this question thoughtfully. As may the CFO, who funds it.

    That said, 85% of advertising today is shit.  Most company employees will agree. I can watch TV ads and more often than not haven’t a clue as to the strategy.  Most of it is “See me, here me, touch me.”  Not “Why Me.”  When interviewing lay people about their company/brand advertising, it’s what’s missing that is most telling. Non-advertising people will tell you what the ads should say. And that is input.



    Clicks Don’t Make the Baby.


    Branding is a long-term pursuit. It’s not testing. It involves a great deal of planning. I presented a brand strategy, in the form of a long brief to an agency and they giggled that the original date was the year before. It embarrassed me a little. Then I waited for the work to get done. The creative work that is.  Hmmm.  I’m not sure the campaign has fully launched and it is one year out at least.  

    Many people in marketing don’t have the stomach for long-term. They want their “tuna fish sandwich in their mouth now,” as my young daughter once indignantly told me while repeatedly being told lunch is coming, lunch is coming. And the web has not made this need for immediate return less important. Clicks and same day results are the marketing measure of the day.

    A Ukrainian solder quoted in the paper today “water cuts through stone, and we’ll do it bit by bit.” That’s branding.  But it only works if you have a tight brand strategy. One comprising key customer care-abouts and vibrant brand good-ats. All wrapped in a brand claim that sings in the ear of customers and prospects.  That take planning. and the execution takes time.

    Clicks don’t make the baby, genetics do.



    Swimming With the Tide.


    When meeting with a new client, one should not jump right into the water and evaluate pricing, distribution and promotion — not without first understanding the product. If you begin with the first three components of marketing without fully understanding he product/service, you’re likely to observe, form insights and think about suggestions based upon “generic” category understandings.

    Generic category information is what consumers default to, it’s what they believe about your product if they don’t know you.  You are simply a product swimming in the tide of public opinion.

    It is imperative, I repeat, it is imperative, to fully understand the product before forming any sort of suggestion about marketing.  It’s a strategy first, tactics last approach.  

    Brand strategy is about differentiation. It’s about positioning around heightened value. It is about proving that value with every breath. With every dollar. Mic drop.

    Swimming with the marketing tide does not make you Tide. It makes you menhaden.  (How’s that for a mixed metaphor?)




    Strategy or Brand Strategy. Hmmm.


    When I’m on a roll – and it’s not often, thanks to PCMS (Post Covid Malaise Syndrome), everything I see and read in the news is viewed through a strategic lens. It’s, as the kids would say, strategy fire. Today, for instance, it started with a glance about  a NYT piece on the speed with which Nokian Tyre’s changed manufacturing strategy.  With climate change, geopolitical results-driven planning and change. And they realize quick change is better than sluggish change. The new environment is the catalyst of this change, but strategy the driver.

    Notice I didn’t use the word brand one time in that paragraph.

    The brandscape was kind enough to teach me my craft yet the word “brand” diminishes what I do for a living. When I position around brand, it sounds cool, trendy and au courant, but it’s not a wining communications value. No one wakes up in the morning thinks brand strategy is the business answer.

    When I think about it I am really a strategist.  I find business-winning values, actions, tasks (read: strategies) that add money to the top line and bottom line. My work doesn’t feed the ad agency. It feeds the business and everyone in it.  Which then feeds the consumer.

    When Nokia Tyre decided to open a manufacturing plant in Hungary because of the war in Ukraine, they weren’t, per se, using a strategic road map or what I like to call “an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging.” They were looking purely at supply chain, cost of business, security, ROI timetable and investment strategy. They were blocking and tackling.  Had they an organizing principle of values to drive all decisions, before they met to solve the many layered challenges, their “time-to-solve” would have been faster and more organized. And, honestly, it was quite fast to begin with.

    Strategy would have sped up the process.

    For examples of how my strategy based upon proof has worked for other companies, write Steve at WhatsTheIdea.



    Benefit Shoveling.


    What do you do?

    It’s a question that bounces back and forth at cocktail parties, breweries and work events.  There are a couple of ways to answer: a short form, couple-of-word answer, or go in-depth. In branding, I always encourage the former. Hit them with the Is-Does. What a brand product Is and what it does.

    Brands communicators don’t always follow this advice.  They think they need to sell and explain by the pound or by the word. It can leave audiences confused and/or fatigued. Good creative directors know this. They tell a simple story with a beginning, middle and end. A so-called narrative. Problem is, that narrative isn’t often based upon brand strategy.  (Post for another time.)

    So back to simple. Was it Benjamin Franklin who said (I paraphrase)  “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter?” 

    Marketing is made simple through brand strategy.  It’s objective driven. It provides proof of value. It’s measurable. And it leaves consumers with a gravity or gravitas constructed on care-abouts and good-ats.  It is the oppo of benefit shoveling, a meme I like to share which is the bane of marketers worldwide.

    Brand strategy, it’s what’s for dinner.




    Nowhere Land.


    My new go-to podcast on branding is Fergus O’Carroll’s On Strategy. (He is my second favorite Fergus. RIP Fergus O’Daly.) One of Mr. O’Carroll’s latest podcasts in on PBR aka Pabst Blue Ribbon. Great brand name. Great brand name acronym.

    It takes millions of mouths to create a market. Mine is only one but personally I’m not a fan of PBR.  Let’s just leave it at that. That said, the beer has ridden a wave of positive sales in “hipster” urban areas over the last 15 years. Good price, good targeting. Stars aligned.  But the craft beer phenomenon has conditioned the market toward more flavorful beers and PBR has suffered. Enter the brand planners.

    Mr. O’Carroll interviewed two planners from DNA, Seattle who shared three key values unearthed during three brand discovery: Value, Classic and Nostalgia. In other words, it’s affordable, it’s a venerable, recognized brand, and it harkens back to the good old days of beer drinking. The only endemic value of the three here is value/cheap — which honestly, is an important value. But we all know as perceptions of inexpensive go up, perceptions of quality go down. So one needs a balance. Especially with endemic values.

    The advertising claim that resulted from the three values is “Pabst is the place.” The problem with this campaign line/claim/strategy is that it lives in nowhere land. “Sitting in his nowhere land. Making all his nowhere plans for nobody.”  “Classic” and “Nostalgia” are inputs for advertising tone, not brand strategy.  Brand strategy incites great advertising. Brand strategy values — or proof planks, as I like to call them — must support the claim.




    Client Direction. No Thanks.


    I’m a fan of Sweathead, the brand-centric consultancy of Mark Pollard.  He does what I do but way more publicly. We’re likeminds I think.  In a missive today about ChatGBT he mentioned brand planners have a problem when clients provide a lack of clear direction.  He wrote:

    “Strategists may struggle when clients or stakeholders provide vague or inconsistent guidance, making it challenging to develop effective strategies.” 

    This seems very sound advice. In fact, I recently read somewhere that this a potential weakness of AI — the AI response is only as good at the question posed. Again, sensible.

    Interestingly though, in my work, I don’t care if a client provides clear direction. When doing master brand strategy, I’m not looking for direction.  First, I follow the money. Then I interview key stakeholders, happy customers, SMEs and maybe the disaffected (if I can find them). We talk. I query, I follow the threads and look for anything resembling “proof of quality.”  The word direction doesn’t come up. 

    What comes out of the sausage maker when all the info is gathered, assembled, boiled down and repatriated? That’s direction. Direction in the form of an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging. The definition of brand strategy.



    Testing and Brand Strategy


    I was reading a little ditty on the web today about effective marketing which at first glance, seemed quite smart.

    Test, then double down or kill.

    • Test everything, your messaging, your creatives, your approach, everything
    • If it works, double down and iterate further to see how far you can go
    • If it doesn’t work and iteration fails, kill it no matter what.

    As I thought it through though, I began to see that while this may be good marketing advice – constant learning and positive movement – it is not at all good brand building advice.

    Brand building begins with strategy. Ask a hundred people, you may get a 1hundred answers what a brand strategy looks like, but most will agree a strategy is accountable for tactics.  As I read the test, test, test advice I began to think about the whiplash it will cause marketers. And my neck hurt. Testing the brand strategy is absolutely called for.  But once in place, let your un-artificial intelligence drive the program. (Media tests are okay.)

    Get your brand strategy right and get your strategy tight to save time downstream. If you test everything, you are testing nothing.