Brand Strategy

    Your Biggest Business Decision.


    Let’s face it, most business decisions are relatively mundane, shaped by the degree to which they affect making money. Will the pay out pay in?  Other’s are rote supply and demand  choices.  But the big decisions are the ones that keep you up at night.  Personnel. Real estate. Infrastructure investments. Marketing strategy. 

    These big decisions haunt small and mid-size business owners because pass or fail the weight comes down on them.  Sometimes the weight is so heavy it keeps decision from being made. And stasis occurs. Insert shark metaphor here.

    Well I’m here to tell you the biggest business decision you can make – one that will make all other tough decision easier – is to have a brand strategy in place.  With “an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging” in place big go/no-go decisions are easier.

    The organizing principle derives from the most important customer care-abouts and the strongest most compelling brand good-ats.  These agreed upon planks (only 3) are the fuel for brands and the fuel that builds businesses.

    Tired of filling in an a lengthy pros and cons Excel chart before flipping a coin? 



    Together We Well.


    Together We Well is the new tagline for Northwell Health. I get where they’re going but must admit to being underwhelmed. That said, it is way better than the previous ad campaign-derived line “Look North.” Which effectively said “use us.”

    There are two kinds of healthcare: preventative and curative. Hospital systems make their money on the latter. After someone gets sick they are treated. If people stay healthy, they needn’t be treated. Prevention is good for society but not always for the bottom line. That said, Northwell is on board with prevention.

    Giving patients a role in prevention is good – the “together” part. Everyone should be contributing to better health. Practitioners and consumers. And that is what the Affordable Care Act is all about. Under the ACA, doctors are compensated based on the degree to which they keep their patient population healthy. So we are moving in the right direction.

    But population health is a societal issue. It goes beyond Northwell. Don’t get me wrong it is imperative America gets better coverage at better prices. But it’s not a brand position. Strawberry Frog, Northwell’s agency, gets this — and they likes to create movements. Sometimes it works. My bet is not this time.

    I would make the “together we well” idea a brand plank — supporting the claim – not the claim itself.

    Brand claims should add value straight to the bank. In the case of Northwell they need to convince patients the system is better than other systems. When I worked on the Northwell brand (it was called North Shore-LIJ at the time) the tagline was “Setting New Standards in Healthcare,” a line created by Della Femina. It was provable, albeit not easily.  

    “Together We Well” is contemporary. Maybe hip. A big aspiration. And even provable. But what it is not is money in the Northwell brand bank. Not a direct deposit anyway.



    Behavior or Attitudes?


    Maximilian Weigl, a strategist at 72andSunny in Amsterdam recently guest curated the Strands of Genius newsletter created by Faris and Rosie Yakob.  Maximillian identified himself with the following descriptor: “I help build brand behaviours that outlast campaigns.”  I loved it.

    One of my memes is “Campaigns come and go, a powerful brand idea is indelible,” so I felt a kinship with Max. Plus I’m a fan of 72andSunny. But the first part of Maximillian’s statement “building brand behaviors” got me thinking. Are brand planners focused on building/changing behaviors or attitudes? 

    My gut says attitudes but let’s take a little quick look.

    Shop, buy, advocate and recommend are behaviors. Who can argue those aren’t important in brand planning? One of my favorite sayings about advertising is “make someone feel something, then do something.” Do is a behavior. Transact. Mic drop.

    Yet prefer, desire, appreciate, and discern are attitudes. And they precede behavior and drive behavior, no?  Unless the choice is truly price driven.

    I’ve been a Hellmann’s Mayonnaise fan all my life. I like the taste and just buy it without thinking. It’s a behavior.  A repetitive behavior. Hellmann’s loves me, they needn’t spend marketing dollars to get my business.  But a competing mayo after my business can’t just change my behavior, they must change my attitude first.

    Or must they?  Perhaps I try another product at the suggestion of a friend and it tastes as good. Or better. That behavior (trial) can lead to attitude change.

    Is this a chicken and egg debate?  What do you think?




    I’ve got a purpose-driven brand for you.


    And its purpose is to sell more, to more, more times at higher prices. (A phrase borrowed from Sergio Zyman).  Unless you can do that, you might as well be a non-profit. And don’t get me started on the word intentional.  (Wake up on the wrong side of the bed much, Poppe?)

    Here’s the thing. Marketing is hard. It’s time consuming. It requires focus and an engine running on all cylinders. I believe in altruism. In helping people. I believe in the planet. In global warming. And these can all be great byproducts of creating a smart, in-demand product or service.  But I suggest making a great product or service first, make money second, and be intentional and purpose-driven with your after tax earnings. Otherwise it’s likely your road to success with have extra forks in it.

    As a brand planner, I know how hard it is to boil down all the customer care-abouts and brand good-ats so as to organize your values into three planks. Purpose or intention should not be a plank. They can be the result or outcome — but not the plank itself.

    Google’s main mission was to put the world’s information one click away.  Not to make the planet smarter. (That’s IBM’s claim and see where that got them.)





    Meaningful and Fresh.


    When I deliver a brand strategy the key components are a single claim and a three tined proof array. Each tine is what I more commonly call a plank; each plank supports the claim. They have to be in harmony.  If your proof doesn’t support your claim your  brand strategy is out of sync.

    Typically, the proof planks make themselves known to me first.  Mined from brand discovery, these 3 key clusters of customer care-abouts and brand good-ats are the values that determine brand preference and purchase.  The proof planks then spawn the claim. This is the hard part.  The creative part.  The claim must be meaningful and as stated must be aligned with the proofs. But it must also be fresh. And when I say fresh, I mean it mustn’t feel tired or like something you’ve heard a thousand times. Unless it’s a phase that appears totally out of context. A common phrase in an uncommon place can make it fresh.

    In the brand strategy world, the claim is not a tagline.  That’s left up to the creative agency people. The campaign builders. But it is a de facto tagline. A tagline stand-in. (Campaigns come and go…a powerful brand idea is indelible.)

    That said, if you want the creative people to take your strategy seriously, the claim must be meaningful and, by all means, fresh.

    For examples of claims in your category, please write




    Strategy is Your Muse.


    I don’t know about you but I do some of my best work when in a group setting. Riffing and recontextualizing other’s ideas.  Group think can be messy if the group is too big and unstructured, but when the numbers are small enough for conversations to take place, ideation can soar.

    In advertising, known as a creative business, most creative teams have a visual person and word person.  Both understand each other and their respective crafts and a chemistry results. They present ideas to a creative boss, who helps them focus, refocus and finesse. A team.

    Problem is, business people and marketers we aren’t always in a position to work in groups.  Sometimes is just you and your computer. Or you and a research report.  You and the inventory. It’s lonely having to make decisions in a vacuum.  That’s why strategy is so, so important.  Strategy becomes one’s muse. It’s both a starting place and an endpoint.  It gives you a catalyst for what must come in the middle. The thinking.

    Brand strategy is an organizing principle for marketing. It’s delimiting and inspiring.

    If you don’t have a brand strategy, you will waste a lot of time and have a lonely time doing it.



    Branding Is an Act.


    In his farewell Op-Ed piece in The NY Times last week John Lewis said about democracy “It is not a state. It is an act.”  Well, this statement can be co-opted for brand craft as well.

    Branding, the act of making brands, is an active pursuit.  It takes the actions of brand managers and consumers. Consumers build brands by consuming but also by advocating. By sharing their experiences with friends. Or, in the online world, with other consumers. Advocates with no agenda are easy to believe.

    When I refer to brand strategy as an “organizing principle for product, experience and messaging” I am outlining a simplified way of packaging a product or service, highlighting what is most special about it and what customers most desire from it. This organizing principle helps the product people say on track but it also conditions consumer expectations and repsonse.

    When brand managers and cohorts stick to the plan, consumers experience the benefits in expected, replicable and understandable ways. Branding is not a state it’s an act. An ongoing act.

    Too many marketers rely on telling consumer what to feel rather than making them feel. A flaw in the system.




    Vision Quest? Nah.


    I am beginning to think I need to get out of the strategy business and into the vision business.  Everywhere I turn when talking about brands there are people talking about vision. Vision statements. Company vision. Brand vision. Business vision. Professional vision statement.

    It’s tiring. To me it seems like vision is for people who have a hard time identifying a strategy with acuity. Vision seems a little unfocused, a little blurry.  It can be malleable with moving parts.  Vision for me is antithetical to focus. And focus is strategy.

    Our vision is a better life, through banking.

    Our vision is a healthier society, through better eating.

    Our vision is the American dream, through clothing.  

    I guess if you need to convince yourself, your employees and custies that you are a good company, it can’t hurt to go on a vision quest.  But at What’s The Idea? we don’t have time for that. Plus, most brand planning customers don’t really want to pay for that. What my customers care about is building brands. Brands that have bank. Brands that earn.

    So we are in the focus business. Not the gauzy vision business.

    Try getting bank loan, from one of those people who want you to have a better life, using your vision statement.




    Roots Rock.


    I’ve got it — another brand strategy metaphor. Hee hee. You can finally get some sleep tonight.

    Late last year I was speaking with an agritech business.  If we are to ever truly sustain and be a resilient planetary organism, we are going to need agritech businesses.  Agritech, cleantech and sustain-tech are the planet’s future.  As is brand strategy.  JKJK.

    So here’s the metaphor borrowed from agritech.  Roots. Not Americana music with a little mandolin — plant roots. Roots are fundamental to plant life.  They are adaptable. They are life giving. They are the root of all flora.  When I hike I sometimes see trees growing out of, and over, massive granite rocks. The roots sometime envelope rocks.  Roots give stability to a plant or tree. And nourishment. Well that’s what band strategy does for products and services.  It creates roots. And strength. And nourishment.

    The biggest problem with brands today is that the roots are shallow. To much change. Brand strategies often changes when the ad campaigns changes. And then one has to start all over again.

    Campaigns come and go. Directors of marketing come and go. CEOs come and go. Ad agencies come and go.  A powerful brand strategy is indelible. Roots!




    Retrofitting Strategy.


    For new business and startup owners there is nothing more exciting than jumping into marketing. Naming, logo development, your first retail or business sign. Don’t forget leasing space and buying furniture and equipment. Picking carpet maybe. It’s a flood of exciting choices. 

    The excitement is not unlike buying a new car. All you want to do is drive. No time for the owner’s manual. That is often reserved for a rainy day.

    Well when it comes to start-up and new businesses owners, the single most common error is putting off strategy development. Brand strategy development. Because brand strategy undergirds all marketing efforts. And everything is marketing. From the product or service name, to the logo, retail experience and everything all the way to your first announcement ad. 

    But few new owners start with a paper strategy; something that acts as an organizing principle for all decisions. Brand strategy first should be in every business book.

    Many of my customer engagements begin after a company has been around for a while. And that’s okay. Everyone needs to get organized. Everyone needs marketing obs and strats. Better to get organized later rather than never.  So, in the brand building business there is a lot of retrofitting going on.  But it’s always best to plan up front.