Brand Strategy

    Brand Claim and the Boil Down.


    “How do you know if you have a good brand strategy?  More importantly, how do you know if a brand strategy being presented to you is any good?  

    When I present brand strategy, I’m presenting words on paper. No mood board. No customer journey montage. No recorded customer interviews. Just words. And those words, typically presented in serial, near story form, lead to a benefit claim – a single-minded value proposition capturing the emotional and logical reason to buy. Done right, the claim is pregnant with meaning and brand-positive interpretations.  Hopefully, poetic in its memorability, it will often sound like a tagline – but not a campaign tagline.

    In addition to the claim I present “proof planks.” Proof planks are the organized reasons to believe the claim. Three in total. Proof planks cement the brand claim. Without proof, a claim is just advertising.  

    Back to the “How do you know?” question. Clients know they have a good brand strategy when it captures the essence of the brand’s reason for being. And when the proof supporting that essence (claim) is not only familiar it’s filial. The job of the brand planner is not to rearrange words that make the client nod.  It is to boil down those words into a single, powerful sentence.  Like naming a baby in reverse — after they are grown.

    No easy feat.



    We Are Brand Builders Not Gallerists


    Creative people don’t really like rules or incumbrances. Unless they are creating art for a loved-one. This highlights the traditional tension between creatives (in advertising) and strategists.  I recently wrote a brand strategy with a strongly articulated target. A target offering lots of spark. But in my world the target is only one part of the brand brief – is a serial, logic document that drives to a brand claim. The brand claim is the strategic directive.  Creative people, so long as they are happy with the artistic output, often think they’ve done their job if inspired by any part of the brief.


    We are working on building brands not a series of gallery-hangings. We (strategist, creative team, client) are trying to get consumers to buy, then buy again, and again. To that end, we need to find the most compelling care-abouts and good-ats and codify them into a brand strategy (claim and proof array) that will outlast any campaign. “Coke is refreshment.”   

    Campaigns come and go, a powerful brand idea is indelible. Creatives need to follow the brand claim. That’s brand building.




    I Am the Brand Strategy.


    Since moving to Asheville, NC I’ve had to refocus my business.  There are only a handful of large companies here; mostly mid-size and small.  These latter two classes are not waking up in the morning thinking about brand strategy.

    Most small business owners think they are the brand strategy. That is, as the owner, they believe they know everything there is to know about their business. And those savvy enough to think otherwise believe they need to find out the answers on their own, not outsource it. Understanding what motivates consumers to buy from you is just part of an owner’s day job. First they have pay the refrigerator repair man. But managing a business around consumer care-abouts is mission critical. And that’s what brand planners do. The reality is business hardware, inventory, and tools always come before strategy.

    In brand planning we call this “the problem.”

    So what’s a body to do when a SMB owner incants “I am the brand strategy?”  How do we move strategy up the needs ladder?

    It’s some real chicken and egg shit.  All thoughts welcome.




    Creativity and Brand Strategy


    Creativity is serendipity. At least it is for me.  When cranking out ideas for brand strategies I’m drawing from past experiences, cultural observations, linguistics and even the subconscious.  Nothing happens in a vacuum. And to quote Faris Yakob a wonderfully lyrical brand strategist, ideas are recombinant.  Not sure I’ve had an original idea in my life.  

    Creative people — or should I say those paid to be creative — are forever in search of the new expression of an idea. The fresh. The never done.  But we know that the recombinant notion applies here as well.  Even music is a combination of notes. Banging the music metaphor a bit more, creatives are looking to play more jazz than pop in their ideation. But the finished product, the published product, often ends up being pop. (Insert client here.)

    What differentiates a creative output from that of a brand strategist is one is guided by a sales intention while the other is freeform. Unbridled creativity gathers attention for attention’s sake. When attention and “freshness” are achieved to the satisfaction of the creative mind, then strategy might be backed in. Tagged on. Bolted on.

    In the creativity game, the primary goal is to engage or entertain the brain to fire off a synapse.  Done well, brand strategy does both: fire off the synapse yet with a bias to purchase. It’s not easy. And to straddle both needs, the brand strategist cannot be boring. S/he must inspire. Otherwise, you are making advertising. Hee hee.



    Working With Creatives.


    Creative people are typically problem solvers. We non-creatives tend to think they stare at a blank page as if a Sisyphean obstacle.  But they’re creative. Their brains boil over with ideas.  They love a blank page/screen.

    Strategists think we help creatives by giving them direction. Stimuli. A subjective hand. Well, more often than not they don’t want it.

    I recently sat through a Sweathead preso where Aisha Hakim, a creative director at 72 and Sunny, told hundreds of planners not to write longwinded briefs. In fact, she said don’t write briefs at all. She doesn’t use them. I get her POV. The longer the wind, the more the blank page isn’t blank. Confusion may reign. Her advice, if I got it correctly, identify a problem, explain why you’re the solution, and drop the mic. Let the creatives go.

    Is there a happy medium?  Yes.  It’s called the client. Creatives in advertising or do have a daddy.  The client.  The person who approves the work. Without a client and money to spend a creative is an artist.

    So, sell the brand strategy to the client well before the work begins. Prepare the client for a value proposition that is business-winning and make sure they believe it.  It is about them, after all.  Then let them be the arbiter of the work. Brand planning must take place up stream.

    Don’t tell creatives how to do their jobs. Share the business winning framework with them, give a hint or two, then get out of the way. Let them thrive. And let the client be the client.



    Selling In 30 Seconds or Less.


    I was in a meeting yesterday in which mentors were demonstrating techniques to help early-stage companies build sales and teams. The mentee company founder explained his software company as one that monitored employee workflows with the goal of smoothing them out and making things more efficient and productive. My words not his. His explanation was more cumbersome, acronym filled, and, as is the way with coders, rather technical.

    One of the questions I use in my brand strategy practice came to mind for the three mentors during this exercise. It has really helped me over the years when interviewing technical people.  The question was born of work for Capgemini many moons ago. 

    It was meant to be asked of salespeople but works for founders.  “If you had only 30 seconds with a CFO, what would you tell him/her about your product in order to get a meeting?  Craft the answer as if it were a cold voice mail.”   

    If you have ever spoken with CFOs, you know a couple of things about them.  Numbers are their jam.  They’re revenue and expense driven.  They aren’t big students of the FM (fucking magic) or technology undergirding product management.  They also don’t take kindly to marketing bullshit. So, when crafting your 30 second speech, get the Is-Does right – what the product Is and What the product Does. Explain your key benefit — don’t benefit-shovel. And solve a problem with pent-up demand. You just may get your meeting.




    Brand. Strategy. Framework.


    One of my favorite definitions of “brand” is “an empty vessel into which we pour meaning.”  It’s a statement about the malleability of brands. But under further scrutiny the definition isn’t 100% accurate — most brands aren’t really empty, are they?  Blaze Pizza has a special crust, sauce, cheese.  Fat Tire beer offers a unique malty taste profile. A Ford Mustang Mach-E is a line extension containing lots of built up and carry-over meaning. Nothing empty about that. And, of course, brand have names. Names which when done right, offer up a view into the product and, hopefully, convey a special value.

    It is the job of the brand planner and brand manager to take what exists inside the vessel and enhance it. Refine it. Compliment and strengthen it.  It’s the brand strategy that lets creators and marketers develop and energize the bond between consumers and the brand. It all starts with the brand strategy.

    My definition of brand strategy is “an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging.”  And to organize you need a framework. Mine is built upon claim and proof. My framework simplifies decision-making, adds direction to the creative process and informs all four Ps of marketing.

    Get yourself a vessel. Get yourself a framework. And land on a brand strategy. Chaos be gone.





    I’m not the smartest guy on the planet. Sometimes it takes me a beat to get a joke. I didn’t get As in college until my senior year.  I can’t finish the NY Times Sunday crossword puzzle (but I do help my wife finish it). This somewhat average acumen serves me well in my brand strategy practice.    

    I can tell a story, I have an ear for consumer likes and language, and have good taste in styles – all assets that contribute to my business. So there’s that.

    H.L Mencken once wrote:

    “No one in this world, so far as I know — and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me — has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.”

    You’ve heard the expression “dumb down?” Well, when crafting brand strategy for the masses, you don’t want to be the smartest person in the room. Brand planners who are off-the-charts smart sometimes overthink and overcomplicate brand strategy. Whether challenging themselves or making points with the client or creative team it hurts the work.  Conversely, other planners who get that 330 million Americans come in all shapes, sizes and aptitudes, work to “dumb down” brand strategy to a lowest common denominator.

    I take issue with both these approaches.

    The opposite if dumb down is smarten-up. In my planning rigor, I boil down brand strategy to one claim and three proof planks.  The claim may border on common but the proof planks are certainly the “textures of belief” that appeal to consumer smarts.   

    So brand people, smarten-up your strategies. And H.L. Mencken be darned.



    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.