Brand Strategy

    Net Positive Brand Strategy.


    Peter Thiel, he of the PayPal mafia, has been quoted as saying “Competition is for losers.” Billionaires can afford to say that kind of thing, especially start-up fund billionaires, but the rest of the world is not so inclined.

    Strategists, especially those in brand development, must be aware of competition. Someone at McCann NY once counselled me to be mindful of “Who is going to lose the sale you’re making?” A brand “claim and proof array” must be based upon market conditions…and market conditions include the competitive landscape.

    But I have to say I like Mr. Thiel’s meddle on this one. I favor playing offense when it comes to brand strategy. Playing defense is akin to positioning around competitors.  Brand discovery, and you can peal the onion many ways, really comes down to customer care-abouts and brand good-ats. These translate to brand positives. If they happen to highlight a competitive shortcoming that’s fine. But just as Mr. Thiel wants to invest in companies for which there is pent-up demand and no competition, brand strategy is best done when net positive.

    With a net positive brand strategy in place, the tacticians can go to war and sully reputations if need be. But remember “Tastes great, less filling” didn’t say “competitive beers taste like ass and make you fat.”



    Brands and Identity.


    I was watching the lowly New York Knicks last night and the TNT halftime show announcers were trying to explain why the Knicks were bad. Kenny Anderson and Charley Barkley were riffing on the team’s identity. They had none. Were they a defensive minded team? A half court team? Fast break team?

    The fact is, as currently constructed, the NY Knicks are still in gestation. All the new players they brought in are okay, but none stars. So what’s the identity? Is it a player? When Carmelo Anthony was on the team, was he their identity? Can a team’s identity even be determined by one player? If you have LeBron, it can.

    I think team identity is more like brand strategy. And that starts with the coach.

    Teams like products are existential. They are what they are. Sure you can change the formula, but good coaches and brand managers, first have a plan, second they use what they’ve got. Coach K was the same coach with Zion Williamson, but he also adapted to the player. Brand managers can sweeten the soda a lil’ bit, but shouldn’t be changing the formulary upon a whim. They start with a plan.

    Kenny Anderson and Charles Barkley like Knicks coach David Fizdale but without saying it, they implied the lack of identity starts with him.

    This stuff isn’t random. Not in basketball, not in branding. A talented, informed and prepared coach, with a plan, is needed in both cases.




    Marmot’s super bowl spot.


    (This post originaly appeared February 10, 2016, then was taken down die to a hack.)

    I love the Marmot brand. I ski in Marmot, I sleep in Marmot, I do outdoors stuff in Marmot. I want to own more of it.  The gear is well-designed, engineered-to-the-max and good looking.  They’ve done a wonderful job with branding and marketing. (I have tend pole that bent, and it doesn’t even bother me. Why? Because Marmot is like family.)

    Then, before the Super Bowl, I saw a Marmot teaser ad campaign and knew I wasn’t going to like. Super Sunday I saw the real thing.  It’s a Goodby, Silverstein and Partners spot, focusing around, you guessed it, a marmot. Were this toilet tissue or insurance, maybe. But cuddly talking Marmot? Oy. I can only imagine the 2 other campaigns the agency pitched to beat this one. It should never have been presented. Lazy ass trade craft. It is so unfitting of the brand.

    I can just imagine the engineers in the goose down research center, breathing feathers all day, watching the game on TV with their friends. “A talking marmot, really?” No wonder advertising and marketing people have a bad name in engineering focused companies.

    As a brand strategy guy and Marmot fan it was a sad day. Even if the spot tested off the charts with the teens and tweens – the next generation of buyers – it was a brand mistake. A 5 million dollar mistake. And that’s a lot of feathers.





    Entenmann’s and Bimbo.


    There is a wonderful cake and confections brand in the U.S. called Entenmann’s. It began in Brooklyn, NY in 1898 and has festooned breakfast tables across America ever since. The logo, the white box and blue script lettering are known near and far. Entenmann’s introduced the clear, see-through box cover to let the product do the talking. The product is great, the packaging wonderful and the name fun to say.

    After a couple of other owners, Entenmann’s was purchased by Mexican conglomerate Grupo Bimbo (pronounced beem-bo). Bimbo Bakeries USA’s holdings now also include Thomas’, Boboli, Arnold, Freihofer’s, and Stroehmann. Bimbo is the real deal.

    It may seem ethnocentric but I’m betting Bimbo Bakeries USA would immediately increase its value by changing its name to Entenmann’s. I wouldn’t lose the Thomas’, Arnold and Boboli names, but I would master brand them under Entenmann’s.

    Bimbo has cred among the growing U.S. population of consumers with South and Central American heritage but can’t begin to compete with this American heritage brand that makes the mouth water. A brand that causes people to get in their cars and drive to the store. 

    Hey Bimbo USA, take this prized asset and ride. Hard. Blow it up and all your other brands will follow.



    Thought vs. Conveyance.


    Faris (he’s like Cher) is an itinerant brand planner who has a nice relationship with WARC, a brand and marketing research org in Washington DC.  Yesterday Faris and Rosie, his partner, held a rather nice webinar on the broadening of media channels and what to do about it. His food pyramid metaphor was quite intriguing and worthy of study.

    Towards the end of the preso Faris stated “Consistency of thought is more important than consistency of look and feel.” This, in the context of the integration of marketing work. As a kid growing up in the ad business I was a big fan of campaigns. They were an organizing principle.  But look and feel and even the much-touted “voice” are not thought. They’re dressing. They are envelopes.  If implemented in a way that conveys a consistent thought, they can work. But if they overwhelm the thought, they get in the way.

    No one ever said “I love the taste of a red, white and blue beer can.”  

    Another brand planner of note, Marc Pollard (pronounced Poh-lard), is on the verge of publishing a book called Strategy is Your Words. Mr. Pollard is all about the thought, the idea. First. Conveyance second.

    Building brands based on thought and strategy rather than conveyance is the correct order of brand planning and, therefore, marketing.  The problem with 90% of marketing is that it is backwards. Conveyance is more important than thought. Show me the shiny. It’s silly.



    Build a Brand or Buy A Brand.


    (photo by NY Times)

    There is a story in The New York Times today about the accelerating pace of change in plant-based burgers, sausages and chicken. It’s not just about Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods any more, it’s about Hormel, Tyson, Smithfield, Perdue and Nestle among others.  The battleships are a-coming.  Lucky for Impossible and Beyond, the big boys and girls were slow to react allowing for a big head start and funding from VCs, angels and now the public as Impossible has a stock offering. (Tyson invested early in Beyond.) This head start and money have helped Beyond and Impossible create powerful, well-known brands. The brand managers have done their jobs well.

    Let’s not lose sight of the little guys in the business, though. No Evil Foods, in Asheville, comes to mind. They were an early entrant into the plant-based meat category. In fact, as savvy branders they were among the first to use the language “plant-based meat” in their marketing. Even the NYT story is afraid to call these products meat. Someone can smell a law-suit.

    But No Evil is not afraid, they are small and on a mission. A mum and pup company run by crunchy millennials, they’re elbow deep in sausage casings, construction build-outs and child-rearing – all things that prepare them to build a brand from the ground up. And as such, even though they don’t have the investors or the insulation of the huge conglomerates, they are creating a brand to go with their products. They are building their brand by doing.

    It will be fun to watch how this category evolves. I’m betting on the builders (Beyond, Impossible, No Evil), not the buyers.



    Is Charles Schwab Making A Brand Withdrawal?


    Charles Schwab has always been known in the investment and trading world as a low-cost provider. Yesterday they announced they are waving fees for stock and ETF trades. A bold move.  Now I don’t know what Schwab’s brand strategy is but “A more modern way to invest” from the homepage might be the claim. I haven’t studied the brand so take this with a grain of salt, but I am comfortable saying free is not something they are going to want to position around. (And this is from a no-load mutual find guy of 25 years.)  

    Modern is not a bad claim for Schwab, and free trading may be modern – certainly it’s a tech-centric position – but there’s a much bigger story here I suspect. And I smell a big spend ad campaign, supported by an agency foaming at the mouth, in the wings. What this brand planner might do is dig deep to find the underpinnings of what enables Schwab to stay in business with this new model. Investors are not stupid. They know a wo/man needs to make a living. Tell consumers you are going to make less money and they are curious. And skeptical.

    I wouldn’t lead with the no fee story (sorry ad peeps). I’d lead with foundational, modern story that resets the table of investing. Make deposits, not withdrawals in the brand bank.




    The Service Company Conundrum.


    Service companies, commercial organizations that do not sell CPG retail products, are the least likely to have a brand strategy, yet are the most likely to need one.  I worked at ad agencies for many years and as my dad used to say about the business “the overhead went up and down in the elevator every day,” meaning it’s a people business.  When you’re selling people and their output, it’s hard to differentiate one company from another.

    A brand strategy (an organizing framework for product, experience and messaging) helps service company owners and chiefs put into place a codified service delivery that elevates customer experience. One that is replicable.  

    The conundrum occurs when the brand planner discovers that the customer care-abouts don’t align with the brand good-ats. If the brand is really good at say “expensive food” and the local customers want “inexpensive food,” something has to give. Either with the targeting or the cost of goods.

    Problem is, most service economy brands just focus on with good-ats, not particularly caring about the care-abouts. And service companies can’t easily reformulate, not the way a packaged goods company might.

    Understanding good-ats and care-abouts in the service industry is sometimes more akin to anthropological field work than business planning.  Certainly pairing the findings down to brand strategy size (one claim, three proof planks) is.

    Service company brand strategy is the future of brand planning and the field is wide open.




    There’s Proof and Compelling Proof.


    Followers of What’s The Idea? know that proof of claim builds brands. Existential evidence beats out ponderous, repetitious boasts every day of the week.  The brain processes and indexes proof, it doesn’t process hollow promises. Sermon over.

    So if we want to brand builds faster than the competition, we need to evaluate our proofs. I posit that the proofs shared between consumers are the most compelling.  (The Superglue image of the man whose hardhat is attached to an I-beam and lifts him off the ground always comes to mind – it’s a classic example of proof.)

    Brand planners and ad agents are big on storytelling and storifying. As am I. But not for the sake of storytelling. When a story contains proof, that’s when it becomes compelling brand craft.

    So a story:

    I was working with a huge healthcare brand many years ago and interviewing a top orthopedic surgeon who explained how they were building knee cartilage. “First we take some soft tissue from the palate of the mouth. Then we add human growth hormone and let it multiply. Then we build a miniature, dissolvable scaffold out of an organic material and place it arthroscopically in the knee and inject it with the lab tissue. After the scaffold dissolves it leaves cartilage. It’s also the same way we rebuild bone.”  Leading edge treatments and technology was a brand plank.  You can see why.

    Find your claim and prove it every day. The more compelling the proof, the better the outcome.




    Packaged Goods and Experience.


    I define brand strategy as a framework for product, experience and messaging.  The experience component is often a bit of an outlier but good branding companies take it seriously. Experience as a brand component is particularly important in retail and business to business but how does one deal with experience in packaged goods?  A bottle of salad dressing is a bottle of salad dressing. You can say “packaging” is experiential. Perhaps “labeling.” But opening a bottle of Samuel Adams is the same as opening a bottle of Bud. It’s tough.

    Along comes the internet and now we have a little something more to play with. Web experience can be built so as to adhere to brand strategy. Not via messaging, i.e., pictures, copy and sound but through the actual user experience. The brand strategy claim and proof array should be delivered in actions, navigation and visitor behavior.

    As an example, let’s look at Highland Brewing whose claim is “Pioneers in craft.”  The website experience should deliver on the claim. Perhaps some tips on how to make beer. Or a demonstration of what makes a craft beer different from a mass-produced pasteurized beer. Someone around the campfire this weekend said done poorly a website can be an “electronic brochure placed in the ether that gathers dust.” Well let’s make websites package learning, create new behaviors and reward deeds – that’s how you can upgrade your packaged good experience.