Brand Strategy

    Boiler Plate.


    The older I get the more I post about pet peeves.  Hope I’m not getting cranky. Saw this piece of boiler plate used by a company that shall remain nameless. It’s a great example of burying the lead and lack of focus.  If you are Coca-Cola or Google you needn’t remind people of your Is-Does — what a brand Is and what a brand Does. But if you’re new or newish it’s pretty important.

    Here’s the boiler plate:

    Founded in 1998, So and So Company is a purpose-driven company that strives to empower the whole family, including pets, to live happier, healthier lives.

    They believe that the products you put in your body, on your body and use in your home matter.  Popular product lines include premium pet food and supplements as well as clean health and beauty products for the consumer.

    Okay, okay…if you get past the copy about being purpose-drive, you do get what they sell. Albeit, it’s a bit of an all-over-the-place portfolio.  Pet and people?  Products for in your body, on your body and in your home?  That covers some consumer ground. What tethers the products together is the all-natural claim, I guess. It doesn’t even say all-natural, I’m just assuming.

    This company may be successful. In fact, they are growing.  But positioning, as Al Ries and Jack Trout proudly proclaimed, is everything. 

    This boiler plate makes me cringe. In my brand evaluation tool “Brand Strategy Tarot Cards,” boiler plate is one of the first cards turned over.

    Get it right so your consumers don’t have to work too hard.



    The Biggest Pity.


    Nothing pisses off a creative person more than being told a client doesn’t “like their work.”  Nina DiSesa a big-time creative director or yore explained it to me this way “Ads are like our babies.” They are nurtured and coddled over time and can’t just be easily dismissed.

    I’ve often spoken of the “like-ometer”, a fictional device clients use in approving ads. The notion of subjectivity in advertising or any creative pursuit, is real. And in the advertising business it’s super real.

    That’s why top creatives like a good brand strategy. They are devising with a purpose in mind. They have a tight objective.  This helps them in development but also in getting approvals. There’s a basis for arguing for their work. It’s called a brand strategy.

    When a person judging an ad doesn’t like a “color” or “negativity” or “the great outdoors,” the brand strategy can be employed. And the like-ometer shut down. 

    We can’t get to better work without a strategy — the launch pad for all marketing and communications. Most professional ads are developed using a brief.  Few are developed using a brand brief.

    That is the biggest pity of the craft.





    I must admit to being a cheerlead for my brands. That’s not to say all brands are worthy, some will actually be clunkers. When that’s the case all you can do as a cheerleader is convey to management the changes that need to be made in order to make them good brands.  Those changes can be in the form of product or product experience. If the brand is underdelivering what consumers “care-about” or what it’s “good-at,” then you can always share with management benchmarks of better competitive products. Cheerleading for quality.  Hopefully management will see your category interest and positiveness not as a slight but as caring and industry insight.

    But let’s assume your product is good. Being a cheerleader and living in the land of milk and honey is a good thing when establishing positioning and brand strategy. Positives beget positives. They give people enjoyment. When you are a cheerleader and constantly praise and mine brand values, if something negative does come about management is more apt to seek out your perspective.

    Brand planning is a positive pursuit. High school cheerleaders are taught to smile. Even when the score is lopsided. Look for the good in your brand and celebrate it.

    It makes everyone’s job easier.




    Oatly. In a Fallow Field?


    I’ve been following Oatly for a while.  Not long ago it was a hot, topical oat milk company.  Based in Malmo Sweden, it has great distribution in the states. In fact, Oatly cartons are all over my High Five coffee shop here in Asheville.

    Oatly IPOed, hired a smart chief creative officer and ran what was arguably one of the better TV commercial on the 20121 Super Bowl — at least in terms of watchability. Sadly, Oatly stock has languished around $4 for the better part of this year, far from its high $28 in the early days.

    So what’s wrong?  Smart people at Oatly are asking that same question, yet nothing seems to be happening. Certainly not on the stock front. Or brand front.

    Oatly once couldn’t keep up with demand. Now, it says it has fallen prey to a poor economy.  Oatly had a brand that captivated.  That is no longer the case. It became a commodity according to some pundits.  I don’t believe that. Strong brands cannot be commoditized. They have valued meaning. Just because the company is on its heels does not mean it cannot capture the world’s attention again.

    I cannot figure out the company brand strategy and I study these things.  So, if I don’t know what it is, consumers certainly won’t.  Oatly will make a comeback. Or they won’t. But if the former they need a brand strategy to wrap around their products. And they had better start quickly. The world’s turning…




    All the Work… in Just a Few Words.

    BOSTON – MAY 19: Author David McCullough received an honorary degree during the Suffolk University commencement ceremony at the Bank of America Pavilion on Sunday, May 19, 2013. (Photo by Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

    I wrote a draft of a novel in my 20s.  It was called Mo Pix about a graffiti artist in NYC.  I started writing and didn’t stop until it was done. No editing. Took months, maybe years. It was a stream-of-consciousness story.  The recent passing of David McCullough got me thinking about how one writes a tome as he did so well. And as I mulled it over, I realized a lot of discovery goes into writing such a book. Not a winger of words, he.

    And guess what?  These thought about McCullough reminded me of my craft today and the discovery process for crafting a brand strategy. Lots of time, research, thinking and effort goes into writing a brand strategy. Lots of discovery. When is the discovery stage complete? Is it when the budget starts to run out? Is it when an indelible and fitting idea surfaces? Or, is it when (in my framework) three support planks emerge? I guess it’s a little bit of each. Sometimes, when I really don’t have a clear picture, I just start writing the brand brief — forcing me into a corner. The brief being a serial story tying brand position to brand objective and built upon a good deal of consumer care-abouts and brand good-ats.

    The huuuge difference between a book and brand strategy in terms of the finished product is the former is a long, long form piece of work and the latter a single-minded sentence. All the work in just a few words.

    Imagine asking David McCullough to capture one of his stories in a sentence. Maybe he’d just give you the book title and subtitle. Hee hee.




    Ballast and Rudder.


    There are two nautical terms I use in my branding practice: rudder and ballast.  Rudder, of course, is the steering mechanism housed under the boat that turns the boat left (port) or right (starboard).  Ballast is the weight in the bottom of the boat that keeps it from bouncing around too much. The proper amount of ballast makes it easier to use the rudder.

    At What’s The Idea? we are all about the ballast.  Putting weight into brands so they stay on course, so they are not subject to being pitched about, so they are easier to control. Ballast in brands makes them powerful.

    Too many brand managers are all about the rudder. Constantly piloting. Lots of tactics aimed at increasing success. Tactics that often move in different strategic directions. Brands, of course, need direction. And they must be allowed to turn. But too much rudder and not enough ballast reduce one’s ability to navigate a successful heading. 

    Get your brand strategy right at the beginning. Build the weight of your brand up front. Take the time to develop it. Invest in it. And your brand will almost navigate itself.




    Loyalty and Feelings.


    Kevin Perlmutter, a fellow alum of McCann-Erickson NY and now owner the brand consultancy Limbic recently posted about a piece of research suggesting “How your brand makes people feel has the highest correlation to brand loyalty.”  The observation is powerful and quite true, albeit a bit passive. 

    Let’s look at two operative ideas here: feeling and loyalty.

    Feeling about a brand is the result of the product itself and the positioning of that product by brand management. When Coca-Cola moved away from “refreshment” with its advertising and toward “happiness” they were looking a tangential or resulting feelings rather than an endemic feelings. The problem there was that lots of things can cause happiness. And so can lots of products. It’s ownable but only with a billion dollars. It’s a generic value. This was a campaign idea not a brand idea. Refreshment, on the other hand, can cause happiness. Happiness being a by-product of refreshment. One can earn happiness rather than position around it.

    As for loyalty, nobody doesn’t want product loyalty. But one can be loyal by degree and still not have purchase intent. I like to create bias toward product purchase.  Loyalty is a marketing concept that’s been around for decades. But it’s a passive measure. Segmentation studies turn up flavors of loyalty all the time. When a consumer has a bias toward a product or service, they will go out of their way to purchase.

    As much as this research is on track, in today’s analytics world where purchase is the primary measure of marketing success, I’m all for positioning around endemic product feelings/attitudes and creating bias toward purchase. “We’re Here” advertising and branding is no longer viable. Hear that Geico?

    For examples of this type of work in your category please write Steve at WhatsTheIdea dot com.



    Brand Strategy With A Limited Menu.


    There is a West coast brand consultant I came across yesterday who does much the same things as I. From the screen grab below you will see the offerings are quite varied. There are 20 bullets. Very comprehensive. VEry impressive.


    What’s The Idea? has 2 bullets. Only two offerings.  A brand brief and a one-page brand strategy. Those are my wares.

    The brand brief is the tool I used to create the one-page brand strategy. The strategy contains a “Claim” and three “Proof Planks.”  Proof planks are discrete value headings, inherently tied to brand success. All interlock with the Claim. For a client in the commercial maintenance business we used the Claim the “Navy Seals of Commercial Maintenance.” The proof planks are “fast,” “fastidious” and “preemptive.”  Under each plank resides a list of individual proof points. An actual example or demonstration of value.  Not a platitude or generic, baseless claim, but a scientific, existential act, deed or accomplishment. People remember proof, they do not remember marketing fluff.

    In brand strategy, proofs often become the subjects of ads, events or other content.

    With all deference to other brand strategy consultants with menus, I give you a simple offering: an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging. I give you a brand brief and a brand strategy – the foundation for all things marketing. The strategy drives campaigns and voice and personality but does not dictate them.  That’s the job of the agency.

    Simple is complex sometimes.



    Brand Roots.


    A brand strategy is only as strong as its roots.  I’m in the roots business. With roots in place, it is then up to the CEO, CMO, director of marketing and brand managers to do the cultivation work.  Otherwise, a brand strategy is a piece of paper and a bunch of words contribution to the pantheon of marko-babble — no more important than a shareholder letter, an about section on the web, or ad in a charity program.

    Roots are where growth comes from.  And I’m not talking about sales growth, I’m talking about strategy and tactical growth. You see, tactics today comprise 85% of marketing budgets. Check your marketing budget. And tactics are what we measure for sales effectiveness. But tactics sans brand strategy (the organizing principle for product, experience and messaging) do not grow into healthy trees.  When a brand strategy is managed well, everyone at a company is looking for ways to prove the strategy.

    When working at McCann-Erickson NY on AT&T, I sent a brand idea to our CEO John Dooner. It was an idea for a demonstration of “refreshment,” the Coke brand idea. It may have been one of the most brazen things I had ever done. I didn’t send an idea to do more advertising, I sent an idea to support the brand claim.

    Coke had great roots. People knew how to feed them.



    The Science of Brand Purchase.


    Asking people if they will buy a product is a form of quantitative marketing research. It’s directional but flawed.

    We launched a web page development product in 2007 that quantitative research told us was something people would use like crazy. The functionality of the tool: uploading pictures, video, audio, original text and other digital objects, like Facebook and MySpace yet without the restrictions of a design template, was universally desired. Projections were for 60% adoption of adult targets. On paper.

    When the product launched, usability was poor. Not intuitive to the non-techie prospect. The startup failed — even though the research suggested otherwise.

    Asking people why they bought a product after purchase is a more accurate form of market research. And a better predictor of future results. But for startups it becomes a chicken and egg thing.

    When a brand strategy client is having a poor sales swing, it’s my job to understand why. It’s my job to get inside consumer heads and reason out the buy/no buy behaviors. In my world – the brand strategy world – I look for the three most important reasons a person prefers a product, typically found among customer care-abouts and brand good-ats.  Then I package those three things under brand claim closely tethered to the three benefits. This becomes the organizing principle for product, experience and messaging aka the brand strategy.

    This organizing principle becomes the science of purchase upon which to build quantitative research. That’s the chicken. Quantitative research sans strategy is science without a hypothesis.