Brand Strategy

    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.




    First Get The Brand Right.


    Here’s my pitch to people who manage small and mid-size companies. Also, to large companies in technology, considered purchase and B2B categories – most of whom think marketing is the main tool of growth. Marketing being defined as creating demand, proper pricing and good distribution.  I explain that marketing today is mostly practiced as a downstream pursuit with time spent on buildables. On tactics and execution. “Update the website. Generate more social engagement. Put on a promotional event.”

    I counsel these people, these builders, to first get the brand strategy right. First and foremost.  Because the brand strategy sets the parameters of winning in the marketplace. It establishes a framework for product, experience and messaging. The irony of my job is that I often have to look and product, experience and messaging, after the fact, to help create the framework.  It’s a little bass-ackwards.

    Get the brand right and it’s so much easier to get the marketing right.  “Ready, fire, aim” it’s not.




    Rocketship Brands.


    Beyond Meats is a plant-based meat company (semantics much?) that recently went public. As someone trying to cut way down on animal fats I’ve dabbled in veggie burgers and for a while tried Beyond Burgers while waiting for Impossible Burger general availability. I liked the Beyond Burger okay, so long as I topped it with grilled onions, ketchup, light mayo, whatevs. That is, until that non-hamburger aftertaste started to rear its head.

    With Impossible now available at Burger King (loves me some Cheese Whoppers), I can now get my burger fix there. If only they would serve the burger hot a la “flame broiled.”

    Back to Beyond.  In addition to burgers they make two sausages: an Italian and a brat. I first tried the Italian and it was wonderful. Not “splooge you in the face with fat” wonderful, but a nice mixture of Italian seasonings that would make a Bronx grandma proud. My expectations for a good brat were low. But guess what? It was killer. Maybe even better than the Italian. Stevie has a new friend, Stevie has a new friend.

    The best brands result from the best products. The best brand strategies provide an organizing framework that celebrate the product. A good product with a bad brand strategy can work – brains go only so far where the taste buds, loins and physiological self are concerned. But get the product right (like Beyond Meat) and the brand strategy and you have an impenetrable combination. A rocketship!



    Branding Is Unfair.


    The word unfair is popping up a lot today in business. Gazzillons of dollars, Euros, Yuan, and other currencies are taking hits because of “unfair trade practices.” Markets are moving like the wind.

    In America, Certified B Corporations are banding together to make businesses more fair to employees, the planet and mankind by focusing on long-term “good” rather than short term economic performance. And though not Certified B Corporations, Toyota, Fiat Chrysler and General Motors are adhering to president Obama’s auto emissions standards, rather than move backward under president Trump. All in an attempt to be less unfair.

    Unfair is most always bad. But it’s a word I use often when talking to clients and prospects about branding.  The goal is to create an unfair advantage for brands…through strategy.  What’s The Idea? is not about cheating, dishonesty, price fixing, or unfair wages; those are deplorable practices. The unfair advantage we look to create is in consumers’ minds. By creating an organized narrative filled with proof of value which predispose people toward client products.  To convince people to drive an extra mile. To wait an extra day. To spend 8-10% more.

    Branding is misunderstood. It’s thought of as logos, taglines and marketing buildables. But branding is the result of a well laid brand strategy. An organizing principle for product, experience and messaging.  One catering to what customers care about (care-abouts) and what brands are good at (good-ats).

    Be unfair. Be wildly unfair. But do so through (organized) honest advantage and art.




    One Concern. Or Two. Or Three.


    So there is a really cool company in Menlo Park, CA, called One Concern. They are a bunch of data nerds who’ve raised $22M in funding, already have clients and have received a boat load of press, mostly positive. But here’s why you don’t give marketing and branding to data nerds.  Have a look at their Is-Does from the website.

    We are building planetary-scale economic resilience through AI-enabled technology, policy and finance – allowing companies and communities to identify hidden risks and maintain stability in the face of natural disasters.

    If you knew nothing about the company, what would you think they did?  They’re a resilience builder. In the technology space. And finance space. And policy space. Anyone have an extinguisher?  My hair is on fire.

    A few clicks down there is actually a better Is-Does, this one in English:

    While at Stanford University, Ahmad met AI guru Nicole Hu and earthquake expert Tim Frank, and together they channeled their collective passion into figuring out how to apply data science and machine learning to natural disaster and climate change.

    I’m going to give these people a pass as they are doing some seriously important work.  Not all the press has been good but they’re clearly in the business of saving lives on a large scale. They are likely, in fact, to save more lives than individual drug and healthcare companies over time. Data don’t lie.

    Super nerds need love…and they also need brand strategy with a marketing hand.  




    The Case for Brand Strategy Investment.


    Brand strategy is such a misunderstood science. And undervalued.

    Here’s why: Brand strategy, as I define it, is “An organizing principle for product, experience and messaging.” As such, it guides all tactics — marketing and otherwise.  Because brand strategy, by this definition, impacts the product it can also impact things like operations; typically not thought of as the domain of brand strategy. So, when the brand strategy for a commercial maintenance company has “preemptive” as a brand plank, it requires all employees to looking for problems with a customer building and grounds before they occur. Blind curbs due to poorly trimmed bushes, sweating pipes that lead to burst pipes; things typically outside of the normal contract. Things commercial maintenance companies aren’t paid for. This is an example of an operational component of the brand strategy.

    Preemptive is both a care-about and a good-at at Excel Commercial Maintenance in NY. It’s partly why they landed a huge cornerstone account ten year ago.

    Brand strategy – unless you are hiring a multinational company – can cost less than an ad in a national magazine.  Yet it is rarely funded. It’s just not valued as much as the tactics it should be driving. That’s probably why John Wannamaker coined the phrase “I know half my advertising is working, I just don’t know which half.”

    Measure twice (invest in brand strategy) and cut once.




    A Truth About Small Business Marketing.


    There are mighty few small business owners who acknowledge they’re awash in marketing questions about their business. Especially those in service industries. Small business product marketers know what they know best: the product. The food tastes good. The lawns are properly manicured. The artwork is captivating.  But they may still have questions about pricing, targeting and distribution. On the service side, selling what may seem to be commodities, e.g., insurance, healthcare, financial products, the product is pretty static and it’s the delivery that counts. Those owners have even more questions.  Questions they leave to the marketing Gods…and perhaps Google.

    Marketing is the science of selling. And small business owners are often not scientists. Certainly not in this art. So they turn to so-called marketing/branding/advertising consultants or agents for help.

    Here’s why this often goes off the track: The people small business owners turn to are way more familiar with their own business, i.e., search, art direction, research, than they are with the business they’re supposedly helping.  Brand planners, actually, are paid to know more about their client’s businesses than the client. Hard to believe I know. And while the business owner may, on volume, know more than the brand planner, the planner has done the heavy lifting to remove the ancillary things from the equation.  To boil down the care-abouts and good-ats. To provide the real focus.

    Brand planners are needed more at small businesses than at their larger cousins.  But the owners are so used to doing everything themselves they don’t see strategy as a priority. And those that do ask for help, often ask people who don’t spend the time to really get to know the brand and the business. Often, because they are small businesses too. Hee hee.



    Service Brands. Organized For Success.


    Brands were first used as identifiers of personal property. Then they became marks associated with commercial products. Bass Ale being an early brand. Today they even extend to people, but let’s not go there.

    What I’d like to discuss today is the branding of service companies. IBM has become a service company, but it started out as a hardware company: International Business Machines.  Today service economies are rampant. Software, which used to be shrink-wrapped and therefore a product, is now embedded in the cloud and rented. Or given away. Software as a service (SaaS).

    Most service companies, are not very good at brand building. Why? Because the brand experience is the people. And people are hard to manage.

    Four decades ago, IBMers (mostly male) were easily identified by their white oxford shirts. A friend of mine moved to WABC TV in NYC and was told by a manager he had to wear an undershirt beneath his suit and shirt. Clothing as a business uniform was, in effect, branding for service companies.

    I work with lots of service company brands and it’s not about clothing. It’s about behavior, deeds, actions and evidence. Organized tangibles that support a brand claim.  

    Selling the need for this organizing principle is a hard job. It requires education. But the service companies that choose to listen and organize are those with the greatest returns, the most agile of teams and most powerful brands. Organized for success, might be the branding meme of the day.