Brand Strategy

    The Inside Out of Brand Consulting.


    Independent marketing and/or sales consultants dot the business landscape, providing small and mid-size companies with advice to improve business processes, effectiveness and earnings.  In my special class of business consulting, brand strategy, the goals are similar but the deliverables different.  We tend toward communications (and experience) while marketing consultants delve more into business fundies and delivery.

    I can’t speak for all brand strategists but I like to work from the inside out. That is, I like to understand the foundational drivers of the company/brand. What the brand is good at? Where is the love of the founders and leaders?  Who’s the best employee and why? What’s the special sauce?  Only when the real business motivations are understood do I look outside…at the consumer.  Mostly marketing and sales consultants start outside, then look in. Where is the demand?  And how will we optimize and improve the approach to meet that demand?

    In my parlance, study the brand good-ats before the customers care-abouts. Like a scientist, I study the DNA before the population at large.

    It’s a different mindset. A different emphasis. It helps me sell and it helps clients buy.



    John Hegarty and the Levi Strauss Brand.


    While watching a video yesterday on Sir John Hegarty, one of the guiding lights of advertising over the last 50 years, I was made to realize how BBH (Bartle, Bogle, Hegarty) was fundamental to the brand building of Levi Strauss & Co.  As a huge fan and consumer of Levi’s jeans and also of their advertising, oddly, I have never studied the brand strategy up close. Yesterday in the movie, John offered up the brand idea: Toughness. And he’s so right. Even as I sit in a pair now with a hole in the nether area, I completely understand this position. Toughness.

    Admittedly, a good deal of advertising has hit the market, especially in the U.S. that has been off-idea. In fact, when stone washed jeans and tight-fitting jeans came to market, to expand the market, it become harder to support toughness. Stone washing made jeans less tough. Form-fitting jeans for women, reduced the toughness needed in the jeans and its appeal to younger women.

    The rivets that made Levy’s tough, the mega-durable stitching, and the hearty denim fabric, all contributed to the main claim. But cowboys in stretchy jeans don’t really fit the brand. Or do they? Toughness is expected of Levi’s.  Even when the models are dancing in the club. Toughness is as toughness does. We evolve, brands evolve,

    Starts with a good product. Build it with a good brand strategy. Then, as Hegarty might say, it’s time for the magic.



    Electioneering Labels


    Words and labels used in politics can have a huge effect on voters.  Let’s look at a couple of polling words first.  Demographic pollsters are still using “suburban housewives” as a tag for some non-urban women. My daughter is having a baby in March and she has spent the last couple of months nervously looking into child care, well in advance.  She’s an earner and would probably be insulted by the label.  And then there’s ever-present polling reference to Donald Trump’s base called, “white non-college educated voters.”  Back in the day they were called blue-collar voters but that wasn’t specific enough. Some pollster had to tighten it down by declaring them sans college education. Blue collars built America. I’m not a fan of labels.

    And there were other words used as weapons to garner votes. “Socialist” was worth millions of republican voters. Certainly, by the greatest generation and Cubanos.  “Socialized medicine” became a rallying cry. As did the word “Choice” in healthcare. You will lose you choice of doctors. Democrats countered socialized medicine with the “Medicare for All.” A term offering very a favorable contextual construct. Who can argue with Medicare?

    There will always will be lots of marketing going on in electioneering. Some good, some bad, some just mean. The media needs to be careful with all of these labels.




    Take the Black Challenge.



    I recently opened a piece of email from Marmot, an outdoor outfitter and clothing retailer, and found a picture of a black man and woman wearing Marmot parkas in a winter mountainscape. It surprised me. I can’t remember ever seeing a single black person in a hero shot in a Marmot promotion before. It’s 2020 people. We can do better.

    Here’s the Black Challenge.  I am asking advertisers to commit today to using only black people as models in their promotional work for one year. 365 days. Think of it as a reparations appeal to marketers who have been casting white people in ads for as long as anyone can remember.  If casting directors think this will affect sales, they may be right but they’re also not giving U.S. consumers enough credit.

    Perhaps it’s a goofy story but I used to play basketball at the East 54th street recreation center in NY and was the only white guy.  After a while I didn’t notice a skin color difference until I put my hands up in front of my face for a pass. 

    This is how you make change.  You don’t talk about it, or blog about it, you just change. Come on advertisers, take the challenge. If you do, I smell a Wall Street Journal cover story!






    Defense of a Brand Name.


    My business is called What’s The Idea? I rather like it. Following my own advice to have a brand name with a strong Is-Does, What’s Thea Idea? puts me in the idea business. The logo lock-up uses the descriptor “A Brand Consultancy” adding further context. (Perhaps I should have said brand strategy consultancy since I’m a words person not a graphic designer, but that’s a discussion for another time.) 

    Now the idea business could pigeon-hole me into an innovation bucket or a creative bucket. Don’t mind being there. Though, another way to parse the name is that I’m in the indignance business. “Hey, what the hell are you doing? What’s the idea?” Another bullseye. Another call for focus.

    At its simplest, the name asks businesses what is their single idea. Their single brand position the minds of consumers.  Their single consumer magnet.  The company is not called “Whats Are The Ideas?”, a common branding problem for many brands/companies that want to be many things to many people. AKA the “fruit cocktail effect.”

    One of my favorite quotes is from David Belasco a renowned Broadway producer. He said “If you can’t put your idea on the back of my card, you don’t have a clear idea.” Bravo!

    Find your brand idea and you’ve reached the first step in brand strategy.




    The Purpose Of Branding Is Not Purpose. 


    Purpose is a word brands and marketers are using to cudgel positive brand values. It has been co-opted by many companies to convey ideals like sustainability, education, anti-poverty, LGBTQ and an assortment of other worthwhile causes.

    Purpose-driven initiatives are brilliant. IRL (in real life). I’m wary, however, of making them part of your brand strategy. Unless there is an endemic product feature or value that accrue, stay away.  

    Brand strategy, in the What’s The Idea? framework, forges three product values under a single brand claim. Those values are culled from the most powerful customer care-abouts and brand good-ats.  These three values are the ones most likely to impact a sale. They must not be borrowed-interest values, which is often what “purpose” driven values are.

    Say you are a kayak maker in the mountains of Colorado and you donate 1% of your profits to water conservation. Excellent.  But that doesn’t make you a conservation company. You are a kayak company.

    Branding is your purpose. Your only purpose.  It’s what will allow you the largesse to donate.

    PSFK a smart brand and marketing consultancy has an upcoming event called Retailing with Purpose. The event description says “Where we investigate ways to respond to the needs of the community – from sustainability to inclusion.” Off-piste my friends. Topical yes, but a side trail. Worthy of attention but tactical…not a branding play.

    I have a presentation on social media with a slide “Care about what your customers care about.” I live by it.  But tie that care-about to something deeply embedded in your product features, functions and experience. Don’t piggy back. Not in branding.






    Turning Data Into Insights.


    I’m a big data guy.  Especially today when so many are treating data and science like the plaque. “My data trumps your data.  My statistics are better than yours.” But data feeds objectives. And though objectives are the metrics by which we measure success in business, they are really paint by numbers sans strategy. And a chaotic paint by numbers at that. 

    It’s okay to judge marketing activity using data reports. Drink cases sold. Percentage of beds filled at the hotel. Readmissions to the hospital for the same diagnosis. But without written, codified and adhered to strategies, what are you really measuring? And how can you monitor and affect change.

    What’s The Idea? is in the strategy business. Make no mistake.  This branding practice is not in the tactics business. Not until the master brand strategy is developed and approved. I will not create a marketing plan without a brand strategy to drive it. Brand strategy is the driver of marketing.  Without a driver, a car is on autopilot. Without a driver a car is a machine. Without a driver a brand is a random tactics generator.

    Insights are the fulcrum of data. Properly packaged and culled, insights are the fastest way to successful data.



    Amazon Brand Strategy Eval.


    I was doing some reading on the Amazon brand strategy and came across a nice piece by Shah Mohammed. Using Shah’s piece, here’s what I’ve come up with related to the Amazon value proposition.  I have organized things into my own framework.

    Amazon’s claim is the “Everything Store.” And the three proof planks are: extraordinary convenience, comprehensive selections, and low prices.

    Reverse engineering in brand strategy is not a fool’s errand but it isn’t really fair; especially since brand strategy is best designed for nascent brands. That said, let’s look at how the proof planks support the Everything Store. Certainly comprehensive selections is perfectly linked.  Extraordinary convenience can be assumed since it’s the only store you will have to visit for all your shopping. Mental imagery might suggest there will be a lot of hunting around for things, but since part of the Amazon’s Is-Does is that it’s an online store, we assume convenience so long as usability is good. (Remember, we are looking at this from Amazon’s beginnings as a brand. The last proof plank is low price. One might infer low price because of the store’s scale. One might also infer low price because the only physical footprint is warehousing and shipping. But assumption and inference are not a brand strategy’s best friend so they may have left some brand bank on the table

    Looking at the brand strategy construct I would have to say Everything Store, though apt and simple, underdelivers as a brand claim. Tune in tomorrow and we’ll see if we can find one a little richer and more exciting.






    Politics, Bias and Branding.


    Has “political” become a bad word? If you follow the press these days it has. When something has become politicized it takes on the aura of an agenda. And today a political agenda is either left leaning or right leaning. Moe Davis, running in NC’s 11th district to replace Mark Meadows pointed out recently that the armed services isn’t republican or democrat. Not everything has to be political.

    In branding, the word “strategy” (nice segue, huh?) is not a bad word. Yet brand strategy is all about creating bias. Bias toward your product. The best brand strategies, however, are built upon strengths. Positives. If a positive implies another brand negative that’s fine, but brand building is not brand tearing down of a competitor.

    Brand strategy, unlike politics, is a build-up business. It’s why I love it. We delve into customer care-abouts and brand good-ats and stay away from the blood lust that has become politics. I’ve cherry picked things from the political game to use in my branding practice. There are a lot of similarities. One thing I have not borrowed though is negativism. For me “bias” is a positive. Creating bias toward.




    Brand Strategy Is Business Strategy


    I spend most of my waking business hours talking about brand strategy. A topic so obfuscated and buried in marko-babble no one really understands it. It’s tough going. 

    The fact is, brand strategy is business strategy. Simplified. And packaged to be easily undertstood.  It’s business strategy boiled down, memorable and shareable.  One of the drivers of a good brand strategy is that is can be activated by everyone in the company. A good brand strategy in the hands of the receptionist or delivery driver or CEO is one that empowers business-building decisions.   

    If you work at a company where you don’t want anyone else to know how to make business advancing decisions, because you are fearful they’ll make mistakes, you don’t need a brand strategy. You need Xanax and blood pressure meds. But of you want your employees and as a result, customers and influencers, to understand why you are a better company than the competition, thanks to meaningful product and operating values, then you do want a brand strategy. Because it’s good for business.

    Imagine a retail package goods brand that changes its packaging every day. That’s kind of what happens to companies that operate sans brand strategy – AKA “an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging.”