Brand Strategy

    An Example of Marko-babble.


    I often use the term marko-babble to describe some of the effluvia being shared on the web about brand craft. Or marketing craft. It’s my mission to get rid of mark-babble. 

    At a panel discussion the other day, I was close to nauseous by the constant use of the word “authentic.” Rather than babble about marko-babble I wanted to cite some content that actually fits the bill.  The brand services company that posted these words will remain nameless.  And I’ve Googled the entire sentences and the posting company name did not come up, so I’m in the clear.     

    Let it rain:

    We build modern, digital-first brands designed to lead through market change and create long-term value for shareholders, customers, employees, and wider society.

    We build purpose-driven cultures that drive employee behaviour and accelerate business growth.

    We develop powerful, multi-channel creative communications, and intelligent, user-centric digital solutions designed to create lasting impact.

    So, do you have a good idea now of what these girls and boys do? Specifically? Uh…they build, build and develop.

    As famous Broadway producer David Belasco once said “If you can’t write your idea on the back of my calling card, you don’t have a clear idea.”




    Digital First Brands.


    In my travels through the ether I’ve read more than once the proclamation such-and-such is “a digital-first brand.” I have to admit, I’m not quite sure what that means.  If digital is first, what is it second? A brick and mortar business? A print business? I know AI is a growing these days — is that what a digital first brand is?

    If this was 1999, I could see calling yourself a digital first brand. That might be clearer. But today, everything is digitized and online.

    Being digital today is the price of doing business. If usability is poor, you fail. If online visibility is poor, you fail. If findability is poor, you fail.

    It’s simple really. Brands need to be something and mean something. Those spending time attempting to be trendy or common are lost.






    Noah Brier wrote in the WITI newsletter today:

    Loyalty is about nurturing behavior that defaults in a business’s direction.

    Noah knows marketing. (Noah knows.) “Default” and “in a business’s direction” are spot on.  In a presentation on a digital comms planning tool “Twitch Point Planning,” I suggest “moving customers closer to a sale.”  Noah and I are intentional in being noncommittal. Non-absolutist.

    Digital generation marketers think nirvana is going from an unknown brand to click-to-buy in a matter of keystrokes. That would be cool. (And it can be done. See a picture of a pair of unknown sunglasses on Kim Kardashian and BAM! Click to buy.) The belief that that steps-to-a-sale (Awareness-Interest-Desire-Action) can be collapsed into a click or two is a digital marketers’ dream. And fantasy. Frankly, it’s a cancer that metastasizes daily.  

    A very famous McGraw-Hill ad states: 

    “I don’t know who you are.
    I don’t know your company.
    I don’t know your company’s product.
    I don’t know what your company stands for.
    I don’t know your company’s customers.
    I don’t know your company’s record.
    I don’t know your company’s reputation.
    Now – what was it you wanted to sell me?

    Selling takes work. Building brand affinity and loyalty takes work. And it’s fragile. Back to Noah. If we don’t take a long-term approach to nurturing, if we don’t understand that loyalty is simply a default until something shinier comes along, we’re kidding ourselves.

    One click sales is not branding. No foreplay. No demonstration of caring or consumer love. Just a click. A sale. Too many digital entrepreneurs are click-aholics. Clicks are not strategy.

    Play the long game. The humble game. You have time.






    Victoria’s Secret Needs To De-Brand Before It Rebrands.


    Here’s a question for my branding friends. Before you can rebrand, must you de-brand? I say that because I’ve been reading today in The NY Times business section about Victoria Secret’s efforts to redefine what the brand is — so as to make it more inclusive and more women-centric. Or maybe even more “we” centric, using the more nonbinary term.

    Sexy, according to the article, has long been tailored to the male point of view.  The retail experience, the marketing experience has been using a dated prototype of the so-called perfect body. Well, Victoria Secret’s market share (in women’s underwear) has dropped 11 points since 2015 and that’s more than a clue. Broadening their market is the future. Redefining sexy to be more functional and stylish is the goal.

    (When women in the 80s started shaving their heads during the punk rock era on the lower east side of Manhattan, it was a functional decision. It also became stylish.)

    So, must Victoria Secret rebrand or de-brand? In this case, I’d go with de-brand.  Provide a mea culpa and an explanation. Do it once. Do it big. Then move on. With a new mission. A new creative approach. And a new motivation. The market will follow.

    Not all brands need an interim step before rebrand. Many do.  In today’s world, it’s a thing.






    Is there democracy in brand strategy?


    When comparing the new (multiparty) Israeli Parliament with that of the (2 party) United States congress one can see how democracy must use compromise in order to work. If you think it’s hard to make decisions with two parties, imagine ten. When nobody really gets what they want, people are more apt to think harder. And be creative.  

    Speaking of democracy, is there room for it in brand strategy? My gut and sharings over the years lean toward “no.” You are either on idea or you are not. And as Marilyn Laurie of AT&T lore has said “You are either making deposits in the brand bank or withdrawals.”

    But, if using the What’s The Idea? framework for brand strategy (one claim three proof planks), you really do have room to compromise. Granted, the claim is the claim and that’s pretty binary. However, the proof planks are real brand building blocks and they do provide a level of democracy.

    Back in the day, working on AT&T’s business services, the plank for innovation worked against that of competitive price. That is, as attitudes increased that AT&T was an innovator, the competitive prices attitudes sunk. Hence, these different “parties” has to be monitored, metered and planned to maximum effect.

    Attitudes beget behavior. Attitudes built through Democracy build brands. Attitudes built through despotism build decay.




    Smiles and Purpose.


    I just read a couple of PepsiCo’s strategy statements.  PepsiCo is the $70B master brand for a broad assortment of sugary carbonated drinks and salty snacks, along with some other portfolio products in water, juice, tea and Quaker breakfast foods and snacks.

    It’s hard to do strategy for a massive conglomerate of brands. It’s especially hard when most of those brands are convenience store foods and rather unhealthy. But this is America and where there is demand there’s will be supply.

    Here is PepsiCo’s stated corporate mission: To create more smile with every sip and bite.

    And here is their vision statement: Be the global leader in convenience food and beverage with purpose.

    So to sum up the mega billion portfolio, it’s all about smiles and purpose.  Hmm. Where do I start? Try giving that brief to a creative team at BBDO.

    As I said, conglomerate company strategy is hard. General Motors has tried to do it using advertising and it never worked. Advertising agency holding companies know better. IPG, WPP, Omnicom never try to explain their value. It’s like herding cats.

    Back to Smiles and Purpose. Purpose is something you communicate if you are not known for having purpose…other than, perhaps making money. And Smiles? Well, they are not wrong.  But it’s just hard to own. Smiles are the universal language of enjoyment and as such not very differentiated.

    If PepsiCo really wanted to promote purpose, they would pick one. And only one. Planet. Diversity. Equality. But not all. PepsiCo’s mission and vision deserve better. What’s that story about the cobblers children?




    The Fine Lines of Brand Strategy Consulting.


    When you are a consultant, you walk a fine line between telling customers and prospects what they are doing wrong while complimenting them on what they’re doing right.  You wouldn’t have a foot in the door were they doing everything right, yes?  But that’s no reason to tell them their baby is ugly.

    When a brand consultant, you walk an even finer line when interacting with prospects because you don’t really know the brand. You haven’t done discovery. You haven’t articulated the addressable business problems. You haven’t dug into the customer care-abouts or brand good-ats. Without those lines of reasoning anything you say can and will be shallow. So, you do the shallow spade work. Which often ends with discussions about process, procedures and practices. Not sexy.

    People like to talk about themselves and their frames of reference. Brands do too. Trust me, when I do brand discovery it’s fire hose time. But to get to discovery you have to a client to sign on. And even if they open up on a call or two, you can’t make any real judgements until the cake it out of the oven (Alex Bogusky).

    This is a conundrum I have yet to crack adequately. So I listen. I overlay some thoughts. I qualify my answers with a plea of brand ignorance. And I hope to build trust.

    As I said, a fine line.



    Proof Clusters.


    You are never too old to learn new tricks.  Coming out of the advertising business as someone who wrote a lot of advertising creative briefs (strategy instructions for art directors/copywriters), I began my brand strategy business by writing brand briefs. The brief I used, and still use, answers a serial set of questions (a template, if you will) designed to uncover brand strengths, deficiencies, target care-abouts, market observations, etc.; all of which pointed toward a brand claim or promise. (“Coke is refreshment,” for instance.) The more discovery I did on the brand (interviews and research), the easier it was to fill in the template.

    But the serial questions had to tell a story. One with a beginning, middle and end. And if the pieces or segues didn’t fit perfectly it was problematic. Clunky.

    Well, the new trick has to do a new brand strategy framework I call Claim and Proof. After discovery, with all information and data gathered, I now search for what I call proofs.  Evidence of value or superiority. Not marketing words like quality or service, but real acts, deeds, procedures or product spec.

    Under closer inspection, some of these proofs are likely to cluster. When key clusters of like-values emerge, they begin to tell a story. And from the proof clusters and my notes I can then walk back a brand claim. My brand strategy framework is constructed with one claim and three proof planks.

    I still write brand briefs for clients who want the full-monty, but they are easier to write when the framework is complete.




    One Story.


    Brand planning is like painting. In fine arts painting there are lots of strokes, lots of paints, colors, brush techniques, time and effort. Repeat. When the canvas is filled (or not) the painting is done.  Granted with painting, art is in the eye of the beholder and in brand planning strategy art is in the eye of the strategist — but the layers and layers of effort are not dissimilar.

    In brand planning there are interviews, research (primary and secondary), field work and consumer observations. Also lots of stakeholder interviews, so as to get the motivations of the brand people right.  All inputs are considered for development of the brand strategy. A lot of strokes. But I’ve found more often than not, that one particular story from all the interviews sticks out. The touchstone story. It’s one example that speaks most loudly about the product or experience and drowns out all the others. For me, this one story is the fulcrum of brand strategy development. The most valuable vein of ore. Metaphorically, it’s when the finished painting comes into focus.

    As you are doing brand discovery, seek out that one story. Keep hunting until you find it. It will feed the fine art that is brand planning.




    Celebrate By Doing.


    This is Pride Month.  My bestie is gay and when people and businesses encourage me to celebrate Gay Pride Month, I do so eagerly. Just not always sure how. I don’t own a flag. I have a bracelet, somewhere.

    One of my new mentees with Asheville Elevate (a program for startups) is in the business of “Diversity, Equity, Inclusion.”  She is educating people out of systemic racism by attempting to change policies, procedures and practices.  I want to celebrate her efforts. I want to advocate. I’m just not sure how. 

    I use the word celebrate in my brand strategy practice quite a bit. It’s a lovely word. A wholesome and humane word. While I fear it is much overused in advocacy, it’s a good action verb in brand strategy. It’s a do word. Just as branding is about (organized) doing, celebrating is also about doing. Happy, healthy, communal doing.

     A good brand strategy makes it easy for employees and consumers to act on behalf of a brand. It gives them a roadmap. That’s what advocacy must do. Provide a roadmap.  Roadmap is an apt descriptor because much of advocacy today takes place at parades and outdoor demonstrations. Secondarily, with the dreaded letter-to-one’s-congressman.

    All advocates want celebrants – but they need to prime the pump with “doing” tactics. Strategy sans tactics is an impoverished business. Celebrate by doing.