Brand Strategy

    Symbolic Value and Real Value.



    I was listening to the Sweathead podcast interviewing Ana Andjelic, chief branding officer at Esprit, and she mentioned a branding notion of “assigning symbolic value.” It immediately gave me pause.  My brand-o-babble alert went off. Buttttt, the more I thought about it the more I appreciated the idea.

    I am a brand strategist. I make words. And those words are about positioning products and services in the minds of consumers. Symbols, not so much. Symbols I leave to creative parties.  My business has always been anchored by strategies tied to “real” values. Endemic values. Coke is refreshment. Real and endemic. Swallow a big gulp of cold Coca-Cola and you are refreshed.  

    Butttt…Ana isn’t wrong when dabbling in symbolic value. Symbolic value can be part of an organizing principle. But it’s best worked on a mature brand.

    A strategy I wrote for Zude, a drag and drop web authoring tool, positioned it as “the fastest, easiest way to build a web page.”  The creative/tag line was “Feel Free.” Freedom was ancillary yet endemic inside the category. Freedom was symbolic. For those not experiencing the brand within the category or never having heard of Zude, “Feel Free” was meaningless.

    Branding is first about real value, then about symbolic value.  It’s a serial thing. A less expensive thing. A commercial thing. Nobody knew who Zude was, so “Feel Free” was a bridge too far. Had we $20 million in the budget the bridge would have been closer.

    Build a bridge (to consumers) first with materials then with dreams and symbols.




    UBS and Craft.


    I love multi-page print ads. Often, campaign or brand- launch units, they’re a brand planner’s playground.

    (Full disclosure, UBS is my financial firm and they are great.) 

    This past week UBS launched a 4-page ad in The NY Times.  My brand strategy rigor is simple: one claim, three proof planks.  Reverse engineering this effort, I would have to say, the brand claim is “Banking is our Craft” and the three proof planks are: advice, managing wealth, and investment experience. Each topic gets its own page. The operative word in strategy is “craft.” (Don’t get me started on the word “banking.”)  

    Page one ad copy reads:

    Craft matters. In small ways. Like how a coffee is brewed. How a chair is built. In not-so-small ways. Like, how your money is cared for. It’s a conscious choice in in how we perform our work. At UBS, we elevate our banking to a craft blah, blah.

    The planner in me says “craft” is not a terrible word. It can be emotionally and logically brought to life as a metaphor for managing money. But not through empty copy. Only through deeds, tasks, processes and evidence can one begin to believe managing money is a craft. As for the proof planks, the ones selected are departments not values. Or as I like to say “good-ats.”   

    As I read the copy, mining for proof, it is de minimis.

    An example: Always delivered with passion, care, unmatched expertise, and meticulous attention to detail. With our clients at the heart it all.”

    This effort does not pass the sniff test.  It’s copy, not advertising. Persuasion requires proof. Craft may be an idea. May be an idea. But this souffle certainly isn’t cooked.

    Not a good investment in branding. Or marketing.  




    Generational Sales and Brand Strategy.


    Per their own in-house research team, ad agency EP+Co learned that 84% of furniture buyers experience regrets, an interesting and actionable insight.  

    EP+Co client Havertys Furniture, initiated a “Regret-free Guarantee” that fits that insight like a glove. It’s a strong, committed move. And it supports the existing tagline “We Furnish Happiness.” It is however, an example of good insight, poor brand craft.

    Let me explain. The first mistake is trying to own “happiness” as a brand claim. It’s too broad a promise. Also, it’s not endemic to the furniture business. (Coca-Cola spent billions positioning around happiness. Don’t get me started on that mistake.) A creative director might argue “Furnish” in “We Furnish Happiness” is a furniture word. I would not.  While the Regret-free Guarantee, packaged as a brand differentiator, is a smart move, it’s also nonendemic. Anyone can guarantee. So neither happiness or a satisfaction guarantee are tethered directly to furniture.

    It’s easy for me to sit on the sideline and throw darts. Especially after less than an hour of analysis. But science is science. Consumer pre-disposed to purchase, then repurchase, and purchase again is not tactical. It’s a long-term effort. Brand loyalty is the holy grail.  Little mistakes lead to tactics-palooza. Then agency-palooza. Then CMO-palooza. Brand strategy, well-defined and well-executed builds loyalty. And generational sales.



    Chipotle and Proof.


    Steve, the one trick pony here.  The one thing that sets my brand strategy practice apart from others is the foundational concept of “proof.”  I mine proof that drives belief and muscle memory of brand claims. Proof makes the brand go round.  I was watching a commercial on the TV yesterday done by Chipotle and ad agency Venables Bell (Source: Google) and for the first time ever, heard Chipotle reference the proof point: no freezers.  In the past they’ve told consumers their meat is never frozen but that is not the same proof point. 

    It’s not a stretch to say Chipotle’s brand strategy is built around “fresh.” At the very least, fresh is one of the three Chipotle proof planks.  So, let’s look at what No Freezers conveys about Chipotle. One, they are super, super committed to freshness. Two, this may be the first claim and behavior of its type ever in fast food. (I believe Wendy’s claims the meat is never frozen, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have freezers.) Three, it’s unique…I’ve never this proof point before. Four, it’s memorable. Lastly, it’s probably gets them credit for being sustainable.

    I often say advertising is 90% claim and 10% proof. Good brand strategy uses proof to drive the train. 

    Peace. And Happy New Year.



    To Big or Not to Big?


    When naming my company, I debated using What’s The Idea versus What’s The Big Idea. Donnie Deutsch used The Big Idea in his cable TV series many years ago but that didn’t really factor in.  I opted out of the word “big” because it sounded boastful and braggartly. Plus, big is in the eye of the beholder. And frankly.  Most barns don’t even have an idea, let alone a big idea. Plus dropping big made the URL shorter.

    A brand idea doesn’t need to be big to be good.  It just needs to convey the appropriate consumer value and position of the product. If it does, then it’s up to the marketing team and agencies to make the strategy big and ring the cash register.

    Leave the tactics to those paid to create interest and sales. Leave the idea to the brand strategists.

    Is “refreshment” a big idea for Coke or just an idea?

    Is “The world’s information in one click” (Google) a big idea or just an idea?

    How about “safety” for Volvo?

    Or “love” for Subaru.  (Just kidding, that one’s a clunker.)

    There are lots of little brand ideas out there.  Let’s start by crashing through that ceiling.



    Nike’s “Just Do It” Is Not a Brand Strategy.


    A fellow brand strategist recently wrote a LinkedIn post about “motivating” an expected customer behavior.  It made me think.  I get doing a deep dive on what motivates customer behavior — but I’m not sure I want to build motivation in to my brand strategy claim.  This may go against the grain but “Just Do It” is a great advertising line but in my mind it’s not a good brand strategy claim.

    Bear with me here.

    When gathering and developing insights that feed the brand claim, I delve into customer Care-abouts and brand Good-ats. By addressing these values my hope is it results in motivation. By jumping straight to the motivation or promoting the desired behavior I believe we’ve defaulted to advertising. I repeat, by jumping to straight up motivation, we’re advertising.

    “Improve your ass” might be a better brand strategy claim for Nike.  It encourages proper advertising. Is it motivation? I don’t think so. It’s a declarative statement, a scold. It’s a Care-about. “I want to improve my ass.” “If I improve my ass the rest will follow” or whatever. 

    I can build three proof planks around “Improve my ass” where I can’t (not easily) around “Just Do It.”

    Brand planners need not motivate. Their efforts are best spent creating an environment in which motivation results. Let the ad agencies motivate. How do we do that? By immersing oneself in the Careabouts and Good-ats.




    We’re Here!


    Lots has been written “attention” in advertising. Recently, I read a neat piece by Catherine Campbell of East Fork Pottery on LinkedIn where she suggests attention as too ephemeral — a social media phenomenon. She advances the idea that “consumer trust” is much more worthy as a goal than attention. Smart women. You can’t argue with her logic.  But two things at the same time can be true.

    For instance, take out-of-home billboard advertising, where you have about 5 words to make an impression. Back in the 90s when ads shrunk from pages to pixels, the units were more akin to billboards than traditional print ads — a tough time to be a creative person.

    One way to get attention is to tell a consumer something they didn’t know. Or show them something they’ve haven’t seen. It sparks attention.  If you pair that with a sales message you accomplish something. So, let’s not pooh-pooh attention.

    I write a good deal about “We’re Here Advertising” which is little more than an announcement of what one sells and where to buy. This morning I listened to a local allergy doctor radio spot on the way to get coffee. You know what I learned?  They treat allergies. All kinds: pet, plant, food, pollen, bad advertising…

    When spending money advertising “tell me something I don’t know.”  Work a little harder to prove why you’re worthy of a sale.

    One of my favorite brand strategy claims, developed for an assisted living company in Westchester, NY, was “Average is the Enemy.”  When I left the premises everyone on the marketing team had their assignment.

    Pair attention with trustworthy and you can build a brand.



    The First Step of Branding.


    Naming is one of the most important functions of branding.

    For a tech startup I worked at, the CTO liked the name Zude. It rhymed with dude.  I liked the name Mashpan.  It sounded like a home brew device, was a cousin of Mashup and the word Pan stood for “all, complete, total.” (Our product was a web authoring tool used to build websites without code. It was a drag and drop play.) My point? A name should that convey information.  

    This week I attended a meeting of startups working on their financial pitches as part of Elevate, a Venture Asheville program. Two of the very cool startups have names that make my point.  One company is named East Perry, the other Larry.  The former sells ethically sourced sheep-skinned home décor while the latter sells a refrigeration device. I can’t go into too much detail on the latter (and changed its masculine name) as the product is proprietary but suffice it to say, Larry doesn’t convey dittly. And though East Perry sounds like a nice street name or address, it too, is not particularly pregnant with meaning.

    Naming takes time, energy and forethought. Words are important. In the way they sound.  Their harmony. Their poetry (East Perry ticks that box.) But most importantly, what a brand name conveys informationally is mission one.

    Get your name right and the first step of branding is complete.




    Follow Das Money.


    One of my brand planning tricks is to fully understand a business’s financials before I dive into the consumerism of the brand.  Back in the day, when working at McCann -Erikson NY, I was asked to be on a task force pulled together by AT&T and McCann to help write marketing plans for a number of emerging new business services.  Collectively we came up a rigor which I have refined over the years and renamed 24 Questions — all of which are follow-the-money questions to help understand the balance sheet and the opportunity.

    I’ve been using the 24 Questions as part of my brand planning discovery for years. When you understand how money is made, you have credibility with the chiefs of a company. And that is critical when discussing strategy. And justifying strategy choices.

    Don’t ever forget to follow the money when brand planning. Plumbing the depths of brand voice, purpose, personality and narrative are but brand strategy tactics.  Money is the composition.  


    PS. For a copy of the 24 Questions, write


    Persuasion and Benefit Shoveling.


    I, and many other people of the technological age, have a problem with the word “selling.” My belief is marketing is best done, not by selling, but by educating.

    When marketers give consumers the kind of information which predisposes them to purchase from you, you’re doing everyone a service. When you slather them in overused, meaningless sales terms you’re wasting breath, time and money.  It’s like the dog that hears a master say blah, blah, blah, blah, want to go out?, blah, blah. Consumers today have become inured to sales pitches.  Not only do they not hear them, they’re often repelled by them.

    Brand strategy — the “organizing principle for product, experience and messaging” — positions a product for success. The process by which one builds such a strategy is drive by boiling down “customer care-abouts” and “brand good-ats.”  But here’s the catch: those care-abouts and good-ats must be values that persuade.  Values that move a customer closer to a sale.  They can’t be generic values, e.g., best tasting.  And they shouldn’t be non-endemic values, e.g., best customer service.

    I’ve coined the term “benefit-shoveling.”  When marketers shovel benefits at consumers, and they haven’t spent time boiling them down or choosing persuasive benefits, they are not building a brand.  They are tearing it asunder.