The saying “What’s the worst that could happen?” is often said by people up against modest problems. You never hear families dealing with cancer say this. You never hear the question posed to someone on the brink of financial ruin. Or generals on the battlefield. It’s said by everyday people with first world problems.

    Well, welcome to the coronavirus world. This once-in-a-hundred-year pandemic has eviscerated daily life and commerce in ways rational people never expected. It has created heroes out of ne’er-do wells. It has exposed leaders as pleaders. It has turned preening entrepreneurs to sand.

    We are so much more than money. We are Americans. Born of grit. And comity. Our heritage is as pioneers, not bougie idlers and finger pointers. We are scientists and helpers. At our best we are selfless and empathetic.

    In the business world and in life, those who come out of this crisis alive, or in many cases dead, as “givers” rather than “takers,” will set the table for the future. Money is not the litmus of success, humanity is. And sometimes humanity means making difficult decisions. But for the good of the tribe.

    As one of my heroes Eddie Vedder likes to say “I am a patriot.” Patriots will win out when this is over. Not those political nabobs or sign swinging, USA chanting folks. I’m talking about Americans who actually helped their way out of a crisis. With no agenda other than lifting up a brother and a sister.

    That’s patriotism.




    Design. Brand Strategy. And Metrics.


    I guess you can call a brand strategist a designer. Albeit one whose job does not include art outputs. Say the word designer and art director comes to mind. Logo creators. Environment designers. Certainly not someone who writes briefs, turned into documents, intended to drive marketing strategy. But give a designer an assignment without a brief and they’re left to their own devices as to what to create. Staring at a white piece of paper or screen doesn’t scare a designer. It’s freeing. But without a strategic goal, who decides if the work is good? Who decides if the work if business-building. The most common metric for design success is “likeability.” A distance second might be “communication value.” The holy grail, on the other hand, is brand claim and proof planks – the result of brand strategy.

    Brand strategy in more cases than not offers marketers a qualitative metric; the client approves the logic, understands how it will help build business, but then gets lost in the weeds of approving deliverables/contents. Done right brand strategy should have quantitative metrics. It’s rare. And it’s a shame.

    Return On Brand Strategy, as illusive a concept as it is, drives business at What’s The Idea? For a chat about brand strategy metrics, hit me at Steve@WhatsTheIdea. And be prepared to put on your seatbelt.



    Brand Architecture Is For Babies.


    The other day I wrote about marko-babble, the effluvial language in branding and marketing that makes our craft less finite and more interpretive. Head on, I’m going to share a few marko-babble terms you won’t hear from an engagement with What’s The Idea?

    You will not hear about brand hierarchy. If it’s critical to brand success or customer success, it’s included in the framework (one claim, three proof planks.)

    You will not hear about brand architecture. At What’s The Idea? there is only an organizing principle. One that allow for consumer and market change. Architecture suggests structure whereas an organizing principle allows for fluidity of components. Don’t get me wrong, the organizing principle is binary (you are either off or on strategy) but it’s not immovably static.

    You will not hear about brand voice. We are a polyglot world with polyglot consumers.

    We will not talk of brand platform. See organizing principle.

    And there will be no talk of brand narratives. Or brand story. Stories get old. Jokes get old. Yes, some stories have morals and been shared over the generations. What sticks is up to the buyer, not the seller.

    There will be no discussion of brand passion, only dispassionate product and consumer insights. Passion is in the eye of the beholder.

    What you will hear.

    You will be encouraged to do research, both qual and quant. There will be constant and unbridled learning. It will become a virus — waking you up at night. You will always be on in search of new demonstrations of the brand claim, fitted to the proof planks.

    Also, you will be asked to think with an interdisciplinary worldview. Where all parts work within the organizing principle. (In the ad business, I recall sometimes how hard it was to develop a radio spot to work seamlessly with a TV spot.) Campaigns rarely translate. An organizing principle translates.

    Some guidelines for brand success, brought to you sans marko-babble.





    Marko-babble from Sterling Brands.


    Over the weekend I was cruising the web and came across a company I used to drive past daily in Garden City, NY. The building was a dirty tan and was probably nicely designed in the 70s or 80s – spherical corners and angles as I recall. The sign read Sterling Brands. The latter word caught my attention being a brand guy. But for the live of me I couldn’t tell what the brands were. Not from the sign on the outside of the building. CIA?

    When I came across the brand on the web, I looked them up on my phone. For some reason, my Pixel 3 showed a bunch of flash-like type animations and no pictures of the brands. Today I checked again and this time the pictures resolved. Sterling owns Stoli and Krispy Kreme.

    Over the weekend, however, not knowing the brands in the portfolio I read the website copy and was completely lost. It was one of the poorest assemblage of marko-babble I’d ever read. It’s why I coined the term marko-babble. Read on:

    Sterling Brands

    In today’s world culture shifts at the speed of a scroll, tap or        tweet.

    We design human brands that are human-centric, relevant           and responsive.

    Brands that inspire people to think, feel and engage.

    We design living brands.

    Got that? Sterling, which, if memory serves, used to sell knives and kitchenware, now designs brands for people. (And actually, Krispy Kreme and Stoli were not designed by Sterling anyway, they were purchased by Sterling.)

    Here’s my point. Just as I couldn’t tell what Sterling did from the sign on the building, I had no idea what they company did from the web copy – sans pictures. The copy had not a lick of endemic category explanation. Okay, they are made for people. (When robots take over they may have to change the copy.)

    Please, please please… everybody stop writing senseless marketing poetry. Stop the brand effluvia. People want to know what the product is. What the product does. What makes it different. And what makes it better.

    Stoli and Krispy Kreme deserve better from their holding company.

    Peace and health.



    Earth Fare.


    Earth Fare is emerging from Chapter 11 hell with a new ownership org and what hopes to be a bright future. Earth Fare began in Asheville, NC and it will rise from the ashes in Asheville. When it opened, it was branded “Dinner for the Earth.” The current name is head and shoulders better than the original, which to me suggests the earth will eat up the population and return us all to soil. Technically, that isn’t wrong, it’s just not a great brand building strategy.

    (The earth has been a hungry place lately, thanks to Coronavirus, and we’ve all been fighting like crazy to remain on it — not in it.)

    Asheville has a reputation as a crunchy town. We love sustainability, recycling, charity and brother/sister love. In branding? Ahhhh….sometimes we could use a little help. And branding starts with naming. One of my brand strategy discovery questions is “How did the brand get it’s name? And why?”

    I wish Earth Fare all the best. The founding fathers’ hearts were in the right place. But maybe they were a couple of doobies too far down the road the night they picked the original name. Hee hee. Much love.



    Brand Discovery Shortcut.


    One of my favorite brand discovery tools is the web. Como se duh? You can go anywhere. Approach anyone. Find almost anyone. And if you have the gift of gab, a conscience and perhaps bit of wit, you can engage anyone.

    Back when blogging was a thing, before Instagram, I coined a term called “Posters” to refer to people who posted original content to the web. (The obverse of Posters is Pasters, those to who paste other people’s content.) Based upon the commitment and communications ability of certain Posters they are easily findable. They also had committed followers. The first real Posters were writers, mostly for the tech press. They were pioneers that crossed the line from paper to digital. Then the unwashed writing masses joined in. Anyone with fingers could post online and hope to become a subject matter expert. Not many did.

    Melting Mama was an early influencer online for research into bariatric surgery patients. Kandee Johnson became a goddess to young women on the topics of personal care and fashion. Bob Lefsetz, analyzes and loves music like few others. Emo Girl posted podcasts about teen culture. The godfather of Posters, Robert Scoble, opens new worlds in tech – living the tech, while creating daily if not hourly content. And danah boyd (lower cases) understood (and understands) online social culture like no other.

    You can do quantitative research for tens of thousands of dollars and it’s a worthwhile pursuit.  But for me, finding the right Posters is the quickest way to the soul of your branding challenge.



    Technology During the Coronavirus.


    Americans are resilient. Technology is amazing. Complexity is the bane of both. Nowhere are these statements more accurate than for small businesses seeking help or employees in search of unemployment assistance during the coronavirus business meltdown. Americans, as a people, do not like to ask for help. I guess it’s a declaration of independence thing. But when they do ask they are undeterred. Note the NY women who called Unemployment 300 times a day for days and didn’t get through. Or the line of cars stretching miles to pick up donated food. Or the stick-to-itiveness of mom and pop businesses trying to get Paycheck Protection Program money to keep businesses afloat — burning down servers.

    The holdup is technology.

    If SBA loans were available from banks “in situ,” people would be lined up for miles, sleeping in soccer chairs. The holdup is servers, bad user interfaces, horrible application logic, and poorly connected databases. It’s nice that everybody has “an app for that,” but what about having scalable IT systems that are easy to use, easy to interconnect, and have back-up.

    The SBA (Small Business Administration) brand is quickly losing luster. Steve Mnuchin’s hollow promises of success are killing it. Of course, the SBA will blame it on the banks and the banks will blame it on the SBA. 

    The fact is, we were not prepared. Not to handle the healthcare crisis, not to handle the technological aftermath and fall out. What a shit show.

    The Department of Defense games this stuff out but they didn’t completely foresee how technology was going to be a choke point.

    When all is over, the American brand will be stronger. Of that I’m sure. The SBA, will need a name change. And technology will be a culprit in its undoing.



    Coronavirus Conundrum.


    I love to delve into conundrums in the businesses with which I work. For complex business problems it’s a nice way to add an interim step before planning. The process has me identifying no more than 10 contradictions is business, consumer care-abouts, brand good-ats and/or financial drivers. These I then presented to business and stakeholders for a discussion. The results help me with the boil-down.

    One major conundrum in my city of Asheville and across the U.S. for that matter is what to do with employees in the hospitality business who receive paychecks from the Paycheck Protection Program once money starts to flow.

    Let’s say you own a restaurant and had to shut it down. You let 8 people go. The Paycheck Protection Program requires you pay them a salary in order for you to accept the SBA money. But the store (restaurant talk) isn’t open for business. What do you do? I’d suggest getting them out of their houses (safely, and 6 feet apart) and putting them to work. Find a way to cross train them. Have them paint the bathrooms. Clean the storage rooms. Clean behind the stove. From a creative point of view, have everyone (again, safely distanced) rethink the menu. The supply chain. Sourcing of ingredients. Seating arrangements. Have them think about the business in new business-improving ways.

    This is a time to think. To improve. To do. And now you actually have a bit of “think and do” time.



    Future of Work, circa. 2011. Final Thoughts.


    Thanks for joining me on this travelogue of posts devoted to the future of work, as outlined in 2011 while on assignment at JWT forMicrosoft. Some final observations about what stuck and what did not:

    I’m not sure working remotely is the future of work. The growth of the Logged and Tagged Economy and the coronavirus works against this observation, however. But to me it seems collaborative and interactive people are best served in the same room — where manners dictate colleagues attention. When alone we are way too likely to participate in Twitch Point behaviors. (Search this blog or the web for thoughts on Twitch Point Planning.) Left to our own devices we become more ADD.

    I’m also thinking Peter Pan Syndrome is overstated. Experience, maturity and life lessons, for many jobs, are more important than facility with code, operating systems or the algorithm.

    As for how Microsoft can best comport itself in the future of work  I’d suggest following consumer behaviors with heightened focus. (With an eye toward ergonomics.) Embed with consumers. Becomes consumers. Windows revolutionized the software user interface (thanks to Apple). More universality in your products and services will help guide you. After all in 200,000 years, we will all be speaking one language and have one skin color. Hopefully.



    Amazing Things Are Happening Somewhere.


    I’m putting the Future of Work series on pause for a day in order to report a timely example of how brand strategy can help the creative process in advertising and content.

    Back when a brand planner for client North Shore-LIJ Health System, now Northwell Health, we had a well-healed competitor in New York City named NY Presbyterian Health System. Their ad agency was a shop called Munn Rabot.  My shop Welch Nehlen Groome was doing great strategic work for North Shore-LIJ and fine creative. Munn Rabot was doing fine strategic work for NY Presby and great creative.

    The NY Presbyterian’s brand claim was “Amazing Things Are Happening Here.” North Shore’s was “Setting New Standards in Healthcare.” As ad agents, our jobs were to prove those two claims, through communications, every day. It was a dogfight.

    Today, both healthcare systems have grown and thrived but their brand strategies have regressed. Northwell Health is still setting new standards to a degree, recently repurposing BiPAPP machines as ventilators, but ad agency Strawberry Frog is still reinventing the wheel and missing the opportunity. And I’m sure NY Presbyterian, like Mount Sinai, is delving into antibody plasma treatments for the coronavirus but they’re not sharing that or any other “amazing things,” because they are caught in the headlights of this heinous epidemic — and no longer using Munn Rabot.

    If Northwell or NY Presbyterian had marketers at the helm ministering to their legacy brand strategies instead of pumping out one-off ads and web pages, they’d be ahead of the curve sharing the amazing/standards consumers expect of them.

    (That said, props to all the heroes at all health org. doing the work no one else can do.)