Brand Design. The Words.


    Say brand design to a lay person and it is likely to conjure up thoughts of art directors, computer design programs and logos. Say brand design in a corporate marketing environment and you are apt to hear discussions about customer journey, retail experience, digital content, advertising and user permissions. In either case you wouldn’t be wrong.

    But brand design has to start somewhere. There have to be inputs. There has to be a direction. And that must start with words. Words on paper. Words on a PowerPoint deck. Words on a Canva print out. Words in the cloud.

    Just need for pictures or other embellishments.

    At What’s The Idea? brand design is simple: 1 claim, 3 proof planks. Three discrete supports for the claim, under which are arrayed existential evidence of the claim. Claim it…and prove it daily.

    With a claim and proof array in hand, art directors, makers of marketing content, and consumers are all enculturated as to a product or service’s key values. Sharing that value is the first job. Creating the art that surrounds it comes second. (Most Supeb0wl ads invert that notion.)

    This is how you build a brand. It starts with words.



    What, Why, How. The pitch boil down for startups.


    I’m involved with a group called Venture Asheville, comprising a number of local startups seeking help with strategy in preparation for funding. I attended a pre-pitch event earlier this week to prep a handful of young companies for an actual pitch to investors later in the week. Each pitch was 7 minutes. Everyone did a really good job but I noticed a varying degree of understanding about composition of the pitches. As someone in the boil-down business, here is a format I would recommend to all startups doing standup and asking for money.

    What. What is the company? Readers of What’s The Idea? know I am a sticker for the Is-Does. Explaining what a brand IS and what a brand DOES. If you can’t easily explain what your company is, the money spigot isn’t likely to flow. You’d be surprised how hard it is for some young entrepreneurs to name their children. And when I say name, I mean figure out what business they’re in. (The iPhone was first and foremost a phone…but tons more.)

    Why. Why are you in business? What is it about the market you’re addressing that suggests your success? Is it a new way to do something? A better way to do something. And why?

    How? Number three in this serial explanation is how are you going to do it? How will you to build? How does the market organize? How will you invest your funds. This can take one into tangent land, but don’t bite.

    Please don’t tell me about your passion. Or your intentional business model. Just explain in a clear, concise way what you are doing, why and how

    To misquote David Byrne of the Talking Heads “This ain’t no disco, this ain’t no elevator speech, this ain’t no foolin’ around.”

    Great job by Venture Asheville and cohorts. And best of luck to the pitching companies — all of which hit their marks with only a little bit of chaff.




    Brand Names.


    There was an article today in the Asheville Citizen Times about the District Wine Bar having to change its name because someone had trademarked District 42 for another local establishment. The rough cost was about $50k not including all the business fallout over Google search rankings and web crumbs like reviews and listings.

    The new brand name for the restaurant is Bottle Riot. A more fun name and certainly one pregnant with more meaning. (District is shorthand for the River Arts District, the wine bar’s neighborhood.)

    Naming is such an important undertaking. It’s the de facto brand. Sans promotions and signage, it’s how people refer to you. When you go through life with the last name Poppe and people call you Pope, Pope-ee or even Poe-pay, you’ll get what I mean. Have you ever had to tell a friend to meet you at Asheville bar Cursus Keme? ‘xactly.

    Naming is best when done using a brand brief or strategy. I never work on a naming or logo project without a brief. When the District Wine bar had to go back to the drawing board, if they had a brief development time would have been cut in half. It also would provide time saving for the art director charged with designing the new logo.

    Brands, names, logos and everything else marketing are easier with a brand strategy.

    For a sample brand strategy write



    Carcass Picking.


    “New” and “Sale” are the two most common words in advertising I was told growing up in the business. It’s not apocryphal to think it is still the case. As a brand planner or ad person, new categories always interested me. I was doing technology advertising when chips weren’t cool. Integrated circuits, software defined networks, private data lines, SaaS were all products of mine.

    In advertising it’s good to work in emerging products, technologies and services. They are high growth. Not a lot of people are expert so your thoughts are creative, sometimes ground breaking, and non-commoditized. But the simple fact is, the marketers most in need of strategy help are not in the business of new, they are in tired, mature categories where growth isn’t happening. And when growth isn’t happening you are likely trying to take someone else’s share, not creating new share. Carcass picking.

    What does the brand planner do in these cases?

    Well, you have to make your insights and strategies new. Treat them like emerging markets. The consuming brain loves new. That’s why people get so tired of advertising. It’s not new. That’s why ad agencies are fired every 3.8 years (just made that number up). It’s easier to create new advertising that new brand strategy.

    I can change one plank of a brand strategy and open up crazy new revenue. (Brand strategy comprises one claim and three proof planks.) Brand strategy is like DNA. Make a subtle changes and lots can happen. Imagine what would happen with a total brand strategy overhaul.

    For brand planners there can be no such thing as stale businesses or categories. Everything “new” is a potential “sale.”



    Small Businesses Success.


    Ask a small business owner if they have a “business strategy” and they can’t help but answer yes. Probe a little and they’ll answer you with superlatives about product and service such as “to provide the best food and dining experience in the area” or “offer an uncompromised level of tax return service to the community,” “help improve lead generation thru web search tools at the lowest cost.” These are make-more-money explanations – perhaps mixed in with a little bit of strategy.

    Ask that same small business owner if s/he has a “brand strategy” and you get a different response. Most will say yes, but it will be attached to slightly quizzical expression. The brain lights up with synapses popping around name, logo, packaging and ads, but the word “strategy” confuses. They don’t really know what a brand strategy is.

    A brand strategy is “an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging.”

    A brand strategy is a set of words that provide a litmus for product marketing success. You are either on brand strategy or off. With brand strategy before marketing happens everyone agrees with what success looks like. It’s binary. It’s measurable. It’s scientific.

    With science in the house, the creative process can begin. Small businesses often forget the science. They just start making. Invest in brand strategy and divest of random marketing and business tactics.



    Excellent Relationships.


    I’ve read a number of ads for marketing directors over the years and one of my favorite job specs is:

    Proven experience in building effective relationships (with internal and external customers).

    I love this one. It makes a person ruminate. Everyone thinks they’re good at relationships. If we are all being honest with ourselves, though, we have to admit some bad interpersonal situations are just inevitable. You may be able to count on one hand the people you’ve been unable to deal effectively with but everyone must realize nobody is perfect. Not even Gandhi.

    If you find yourself telling cohorts, prospects or hiring agents you get along with everyone, you’re putting up a red flag. Because even the most perfect manager can’t account for the disorganized personalities of some people. And/or our own imperfections.

    The best way to build a case for getting along with everybody is to be truthful. Recognize it’s impossible. Explain we are all human, all fallible and 99.9 percent success is our goal. If we know we can’t be perfect all the time, it gives us the humility to strive.

    All we can do is strive.




    Segmentation and Branding.


    There has been a lot of talk about segmentation the last 30 years and now more than ever with data only a few clicks away from every desktop. Segmentation studies yield customer clusters exhibiting similar consideration and purchase behaviors. They are often given fun names and offer message and sales channel tailoring to improve marketing effectiveness. My first pass at segmentation came while working on behalf of AT&T’s corporate business, where they identified 22 different types of large corporate buying behavior. A bit much.

    In branding planning, where we develop upstream strategy to organize marketing activities, we lean the other way. Against segments. We want to be aware of all buying groups and motivations but we want to address them as one. Because there is only one brand, not 22.

    That said, in some brand strategy cases I have targeted a segment that is a subset of all buyers. Because I felt it to be an aspirational segment. For instance, new moms on a budget may not be able to worry about the growing landfill, but it is something they aspire to. In that case I didn’t build the brand strategy for all new moms, but I certainly took them into account.

    As a rule, it’s better not to segment your target in brand strategy. But business is business and the gas pedal is the gas pedal. 




    Good News For Kids. A Food Revolution.


    A former business acquaintance of mine recently joined a company called Revolution Foods. With a company name like that (brand) how could I not look it up. Thanks for the heads up LinkedIn. Above the fold on the website appears the following Is-Does:

    Building lifelong healthy eaters with kid-inspired, chef-crafted™ food.

    For newish companies, or companies with not a lot of brand awareness putting your Is-Does above the fold is smart. (This above the fold real estate is something I look at when using brand planning tool, Brand Strategy Tarot Cards.)

    I’ve done a good deal of work in K12 education and it is truly some of the most important brand categories I’ve studied. Teaching kids how to learn better is foundational, offering life changing result. As I’ve said before there is no bad learning, only bad teaching. A small but impactful subset of proper K12 education is nutrition. The more we teach kids about proper and healthy eating, the more Greta Thunbergs we’ll turn out. Revolution Foods is banking on this approach. If they do it well, the company will help change the world.

    It won’t be easy. But it’s definitely doable. In the 60s and before it didn’t take the greatest minds in marketing to sell sugary snacks. But there were some really smart people doing it. Santa Claus was co-opted by Coca-Cola in the ‘30s and altered consumption, let’s not forget. Teaching kids to eat green beans will be hard. But it’s not fly to the moon hard.

    I commend Revolution Foods and will study them moving forward. This is a company worth everyone’s time. A real game changer.





    Mr. Brand Hammer.


    Yesterday I coined the term Mr. Brand Hammer – a reference to the axiom “to a hammer everything looks like a nail.” Mr. Brand Hammer (that’s me) smells a new business name.

    It’s a curse being Mr. Brand Hammer, surfing the ether, watching commercials, reading the paper, with an always-on need to make sense of brands and their strategy. It’s like living in a world of generic, plain yogurt. Colorless. Tasteless. Sluggish. Mr. Brand Hammer constantly evaluates how marketers are differentiating their product and services. Asking what’s the plan? When watching Geico commercials everything is humor and call-to-action. Buy us, get a quote from us. But where’s the why? Mr. Brand Hammer understands it’s not easy creating thousands and thousands of pieces of selling content…you run out of ideas. But you should never run out of strategy.

    What’s The Idea? is a business consultancy built around brand strategy. What’s the brand claim? What are the brand proof planks (evidence of the claim)?  The lack thereof in marketing drives me crazy. And you can tell it also drives marketers crazy. More often than not there is no discernable plan for selling. For building a brand.

    More cowbell. More gecko.



    Local News Revisited.


    The What’s The Idea? blog began in 2007, a little over 2,600 posts ago. At the time I was up in the grill of The New York Times for being slow to catch on to digital media. As the world’s premier news organization, how could it not innovate in the digital space? When the financial crash happened and the NYT paper-paper couldn’t sell full page ad to save its life — and the sections were shrinking in size — someone finally got their shit together and tazed the online property. (In retrospect, putting Martin Sorrell, an ad guy, in charge was probably not the smartest idea.)

    The old gray lady took a couple of shots to the nose, but finally emerged with a strong digital property. Today, the digital NYT is delivering healthy revenue to the bottom line, with paywall subscribers from around the world consuming podcasts, video and other endemic assets – all state of the art. Interestingly, the national edition of the NYT distributed in NC carried not a single (paid) full page ad in the A section today. Guess who is carrying that water?

    Gannett merged with New Media yesterday in the hopes of creating better capital positions by moving toward a more digital future. Printing plants will consolidate creating savings and the strategy is to create new revenue by providing local value with a, hopefully, efficient national land grab. The problem is, local is not scalable. My local Asheville-Citizen Times, a Gannett property, is so thin birdcages owners are looking elsewhere. Gannett/New Media can succeed, but not by becoming Angie’s List. Where’s the tazer? Where are the Millennials and Gen Zers geniuses?

    Imma put some more thought to this and report back. Local is a positive word in today’s sustainability minded business environment. Digital news should be a solution.