Master Brand Strategy and Me.


    I am a self-taught brand planner. The fuel for my business was scores of exploratory interviews with high-level and executive planners from big city agencies. I honed my craft and framework with research, reading books, blogs, newsletters, and by watching interviews and webinars. I have also worked with business consultants.

    My two key discovery tools are 24 Questions, business and financial Qs used to understand how money is made and lost, and a battery of Fact Finding questions used with company chiefs, salespeople and customers.

    I do master brand planning. That is, I create the organizing principle for product, experience and messaging that governs all marketing work. Every tactic used to build sales and loyalty, no matter the channel, should adhere to the master brand strategy. But it’s a job that eats itself. Once the master brand strategy is done, it needn’t be done again. (Unless, the business model changes.) Of the thousand of brand planner around the world, only a few handfuls actually work on the master brand strategy. Most planners are focused on tactical brand insights. Downstream of the master plan. Both jobs are awesome. But there’s only one master. Hee hee.



    Thought Monopoly.


    There has been a lot of talk lately about breaking up tech monopolies. They have too much power. They inflate prices due to lack of competition. They tilt supply chains in their favor. All true. To the winners go the spoils until the government steps in. Or unions step in. AT&T was broken up when it gained too much power. I predicted Google would be broken up years ago; I’m still waiting. Monopolies are polarizing.

    But in brand strategy, the goal of the brand planners to create a “thought monopoly.” That is, to establish impenetrable discrete values for a brand that customers want and at which the brand excels. I call them care-abouts and good-ats. At What’s The Idea? the brand values are 3, no more. The rule of three. And all brand values support a brand claim. The claim being a single idea, easily conveyed. Think of it as a tagline or tagline facsimile.

    And though it’s a thought monopoly, the charter of the brand planner is not messaging alone. Thoughts are developed with proof and action. The fastest way to a thought is experience. So good brand strategy informs the product, the experience and the messaging.

    No brand planner is happier than when they hear consumers play back to them the values they seed and plant in the consuming world. These values are the foundation of good commerce, of good branding.




    Endemic Proof.


    Intentional is the new authentic. These two words, commonly used in brand parlance, sound important but don’t really mean much. What brand planner would try to be inauthentic? It doesn’t make sense. And then there is intentional. Intentional today means with a mission; usually one that is about the betterment of the people and planet. An often an intentional quality is not an endemic product quality.

    Today intentional is way over-used. And therefore diminished. You can’t just donate 1% of profits to a cause and be intentional. It’s not a badge marketers and branders wear, it’s an outcome of the work they do. Unless they are non-profits.

    I don’t mean to be controversial here. It’s a good thing to do good. But be successful first, put your focus on winning in the marketplace first. That’s the job. Once successful use it to start a foundation, make donations, and correct injustice. (Think Microsoft.)

    Brand strategy is one claim and three proof planks. With all the customer care-abouts and brand good-ats worthy of consideration, it’s best to leave the intention (and authenticity) in your heart. And build your brand with endemic proofs.




    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.