Brand Strategy Informs Product and Product Handlers.


Brand strategy, in this age of service marketing and the internet, where not everything sold has a label, is not as it used-to-was. Here’s a new worldview.

At What’s The Idea? brand strategy is defined as “an organizational framework for product, experience and messaging.”  The existential function of branding to date has been naming, logos and labeling — followed by the design of marketing materials. But a huge percentage of sales these days come not from labeled products and goods, but from services and digital; things that are malleable and easily changed. Today it’s okay – no preferred – for brand strategy to inform the product, not just the other way around.  

It’s a strategic palindrome: the product/service informs the brand strategy and the brand strategy informs the product/service. That’s step one. Brand strategy informs the product.

Step two is brand strategy informs product handlers. This allows everyone instrumental in selling, marketing and product-consumer interface (experience) to do so in a non-random, value-based way. Not cookie cutter. Strategic.

From metaphor land, product handlers are making deposits in the brand bank.

Once the product is right and the product handlers are indoctrinated, then we can start to think about messaging. 

Sadly, branding dollars are mostly spent on naming, signage, collateral design and ads – without a deeper codified thought.  A paper strategy or strategy of words is the brand building fundamental today. It can be measured. And, overlaid with revenue numbers. Try doing that with a logo.

(Rest in peace mama. You were a treasure.)




First Get The Brand Right.


Here’s my pitch to people who manage small and mid-size companies. Also, to large companies in technology, considered purchase and B2B categories – most of whom think marketing is the main tool of growth. Marketing being defined as creating demand, proper pricing and good distribution.  I explain that marketing today is mostly practiced as a downstream pursuit with time spent on buildables. On tactics and execution. “Update the website. Generate more social engagement. Put on a promotional event.”

I counsel these people, these builders, to first get the brand strategy right. First and foremost.  Because the brand strategy sets the parameters of winning in the marketplace. It establishes a framework for product, experience and messaging. The irony of my job is that I often have to look and product, experience and messaging, after the fact, to help create the framework.  It’s a little bass-ackwards.

Get the brand right and it’s so much easier to get the marketing right.  “Ready, fire, aim” it’s not.




Rocketship Brands.


Beyond Meats is a plant-based meat company (semantics much?) that recently went public. As someone trying to cut way down on animal fats I’ve dabbled in veggie burgers and for a while tried Beyond Burgers while waiting for Impossible Burger general availability. I liked the Beyond Burger okay, so long as I topped it with grilled onions, ketchup, light mayo, whatevs. That is, until that non-hamburger aftertaste started to rear its head.

With Impossible now available at Burger King (loves me some Cheese Whoppers), I can now get my burger fix there. If only they would serve the burger hot a la “flame broiled.”

Back to Beyond.  In addition to burgers they make two sausages: an Italian and a brat. I first tried the Italian and it was wonderful. Not “splooge you in the face with fat” wonderful, but a nice mixture of Italian seasonings that would make a Bronx grandma proud. My expectations for a good brat were low. But guess what? It was killer. Maybe even better than the Italian. Stevie has a new friend, Stevie has a new friend.

The best brands result from the best products. The best brand strategies provide an organizing framework that celebrate the product. A good product with a bad brand strategy can work – brains go only so far where the taste buds, loins and physiological self are concerned. But get the product right (like Beyond Meat) and the brand strategy and you have an impenetrable combination. A rocketship!



Words Are Important.


 As you know, words are important. Unless you use them as marketing effluvia. And that’s a challenge for most copywriters. Many writers think it’s the words not the content that carry the water. So long as the words don’t get in the way in terns of communication and function, the writing itself is not as important as the content.

For a few years now I have been defining brand strategy as “an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging.” I’ve taken a second look at this definition and though “organizing  principle” is, indeed, what a brand strategy is, the word principle can be a bit misleading. And fluid. Part is the problem with brand strategy is it’s a little like interpretive dance.  Creative people like it that way. Open to interpretation is freeing. By replacing the word “principle” with “framework” the dance is still there but the interpretation is removed.

A framework makes it easy for marketing tacticians and builders to make stuff. With a framework you are either on strategy or off. No interpretation.

A framework is tied to brand objectives, which are tied directly to marketing objectives and therefore measurable revenue. Framework is existential. Principle not so much.

Brand strategy: An organizing framework for product, experience and messaging.  Me likey.




Focus Your Roll.


I went to a networking event last night called Mojo Connect. One of those speed dating deals where you sit and talk with people for 5 minutes before moving to the next station.  People aren’t brands but when a brand planner you tend to do discovery on them. Especially, if looking for talent, opportunity and/or to lend some assistance – all brand planning modus operandi.

One person I met stated she was a travel writer.  Then she said she spent a good deal of her career in corporate communications. She added consultant to the list of good-ats. Business consultant. But also a lover of photography, which went nicely with travel writing.  Very nice women mind you. And I’m sure she was good at all these things. But focus was not her strongest suit. The net she cast was wide.

This reminds me of a time when I was a pup in the ad business and asked by my dad to interview a soon-to-be college graduate who happened to be the son of our biggest client Youngs Drugs, makers of Trojan Condoms. Perhaps this foretold of my career in brand planning.  The young man said he was good with people (account). He also liked to write (creative). He added an aptitude for numbers (media) and the list went on. A fledgling myself, I offered up the supreme strategy of focus. Pick a spot.

What goes around…




Healthcare Evolution from a Planner’s Perspective.


Two nights ago, my Uber driver told me about an island off the coast of Maine — Vinalhaven was its name — that indexed higher than any place in the country for diabetes. Apparently, there was a little bit of in-family diddling back in the day-day. Island people! The island became a renowned area for diabetes research.

The brand planner in me is reminded that studying discrete geographic areas and cultures can pay big dividends.

I’m a big fan of healthcare brand planning. As we look at healthcare on a broad scale, it helps to first look on a smaller, more controlled scale. Population health is big these days and as data is collected in health problem hotspots, say lead poisoning among children or breast cancer among women, we gain a clearer picture of possible causes, AKA epidemiology.

There’s a regional healthcare organization in North Carolina called Novant Health. Anecdotally, I hear them to be a very connected, integrated provider. Their goal is to consolidate on a single Electronic Medical Records platform and share information seamlessly across many practice areas. When an organization fulfills the promise of complete integration it becomes easier to study. And data becomes more valuable.

Just as Charles Darwin developed his theory of evolution in the discrete geosphere of the Galapagos Islands, healthcare providers can evolve quality when parsing data across a tighter population. 

When (and if) we move to a single payer healthcare system it won’t be long before we standardize and coalesce record keeping, thereby driving cost and inefficiency out of care. We will also become better planners.



Branding Is Unfair.


The word unfair is popping up a lot today in business. Gazzillons of dollars, Euros, Yuan, and other currencies are taking hits because of “unfair trade practices.” Markets are moving like the wind.

In America, Certified B Corporations are banding together to make businesses more fair to employees, the planet and mankind by focusing on long-term “good” rather than short term economic performance. And though not Certified B Corporations, Toyota, Fiat Chrysler and General Motors are adhering to president Obama’s auto emissions standards, rather than move backward under president Trump. All in an attempt to be less unfair.

Unfair is most always bad. But it’s a word I use often when talking to clients and prospects about branding.  The goal is to create an unfair advantage for brands…through strategy.  What’s The Idea? is not about cheating, dishonesty, price fixing, or unfair wages; those are deplorable practices. The unfair advantage we look to create is in consumers’ minds. By creating an organized narrative filled with proof of value which predispose people toward client products.  To convince people to drive an extra mile. To wait an extra day. To spend 8-10% more.

Branding is misunderstood. It’s thought of as logos, taglines and marketing buildables. But branding is the result of a well laid brand strategy. An organizing principle for product, experience and messaging.  One catering to what customers care about (care-abouts) and what brands are good at (good-ats).

Be unfair. Be wildly unfair. But do so through (organized) honest advantage and art.




One Concern. Or Two. Or Three.


So there is a really cool company in Menlo Park, CA, called One Concern. They are a bunch of data nerds who’ve raised $22M in funding, already have clients and have received a boat load of press, mostly positive. But here’s why you don’t give marketing and branding to data nerds.  Have a look at their Is-Does from the website.

We are building planetary-scale economic resilience through AI-enabled technology, policy and finance – allowing companies and communities to identify hidden risks and maintain stability in the face of natural disasters.

If you knew nothing about the company, what would you think they did?  They’re a resilience builder. In the technology space. And finance space. And policy space. Anyone have an extinguisher?  My hair is on fire.

A few clicks down there is actually a better Is-Does, this one in English:

While at Stanford University, Ahmad met AI guru Nicole Hu and earthquake expert Tim Frank, and together they channeled their collective passion into figuring out how to apply data science and machine learning to natural disaster and climate change.

I’m going to give these people a pass as they are doing some seriously important work.  Not all the press has been good but they’re clearly in the business of saving lives on a large scale. They are likely, in fact, to save more lives than individual drug and healthcare companies over time. Data don’t lie.

Super nerds need love…and they also need brand strategy with a marketing hand.  




Tarot Card Number 5, Boilerplate.


 Boilerplate is the paragraph in a press release sitting at the very bottom of the page offering a paragraph of information about the company issuing the news announcement. It contains some selling references but mostly recaps the primary business(es), along with key facts, figures, age, ownership, etc.  Here is some boilerplate from The Kraft Heinz Company:

About The Kraft Heinz Company

For 150 years, we have produced some of the world’s most beloved products at The Kraft Heinz Company(NASDAQ: KHC). Our Vision is To Be the Best Food Company, Growing a Better World. We are one of the largest global food and beverage companies, with 2018 net sales of approximately $26 billion. Our portfolio is a diverse mix of iconic and emerging brands. As the guardians of these brands and the creators of innovative new products, we are dedicated to the sustainable health of our people and our planet. To learn more, visit or follow us on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Shelley Spector of Spector and Associates says boilerplate should always remain the same. And it requires a lawyer’s approval at public companies. Good press releases also use a digest of the boilerplate in the first sentence. For instance, Kraft Heinz might start off with “Kraft Heinz, the largest global food and beverage company announced today…”

(A sure sign of an immature company is one that keeps changing it’s boilerplate with every release. A no-no.)

Every brand needs to think about its boilerplate. It is an extended, inclusive statement of business purpose, scale and history. It’s a good place for strategists to begin when delving into brand claim and proof.




Brand Discovery Advice.


Robert Eichner a successful marketer and cohort here in Asheville shared something his dad Arthur told him many years ago “When you ask for advice you get money, when you ask for money you get advice.”

This is some sound counsel. In fact, I’ve lived by it for decades. The money I have made at What’s The Idea? is directly attributable to the interviews I conduct through my brand planning rigor. Until the machines take over it is people who buy stuff. So, it is people who fuel the strategy.  Of course, market data, trends, competition and culture factor in, but it’s the words and deeds people share that form the brand claim and proof array.

I’ve never had to pay people to ask them a few questions about brands, markets and buying behaviors. Never. In fact, once you pay for advice, it’s probably tainted.

Ask questions, ask advice as Arthur Eichner suggests, and you’ll get a wealth of information.  Brand planners are interested by nature. They are not data collectors — they are learners. And organizers. Data only supports and proves our learning.

Ask and you shall receive.