A Marketing Conundrum.


Two of the most discussed concepts in marketing today are “authenticity” and “artificial intelligence.”  One is communications advice the other a communications device.

They are diametrically opposed. You can’t be authentic and artificial at the same time. Unless you are Tucker Carlson. Hee hee.

I’m a fan of authenticity albeit, for me, it’s the price of doing business. If you have to speak about it, it must be lacking.  Those who use the word a lot must be steeped in a world of inauthentic-ness.  As for artificial intelligence I much prefer the term machine learning. It’s mote accurate. And more descriptive.   

Dabbling in AI with my blog (e.g., “edit this blog post”) was a fun exercise.  Those who make a living in by-the-pound content love it. It’ generates volume and is a time-saver. However, it’s a bit inauthentic. “AI, edit my blog post in my voice.” Huh?

From time-to-time I use a strategy exercise called The 5 Conundrums where I outline consumer contradictions which need to be addressed before brand strategy can be entertained. It’s a way to focus and clear out some stale air. Authenticity and AI are one such marketing conundrum.




People, Places and Practices.


I was watching an Archaeological Institute of America webinar given by Dr. Sara Gonzalez last week on less intrusive ways to conduct archeological fieldwork on Native Americans.  (For one, she suggested calling artifacts, belongings. Further, after belongings are found, charted, provenanced and catalogued, they should be returned to the ground from which they came; called catch and release.)  Smart, smart stuff.  Anyway, one other idea that struck a chord was her framework — People, Places and Practices. My brand discovery rigor deals with all three but doesn’t categorize them as such.  And in doing so, I might discover more deeply.  

First, a deep dive into the people who use our brands and the people we want to use our brands. That’s an obvious no-brainer. Some might call it targeting.  But target and person can be two different thing contextually.  In my brand brief, I refer to this as the “living, breathing target.”

Next, let us look into the places people use and consider brands. Not just consume brands.  The locations, the dayparts, the consuming behaviors. Current and potential.  A neat tool I leaned from media people at McCann was the DILO, day in the life of.  A mapping of people’s media use, especially as it relates to times they might intersect with media and brand consideration.

And lastly, we need to study the practices. Practices touch upon DILO but actually refer to the behavioral role of the product in the life of the person. This points to ethnographic study. And that goes beyond digging up belongings/artifacts and into cultural study.  How does the brand intersect culturally and behaviorally with the person? Tons of great learning in this bucket.





Callous Is the New Black.


When in the ad business I always wanted to have my own agency.  My dad had an agency, I guess I wanted to walk in his shoes. I was going to name that agency “Foster, Bias and Sales.”  As in, foster consumer attention, create bias toward the product and generate sales for the client.  Even then I was all about the bag, about the balance sheet. At some point advertising became less a creative art and more about brand growth.  

Today in my branding practice, I feel the same way.  But I’m leave much of the foster and bias to the agencies while spending time focusing on positioning and organizing brands for sales.

Many brand planners have a positioning angle.  “Brand transformation for the experience economy” is one I came across today.  “Amygdala branding” is another one (not really, I didn’t want to offend). On my Twitter account I say “Redistributing business wealth through brand strategy.” It’s like you can insert almost any word before or after the word “brand” and jump into the strategist arena.   

Well, let’s cut the art and try a new approach: How about “Callous Branding.”  A straight up sales focus. What does it take to “sell more, to more, more often, at higher prices?” (Thanks Sergio Zyman.)  Why not a callous declaration of customer value and brand value?  One driven by the kind of claim every employee can measure themselves against. And every sales director, CFO and CEO can really, really lay into.

Callous is the new black.




Jeweler or Speweler.


A friend of mine is a jeweler.  Part of his job is working the bench — where the action is.  Jewelers work, in some ways, is like that of the brand planner.  It’s detail work. Focus on small things. Magnification. 

When a jeweler opens a watch for repair s/he needs to diagnose the problem and deal with it. Isolate the parts that don’t work and fix them. All the other parts of the watch, though important, are outside of the focus of the repair.  A lay person looking at all the moving parts might be overwhelmed.

When I open the metaphoric watch in a brand planning assignment, I must familiarize myself with the parts. The first time I looked into the brand of a infosec boutique in NYC, I was faklempt. But then I started asking questions, learned a little bit of language and like a visitor in a foreign land was treated with kindness to match my kindness.  You see, I was more interested in them than in me and my craft. This approach allowed me to understand enough to focus on the problem without asking “What’s The Problem.”  The jeweler in me could then see around the watch parts to the mechanism in need of repair.

So, my advice?  More jeweler, less brandbabble spew-eler.




Brand Strategy as Science.


Brand planning, like advertising, is sometimes thought to be a little fuzzy when it comes to its effectiveness.  A “trust me” endeavor.  An ad agency spends months coming up with a new campaign, polishing it for weeks, only to have it fall a bit flat in execution.  Great art, not so great at delivering sales commitment.

Brand strategy, one step away from advertising and marketing, may be even harder to measure in terms of sales delivery.  The strategy gets stepped on by intermediaries. Creative people are notorious for selling an idea that sparks interest, rather than interest in purchase.

We do nothing in the marketing if not moving customers and prospects closer to a sale. Cash registers, credit card swipes, online shopping carts need to go cha-ching for marketing to be seen as effective.  Brand strategy is an organizing principle designed to make that happen.  So how do we know if a strategy is affecting cha-ching behavior? How do we employ science to tie sales to strategy? Through research.  Attitude research.

When customers and prospects believe your CPA firm digs deeper than competitors to uncover favorable tax law, you earn more business. When a jeweler is believed to have more experienced bench workers than other repair shops, you earn more business.  Find the right care-about or the right good-at, gauge customer perceptions against that measure, overlay it with sales figures and you blow by the theory and straight into the scientific formula.




Brand Positive


As mentioned in an earlier post, brand planners — the day-to-day sort — spend their days looking for problems to solve.  A bit of a bummer day-job, if you ask me. Once articulated, brand planners surround the problem with insights and solutions and level out on a single communication to solve said problem. Hey, it’s a living. It can make for great ads and planning awards.

At What’s The Idea?, brand strategy is a one-time exercise AKA master brand strategy. It’s where I create a toolkit to solve problems. But the tools build the brand. (Tools, comprised of a claim and three proof planks.) So, where an everyday brand planner might create a very effective solution to an individual tactical problem, specific to the problem, a solution based upon the master brand strategy has more focus and aim. The latter makes deposits in the brand bank as Marilyn Laurie used to say.

You can’t just put a logo and tagline on a randomized problem/solution message and call it brand positive. You have to deliver the master brand strategy.

For examples of such master brand strategies including the claim and proof framework, please write me at Steve@WhatsTheidea.com






After I’ve delivered a brand strategy, a client may ask me “Now what?” Meaning, what do they do differently.  My answer is execute. Make stuff, e.g., marketing materials and programs, that deliver on your brand claim. Market to the strategy — invest in your claim and proof.

What’s The Idea? readers know brand building is not about claim alone.  It’s about proof. Marketers must work the proof planks. (Proof planks are groupings of reasons to believe.)

I often grouse about benefit-shoveling. A tactic used in advertising where marketers load-up on benefits bludgeoning consumers into buying. By the pound, if you will.  Well good communications tell a single story. A linear story that uses logic. Benefit-shoveling confuses. It obfuscates and it overshares. The best ads are single-minded.

For good brand craft, tell your story focused on a single proof plank. Don’t combine all three. Branding is a long game.  Using a sports analogy, don’t explain how good your football team is by talking about the offense, the defense and the coaching all at once. Pick one.

For brand managers approving marketing materials developed by creative partners, start off by asking “What proof plank will we looking at today?” And, “What specific proof(s) will you be highlighting?” That’s brand strategy.  That sets the tone for presentation and approvals of the work.





Brand planners talk a lot about emotional or higher order benefits.  That’s a good thing.  But certainly not the only thing.  In fact, I’m of the mind that those type of bennies are best left to the ad agency and creative people.  In my practice the lower order benefits, the product and service endemic benefits as I like to call, them are where brands are built.

“Campaigns come and go but a powerful brand idea is indelible” are words I live by. Culture changes, musical tastes change, hell the climate changes, but brand strategy shouldn’t. If your product formula doesn’t change, why should your inherent, endemic product value?

The delivery mechanism, the creative, should always be refreshed. Freshed. But not what you stand for. That is, unless what you stand for wasn’t well conceive. That is, wasn’t what customers care about. Or what you’re good at. If your brand position is a new set of Emperor’s new clothes, changed with the appointment of each new CMO or marketing director, you haven’t a chance.

Do the brand strategy leg-work up front. Do it right. Then live it.

As Neil Young says ““To give a love, you gotta live a love.  To live a love, you gotta be part of.”



Chicken or egg?


Over the course of developing a brand strategy business I’ve been lucky enough to work with quite a number of clients. Some work has been pro-bono. Other full blown. I’ve been employed to develop master brand strategy, write marketing plans and even hired to write complicated positioning brochures and websites. My rigor doesn’t really change but the output does.

In some cases, when hewing to the budget I hack my way to efficient use of time employing short cuts.

The brand brief is a key tool I use for most all projects. It’s a document that, when written properly, tells a story using a smart sales logic. When it is tight, I’m able to create more comfortably and sleep better at night. When it includes bumps in the road, that road is less comfortable, and my work takes longer. Some of those hacks, ways to get to the brand claim and proof planks more quickly, don’t use the brief.  Rather, I collect my inputs, classify them into key care-abouts and good-ats, and boil away to my brand strategy answer.

It has created a bit of a chicken and egg dilemma. Brief first? Or brief last?  

Hacks are great to save time.  In my business though storytelling is where my clients light up. Nod their heads. Say I “get” them.  So brief first is preferred.

Peace be upon you.


A Little Stand-Up.


I haven’t done a stand-up presentation in years. Covid saw to that. Yesterday I returned to action and had some butterflies.  Practicing upstairs in my office helped make everything go well – hearing yourself do it out loud makes a huge difference. In practice my jokes and body language were lacking but I knew my material. Brand strategy. 

When at my best, I’m telling stories and the slides offer good flow. Unlike when a kid in the business, my slides were one or two words. Maybe a picture.

“An artist is never more in touch with their art that when performing in front of an audience” is a saying I coined when brand planning for an online musician property — and it’s true for anyone doing stand-up (presentations).

The gig came in in just under an hour (it really flew by) and though there wasn’t a wet eye in the house, I was pleased. The audience clapped. The knowledge shared may even have changed a business life or two. Giving away knowledge is a great feeling. Everyone should do it.  Standing up or not.