White Room (No Black Curtains.)

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A cultural anthropologist, brand planner and journalist walk into a bar. Well maybe not the journalist. The bartender says what would you like. They all three say nothing. That sounds like a bad joke but it’s the topic of this post. When you come to a people, a consumer set or news story, you should aspire to bring nothing to the table.

One thing I’ve learned about brand planning is to go all tabula rasa or clean slate on an assignment. That is, I don’t bring any preconceived ideas with me about the people, the market or the selling environment. It’s so hard.

Many years ago, I was selling ads to the CEO of AT&T Microelectronics. In his spacious Berkley Heights, NJ office, standing right by the table was a cardboard cutout of a man. A customer, he explained. To always remind him of their importance.

If I ever leave the confines of my home office for a real office the first room I build will be a white room. There will be no adornments. No pictures. No stimuli. No nothing. A white table, white chairs and white walls. This will be a collective reminder that we (client too) must come at an assignment without bias.

(At another AT&T meeting, this one at AT&T Consumer Products, I was given a tour of a room in the R&D facility that had zero echo. The floor was suspended, the walls baffled. Total sound absorption. No echo. This might be my second conference room investment. Hee hee.)

Coming to an assignment clean is critical. It maxims freshness.

Peace.

 

Syllabus For Brand Planners.

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A brand strategy is best delivered through a syllabus. A lesson plan for brand building by way of education.

Teachers know the most efficacious education revolves not around rote recitation of lesson, but participation and interaction.  

I was lucky enough to work as marketing director at an ed tech company that made most of its money selling interactive white boards. They brought me onboard to help flip the business model from hardware to professional development – that is, to teach teachers how to use technology more effectively to improve learning.  I dove into the science of teaching (pedagogy) with the goal of understanding learning. There is bad teaching but there is no bad learning.

This whole deep dive had a vigorous impact on my brand planning practice. In my brand brief, the keys to learning were improved “classroom design,” “better teacher-student relationship” and stronger “parental/guardian involvement.” With learning the goal and teaching the vehicle how I thought about marketing was recast.

Teaching had for too long been about broadcasting information at kids. And marketing the same. Using education as an analog for marketing, classroom design became the media or the experience (retail). The student-teacher relationship translated to consumer care-abouts and attitudes (a long-standing brand planner tool). And parental involvement aligned perfectly with marketing influencers.    

Now these three notions are not foreign to brand planners but they aren’t always part of the syllabus. To develop brand value faster and make it more everlasting, one needs to focus on consumer learning, not marketer teaching.  That takes a new syllabus.

Peace.  

 

Thought vs. Conveyance.

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Faris (he’s like Cher) is an itinerant brand planner who has a nice relationship with WARC, a brand and marketing research org in Washington DC.  Yesterday Faris and Rosie, his partner, held a rather nice webinar on the broadening of media channels and what to do about it. His food pyramid metaphor was quite intriguing and worthy of study.

Towards the end of the preso Faris stated “Consistency of thought is more important than consistency of look and feel.” This, in the context of the integration of marketing work. As a kid growing up in the ad business I was a big fan of campaigns. They were an organizing principle.  But look and feel and even the much-touted “voice” are not thought. They’re dressing. They are envelopes.  If implemented in a way that conveys a consistent thought, they can work. But if they overwhelm the thought, they get in the way.

No one ever said “I love the taste of a red, white and blue beer can.”  

Another brand planner of note, Marc Pollard (pronounced Poh-lard), is on the verge of publishing a book called Strategy is Your Words. Mr. Pollard is all about the thought, the idea. First. Conveyance second.

Building brands based on thought and strategy rather than conveyance is the correct order of brand planning and, therefore, marketing.  The problem with 90% of marketing is that it is backwards. Conveyance is more important than thought. Show me the shiny. It’s silly.

Peace.

 

A Truth About Branding.

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(This is not Logitech’s current logo, but it is one of the best tech logos ever.)

I met with Nigel Tribe, Atlanta’s top brand planner, a couple of weeks ago and he shared a story about the power of brand worth retelling.  Forgive any minor bits of false news but the tenor the truth about brand value remains.

A new marketing executive was brought in to Logitech, a massive computer peripherals company, to help improve business. He was a known branding advocate. His hiring executive asked what’s with all this talk about brands. And why should they invest in it. “Give me a week to answer your question” was the executive’s response.

He went off to conduct some qualitative research whereby he shared with consumers a pair of brand-less headphones, supposedly in development. He told consumers they were Apple headphones had asked what they would be willing to pay for them.  A second group of consumers were exposed to the same headphones and this time told they were made by Sony. Again, “What would you expect to pay for these?” Lastly, the same headphones were brought before another group with the manufacturer offered up as Logitech.

The research results were brought back to corporate and the brand budget approved.

Peace.

 

 

Build a Brand or Buy A Brand.

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(photo by NY Times)

There is a story in The New York Times today about the accelerating pace of change in plant-based burgers, sausages and chicken. It’s not just about Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods any more, it’s about Hormel, Tyson, Smithfield, Perdue and Nestle among others.  The battleships are a-coming.  Lucky for Impossible and Beyond, the big boys and girls were slow to react allowing for a big head start and funding from VCs, angels and now the public as Impossible has a stock offering. (Tyson invested early in Beyond.) This head start and money have helped Beyond and Impossible create powerful, well-known brands. The brand managers have done their jobs well.

Let’s not lose sight of the little guys in the business, though. No Evil Foods, in Asheville, comes to mind. They were an early entrant into the plant-based meat category. In fact, as savvy branders they were among the first to use the language “plant-based meat” in their marketing. Even the NYT story is afraid to call these products meat. Someone can smell a law-suit.

But No Evil is not afraid, they are small and on a mission. A mum and pup company run by crunchy millennials, they’re elbow deep in sausage casings, construction build-outs and child-rearing – all things that prepare them to build a brand from the ground up. And as such, even though they don’t have the investors or the insulation of the huge conglomerates, they are creating a brand to go with their products. They are building their brand by doing.

It will be fun to watch how this category evolves. I’m betting on the builders (Beyond, Impossible, No Evil), not the buyers.

Peace.

 

Coke New Product Fail.

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I was at the National Assn. of Convenience Stores (NACs) a few days ago visiting the huge Coca-Cola booth in Atlanta Company, Coke’s home town, and walked among lots of samples and displays, scores of employees dispensing drinks and marketing information, and one big, glaring void. 

If you have been watching TV the last 9 months or so you have likely seen a high energy TV spot where a Coke truck is racing around a city, along with a vanilla ice cream truck and a farm truck filled with oranges. They recklessly, in 70s Mod Squad fashion, crash into one another delivering a can of Orange Vanilla Cole to a traffic cop.

The spot must have been supported by $20 million dollar in media since it broke and a million in production at the very least. The spot is still running.

When I asked a marketing person at the booth if I might try an Orange Vanilla Coke, there was a good deal of head scratching. After a few chats with associates, a marketing manager said “good call out,” which I’m assuming meant good catch.

The fountain dispensers were immaculate. The carpet spotless. Signage and booth design perfect. The handsome young men and women were well-quaffed. And the bottle, can and fountain flavors well organized. But the $25 million plus new product launch, was not there.

Wow.

Peace,

Always Listening. Always Thinking.

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Last week I was walking the floor of the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACs) in Atlanta and the place was jammed.  Take that Amazon! Over my shoulder I heard someone say “And let’s keep marketing out of it.”  Como se indignance??? I knew immediately this was to become the beginning of a discovery question. 

Marketers, I know, wouldn’t be a good place to trot out this kind of question but salespeople would. And I love to interview sales people. Other c-level executive in, say, finance, operations, HR, might also be likely to have moments when they want to keep marketing out of it.  Why? I have no real idea, but it’s worth a dive.

So here’s how the question might lay out.

“Can you ever imagine a situation where in a meeting where someone might say And let’s keep marketing out of it? Please explain.”  Branders and marketing love what they do, but not everyone will agree we’re the be-all and end-all of commerce. Getting to the underbelly of tensions is something brand planners are good at, and this question is likely to get there quickly. It may not be one that helps understand consumer buying insights but it might just be foundational for selling the insight.

Can’t way to try it.

Peace.

 

Is Charles Schwab Making A Brand Withdrawal?

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Charles Schwab has always been known in the investment and trading world as a low-cost provider. Yesterday they announced they are waving fees for stock and ETF trades. A bold move.  Now I don’t know what Schwab’s brand strategy is but “A more modern way to invest” from the homepage might be the claim. I haven’t studied the brand so take this with a grain of salt, but I am comfortable saying free is not something they are going to want to position around. (And this is from a no-load mutual find guy of 25 years.)  

Modern is not a bad claim for Schwab, and free trading may be modern – certainly it’s a tech-centric position – but there’s a much bigger story here I suspect. And I smell a big spend ad campaign, supported by an agency foaming at the mouth, in the wings. What this brand planner might do is dig deep to find the underpinnings of what enables Schwab to stay in business with this new model. Investors are not stupid. They know a wo/man needs to make a living. Tell consumers you are going to make less money and they are curious. And skeptical.

I wouldn’t lead with the no fee story (sorry ad peeps). I’d lead with foundational, modern story that resets the table of investing. Make deposits, not withdrawals in the brand bank.

Peace.

 

 

The Service Company Conundrum.

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Service companies, commercial organizations that do not sell CPG retail products, are the least likely to have a brand strategy, yet are the most likely to need one.  I worked at ad agencies for many years and as my dad used to say about the business “the overhead went up and down in the elevator every day,” meaning it’s a people business.  When you’re selling people and their output, it’s hard to differentiate one company from another.

A brand strategy (an organizing framework for product, experience and messaging) helps service company owners and chiefs put into place a codified service delivery that elevates customer experience. One that is replicable.  

The conundrum occurs when the brand planner discovers that the customer care-abouts don’t align with the brand good-ats. If the brand is really good at say “expensive food” and the local customers want “inexpensive food,” something has to give. Either with the targeting or the cost of goods.

Problem is, most service economy brands just focus on with good-ats, not particularly caring about the care-abouts. And service companies can’t easily reformulate, not the way a packaged goods company might.

Understanding good-ats and care-abouts in the service industry is sometimes more akin to anthropological field work than business planning.  Certainly pairing the findings down to brand strategy size (one claim, three proof planks) is.

Service company brand strategy is the future of brand planning and the field is wide open.

Peace.

 

 

Brand Design

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What I do for a living is Brand Design. Not with a color palette or artist’s eye, but with words, deeds and strategy. Building an infrastructure upon which strong, powerful brands are built is the collective goal. Only when the infrastructure is solid does it make sense to start fueling the commerce engine. 

Midtown, NY is one of the easiest megalopolises in the world to navigate because it was designed. It uses a grid system with numbers and compass points to help people find their way. Greenwich Village, on the other hand, is laid out with curves and bends and family names and nary a navigational design element to be found. It’s like it was pasted together with available parts one year at a time. 

Many people in the startup world today, especially those without B-school educations, begin their quest with a product and Google. A search consultant will cast a net into the ether, filled with random search words, looking to see what comes back. Efficiency and cost per click do not a brand or business build.

It takes a plan. And brand design is an elegant and savvy place to begin.

Peace.