On a recent assignment my client and I spent a good deal of time on the target. The What’s The Idea? brand brief refers to the target as follows:

Living, Breathing Target (Define the largest grouping of consumers, bound by a single shared attitude or belief, that will be most motivated to buy/consider the product? Provide a description of the target, not title or demographic.)

Peter Kim a long-ago mentor used to refer to the target as a large group of various targets, with many different buying motivations.  But he then suggested “re-massifying” them back into a single group, with one shared care-about. I loved the word re-massify. Out of many one kind of a thing. Peter’s knew this was how you built a brand – reach as many people as you can, with a hopefully compelling value proposition.  That said, when re-massifying the target, trying to find a single shared care-about, one can water down the principle value. It’s hard work.  (And sometimes, you just have to eject part of the target, so as to keep your key claim compelling.)

Well, on the recent assignment, my client added great value by not simply approving the presented LB Target, he pushed. And yes, we did lose some people when re-massifying. But it made for a more compelling brand brief and brand story. This additional targeting work made the creative process easier for the creative teams. An important result to be sure.

I’m convinced the target description is one of the most important parts of the brand brief. Even more so than the “Core Desire” which is a distillation of the LB Target’s most important need.

Get the Living Breathing Target right and most other pieces should more easily fall into place.




Brand Strategy Proof Planks and Interdependence.


I studied Anthropology in college.  Cultural anthropology – the fieldwork, the unfettered observation of people and cultures has helped my brand strategy practice.  But so has physical anthropology, the study of the adaptation to change by living things.  You know, the ascent of man stuff.

In his Op-Ed column this morning, Thomas Friedman talked of climate change and how it is not the strongest or smartest species that survives climate change (dinosaurs, for instance), rather it is the most diverse,  “…the most adaptive ecosystems are usually the most diverse, offering different ways to adapt. They thrive because they’re able to forge health interdependencies among the different plants and animals, and in doing so, maximize their resilience and growth.

Brand strategies, too, must offer a diverse and interdependent way forward. The secret to my framework is three proof planks. Taken together these planks create the business-winning proposition. Individually they are ads — or floating claims in a kelp bed of marketing. Brand strategy is a long-term game. Sometimes the 3 proof planks can be at odds. One may diminish the other. But life is messy and branding can be too. Yet taken together, in support of one claim, three well-thought-out brand planks provide a healthy interdependence that can last the tests of time. And the test of change.


PS. For examples of how planks can be at odds and yet work together write



Experience, the Forgotten Branding Tool.


I define brand strategy as “an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging.” Product is a given and more often than not, reverse engineered into the brand strategy.  Messaging is another given, in that most marketing and advertising budgets are spent there.  The problem I most run into with advertising is it takes on a strategy of its own, independent of brand strategy.  (If there even is a brand strategy.)  Many companies use advertising as their de-facto brand strategy, co-opting the ad campaign tagline as the brand tagline.  Bass-ackwards.

But it is in the experience where many brand builders fall short.  If you are a singular retail brand, you configure and design the experience around the in-store footprint.  Think LL Bean. Or Starbucks. If you are a business selling to other businesses (B2B), it’s your salespeople who create the experience. And that can often be subjective. Salespeople are chameleons, tailoring the pitch to the customer. In service and professional industries, e.g., doctors, accountants, lawyers, the experience is even more haphazard. Lastly, there is online or ecommerce businesses, where the digital experience is one-dimensional and self-serve.

So, one third of brand strategy (experience), I’d venture, is underserved. And it’s a big mistake.

Every brand needs to find a way to connect with their consumers. Much as they would if given the time in a face-to-face relationship. I’m not talking about thank you emails or loyalty points, I’m talking about real interaction. Gifting is nice. A random phone call perhaps. Holiday cards, no thanks. It’s a human thing. Facilitate a human contact. Above and beyond. Think of retailers who knows your name. Or an accountant who emails you when s/he sees an article in the local paper about your kid. Human stuff.  




Advertising versus Branding.


For years I called myself a brand consultant, a title conveying something different than does my current title brand strategist.  Both deal with brands but only the latter deals with brand position, brand value and key proofs. 

The market has been conditioned to think of brand consultants as artists and developers of design flourishes surrounding a product. Brand strategists, on the other hand, are the boring ones. The writers of dull, business prose – albeit prose whose sole purpose is to “sell more, to more, more times, at higher prices.” (Thanks Sergio Zyman.)

I love great design. I love great creative. I love selling that challenges the status quo. All things good advertising does. But my job as a brand strategist is to lay the groundwork for the sales art. To give it a purpose. A goal. A strategy. Art without purpose belongs in a museum or living room. Art with a purpose is marketing. And the best marketing is based upon brand strategy. It gives you something besides sales to measure. If your only measures are advertising and sales you are fishing without bait.   

If you think your best sales tool is advertising, you are missing the big picture and the little picture. Brand strategy is the foundational tool.



Long Brief/Short Brief.


The Gettysburg Address, arguably one of the most important speeches in America-dom, was 272 words long. (I read that on the internet.)

As someone who writes strategy for a living, I’m a fan of the brand brief. Smart people in the advertising business will tell you a short brief is the best brief.  And when I say smart people, I mean high-powered, highly-paid creatives and strategists like Mark Pollard.

Well, as a contrarian by nature I am going to take issue with the whole short brief thing. Just like a great piece of long form copy or other well-written pieces one cannot put down, I want a brief that gives creative people and marketers thoughtful inspiration. A spark.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve written my fair share of shitty briefs. And I’ve read my fair share of other people’s shitty briefs. Most were elongated by repetition. Some were just boring. Many lacked a thread that storified the brand.  But those were the result of improper research, lazy construction and brand craft.

Briefs can always be briefer. They can always be better. But as stimulus to marketers and creatives they need to inspire. They need to open doors to exciting creative ideation and energetic consumer response.

Back in the 80s there was a direct mail letter written by someone at Ogilvy Direct for American Express that out-pulled every other direct mail letter for years and years.  It was the absolute best. It was long. It delivered. It sparked consumer action.  That’s what a brand brief should do. Yes, the Gettysburg Address was short — about the length of this post. But length isn’t on trial here. Creative conviction is.




Believability Vs. Recognition.


I recently came across a brand consultant who rallied around the concept of neuro marketing. Another planner in the brand space whom I really admire is also a fan of the brain and refers to the amygdala a lot in teachings and sellings.

What sets these two smart people apart from a number of brand strategist is that they, apparently, are selling to people with brains. JKJK.

All planners work our brand strategies for people with brains but we must realize those brains are so inundated with sales messages, ad claims, and sales memes, that consumers have become inured to most selling efforts. At the same time marketers have become so attention deficit disordered that they change horses in the middle of the race.  Yearly. Monthly. Sometimes weekly.  And with Google AB testing, even hourly.

This can mess with the amygdala.   

When swimming in an ocean of marketing, where creative is often the differentiator, it is vital to have a selling idea. A selling claim. And it’s not just good enough to say your claim over and over again, you must prove it. Believability is different than recognition.

With all deference to the intricate workings of the brain, brand strategists need to help marketers simplify brand value propositions.  Create patterns of value. And bring them to life through creative means. Without this discipline marketers are shouting into a tornado of wind.




Nonbinary Selling.


There are two kinds of selling. Demand selling where people are actively shopping for a product. And interruption selling where the consumer is not shopping just living their life and you attempt to connect and convince them to buy from you. Think having your credit card in hand and your browser open to Amazon (demand) versus eating dinner and having a solar panel salesman knock on your door (interruption).  

The latter type of selling is harder because first you need get the consumers’ attention. Then you must convince them of the need for the product. And lastly, you have to convince them why to buy your product. A three stepper.

The toughest job I ever had was as a consumer salesman.  Working for a kitchen remodeling company, I was tasked with intercepting consumers at big box stores and signing them up for in-home free estimates. It took me months to figure out how to get people to stop and talk  — only then after breaking the ice could I begin to sell.  

A great deal of advertising today is about capturing attention. Think Geico. It’s 90% attention 10% sell.

Branding strategy is way different than advertising. Brand strategy is totally focused on convincing consumers “why” your brand. Brand strategies that spend time garnering attention or trying to convince consumers to buy a product they’re not shopping for is someone else’s job. The agencies job.

And brand strategies that promise consumer happiness as a brand value are ridiculous. (Unless selling Xanax.) Brand strategy is about selling product. Not movements. Not emotional outcomes. Not attention. It’s about positioning your product, de-positioning competitors, and as Jack Trout and Al Ries would say, establishing a unique place in the mind of consumers tied to an endemic brand advantage.

Brand strategy development is nonbinary. Find your single, key consumer benefit and lock it down.



Shell Life of Brand Strategy.


Brands grow up just as people do. Company employees change. Products change. Consumer behaviors change. And brands mature. It is the job of brand strategy to hold it all together but also to keep the brand relevant. Well-crafted, the deeply identified values of a brand strategy live on as a brand matures. A good master brand strategy keeps a brand from aging.

Brand strategy defeats the aging process by offering brand managers a way to constantly revive and make more exciting an evergreen handful of product or service values.  And lest we think these values are rules which impede creativity, think again. Creativity is as deep or shallow as the purveyor allows. Brand strategy provides an ownable lingua franca, in an overly confusing world of salesmanship.

The best brand strategies live forever. The brand strategy written for ZDNet nearly 25 years ago “For Doer’s Not Browsers” can still be seen in the current line used as a tag on the website “Tomorrow belongs to those who embrace it today.” Sounds like doers to me.  Brands should never dull. They should stand as pillars to the values they impart to consumers. And hang tough.   



Framework Makes the Dream Work.


Everything you need to know about master brand planning you should learn from your client. This presumes you have a modicum of strategy experience and an idea about what you’re being asked to deliver. In other words, a framework. (I was once asked to create a website but explained the need for a brand strategy as foundation.) Many planners use OPF (other people’s frameworks) and that’s okay.  My brand brief was borrowed from McCann-Erickson. My strategy, a one-pager comprising a claim and proof array, was pilloried, massaged and tightened from a titan of American industry and its consulting company. As Faris Yakob suggests, we are all recombinators.

Back to my premise.  Once you have figured out your framework, everything you need to learn should come from your brand. Brand Good-ats and Customer Care-abouts. These things are the groundwork for a good strategy – which is a boil down of all that is learned then packaged into the aforementioned clam and proof array.

If you are interested in this stuff – I kind of nerd out on it — write Steve at WhatsTheIdea for an example or two.




Marketing Coach?


I often speak about “pent up demand” and how important it is to brand and marketing strategy.  If people are clamoring for your product or service you only have to position it and promote it.  But if people don’t know they need your product or service — perhaps it’s a new category, or a complicated value proposition  — then you first need to educate them. Only then can you sell them.  It’s a two-step approach and much more expensive.

What’s The Idea? was initially positioned as a band consultancy. Then it was repositioned as a brand strategy firm. The latter position making it clearer I didn’t design logos or websites or collateral. I do strategy. Everybody knows what strategy is. But brand strategy?  Even brand strategists have a hard time explaining it. 

My problem is brand strategy is not easily explained on the back of a business card. Nor is it something people wake up in the morning thinking about.  It doesn’t directly solve a common problem.  But do you know the problem it does solve?  A problem that most marketers have (pent up demand)?  Poorly performing marketing.

I’m giving serious conside-ration to another reposition: marketing coach.  Everyone knows what marketing is. Everyone knows what a coach does. Two words, no ambiguity.

And guess what my key tool will be as a marketing coach: uh huh, brand strategy.  AKA “an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging.”