Personal Branding is a Fool’s Errand.


I was reading someone’s advice on personal branding on LinkedIn recently. Oy. Part of that advice was to first get in touch with yourself. The personal brand advocate then suggested listing people you admire, and articulating the traits you admire most about them. Ironic much? 

After a boil down of all those traits, one assumes the job is to cobble together a path forward for oneself — a strategy for one’s personal brand. Still with me? 

As if one could study, copy and paste together a life. Or personal ethos upon which a life is built.

They had me shaking my head at the idea of personal branding, but tools for personal branding?  Try inputting that one into Chat GPT.  You’d fry AI forever. Hee hee.

At What’s The Idea? all customer care-abouts and brand good-ats go into the stock pot. What come out when the process is done is one claim and three proof planks. It’s a bloody horrible process. Important things must be boiled away to get the equation to three planks. People are too complicated to get to three. Products not so much.

Don’t wrestle with personal branding. Don’t do it. It’s a fool’s errand.





Under-complicate Your Brand Strategy.


I am a simple man.  It’s something I often say at the beginning of introductory meetings with perspective What’s The Idea? clients. What are the negative implications of this lead in? I’m not smart. I don’t think things through all the way. Perhaps my education is lacking? It may not be the best foot forward, yet it works for me. You see, it is an everyman, everywomen, everythey statement that fits nicely into brand strategy.

The US collective consumer does not have time to overthink every purchase.  In fact that statement has given rise to branding itself: consumers attach value to brands so they don’t have to examine every purchase.  It simplifies their lives.

My brand strategy framework (one claim, three proof planks) simplifies branding so consumers make quicker assignations of brand values. They don’t have to overthink a purchase. Consumers get what the product is — something particularly important in the digital/technology age. And, they quickly get the product value/advantage.  Moreover, they get that advantage and can articulate it with proof…not advertising superlatives. Proof is the fuel on which What’s The Idea runs.

If you make your brand simple to understand, then give consumers a clear array of reasons to believe its value, you win.

Under-complicate. Be clear. Be selective in your key values. See? Simple.




Everything is a brand.


…and nothing is a brand. Hanging out in social media as I do and with my business proclivities, I often come across people talking about “people as brands.” I scoff. I’m very protective of my turf.

As an early user of social media in market research, I made some serious money understanding its power to influence consumers.  That said, I like to think I’m an early adopter of the notion that today’s “influencers” are kind of a sham. Especially those who use influence for influence’s sake.

I do, however, love the early influencers on social.  Those people with key motivations behind their postings: Emo Girl, Melting Mama, Kandee Johnson, Bob Lefsetz, Robert Scoble and dana boyd. They were/are SMEs. And if not exactly SMEs, they were certainly capturers of attention.

Faris (Is it too soon to use only his first name?) likes to say we live in the attention economy. And, yes, having curators helps. But influencers? To me the title has a bad reputation. Today’s influencers and their acolytes use the word brand too much. To them everything is a brand. And when everything is a brand, nothing is. I like my social media influencers rare. Not medium or well done.

Share. Not to make money but to make life better. More entertaining. Interesting. Fulfilling. Don’t share your shit to make yourself more commercial.



Symbolic Value and Real Value.



I was listening to the Sweathead podcast interviewing Ana Andjelic, chief branding officer at Esprit, and she mentioned a branding notion of “assigning symbolic value.” It immediately gave me pause.  My brand-o-babble alert went off. Buttttt, the more I thought about it the more I appreciated the idea.

I am a brand strategist. I make words. And those words are about positioning products and services in the minds of consumers. Symbols, not so much. Symbols I leave to creative parties.  My business has always been anchored by strategies tied to “real” values. Endemic values. Coke is refreshment. Real and endemic. Swallow a big gulp of cold Coca-Cola and you are refreshed.  

Butttt…Ana isn’t wrong when dabbling in symbolic value. Symbolic value can be part of an organizing principle. But it’s best worked on a mature brand.

A strategy I wrote for Zude, a drag and drop web authoring tool, positioned it as “the fastest, easiest way to build a web page.”  The creative/tag line was “Feel Free.” Freedom was ancillary yet endemic inside the category. Freedom was symbolic. For those not experiencing the brand within the category or never having heard of Zude, “Feel Free” was meaningless.

Branding is first about real value, then about symbolic value.  It’s a serial thing. A less expensive thing. A commercial thing. Nobody knew who Zude was, so “Feel Free” was a bridge too far. Had we $20 million in the budget the bridge would have been closer.

Build a bridge (to consumers) first with materials then with dreams and symbols.




UBS and Craft.


I love multi-page print ads. Often, campaign or brand- launch units, they’re a brand planner’s playground.

(Full disclosure, UBS is my financial firm and they are great.) 

This past week UBS launched a 4-page ad in The NY Times.  My brand strategy rigor is simple: one claim, three proof planks.  Reverse engineering this effort, I would have to say, the brand claim is “Banking is our Craft” and the three proof planks are: advice, managing wealth, and investment experience. Each topic gets its own page. The operative word in strategy is “craft.” (Don’t get me started on the word “banking.”)  

Page one ad copy reads:

Craft matters. In small ways. Like how a coffee is brewed. How a chair is built. In not-so-small ways. Like, how your money is cared for. It’s a conscious choice in in how we perform our work. At UBS, we elevate our banking to a craft blah, blah.

The planner in me says “craft” is not a terrible word. It can be emotionally and logically brought to life as a metaphor for managing money. But not through empty copy. Only through deeds, tasks, processes and evidence can one begin to believe managing money is a craft. As for the proof planks, the ones selected are departments not values. Or as I like to say “good-ats.”   

As I read the copy, mining for proof, it is de minimis.

An example: Always delivered with passion, care, unmatched expertise, and meticulous attention to detail. With our clients at the heart it all.”

This effort does not pass the sniff test.  It’s copy, not advertising. Persuasion requires proof. Craft may be an idea. May be an idea. But this souffle certainly isn’t cooked.

Not a good investment in branding. Or marketing.  




Generational Sales and Brand Strategy.


Per their own in-house research team, ad agency EP+Co learned that 84% of furniture buyers experience regrets, an interesting and actionable insight.  

EP+Co client Havertys Furniture, initiated a “Regret-free Guarantee” that fits that insight like a glove. It’s a strong, committed move. And it supports the existing tagline “We Furnish Happiness.” It is however, an example of good insight, poor brand craft.

Let me explain. The first mistake is trying to own “happiness” as a brand claim. It’s too broad a promise. Also, it’s not endemic to the furniture business. (Coca-Cola spent billions positioning around happiness. Don’t get me started on that mistake.) A creative director might argue “Furnish” in “We Furnish Happiness” is a furniture word. I would not.  While the Regret-free Guarantee, packaged as a brand differentiator, is a smart move, it’s also nonendemic. Anyone can guarantee. So neither happiness or a satisfaction guarantee are tethered directly to furniture.

It’s easy for me to sit on the sideline and throw darts. Especially after less than an hour of analysis. But science is science. Consumer pre-disposed to purchase, then repurchase, and purchase again is not tactical. It’s a long-term effort. Brand loyalty is the holy grail.  Little mistakes lead to tactics-palooza. Then agency-palooza. Then CMO-palooza. Brand strategy, well-defined and well-executed builds loyalty. And generational sales.



Big Ass Focus.


Performance marketing is a huge thing now.  Well, it’s always been a thing but Google and digital advertising have made advertising more trackable so it’s even more of a thing. 

I sat through an AOR (agency of record) selection process not long ago and here a list of tactics outlined in the briefing doc: Search engine, display, programmatic display, social media, native advertising, content syndication, direct lead gen, new platform testing, outbound email marketing, sponsorships, affiliate marketing, enterprise partnerships, brokers, marketplaces, advertorials, event marketing, out of home, digital audio (podcasts) — dare I say, the list went on.

Most of these tactics are trackable, read: performance marketing. (At least for the last touch, i.e., the last consumer touch before the website is hit.) If your head isn’t spinning, you are not a performance marketing nerd.

The problem with this tactics-palooza, is that not all metrics lead to Rome. The results often lead to a cacophony of “things that work.” Marginally. And when one optimizes this cacophony, you have a doggy’s dinner of strategic direction. A compass spinning out of control. Is it any wonder marketers are beginning to talk about brand again?

Performance marketing needs to also be brand marketing. And for that to happen, there needs to be a brand plan — a litmus for what tactics are making deposits in the brand bank.

I often speak to clients about “beyond the dashboard” planning. And that starts with big ass focus. Not the dashboard.



Chipotle and Proof.


Steve, the one trick pony here.  The one thing that sets my brand strategy practice apart from others is the foundational concept of “proof.”  I mine proof that drives belief and muscle memory of brand claims. Proof makes the brand go round.  I was watching a commercial on the TV yesterday done by Chipotle and ad agency Venables Bell (Source: Google) and for the first time ever, heard Chipotle reference the proof point: no freezers.  In the past they’ve told consumers their meat is never frozen but that is not the same proof point. 

It’s not a stretch to say Chipotle’s brand strategy is built around “fresh.” At the very least, fresh is one of the three Chipotle proof planks.  So, let’s look at what No Freezers conveys about Chipotle. One, they are super, super committed to freshness. Two, this may be the first claim and behavior of its type ever in fast food. (I believe Wendy’s claims the meat is never frozen, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have freezers.) Three, it’s unique…I’ve never this proof point before. Four, it’s memorable. Lastly, it’s probably gets them credit for being sustainable.

I often say advertising is 90% claim and 10% proof. Good brand strategy uses proof to drive the train. 

Peace. And Happy New Year.



Machine Content


As a young’un growing up in advertising, stock photo books were everywhere in ad agency art departments. Lurzer’s Archive was also around for those departments that could afford subscriptions.  (As a strategist, I used to subscribe to Archive and keep a few in my office; when art directors visited, they’d often ask, “What are you doing with Archive?”  But I digress.)

Stock photo books were an inspiration to creatives. Idea starters. And today’s stock photo book for content creators (AKA copywriters), is in many cases going to be AI. 

Faris Yakob, whom I love as a strategist and bon vivant, is known for his concept “recombinant ideas.”  Quoting Steve Jobs in this video, he suggests originality is nonexistent. The only originality is the mashing up of other ideas. I agree. Some of my best ideas, creative thoughts, brand brief nuggets, come from this process.  My mind works this way. It generates based on some very random principles. But it’s all original recombination rather than plagerism.

If AI is used by content creators, as more than an appetizer for clean newish recombination, but to copy and paste, we will have another downward trend in creativity. Machine marketing, as it were.

Let’s not let that happen. Appetizers good. Laziness bad.








For quite some time now I’ve been using this blog and social media to brandsplain.  I Googled brandsplain and it seems as with most good ideas it’s not an original idea.  Philippa Roberts and Jane Cunningham have a book Brandsplaining.  There’s is a feminist take on how misguided advertising to women has become.  Bravo.  But with deference to the authors I’m going to use a more unisex definition of brandsplaining. One, a little less fiesty.

When I brandsplain, I like to think I’m educating. My wish is to make brand strategy a more important, codified and healthy marketing undertaking.

Here’s my definition of brand strategy: “an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging.”  (Anyone who would like to discuss this definition, please contact me via Twitter/X at @spoppe, LinkedIn at or email at

Over my career I’ve met scores of brand planners and followed even more on social media.  Some of the smartest planners have gotten out of the business. Others consult. A great many have turned to brandsplaining over LinkedIn. Or in meetings over coffee and beer. As a brandsplainer, I’d much rather brand plan. I’d much rather interview consumers. Talk to SMEs. Scour social media threads. Review sales info. And learn the lingua franca of the category and its buying culture. Yet instead, I brandsplain.

If you can do. If you can’t brandsplain.

My 2024 resolution is less ‘splaining, more doing.

And to the world, peace be upon you.