Brand Strategy Freebee.


I’m hungry for brand work.  Blogging’s fun but planning and talking to people about consumerism is funner. The problem is, I charge money for my work and when I’m not on a job, the planning field lies fallow.  

My life is cursed with a brain that watches marketers shoot in the dark. My blood curdles when I see ads, pr, social, and promotion that lacks brand strategy. The owners of this errant marketing will tell you they have a business strategy — to make more money — yet they think by publishing their brand or company name, surrounded by some generic sales effluvium, sales will appear.  That doesn’t work today. As I watch all this silliness play out in the marketplace I wonder what could be. If organized.

A brand strategy is an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging. Are you organized? Sure, you say. But tell me how. Tell me how today!  I’m giving it away. I’m giving away my critique of your organizing principle.

Write It’s a limited-time only freebee. I’m hungry.



Nike’s “Just Do It” Is Not a Brand Strategy.


A fellow brand strategist recently wrote a LinkedIn post about “motivating” an expected customer behavior.  It made me think.  I get doing a deep dive on what motivates customer behavior — but I’m not sure I want to build motivation in to my brand strategy claim.  This may go against the grain but “Just Do It” is a great advertising line but in my mind it’s not a good brand strategy claim.

Bear with me here.

When gathering and developing insights that feed the brand claim, I delve into customer Care-abouts and brand Good-ats. By addressing these values my hope is it results in motivation. By jumping straight to the motivation or promoting the desired behavior I believe we’ve defaulted to advertising. I repeat, by jumping to straight up motivation, we’re advertising.

“Improve your ass” might be a better brand strategy claim for Nike.  It encourages proper advertising. Is it motivation? I don’t think so. It’s a declarative statement, a scold. It’s a Care-about. “I want to improve my ass.” “If I improve my ass the rest will follow” or whatever. 

I can build three proof planks around “Improve my ass” where I can’t (not easily) around “Just Do It.”

Brand planners need not motivate. Their efforts are best spent creating an environment in which motivation results. Let the ad agencies motivate. How do we do that? By immersing oneself in the Careabouts and Good-ats.




We’re Here!


Lots has been written “attention” in advertising. Recently, I read a neat piece by Catherine Campbell of East Fork Pottery on LinkedIn where she suggests attention as too ephemeral — a social media phenomenon. She advances the idea that “consumer trust” is much more worthy as a goal than attention. Smart women. You can’t argue with her logic.  But two things at the same time can be true.

For instance, take out-of-home billboard advertising, where you have about 5 words to make an impression. Back in the 90s when ads shrunk from pages to pixels, the units were more akin to billboards than traditional print ads — a tough time to be a creative person.

One way to get attention is to tell a consumer something they didn’t know. Or show them something they’ve haven’t seen. It sparks attention.  If you pair that with a sales message you accomplish something. So, let’s not pooh-pooh attention.

I write a good deal about “We’re Here Advertising” which is little more than an announcement of what one sells and where to buy. This morning I listened to a local allergy doctor radio spot on the way to get coffee. You know what I learned?  They treat allergies. All kinds: pet, plant, food, pollen, bad advertising…

When spending money advertising “tell me something I don’t know.”  Work a little harder to prove why you’re worthy of a sale.

One of my favorite brand strategy claims, developed for an assisted living company in Westchester, NY, was “Average is the Enemy.”  When I left the premises everyone on the marketing team had their assignment.

Pair attention with trustworthy and you can build a brand.



Brand Strategy Framework.


Merriam-Webster defines the word framework as:

1.a a basic conceptional structure (as of ideas)

b a skeletal, openwork, or structural  frame

In my business, which is brand strategy development, I rely on a framework. It is made up of one brand claim, supported by three proof planks. That’s the structure. That’s the skeleton.

Everybody in branding understands the word claim. And people know what the word proof means — so, it’s not a difficult concept.   

I’ve been doing this for a while and have yet to find another brand strategy framework that outlines what a brand truly needs to truly succeed in the marketplace. And that does so in a simple way.

At What’s The Idea? brand strategy defines as “an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging.” The claim and proof framework provides that organizing principle.

Another benefit of this framework is that it leaves creative development to the creatives. There is no voice. There is no persona. No purpose or essenceCreative teams deliver on the claim then prove it with evidence. That simple. Of course, there should be visual identity components: logo, name, typeface and such. But even those can be a bit fluid so long as the claim and proof are there…and the creative team has a good reason for the departure.

Google these three words “brand strategy framework” and see what happens. Then click images. It’s a strategic mess. General Patton wouldn’t approve. If you’d would like to see examples of real, clean, clear brand strategy frameworks please write Steve at WhatsTheIdea dot com.





Global Brand Strategy Firms. I Mean No Disrespect.


Global brand strategy firms, the ones that charge in excess of a quarter million dollars per engagement, are big on science.  I love science. But in branding, science is expensive.  In my pitch presentation I like to explain this by saying the big girls (and their business consulting sister-thren) begin with multivariate statistical analyses. Then they build a regression analyses. From which they plot the slope before delivering cluster maps. Science.  Who could argue. Expense. Who could argue?

But the reality is, science doesn’t always predict success in branding. Sure you can deliver quantitative research supporting your value proposition. Even quant on “agree to purchase.” Been there, done that. However, smart companies know the market is fickle and doesn’t always respond the way science says it will.  AI aside, that’s why we need people to make decisions.

95% of my clients buy my work (which is their work) based upon qualitative findings. My average engagement is less than $20k, less than a 4C page in a trade journal. My point here is, for less than 1/10th of what the big quant brand strategy shops get, they can get sound strategic advice.  You know how I know? Because they feel good buying. They know I know them. And they know I know their customers. They just know in their hearts. Science might make them feel secure, but when you know you know.  

Also, the big quant shops have multiple points of contact.  They are like electronic medical records. A loose federation of information. At What’s The Idea? the brand is tight. And brand managers and CMOs like tight. The heart feeds the brain which feels emotional decision making. That is branding.




The First Step of Branding.


Naming is one of the most important functions of branding.

For a tech startup I worked at, the CTO liked the name Zude. It rhymed with dude.  I liked the name Mashpan.  It sounded like a home brew device, was a cousin of Mashup and the word Pan stood for “all, complete, total.” (Our product was a web authoring tool used to build websites without code. It was a drag and drop play.) My point? A name should that convey information.  

This week I attended a meeting of startups working on their financial pitches as part of Elevate, a Venture Asheville program. Two of the very cool startups have names that make my point.  One company is named East Perry, the other Larry.  The former sells ethically sourced sheep-skinned home décor while the latter sells a refrigeration device. I can’t go into too much detail on the latter (and changed its masculine name) as the product is proprietary but suffice it to say, Larry doesn’t convey dittly. And though East Perry sounds like a nice street name or address, it too, is not particularly pregnant with meaning.

Naming takes time, energy and forethought. Words are important. In the way they sound.  Their harmony. Their poetry (East Perry ticks that box.) But most importantly, what a brand name conveys informationally is mission one.

Get your name right and the first step of branding is complete.




Follow Das Money.


One of my brand planning tricks is to fully understand a business’s financials before I dive into the consumerism of the brand.  Back in the day, when working at McCann -Erikson NY, I was asked to be on a task force pulled together by AT&T and McCann to help write marketing plans for a number of emerging new business services.  Collectively we came up a rigor which I have refined over the years and renamed 24 Questions — all of which are follow-the-money questions to help understand the balance sheet and the opportunity.

I’ve been using the 24 Questions as part of my brand planning discovery for years. When you understand how money is made, you have credibility with the chiefs of a company. And that is critical when discussing strategy. And justifying strategy choices.

Don’t ever forget to follow the money when brand planning. Plumbing the depths of brand voice, purpose, personality and narrative are but brand strategy tactics.  Money is the composition.  


PS. For a copy of the 24 Questions, write


Benefit-Shoveling Or Culture-Shoveling.


I was watching a 75 video, masquerading as a TV spot, on LinkedIn the other day for a company named CQ Medical and, because I know the ad agency’s work, thought it a fairly nice piece of healthcare ad craft. But one word in the copy (“design”) threw me. I thought CQ Medical was a healthcare provider, e.g., a hospital, or health system.  It turns out — after a second viewing and some research — they’re a medical device company. An equipment company.

The first rule of advertising is explain what you’re selling. Unless you have Coca-Cola awareness. Otherwise, the ad is impressionistic and there are few Picassos in advertising.

I often write about the Is-Does: Explain what a product/service Is and what the product/service Does. Those who miss this step are likely benefit-shoveling. Or culture-shoveling. Too far down in the weeds to register with consumers what one is selling.

In branding, it’s never smart to jump over the Is-Does. Even if you have a limited target audience that supposedly knows your name. It’s “smart” brand craft to identify your product clearly. 





Persuasion and Benefit Shoveling.


I, and many other people of the technological age, have a problem with the word “selling.” My belief is marketing is best done, not by selling, but by educating.

When marketers give consumers the kind of information which predisposes them to purchase from you, you’re doing everyone a service. When you slather them in overused, meaningless sales terms you’re wasting breath, time and money.  It’s like the dog that hears a master say blah, blah, blah, blah, want to go out?, blah, blah. Consumers today have become inured to sales pitches.  Not only do they not hear them, they’re often repelled by them.

Brand strategy — the “organizing principle for product, experience and messaging” — positions a product for success. The process by which one builds such a strategy is drive by boiling down “customer care-abouts” and “brand good-ats.”  But here’s the catch: those care-abouts and good-ats must be values that persuade.  Values that move a customer closer to a sale.  They can’t be generic values, e.g., best tasting.  And they shouldn’t be non-endemic values, e.g., best customer service.

I’ve coined the term “benefit-shoveling.”  When marketers shovel benefits at consumers, and they haven’t spent time boiling them down or choosing persuasive benefits, they are not building a brand.  They are tearing it asunder.   




A Powerful Brand Idea Is…


I wrote the brand strategy for a healthier-for-you cookie company, the brand claim for which was “Craft Cookies, Au Natural.”  At my practice a claim is supported by three proof planks. Those planks were: craft cookies are healthier, craft cookies offer complex flavors, and craft cookies are naturally moist.

In prep for this post, I reread the brief (from a while ago) and was happy to see it chock full of lovely, even poetic, marketing insights; all of which could launch scores of marketing efforts. (One such insight was “Mass-produced cookies use blanched, steamed, stripped, macerated, and filtered ingredients denuded of taste, texture and health properties. Mass-producers do this to save money and create efficient, flavored sugar sponges.”)

The hard part of brand planning is taking multiple insights noted in the brand brief and boiling them down into a claim (and then, proof planks).  Does “Craft Cookies, Au Natural” do that as a claim?  I think so. Might there be other ways to reflect a brand value prop for this brand? Sure.

The thing about brand claims, at least at What’s The Idea?, is they need to be memorable. Pithy. Tagline-like. In effect, they become the tagline for the brand until the ad agency creates a campaign for public messaging that trumps it. I often tell clients and prospects campaigns come and go, a powerful brand idea is indelible. Search for one.