ESG and Brand Strategy.


Environment, Social, and Governance (ESG) values are smart pathways for successful contemporary businesses. They are NOT, in my opinion, values belonging in a brand strategy. Not as such. Perhaps tangentially, as in a brand value may give you credit for being an environmentally friendly company, but not explicitly. Being ESG focused is the price of entry today. In brand work you want your values to be more endemic.  Built on customer care-abouts and brand good-ats. Not values universal to other companies. So, as “fresh ingredients” are important to a Thai restaurant, they are also important to a French restaurant. Not a good brand value.  And, the fact that they hire LGBT+ people, though important and critical to the culture and even food, it’s better to dig more deeply into the food and people for values. There is always something there – something unique to your brand.

So to recap, ESG good for business, not brand building. Not today. Being different is the key to branding. Being the same is the key to manufacturing.




I’m Still Cormac-in’.


“I’ve been a full-time professional writer for 28 years and I’ve never received a royalty check. That, I’ll betcha, is a record.” Cormac McCarthy, 1987

If you don’t know Cormac you don’t know Jack (Casady).  Cormac is a great American author who toiled mightily until he won a Pulitzer in literature. He didn’t make any money doing what he loved until later in life — something I can appreciate. Not that I haven’t made any money as a brand planner, but I really haven’t cashed in on this blogging thing. Well over 3000 brand strategy blog posts later and I can actually attribute a couple hundred dollars, 3 dinners and a massage to my blog.  All from the same engagement.

As with Cormac, I keep typing. I keep sharing. And I keep creating.  Not sure a Pulitzer is in my future, but maybe an Effie or a 4As Account Planning Award.

If you do what you love, you win. I love brand strategy. And as Cormac might have said “I ain’t dead yet.”

Peace be upon you.

PS. Welcome to the world Ruby.



Benefit Shoveling.


What do you do?

It’s a question that bounces back and forth at cocktail parties, breweries and work events.  There are a couple of ways to answer: a short form, couple-of-word answer, or go in-depth. In branding, I always encourage the former. Hit them with the Is-Does. What a brand product Is and what it does.

Brands communicators don’t always follow this advice.  They think they need to sell and explain by the pound or by the word. It can leave audiences confused and/or fatigued. Good creative directors know this. They tell a simple story with a beginning, middle and end. A so-called narrative. Problem is, that narrative isn’t often based upon brand strategy.  (Post for another time.)

So back to simple. Was it Benjamin Franklin who said (I paraphrase)  “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter?” 

Marketing is made simple through brand strategy.  It’s objective driven. It provides proof of value. It’s measurable. And it leaves consumers with a gravity or gravitas constructed on care-abouts and good-ats.  It is the oppo of benefit shoveling, a meme I like to share which is the bane of marketers worldwide.

Brand strategy, it’s what’s for dinner.




Influencers and SMEs.


I ran across a LinkedIn post yesterday, the topic of which was Creatorpreneurs — defined as content creators who make money. I’ve been around the web for many years working with AT&T data services during the Pleistocene so I’ve seen some evolution and trends. As an ad person working in telecommunications, getting smarter in technology required asking a lot of questions, reading a lot of literature and following smart people (SMEs- subject matter experts.)  In the early days that meant face-to-face and phone communications and reading a lot of trade magazines. But seeking out, following and communicating with smart people was how it was done.

With the advent of social media SMEs have given way to Influencers. Influencers may be pretty. Handsome. Funny. They may simply have access to SMEs. Or they may be good writers or video editors. They give advice. Sometimes shallow and paid-for advice. It’s a living. Creatorpreneurs.

Well, it’s gotten out of hand and some recent research backs me up.  When a person’s qualifications to advise is not based on their knowledge but the number of their followers we are getting off-piste. Learning from the web can be great (Khan Academy) but it can also be silly (bad AI).  The world needs more sharing from SMEs, less sharing from Influencers. SMEs make the world go round. Influencers make the party go round.

In the business world get you some SME.





Nowhere Land.


My new go-to podcast on branding is Fergus O’Carroll’s On Strategy. (He is my second favorite Fergus. RIP Fergus O’Daly.) One of Mr. O’Carroll’s latest podcasts in on PBR aka Pabst Blue Ribbon. Great brand name. Great brand name acronym.

It takes millions of mouths to create a market. Mine is only one but personally I’m not a fan of PBR.  Let’s just leave it at that. That said, the beer has ridden a wave of positive sales in “hipster” urban areas over the last 15 years. Good price, good targeting. Stars aligned.  But the craft beer phenomenon has conditioned the market toward more flavorful beers and PBR has suffered. Enter the brand planners.

Mr. O’Carroll interviewed two planners from DNA, Seattle who shared three key values unearthed during three brand discovery: Value, Classic and Nostalgia. In other words, it’s affordable, it’s a venerable, recognized brand, and it harkens back to the good old days of beer drinking. The only endemic value of the three here is value/cheap — which honestly, is an important value. But we all know as perceptions of inexpensive go up, perceptions of quality go down. So one needs a balance. Especially with endemic values.

The advertising claim that resulted from the three values is “Pabst is the place.” The problem with this campaign line/claim/strategy is that it lives in nowhere land. “Sitting in his nowhere land. Making all his nowhere plans for nobody.”  “Classic” and “Nostalgia” are inputs for advertising tone, not brand strategy.  Brand strategy incites great advertising. Brand strategy values — or proof planks, as I like to call them — must support the claim.




You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know.


I posted earlier this week that I don’t take direction when doing a master brand strategy. That may sound controversial, even dick-ish, but it’s why clients hire me.  If they could do it themselves, they wouldn’t need outside counsel.

Back in the 80s when diagnosed with depression, I didn’t know I was depressed.  I was having dizzy spells and my body was sending signals my brain didn’t pick up. A psychiatrist had to convince me.  You don’t know, what you don’t know.  If more people knew about the power of brand strategy they would be on board.  But brand owners/business owners and especially SMB chiefs think they know everything there is to know about their business. They do know lots of stuff.  But that doesn’t translate into brand strategy.  That translates into the “Fruit Cocktail Effect.” (Google it.) A common brand killer.

Brand strategy is very delicate. Very compartmentalized. Arty. And reduced. A brand that is all things to all people is not a brand. Ads, Promotions, Packaging, Search Terms ungoverned by brand strategy are a waste of air and money.  As are any other unfettered marketing dollars.  Investments supporting a brand strategy (a boiled down set of good-ats and care-abouts”) is money well spent. Money in search of return.

Peace be upon Veterans and veteran families this Memorial Day.



Client Direction. No Thanks.


I’m a fan of Sweathead, the brand-centric consultancy of Mark Pollard.  He does what I do but way more publicly. We’re likeminds I think.  In a missive today about ChatGBT he mentioned brand planners have a problem when clients provide a lack of clear direction.  He wrote:

“Strategists may struggle when clients or stakeholders provide vague or inconsistent guidance, making it challenging to develop effective strategies.” 

This seems very sound advice. In fact, I recently read somewhere that this a potential weakness of AI — the AI response is only as good at the question posed. Again, sensible.

Interestingly though, in my work, I don’t care if a client provides clear direction. When doing master brand strategy, I’m not looking for direction.  First, I follow the money. Then I interview key stakeholders, happy customers, SMEs and maybe the disaffected (if I can find them). We talk. I query, I follow the threads and look for anything resembling “proof of quality.”  The word direction doesn’t come up. 

What comes out of the sausage maker when all the info is gathered, assembled, boiled down and repatriated? That’s direction. Direction in the form of an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging. The definition of brand strategy.



Where The Real Money Is in Branding.


I read a passage in The New York Times yesterday quoting a Ukrainian soldier saying “Every yard taken felt like a mile.”  I mean no disrespect to the soldier.  I’m sitting in a comfortable chair not in a muddy foxhole. And as powerful and “real” as this sentence is, filled with life- and-death consequences it points toward something in communications and, more particularly, brand strategy worth thinking about.

What makes my brand strategy practice different from  others is “proof.”  My framework uses one claim and three proof planks to deliver the ongoing, ever-going story. Everyone in the brand strategy business offers a claim. It’s rare to find someone who mines the proof.  If I tell you I’m it’s different than me lifting your stove. With proof you believe me. It makes an impression.

As powerful as the “Every yard felt like a mile” reference goes it lacked proof. “I lay prone in mud for 6 hours, looking at the enemy through a 1inch window between my helmet and the mud. I urinated into a hole I dug with my thumb and forefinger. Afraid to drink water all day for fear of getting my elbow shot off.” You get the point.

Copywriters today are the backbone of marketing.  But strategists need to give the proof with which to work. The claim is the easy part, the proof is the money.




Testing and Brand Strategy


I was reading a little ditty on the web today about effective marketing which at first glance, seemed quite smart.

Test, then double down or kill.

  • Test everything, your messaging, your creatives, your approach, everything
  • If it works, double down and iterate further to see how far you can go
  • If it doesn’t work and iteration fails, kill it no matter what.

As I thought it through though, I began to see that while this may be good marketing advice – constant learning and positive movement – it is not at all good brand building advice.

Brand building begins with strategy. Ask a hundred people, you may get a 1hundred answers what a brand strategy looks like, but most will agree a strategy is accountable for tactics.  As I read the test, test, test advice I began to think about the whiplash it will cause marketers. And my neck hurt. Testing the brand strategy is absolutely called for.  But once in place, let your un-artificial intelligence drive the program. (Media tests are okay.)

Get your brand strategy right and get your strategy tight to save time downstream. If you test everything, you are testing nothing.




Boil Down.


I write a good deal about the boil down. The function we brand planners do when creating brand strategy — taking all of the fire-hosed information we collect, prioritizing it and illuminating a single claim that poses as the brand strategy.  Anyone can hunt and gather. Taking what is gathered and refining it into a key value that predisposes a target to purchase is the bases loaded swing.

I got some really great exploratory interviews with mega brand planners through emails telling them I had a “good ear” for strategy.  I think I used a dog whistle metaphor or something. It went something like this, “While much said in meetings is blah, blah, blah, I hear business-winning statements, observations, and insights.” Hey, it got me in the door.

The main job of the brand planner is the boil down. The “idea” referred to in What’s The Idea? (my business name) is what we are mining. But the job is not done at the claim or idea level. The “proof planks” are the heavy lifting. They feed and nourish the idea. And nourish the creative teams. The proof planks (3 in total) are, perhaps, even more important than the idea/claim. They are the science. The measurable evidence. Together, the claim and proof array build the brand. With the marketers and creative teams being the carpenters.

Boil down.  It’s what makes a Subaru a Subaru.