Brand Solutions.


Brand strategists and brand planners make a living uncovering problems. Sales problems, targeting problems, product problems. I could go on and on. In my brand planning rigor, I delve into customer care-abouts and brand good-ats.  When customers care about something your brand is not good at, you’ve got work to do. That’s a problem. Pretending is not a good brand strategy. So you can see why many brand planners circle the problem.

But I like to think of care-abouts and good-ats as positive qualities.

Unabashedly a contrarian, I don’t spend my days looking for problems but for solutions.  How does one plot success for a brand without looking for hindrances? Weaknesses? Negatives?  Well, by looking toward the light.

Twenty years ago when baseball god Mike Piazza emerged from the NY Mets dugout with blond hair, he gave men everywhere permission to color their hair.  Did L’Oreal or other hair care companies use that moment to double the hair coloring market? Nope. An opportunity missed. A solution, sans a problem.

Attempt to be a solution seeker not a problem solver. It’s harder work, but more rewarding.






In my business I have clients. And many people would agree the first order of business in a service industry is to make the client happy – make them comfortable. When companies need brand strategy help, it’s typically because they’re experiencing some chaos in their marketing. So, to a degree, they are already uncomfortable. The question is, is it my job to make them comfortable? Well, yes. Certainly. But only comfortable in their decisions about the brand plan. Comfort resides in the decisions they make that will improve business.

But getting to those decisions can be discomforting. And that, too, is my job.

I’ve written a number of times in this blog how some of my brand claims contain a single word clients find awkward. They approve of the strategy but the mention of one word unsettles them. It’s like if you have a big nose, you don’t like to talk about noses. My response to these clients is “we don’t have to use the word” – my claims are not taglines – “but we do have to follow the idea.” With that explanation, I almost always get agreement. “Leave it to the agency to deliver the word.”

Sometimes I wonder if my job it to make clients comfortable to uncomfortable. I am not in the gladhanding business, I’m in the improving business business. And you can’t do that without breaking a few eggs.

So long as you are honest. So long as you are truthful. So long as you are being true to the product and the consumer, a little discomfort is healthy.






It really ticks me off when conservatives fly big flags on their trucks and pepper their rhetoric with words like patriot as if those were theirs’ alone.  When republicans and conservatives try to co-opt these words and symbols it’s good brand craft but disingenuous politics. Eddie Vedder sings “I am a patriot and I love my country.” I’m with him.

Former president Trump is getting ready to launch a new social media platform so he can have his free flow voice back.  As you know he’s been stricken from Twitter and Facebook for inflammatory content. His new platform, I read today, will be called TRUTH Social.  

I have lots of conservative friends. I love the Yin and Yang that is American politics. It keeps everybody on their toes. It keeps the populace engaged. Charged up.  It’s why our democracy has been around so long — this two-party system.  But based upon the social media slinging of the last few years, attempting to co-opt the word truth as a conservative tenet seems a little bit of a reach. But debatably it’s probably good brand craft.

Back in the day, you could not air an ad on TV that made a superiority claim without proof. Commercials with claims had to be submitted to Network Standards and Practices before being aired. They were truth-tested.  

I am all for free speech. I’m all for truth. But I do feel truth in politics is being watered down. Will Truth-ish be a word for this decade?



Attitudes and Evidence.


When it comes to brand strategy, most say it is hard to measure. I beg to differ.  With the proper brand strategy framework – claim and proof — measurement is easy. Albeit expensive. There’s a fairly common research methodology called Usage and Attitudes. Well, when measuring brand strategy, I suggest an Attitudes and Evidence Study is more appropriate.  Leave usage for more product specific work.

Quantitative research into consumer attitudes about a brand and key competitors is part one of the A and E Study. Part two is the evidence that forms those attitudes – the memorable proofs underlying those attitudes. Diving into the “whys” attitudes are formed is the domain of the brand strategist.

When one hospital is believed to offer superior cariology care to another, it is the evidence is that sets the bar. It’s not marketing words like “innovation” or “caring doctors” or “cardio procedure” gobbledygook.  When a restaurant is deemed to have superior flavors, it is the evidence that provides the proof. James Beard Awards. Nationally renowned chef. Unique technique.

Research that uncovers the evidence behind the attitude is what is measurable. It’s the science behind the strategy. Once these metrics are established and logged, then usage and sales can be overlayed. And the real fun begins.

Brand strategy measures are primordial. They shouldn’t be add-ons.


Brand Strategy Building Blocks.


In an article about the promotion of Parag Agrawal following Jack Dorsey’s step down as Twitter CEO, the NYT referred to Parag as “…having stood out for his strong skills in math and theory. If you are good at the theory, you can have the ability to be analytical, to reason, to make decisions.”

Math and theory or science and theory are also critical competences of a brand planner.  The science part is unquestioned, but often underdeveloped. That is, we are all supposed to create strategies that predict success. Be it in sales or preference. That’s science. Finding replicable “if/then” equations.  But theory — theory is where brand planning gets a little dicey. The abilities to be “analytical” and to “reason” are critical but the ensuing “decisions” or last mile are the planner’s secret sauce.  And that last mile often lacks science. Planners, you see, talk about science and art. While the science may be right the art can derail it.

Rather than provide science and art in brand strategy, I suggest we provide a science and theory strategy…and leave the art to the creative peeps.

At Whats The Idea? brand strategy comprises one claim and three proof planks. Claim without proof, goes the logic, is entertainment. Yet a strategy built around one claim and three proof planks is theory — not art.  And when that theory is tied to science, you have building blocks. You have things to measure.

I love when I hit a creative triple or home run. It’s not my job. Science and theory are my job.





Thanks and Giving.


Fresh off a really neat brand strategy assignment, I wanted to share a few “tings” (as my Norwegian aunt Inger would say) for which I am thankful. Over the years I’ve probably met with a hundred people in the brand planning business who didn’t know me from Adam. These planners were kind enough to have a coffee with a needy planner-wannabe and toss me enough knowledge and crumbs to keep me on the trail.  I learned my craft from all of you. I made a living because to you.

The planning community is really a curious and friendly lot. It’s a community that likes to teach and learn. You all inspired me in one way or another.

Then there are the friends and colleagues who kept up the lines of communication. One, a co-worker from 20 plus years ago, recently introduced me to his son who partook of the What’s The Idea? planning rigor. Learned a lot from that young ‘un.

I’d like to thank friends with ad agencies who used my services and reupped from time to time. Also, those who used me once. I worked on some of the most amazing brand because of you. And I’d like to thank the little guys who entrusted me with their brands and budgets. Also thanks the pro bono brands from whom I learned tricks and ways to plan on a shoestring.

Since I started brand planning under the sobriquet What’s The Idea?, I’ve worked with scores and scores of brands and interviewed thousands of people. The key to success is — and it may sound hokey – allowing myself to fall in love with each brand. That’s how you care enough to invest.

To all the peeps who invested time in me. I thank you. Paying back your kindness, passing it forward, is and will continue to be my greatest pleasure.

Happy Thanksgiving Megan, David, JoAnn, Kevin, Bob, Pat, Amber, Faris, Sean, Heidi, George, Marianne, Tom, Peter, Cory, Eric, Ty, Jonathan, Scott, Jane, John Durham …


Brand Strategy Tools.


I learned a neat lesson while working at FCB Advertising, which I’ve shared a number of times, worth repeating.  It’s a tool to see how “tight” your ad campaign is. But it has legs for other content as well.  

Take all your ads from a given campaign and tack them up on a wall. The exercise works best for print ads.  Then review them together in real time. See if, combined, they tell a story. Or do there appear to be outliers to the story. To the main idea. Outliers water down the story mission.

I once did this for JPMorgan Chase and its corporate website. I printed out 50 pieces of content and randomly placed them on a wall. Content JPMorgan Chase felt worthy of its corporate story. The exercise was to have JPM marketing people re-pin the content pieces into clusters — areas of similar intent and customer value. Quite telling.

Today as a brand planner I use the same tool to see how tight or loose a company or product message is. In fact, I’ve developed a tool I call Brand Strategy Tarot Cards — a shortcut exercise to identify problems.   (Google Brand Strategy Tarot Cards for a primer.) Or write me,

A randomized story is the bane of all brand planners.



Brand Planning Bracketing.


Let’s face it, every account planner is different. No matter the mentor or the shop one comes from, each planning point of view has to be, like a snow flake, different. But one thing that might bring a cohort of planners together is age. I’m 66. I’ve seen a lot of stuff in marketing. My skin may be thicker than that of a 20 something planner. How could our worldviews not be different?

I love the idea of putting brand planners of different ages on an assignment. Photographers call it bracketing: the process by which one takes the same shot with different exposures.

Were I doing new business at a large ad agency with good resources, I’d love to put a 45 year old planner on an insight assignment at the same time as a Gen Z planner — independent of one another.  Not a race or competition, just a bit of bracketing.    

Ad shops aren’t organized this way. They are organized by hierarchies. Senior to junior. Group director, director, associates. Let’s mix it up a bit. Age perspective might turn up some interesting discontinuities. Or continuities.



Advertising Success Lies in Proof.


People who know me have heard this one before “Advertising is 90% claim and 10% proof.”  That miscalculation is the foundation of What’s The Idea? That, plus the propensity for most advertising agencies and marketers to utilize the lazy tactic of benefit shoveling (see post earlier this week).

When you shovel benefits or advertise by bullet point you lose focus. You water down your idea. One of my mentors, Dick Kerr, once told me Joe Louis never knocked anyone out with his first punch.  It was always the second punch. (He was talking about media buying, but it pertains to strategy as well.)  Don’t claim something then move onto the next benefit. Say it then prove. Then prove it again. This is how you communicate an advertising message. Advertisers who make a living proving their claims are advertisers getting their money’s worth.

In a study published last month called the Better Briefs Project, it was reported that 33% of marketing budgets are wasted due to poor briefs. And 7% of agencies felt they were poorly briefed.  When you don’t have a sound, differentiated positioning idea what do you do?  You get the work approved by breaking out the shovel.






Brand Claim Efficacy.


Having spent 2,900 blog posts explaining the importance of brand strategy, it might be time to talk about what makes a good strategy. If you may need a refresher on what a brand strategy framework is, it is a simple claim and proof plank array; one claim (a boil down of customer care-abouts and brand good-ats), and three proof planks.

What makes a good brand claim?  My fallbacks when teaching claims are “Coke is refreshment” and “the worlds’ information in one click” for Google.  What makes these claims so great? Well, obviously they meet the care-abouts and good-ats criteria. Also, they are endemic values which makes the claims ownable and defensible. But another critical indicator of a good claim value is measurability. A claim has to be measurable.

The Google claim is perfectly tied to the product using one click and information. “Coke’s is refreshment” perfectly pairs the product (name) with the claim. In both cases a researcher can measure consumer belief of these claims – on an agreement scale. And we know attitudes precede behavior.

But when claims are generic or are restatements of the ad campaign they’re wasteful.  “The best cancer care anywhere,” for a long time was the brand strategy (and tagline) for Memorial Sloan Cancer Center. It was provable from an attitude and clinical standpoint. Geisinger Health System’s “Better health, easier” is an indistinguishable claim. (Better than what?) It’s also a dual claim. Building demonstrations around a word like “better” in a crowded healthcare category is average brand craft at best.     

When selecting your claim, make sure it’s not generic and make it measurable.