The Edge Of Newness.


In a discussion between Rick Boyko and Sarah Watson on the film about Sir John Hegarty I posted about this week it was said that brand planners like to “live on the edge of newness.”  Not only could I not agree more, I have to say it’s really what sets good planner planners apart.

Newness is what we all strive for. Even with a simple concept, wrapping it in new language, context, and culture is a key to breaking through and being remembered.

I like to talk about rearview mirror planners, sideview mirror planners, and dashboard planners. All are worthy.  But I think the craft is at its best when we play beyond the dashboard. Seeing what we can’t see yet. That’s living on the edge of newness. Peering over the edge. Planning for what’s beyond.

In my brand strategy framework (one claim, three proof planks), I like claims that have some familiarity yet utter newness.

Battle, Bartle, Hegarty (BBH), Sir John’s old shop, is at its best when working on edge of newness.





The Inside Out of Brand Consulting.


Independent marketing and/or sales consultants dot the business landscape, providing small and mid-size companies with advice to improve business processes, effectiveness and earnings.  In my special class of business consulting, brand strategy, the goals are similar but the deliverables different.  We tend toward communications (and experience) while marketing consultants delve more into business fundies and delivery.

I can’t speak for all brand strategists but I like to work from the inside out. That is, I like to understand the foundational drivers of the company/brand. What the brand is good at? Where is the love of the founders and leaders?  Who’s the best employee and why? What’s the special sauce?  Only when the real business motivations are understood do I look outside…at the consumer.  Mostly marketing and sales consultants start outside, then look in. Where is the demand?  And how will we optimize and improve the approach to meet that demand?

In my parlance, study the brand good-ats before the customers care-abouts. Like a scientist, I study the DNA before the population at large.

It’s a different mindset. A different emphasis. It helps me sell and it helps clients buy.



John Hegarty and the Levi Strauss Brand.


While watching a video yesterday on Sir John Hegarty, one of the guiding lights of advertising over the last 50 years, I was made to realize how BBH (Bartle, Bogle, Hegarty) was fundamental to the brand building of Levi Strauss & Co.  As a huge fan and consumer of Levi’s jeans and also of their advertising, oddly, I have never studied the brand strategy up close. Yesterday in the movie, John offered up the brand idea: Toughness. And he’s so right. Even as I sit in a pair now with a hole in the nether area, I completely understand this position. Toughness.

Admittedly, a good deal of advertising has hit the market, especially in the U.S. that has been off-idea. In fact, when stone washed jeans and tight-fitting jeans came to market, to expand the market, it become harder to support toughness. Stone washing made jeans less tough. Form-fitting jeans for women, reduced the toughness needed in the jeans and its appeal to younger women.

The rivets that made Levy’s tough, the mega-durable stitching, and the hearty denim fabric, all contributed to the main claim. But cowboys in stretchy jeans don’t really fit the brand. Or do they? Toughness is expected of Levi’s.  Even when the models are dancing in the club. Toughness is as toughness does. We evolve, brands evolve,

Starts with a good product. Build it with a good brand strategy. Then, as Hegarty might say, it’s time for the magic.



Market Like It’s A Craft.


I was reading Ana Andjelic’s  newsletter, The Sociology of Business, this morning and came across a dinnerware company called Caskata. My first introduction to the company was through the website. There is lots to like about this company.

First, the products are exquisite. The colors and designs are candy for the eyes. Second, they are front and center on each page. Celebrated. Photographed brilliantly, with accents like a crusty baguette on a rough-hewn, spalted maple table.  The beautiful dinnerware is the hero. There is a level of taste here that few websites achieve. And where there’s taste in art direction and photography, there has to be taste in product – so the consumer mind goes.

This is how you build a website. You herald the product. Don’t overdo it with pictures of smiling, happy people. Bleed the product shots to the fullest extend of the page. Use empty space as an accent. In other words, art-direct your product and home page like it’s your first and only baby.

But what I like the best about Caskata is the product designs themselves. They are amazing. They get the product right first. It’s hard to herald a plain product.  

We throw around words like “brand” (verb) and “creative” and “design” too easily these days. They are crafts. Expensive crafts. You can’t buy them on the web by the pound.

You don’t have top be a craftsperson to use a craftsperson. You just have to respect the craft.



Needs, Benefits, Care-abouts and Good-ats.


There are a number of tools marketing and brand planners use to assist in the development of strategy and plans. One such tool is the Needs/Benefit Analysis. As I understand it this tool, used by P&G, delves deeply into consumer needs and product benefits. No one can go wrong studying the needs of the consumer. The iPhone met consumer needs in aggregate, though Steve Jobs is correct in that no one ever woke up before its invention and said I wish I had a phone that played music, took pictures and made and played movies.

And as for the benefits, they, too, are all-important, as they’re the rational and emotional deliverables of the product. With these needs and benefits in hand, the job of the brand planner is to boil them all down into a memorable and cogent value proposition that distinguishes the product.

At What’s The Idea?, our approach is a little different. We are all about the needs, which we call Customer Care-Abouts, but diverge when it comes to Benefits. Though benefits are the outcome of product features, they are consumer centric. And we favor building brands via endemic or built-in product value. We call those Brand Good-Ats. It is quite okay for brands to tout their inherent advantage.

Brand planners using care-abouts and good-ats are also faced with the challenge of boiling them down into a memorable, cogent value prop.  With two masters, though, this becomes harder.

But the result is more lasting, powerful and ownable.




Electioneering Labels


Words and labels used in politics can have a huge effect on voters.  Let’s look at a couple of polling words first.  Demographic pollsters are still using “suburban housewives” as a tag for some non-urban women. My daughter is having a baby in March and she has spent the last couple of months nervously looking into child care, well in advance.  She’s an earner and would probably be insulted by the label.  And then there’s ever-present polling reference to Donald Trump’s base called, “white non-college educated voters.”  Back in the day they were called blue-collar voters but that wasn’t specific enough. Some pollster had to tighten it down by declaring them sans college education. Blue collars built America. I’m not a fan of labels.

And there were other words used as weapons to garner votes. “Socialist” was worth millions of republican voters. Certainly, by the greatest generation and Cubanos.  “Socialized medicine” became a rallying cry. As did the word “Choice” in healthcare. You will lose you choice of doctors. Democrats countered socialized medicine with the “Medicare for All.” A term offering very a favorable contextual construct. Who can argue with Medicare?

There will always will be lots of marketing going on in electioneering. Some good, some bad, some just mean. The media needs to be careful with all of these labels.




Take the Black Challenge.



I recently opened a piece of email from Marmot, an outdoor outfitter and clothing retailer, and found a picture of a black man and woman wearing Marmot parkas in a winter mountainscape. It surprised me. I can’t remember ever seeing a single black person in a hero shot in a Marmot promotion before. It’s 2020 people. We can do better.

Here’s the Black Challenge.  I am asking advertisers to commit today to using only black people as models in their promotional work for one year. 365 days. Think of it as a reparations appeal to marketers who have been casting white people in ads for as long as anyone can remember.  If casting directors think this will affect sales, they may be right but they’re also not giving U.S. consumers enough credit.

Perhaps it’s a goofy story but I used to play basketball at the East 54th street recreation center in NY and was the only white guy.  After a while I didn’t notice a skin color difference until I put my hands up in front of my face for a pass. 

This is how you make change.  You don’t talk about it, or blog about it, you just change. Come on advertisers, take the challenge. If you do, I smell a Wall Street Journal cover story!






Defense of a Brand Name.


My business is called What’s The Idea? I rather like it. Following my own advice to have a brand name with a strong Is-Does, What’s Thea Idea? puts me in the idea business. The logo lock-up uses the descriptor “A Brand Consultancy” adding further context. (Perhaps I should have said brand strategy consultancy since I’m a words person not a graphic designer, but that’s a discussion for another time.) 

Now the idea business could pigeon-hole me into an innovation bucket or a creative bucket. Don’t mind being there. Though, another way to parse the name is that I’m in the indignance business. “Hey, what the hell are you doing? What’s the idea?” Another bullseye. Another call for focus.

At its simplest, the name asks businesses what is their single idea. Their single brand position the minds of consumers.  Their single consumer magnet.  The company is not called “Whats Are The Ideas?”, a common branding problem for many brands/companies that want to be many things to many people. AKA the “fruit cocktail effect.”

One of my favorite quotes is from David Belasco a renowned Broadway producer. He said “If you can’t put your idea on the back of my card, you don’t have a clear idea.” Bravo!

Find your brand idea and you’ve reached the first step in brand strategy.




Reimagine Possible.


Jeff Dachis is a really smarty dude. We’ve never met but I’m a big admirer.  He co-founded Razorfish a digital ad agency, then co-founded Bond, Art and Science and experiential marketing firm. Next came the Dachis Group, a social business outfit which was really edgy.  Jeff and I were cohorts in thinking about the social web and its impact on business. I was trying to coin the term “social computing” he called it “social business.”  The startup I worked for at the time was Zude, his was Dachis Group. The winner??? Jeff.

His most recent effort, and outgrowth of a diabetes diagnosis is called One Drop: a perfectly named business meant to improve and simplify the life of diabetics. Jeff built the business into a multi-million dollar company, in fact, Bayer just invested $100 million this past August. Now it seems One Drop will expand beyond diabetes into other disease states. Stay tuned.

Smart is as smart does.  Until it comes to a branding. And taglines.  One Drop’s line, from the website, is Reimagine Possible. Huh?  If it seems you’ve heard it before, you have. It’s probably an ad headline, a thousand times over. Also a problem, it’s not particularly endemic to healthcare. Lastly, it is not a top patient care-about.  It feels to me like Mr. Dachis approved it because he didn’t want to over-manage someone in his marketing dept. 

Branding is hard. Real hard. Even for smart people.



The Purpose Of Branding Is Not Purpose. 


Purpose is a word brands and marketers are using to cudgel positive brand values. It has been co-opted by many companies to convey ideals like sustainability, education, anti-poverty, LGBTQ and an assortment of other worthwhile causes.

Purpose-driven initiatives are brilliant. IRL (in real life). I’m wary, however, of making them part of your brand strategy. Unless there is an endemic product feature or value that accrue, stay away.  

Brand strategy, in the What’s The Idea? framework, forges three product values under a single brand claim. Those values are culled from the most powerful customer care-abouts and brand good-ats.  These three values are the ones most likely to impact a sale. They must not be borrowed-interest values, which is often what “purpose” driven values are.

Say you are a kayak maker in the mountains of Colorado and you donate 1% of your profits to water conservation. Excellent.  But that doesn’t make you a conservation company. You are a kayak company.

Branding is your purpose. Your only purpose.  It’s what will allow you the largesse to donate.

PSFK a smart brand and marketing consultancy has an upcoming event called Retailing with Purpose. The event description says “Where we investigate ways to respond to the needs of the community – from sustainability to inclusion.” Off-piste my friends. Topical yes, but a side trail. Worthy of attention but tactical…not a branding play.

I have a presentation on social media with a slide “Care about what your customers care about.” I live by it.  But tie that care-about to something deeply embedded in your product features, functions and experience. Don’t piggy back. Not in branding.