A Little Stand-Up.


I haven’t done a stand-up presentation in years. Covid saw to that. Yesterday I returned to action and had some butterflies.  Practicing upstairs in my office helped make everything go well – hearing yourself do it out loud makes a huge difference. In practice my jokes and body language were lacking but I knew my material. Brand strategy. 

When at my best, I’m telling stories and the slides offer good flow. Unlike when a kid in the business, my slides were one or two words. Maybe a picture.

“An artist is never more in touch with their art that when performing in front of an audience” is a saying I coined when brand planning for an online musician property — and it’s true for anyone doing stand-up (presentations).

The gig came in in just under an hour (it really flew by) and though there wasn’t a wet eye in the house, I was pleased. The audience clapped. The knowledge shared may even have changed a business life or two. Giving away knowledge is a great feeling. Everyone should do it.  Standing up or not.



Creativity and Brand Strategy


Creativity is serendipity. At least it is for me.  When cranking out ideas for brand strategies I’m drawing from past experiences, cultural observations, linguistics and even the subconscious.  Nothing happens in a vacuum. And to quote Faris Yakob a wonderfully lyrical brand strategist, ideas are recombinant.  Not sure I’ve had an original idea in my life.  

Creative people — or should I say those paid to be creative — are forever in search of the new expression of an idea. The fresh. The never done.  But we know that the recombinant notion applies here as well.  Even music is a combination of notes. Banging the music metaphor a bit more, creatives are looking to play more jazz than pop in their ideation. But the finished product, the published product, often ends up being pop. (Insert client here.)

What differentiates a creative output from that of a brand strategist is one is guided by a sales intention while the other is freeform. Unbridled creativity gathers attention for attention’s sake. When attention and “freshness” are achieved to the satisfaction of the creative mind, then strategy might be backed in. Tagged on. Bolted on.

In the creativity game, the primary goal is to engage or entertain the brain to fire off a synapse.  Done well, brand strategy does both: fire off the synapse yet with a bias to purchase. It’s not easy. And to straddle both needs, the brand strategist cannot be boring. S/he must inspire. Otherwise, you are making advertising. Hee hee.



AAdvantage. Not!


I have been an American Airlines Advantage member since 1998.  That’s 25 years. I use their Citi Mastercard for all my What’s The Idea? expenses and an occasional gift for the wifus, who knows what transacts on the family card. I like American Airlines and I like Citibank. I’m loyal to a fault. 

In 25 years, here’s what American Airlines has done for me. Allowed me to cash in points for two plane tickets to San Juan. Offered one upgrade to first class a year when I was flying a lot for a work. Denied me two free tickets using points to Hawaii because I wanted to go through Phoenix. They allowed me to redeem through Phoenix but then I had to go out of pocket from there to Hawaii.

Granted, I’m not a great customer. But when I hear friends talking about all the freebies and special deals they get to Europe, I wonder why I stay with AA. The rewards business has changed significantly over the years.  Money back. Double points. Free this, promotion that.  Not me. I barely get a free flight every 6 years. Yet I stay loyal.

Kids put everything on their credit cards — from mortgage payments to weddings (don’t ask). My kids probably haven’t touched a dollar bill in years. And they get rewards. Me? Ugatz.

Hey American Airlines, you get all my airline business, you my business expenses, you get my undying loyalty. I get Citicard and AAdvantage junk mail by the pound and an occasional flight. My kids go to Europe on Chase Sapphire points.

Something’s gotta give. It’s probably me.




Working With Creatives.


Creative people are typically problem solvers. We non-creatives tend to think they stare at a blank page as if a Sisyphean obstacle.  But they’re creative. Their brains boil over with ideas.  They love a blank page/screen.

Strategists think we help creatives by giving them direction. Stimuli. A subjective hand. Well, more often than not they don’t want it.

I recently sat through a Sweathead preso where Aisha Hakim, a creative director at 72 and Sunny, told hundreds of planners not to write longwinded briefs. In fact, she said don’t write briefs at all. She doesn’t use them. I get her POV. The longer the wind, the more the blank page isn’t blank. Confusion may reign. Her advice, if I got it correctly, identify a problem, explain why you’re the solution, and drop the mic. Let the creatives go.

Is there a happy medium?  Yes.  It’s called the client. Creatives in advertising or do have a daddy.  The client.  The person who approves the work. Without a client and money to spend a creative is an artist.

So, sell the brand strategy to the client well before the work begins. Prepare the client for a value proposition that is business-winning and make sure they believe it.  It is about them, after all.  Then let them be the arbiter of the work. Brand planning must take place up stream.

Don’t tell creatives how to do their jobs. Share the business winning framework with them, give a hint or two, then get out of the way. Let them thrive. And let the client be the client.



Proof or Poof.


Kevin Perlmutter, a friend and strategist with Limbic Brand Evolution, a practice focusing on neuromarketing, posted today on LinkedIn about the importance of understanding consumer feelings. And presumably, moving those feelings toward a bias for one’s product.  Good stuff.

I like to do the same. But readers (all 6 of you, hee hee) know my framework is less about mining feelings and more about mining proof — proof that drives feelings.  

My brand planning approach is driven by an awareness that marketing and advertising today is “90% claim and 10% proof.”  That is, it tells you what to feel rather than give you the evidence that allows you to feel it. And believe it. That requires proof.  I can say I make the best pizza in Los Angeles, but where’s the proof.

My rigor for brand planning mines proofs. Demonstrations. Evidence. Existential phenomenon. Sure, I write a brand brief but it is the proof that drives the strategy and the claim.  It’s proof or poof. 

I’s sure Kevin would agree. Check him out.



Follow The Money.


One of my brand planning tricks is to fully understand a business’s financials before I dive into the more touchy-feely world of the brand.  Back in the day (don’t ask) when working at ad shop McCann -Erikson NY, I was asked to be on a task force of AT&T and McCann people. Our chore was to write marketing plans for a number of emerging business services. Collectively we came up with a rigor called 24 Questions: a follow-the-money guide that helped the team understand the balance sheet and the opportunity.

I’ve been using the 24 Questions as part of my brand planning discovery rigor for years.  When you understand how money is made, you tend to have more credibility among company executive — which is important when talking strategy. But really important when talking brand strategy.

When presenting observation about a company’s business, customer base, and sales environment, having data on what is business-winning goes a long way.

So, there is your tip of the week.  Be artistic in your brand strategy but build it on a foundation of financial understanding.



Marko-babble Revisited.


I coined a term “marko-babble” to cover all the gibberish marketers use to try and justify their opinions and decisions.  You’ll know marko-babble when you hear it. It’s a lot of “no there there” reasoning and makes you scratch your head in wonderment.

There’s also a great deal of brand-o-babble out there in the brand planning sphere.  One example I came across recently was the use of the Jungian archetypes.  A brand agency smartly used the idea to sell a strategy project to a university.  Sounds higher ed, no?  Name drop Carl Jung.  Well, the problem was, the brand shop did 500 interviews of students, faculty and staff (good homework, for sure) but it resulted in three clusters of archetypal users or consumer: Supportive Advocate, Experiential Adventurer, and Determined Enthusiast.  Sound like the entire planet to me.  Then they built the strategy off these three groups.

It’s important to understand customer care-abouts. But what the brand shop neglected to do, at least as far as I can, was to include brand good-ats into the equation.  Without a balance of good-ats and care-abouts you are simply pandering to your existing target. And overlooking endemic values that make your brand great.  It’s not a smart growth strategy.

Add to that the fact that the three archetypes, combined, are not particularly discrete and you really water down the value prop.

And that’s no babble. Peace.



Key Brand Indicators.


One of my jobs as a brand planner is to help companies focus. When a brand is focused, consumers can focus.

The opposite of focus in brand planning is The Fruit Cocktail Effect. That’s what happens when you try to promote yourself as too many things. With fruit cocktail, the peach tastes like the pear which tastes like the grape and the pineapple and the cherry. There is no differentiation, it’s just one sugary mess. That’s what happens to brands that don’t focus.

Lots of marketers today talk about KPIs or key performance indicators. They are a great way to manage business. (You can’t manage what you don’t measure.) But in brand planning we are not measuring Excel charts of KPIs, we are managing attitudes, beliefs and biases — and a limited few, at that. For the sake of this discussion let’s call them KBIs or key brand indicators.  To avoid The Fruit Cocktail Effect, What’s The Idea? dictates a One Claim, Three Proof Plank brand strategy. Effectively, measuring four things. 

(One prominent phone company understood it could maintain market share if price perception was within 10% of the nearest competitor. That’s a proof plank. That’s a KBI. And that’s a business winning measure.)  

For more information and elucidation, write Steve@WhatsTheIdea.com



Singularize The Solution.


The brand framework that has worked for so many of my clients is one built around a single solution.

First an exclaimer, there are two kinds of brand planning: Master Brand Planning, which sets the strategy for all brand activity and Everyday Brand Planning, where strategic planners solve tactical, temporal challenges. Whichever your brand planning approach — mine happens to be in master brand planning — there is a new wave planning rigor that lasers in on the problem.  With the main commercial or attitudinal problem in hand, the thinking goes, the solutions can flow freely.  There’s a famous quote often attributed to Einstein “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.”

This hyper focus on the problem is where I take issue — not with the importance of the problem but with the resulting lack of specificity about the solution.

My brand framework focuses on a single solution.  That solution is supported, proven and seeded in the consumer mind by three proof planks. The most famous and lasting brand strategy for Coca-Cola is “refreshment.” The proof planks for refreshment are: 1. unique kola nut taste, which hits the mouth and throat with a jolt, 2. served icy cold as evidenced by sweating bottle pictures, and 3. (still working on that one.) 

The wood behind the arrow at Whats The Idea? is the solution. A codified, constant pulse of a single solution…supported by 3 proof planks.  When a master brand uses this framework, the design of the work is easier, approvals of the marketing simpler, and muscle memory of the consuming public less complicated.

Problem and solution are critical components of brand planning. But I contend singularizing the solution is the critical job of the brand planner.