Aspire. Don’t Dispire.


As a group, I think brand planners are pretty good at delving into feelings and psyches. Reading people. Especially excitements, highs, lows and anxieties.

The best of our questions when doing brand planning interviews hit personal hot buttons. Not just likes and dislikes but prides and prejudices, favorites and heroes. I personally like to inject my excitement into an interview to trigger others’ enjoyments.  Downer or negative interviews are the wrong footing for good brand planning. We aspire, we don’t dispire (new word). Brand planners do best when shining light.

Brand strategy done right creates muscle memory around positive attitudes. Attitudes that create brand predisposition.  That’s my secret.  Don’t pass it on.  Hee hee.





Benefit Stringing.


I often rant about advertising that is 90 percent claim, 10 percent proof…a bad ratio. But today I’m going to chat about ads that make a claim but don’t take time to explain the benefit.  They just jump on to the next claim – stringing benefits.

Mathnasium is a national chain of math tutors. I heard a billboard of theirs yesterday on National Public Radio. Billboards are hard because they are only 15 seconds long. They tend to fall prey to benefit stringing.

In the Mathnasium billboard they claimed “customized learning plans,” then jumped to something else. Having worked on a brand plan for a math tutoring organization, I know how textured customized learning plans can be. If Mathnasium were smart marketers and wanted to get meaningful attention of parents, they could have used the full 15 seconds on the topic. Instead, they tried to jam as much shallow information into the billboard as they could. And it rendered a “we’re here” ad — nothing more than name recognition and contact info.

If you are trying to convince parents your math tutoring firm is better than others, you need to educate them.  Customized learning plans unexplained are about as differentiating as “qualified math tutors.”

The best advertising and the best brand plans understand education is the key to preference not sales copy by the pound.





About a year ago I developed a brand strategy lite document for a local math tutor I was mentoring through the Venture Asheville Elevate program. Here are the first two slides from that presentation:

(Slide 1)


  • The brand claim is not a tagline.
  • (Brand name) is well-named but not well understood. It’s our job to add meaning.
  • Lastly, the work has only just begun. You need to build the brand through deeds, proof(s) and culture…and new service offerings.

(Slide 2)


  • A brand strategy, carried out effectively, is easily played back in research by customers thanks to its clarity, succinctness and endemic values.
  • Marketing’s job is to deliver the strategy through product and tactics.
  • All tactics and communications should make deposits in the brand bank (not withdrawals).              

I must have been having a good day because these couple of slides, with the exception of the well-named bullet, apply to all my clients — large and small. 

(Just to level-set, my definition of brand strategy is “an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging.” And my brand strategy framework is “1 claim and 3 proof planks.”)

People on Quora often ask what’s the difference between a brand and a product. Someone smart once said “a brand is an empty vessel into which we pour meaning.” Adding meaning is what a brand strategist does. Organizing and prioritizing meaning. How do you do that?  Not through words which is the most common mistake of marketers. You add meaning through deeds, proof and culture (which enables more deeds and proof.)

The end result of brand work is consumer understanding.  Not awareness. Understanding that is programed in by the brand manager. When consumers play back the specific brand values you promote (via research), you and your agents are doing your job.

Frankly, it’s quite easy.  Once you have a plan. A brand plan.



Strategy. Tactics. Flow.


The marketing world is overwrought with tactics. Tactics get budgets and we all know budgets are the oxygen that drive marketing.  

The total universe of marketing people, including those in allied industries advertising, web development, publishing and retailing, probably amounts to just under 75 million people globally. While I’m placing educated bets, I’d venture to say 98% of those people are involved in tactics – leaving 2% for strategy. If my math is correct that 1.5M strategists worldwide. 

Of that number what percent of people are mostly concerned with the strategy of tactics? Things like “open rate,” “CTR,” “A/B tests,” and “Advertising-to-Sales Ratio?” The analytics of success and failure? A big chunk is my guess.

Early in my career while working on AT&T I learned the organizing principle that is brand strategy can be measured scientifically and plotted in a way that explains sales. No really! People’s attitudes, beliefs, and loyalties toward a brand can be tracked directly to sales. Ergo a return on brand strategy (ROBS). Returns on tactics is what concerns most marketers but doesn’t take into account consumers’ psychological proclivities. Return on tactics is all plumbing. ROBS is about the flow.  And flow is what master brand strategists care mostly about.

Love to chat you up about improving your flow. Contact





A Powerful Brand Idea is Indelible.


Mining consumer insights and understanding human behavior are the key tools of the brand planner. It’s our day job. How we mine varies from planner to planner. The secret sauce and what we get paid for, though, is using those insights and behaviors to position a product in a way that increases sales conviction among consumers.  

In my case, positioning is laid out as a single brand claim, supported by three proof planks. That’s my methodology.

Knowing which insights to develop into a claim and proof array is the money maker.  Most purchasers of brand strategy are looking for a strategic and maybe creative spark to ignite consumer sales conviction.  A pithy line perhaps. A magnetic logo visual. A campaign idea. Or a disruptive retail approach. Metaphorically, many sell the dressing on the salad or the icing on the cake. I sell the base idea. And the supporting science for the idea (the planks).

There’s a saying at What’s The Idea?, “Campaigns come and go, a powerful brand idea is indelible.”  And that idea is simply conveyed in words.  It’s the result of a boil-down of insights and behaviors stated in a clear but hopefully poetic way.  Steak not sizzle.  For examples please write Steve at WhatsTheIdea.



Trust and Story.


I was reading an article in The New York Times (paper paper) on cryptocurrency this morning and it almost convinced me to buy a Bitcoin.  For $39k.  I index as kind of cheap so this was pretty scary. It got me thinking about how many things I chose to do because it was recommended or reported by The New York Times.  I watched a wacky show on HBO Max last week because a reporter said it might be the best thing on television. I spend money of Amazon for hiking gear I read about on the NYT. Wirecutter has helped me with various purchases. I’ve taken vacations and read books and and and, all because I trust the writers of The New York Times.

I do not like shopping, but apparently I am an impulse dude when it comes to trusted sources.

Trust, trusted content, and powerful, clean, articulation of a story are the beacons of commerce. And persuasion.  

I work in brand strategy. In my work I create an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging. The organizing principle is, by my methodology, one claim and three proof planks. But my work is not the story. It’s not the narrative. Sure, the proof planks are the persuaders. But sans story, they are words and scientifics on paper.

There is not better feeling than seeing a brand strategy brought to life.  And that is the job of the brand planner. Prompting, coercing and encouraging a great story. From a great creative ad agency.


Every Company Can Benefit From Brand Strategy.


It has been said, Margaret Mead when CEO of the American Museum of Natural History, required every employee to undergo psychiatric counseling. Her thinking was that all people can benefit from being in touch with their inner selves and that every wo/man can benefit from better mental health.  I love this woman.

In my opinion, every brand can benefit from being more self-aware and having better brand strategy health. Marketers are hyper-sensitive about their products. As they should be.  In service industries they are sensitive about service delivery.  Large companies have big departments dedicated to product management and product marketing. These people eat, sleep and live the product — from supply chain, to legal, to distribution, competitive position and pricing. But few people are in charge of actual brand strategy. (Large consumer packaged goods companies like P&G are the exception.)

AT&T Business Communications Services was the first service company I knew that actually managed the brand with a brand strategy. And it worked like crazy.  I have borrower their rigor for brand management and tweaked it a bit for use in my brand strategy practice. And though my clients don’t typically have the marketing budgets and data tracking of AT&T, the theory and practice is alive and well and still very effective.

Brand strategy, or the “organizing principle for product, experience and messaging” as I like to call it, is every bit as important and predictive of success as is proper product management.

Write Steve@WhatsTheIdea to begin a discussion of your brand strategy and a health-check of your brand.




Imposter Syndrome.


By definition strategy precedes action. I am not sure General Patton or Sun Tsu really knew their strategies would work. Were they imposters? The best we can do as brand planners is gather facts, array insights, organize and prioritize them then make decisions.

Do I get butterflies before presenting a master brand strategy? Even after days of self-congratulations for “nailing it?” Sure I do. Doubt can creep in. Worrying about your craft makes you a good planner. Question yourself, it’s healthy. But don’t let it overwhelm you. No one can see the future. But we can be prepared for the future. We can project what we learned and surmised and expect of the future. Then we stick a pin in it and commit.

All my brand presentations include a pros and cons section surrounding the main claim. Let your client know you’ve thought of all sides. And know your client’s business. Know how money is made so your pros aren’t touchy feelie, they are business-building.

I’m not a fan of terms like imposter syndrome. But I am a fan of the word doubt. And doubt is universal.  Foundations are what we build on.

“Then I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow you house in…” if your foundation is weak.



Strategy and Action.


Strategists sometimes get a bad rap for overthink. And overwrite. My brand briefs created to deliver master brand strategy are often 3 pages. That’s a lot of words. Brand briefs are not meant to provide by-the-pound insights and lovely writing. Nor are they to provide a circuitous narrative that makes a brand manager feel optimistic. They are designed to provide a serial story that builds a logic trail toward a business-winning claim about a product or service. That singular claim – yes, I said singular – is built upon customer care-abouts and brand good-ats.  That’s the strategy component… or the information and data boil-down for which I get paid the big bucks.

But strategy without action is simply ink. The best laid plans don’t work unless they’re acted upon and to be acted upon they must be advocated from on high, shared throughout the company, and operationalized. You can’t convince consumers unless you convince your workforce. Many practitioners believe brand strategy to be the sole domain of the marketing department. These companies are most likely to fail with marketing – even with $50 million budgets.  Brand strategy must be encultured throughout a company.

You can’t write an effective marketing plan without a brand strategy. And you can’t write an effective brand strategy without an effective marketing plan. And make no mistake a marketing plan is an action plan. Fully funded. Not piece meal funded. Measured and corrected.

Strategy and action.




Strategy and Training.


I’m a fanboy of Julian Cole of Strategy Finishing School and also Mark Pollard of Sweathead. Julian came out of comms planning and has slid into brand planning. Mark has long been a brand planner. Both are sharers. That is, they post a good deal of social media – free media – in an effort to raise visibility. And both are at places in their careers where they are trying to monetize their wares. Like musicians who make most of their money now touring, Julian and Mark (sometimes together) are charging fees for webinars and in-person training sessions.

Faris Yakob, a longtime acquaintance, is also in the marketing and branding space. He, too, works for himself and with wife Rosie monetize a business called Genius Steal through paid events, speeches and training.  But he also consults. Faris is a sharer and networker and has been for a long time.

Giving away intellectual property in social media is a time-tested business builder. And it’s been going on for decades in the regular press and trade press.  Say something really smart to the reading/consuming public and they may reach out for advice. Paid advice. Start by giving it away, then sell it.

My approach is different. I’ve stayed away from monetizing through paid speeches and training.  I continue to give away my IP. My revenue goal is 100% consulting. I prime the pump with content and do biz/dev to generate leads and engagements.

One of my clients, Trail Of Bits, has built a crazy successful business giving away IP in the cyber security space.  They share code and tools for free on GitHub. They don’t train, they consult.  And they thrive.

I’m not knocking trainers and speaker. And as a longtime blogger, I’m all about teaching and learning. But for me the excitement is in the trenches. The excitement is in the strategies themselves.