Politics and the Fruit Cocktail Effect.


Build Back Better was an example of a piece of failed legislation that tried to do too much. So much so, I can’t even begin to recite all its components. In brand strategy, this is an example of the “Fruit Cocktail Effect” where so much is going on it all blends together in one sugary mess. The GOP looked at this sugary mess and countered with “too much taxpayer money leads to a deficit.” That’s one thing. And the GOP won.

The packaging the climate bill as the “Inflation Reduction Act” was an example of good branding. Even though the climate bill had some pharmaceutical tidings and tax legislation, it was all arguably a way to collectively reduce climate change by investing in new energy technologies that will lower inflation. Smart logic.

In my realm, marketers who want to position around too many values miss the mark. At What’s The Idea? I counsel clients to load up on one macro claim and support the hell out of it with three proof planks. That one idea, three proofs.  It’s the antithesis of the “Fruit Cocktail Effect” giving brand managers and consumers a clear understanding of a brand’s business-winning marketing strategy.    

I borrowed a lot from pedagogy and politics for my brand strategy framework. The Inflation Reduction Act shows evidence of someone in the White House finally paying attention.



Learning From the Future.


Ah the future.  Every good brand planner takes it into consideration. And the best look mostly to the future.  I break down the 4 types of strategists this way: rearview mirror planners, sideview mirror planners, dashboard planners and beyond the dashboard planners. What is strategy if not about predicting the future? 

But the future goes counter to the one thing strategists care most about: Science.  Science is about finding evidence that is replicable so that predictions aren’t predictions, they’re constant outcomes. The future in marketing doesn’t roll that way. Or role that way?? If this sounds a little chicken and egg, it is. That’s why the future is the brand planners’ nemesis. But we need to embrace it. Because that’s what marketing wants.

I read recently that when the radio was invented, the three NY baseball teams refused to broadcast the play-by-play.  They thought it would cut into attendance revenue. Doh! Today, baseball games are interminable, most lasting three hours plus. So, the powers that be at MLB are considering a pitch clock to shorten the game. But what will happen to hospitality revenue when the games are shorter? There’s incentive for most owners to have longer games.

A number of years ago I told the director of marketing of the New York Mets he should incorporate social media in home games somehow.  At the time 15% of attendees where head down in their phones during the game…especially the young women. “Nah,” was the answer.

Those that fail to learn from the future are doomed to repeat it. And you can quote me on that.



Ballast and Rudder.


There are two nautical terms I use in my branding practice: rudder and ballast.  Rudder, of course, is the steering mechanism housed under the boat that turns the boat left (port) or right (starboard).  Ballast is the weight in the bottom of the boat that keeps it from bouncing around too much. The proper amount of ballast makes it easier to use the rudder.

At What’s The Idea? we are all about the ballast.  Putting weight into brands so they stay on course, so they are not subject to being pitched about, so they are easier to control. Ballast in brands makes them powerful.

Too many brand managers are all about the rudder. Constantly piloting. Lots of tactics aimed at increasing success. Tactics that often move in different strategic directions. Brands, of course, need direction. And they must be allowed to turn. But too much rudder and not enough ballast reduce one’s ability to navigate a successful heading. 

Get your brand strategy right at the beginning. Build the weight of your brand up front. Take the time to develop it. Invest in it. And your brand will almost navigate itself.




What I Do for a Living.


When people ask me what I do for a living, as a brand planner I usually say “brand strategist.” When I see that quizzical look in their eyes, I babble on about writing “paper strategy” and creating an “organizing principle for product, experience and messaging.”  Which doesn’t really change their expression.  Moving forward I’m just going to say Brand Strategist which is kind of self-explanatory. (I used to say brand consultant, but that made me sound retired.)

The fact of the matter is I’m an advertising him/he/his. 

The most expensive application of brand strategy is advertising. And good brand strategy, like a good, tight ad brief, is the creative artist’s best friend. No one sees a brand strategy — everyone see advertising. That’s where the money is. So realistically, I am an upstream advertising person.

When you have a smart, business-building brand strategy in place, every tactic produced can be judged. As on strategy or off.  If it is on, you are putting deposits in the brand bank.  If not, you’re wasting value promotional dollars. You may get a click. You may get a sale. But those are not long term sustainable. Think win battle, lose war.

I’m an ad guy who specializes in strategy. And I build foundations. There I go again…





Loyalty and Feelings.


Kevin Perlmutter, a fellow alum of McCann-Erickson NY and now owner the brand consultancy Limbic recently posted about a piece of research suggesting “How your brand makes people feel has the highest correlation to brand loyalty.”  The observation is powerful and quite true, albeit a bit passive. 

Let’s look at two operative ideas here: feeling and loyalty.

Feeling about a brand is the result of the product itself and the positioning of that product by brand management. When Coca-Cola moved away from “refreshment” with its advertising and toward “happiness” they were looking a tangential or resulting feelings rather than an endemic feelings. The problem there was that lots of things can cause happiness. And so can lots of products. It’s ownable but only with a billion dollars. It’s a generic value. This was a campaign idea not a brand idea. Refreshment, on the other hand, can cause happiness. Happiness being a by-product of refreshment. One can earn happiness rather than position around it.

As for loyalty, nobody doesn’t want product loyalty. But one can be loyal by degree and still not have purchase intent. I like to create bias toward product purchase.  Loyalty is a marketing concept that’s been around for decades. But it’s a passive measure. Segmentation studies turn up flavors of loyalty all the time. When a consumer has a bias toward a product or service, they will go out of their way to purchase.

As much as this research is on track, in today’s analytics world where purchase is the primary measure of marketing success, I’m all for positioning around endemic product feelings/attitudes and creating bias toward purchase. “We’re Here” advertising and branding is no longer viable. Hear that Geico?

For examples of this type of work in your category please write Steve at WhatsTheIdea dot com.



The Secret of Brand Strategy.


The name of my company is Whats The Idea?, and it’s fitting.  But it’s not the whole story of this brand strategy business. To most consumers the word “idea” conveys a business only about an idea. In brand strategy the idea is important – it’s the key thought or boil-down of the brand’s value proposition. But brand strategy is here defined as “an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging.” And that goes beyond an idea. More accurately, the organizing principle is one claim (or the idea) and three proof planks — supports for the claim.

A claim unsupported or without tangibles to make one believe, is simple-minded. And sadly, simple-minded is what much branding and advertising is. Proof planks are the structure of the brand strategy.  It’s the science behind the claim.  Why three?  Because three can hold up a claim… and three can be remembered.

By itself the “idea” is not enough to build a brand. It must be supported by discrete clusters of proof. And that ladies and gentlemen is the secret to proper brand strategy. To measurable brand strategy. Not the brand voice. Not the brand mission. Not the brand personality. All mildly important, but not foundational.  Those elements are tactical and the domain of ad agencies.

So, if your branding agency or content creator who purports to do branding talks about voice, mission or personality, ask them about proof of claim. Organized proof of claim.





I’m a big fan of qualitative research.  The two most common forms are focus groups and one-on-ones.  At What’s The Idea? a good deal of my discovery is handled through one-on-ones. Here’s why.

A recent Homeowners Association meeting in my community was attended by a typical assortment of personalities.  It was a contentious meeting as a number of members were not happy with the current board. The main issues seemed the result of poor communication and power (centralized or decentralized).  Anyway, at its worst the forum went downhill when bullies tried to take the floor.  Think school board meetings during Covid.  Bullies poison the water. They make others defensive and seek retribution. They keep people from saying anything. And it is flat out uncomfortable.

On a smaller scale this can happen in focus groups.  That’s why I like one-on-ones. At best they are conversations. A sharing of insights, likes, dislikes and attitudes. At worst you have to pull a few teeth. But conversations are bi-directional. They are about dialogue. Conversations are how we got the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. Not presentations.

My best brand strategies have been built on conversations.    




Brand Strategy With A Limited Menu.


There is a West coast brand consultant I came across yesterday who does much the same things as I. From the screen grab below you will see the offerings are quite varied. There are 20 bullets. Very comprehensive. VEry impressive.


What’s The Idea? has 2 bullets. Only two offerings.  A brand brief and a one-page brand strategy. Those are my wares.

The brand brief is the tool I used to create the one-page brand strategy. The strategy contains a “Claim” and three “Proof Planks.”  Proof planks are discrete value headings, inherently tied to brand success. All interlock with the Claim. For a client in the commercial maintenance business we used the Claim the “Navy Seals of Commercial Maintenance.” The proof planks are “fast,” “fastidious” and “preemptive.”  Under each plank resides a list of individual proof points. An actual example or demonstration of value.  Not a platitude or generic, baseless claim, but a scientific, existential act, deed or accomplishment. People remember proof, they do not remember marketing fluff.

In brand strategy, proofs often become the subjects of ads, events or other content.

With all deference to other brand strategy consultants with menus, I give you a simple offering: an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging. I give you a brand brief and a brand strategy – the foundation for all things marketing. The strategy drives campaigns and voice and personality but does not dictate them.  That’s the job of the agency.

Simple is complex sometimes.



Think Before You Type. People Are Listening.


Any copywriter will tell you words are important.  Of course, they will.  But how many will dig deeply enough to find the right words that connect with the target. That demonstrate to a target they understand, sympathize, empathize and gets the reader?  Words can be found in a dictionary.  AI copy is not that far away, if it is not here already. Auto AdWords anyone? Good copy is personal.

I heard something on NPR this morning that struck me as a great example of words versus copy.  The story was about the shooting of Jayland Walker, a black man, in Akron, OH and this was the lede: “One in one thousand black men in America can expect to be shot by a police officer.” It’s a real smack in the face line of copy — but it must have been written by a white person because it is utterly untrue. I’d say nearly all black men in America worry about being shot by a police officer. Not one in a thousand. Parse the sentence and it may have been accurate — statistically one in one thousand black men may be shot by police. But that’s not what a black man is likely to hear.

We have to listen to our words. We have to try to contextualize our words.  That shit isn’t woke. It’s listening and thinking. Think before you type.

Rest In Peace Jayland Walker.


Brand Roots.


A brand strategy is only as strong as its roots.  I’m in the roots business. With roots in place, it is then up to the CEO, CMO, director of marketing and brand managers to do the cultivation work.  Otherwise, a brand strategy is a piece of paper and a bunch of words contribution to the pantheon of marko-babble — no more important than a shareholder letter, an about section on the web, or ad in a charity program.

Roots are where growth comes from.  And I’m not talking about sales growth, I’m talking about strategy and tactical growth. You see, tactics today comprise 85% of marketing budgets. Check your marketing budget. And tactics are what we measure for sales effectiveness. But tactics sans brand strategy (the organizing principle for product, experience and messaging) do not grow into healthy trees.  When a brand strategy is managed well, everyone at a company is looking for ways to prove the strategy.

When working at McCann-Erickson NY on AT&T, I sent a brand idea to our CEO John Dooner. It was an idea for a demonstration of “refreshment,” the Coke brand idea. It may have been one of the most brazen things I had ever done. I didn’t send an idea to do more advertising, I sent an idea to support the brand claim.

Coke had great roots. People knew how to feed them.