Benefit Shoveling is Not Branding.


I received a lovely mailer today from my financial investment company trying to get me to move my credit card over.  The art direction was great, the copy good, but the strategy lacking.  You see, the promotional piece suffered from something I call benefit shoveling — the listing of consumer benefits ad nauseum. The bennies weren’t organized in an discernable way, other than, say, most impactful first. Plus they weren’t arrayed in a way that was brand salient. They were shoveled, one after the other.

I work with a financial client in a similar business.  We have just landed on a claim and proof array (brand strategy) that captures what consumers want most and what the brand does best.  When I look at the credit card promotion-piece I received, it became perfectly clear to me how a brand strategy would have helped. Rather than shoveling benefits, a strategy would have built the benefits into a coherent story. A story that only one institution would tell.

In fact, were I to rewrite the credit card promotion with my own client’s strategy, the shovel would disappear and the cement ready for mixing – as the strategic building blocks were already in place. That’s brand strategy at work. As Marilyn Laurie, world famous AT&T brand expert would say, “Make deposits in the brand bank.” Shovel no more.




Branding Pablum.


Mission Health, an operating division of HCA Healthcare, is based in Asheville, North Carolina, and is the state’s sixth largest health system. In 2018, for the sixth time in the past seven years, Mission Health has been named one of the nation’s Top 15 Health Systems by IBM Watson Health (formerly Truven Health Analytics). Mission Health is the only health system in North Carolina to achieve this recognition. Mission Health operates six hospitals, numerous outpatient and surgery centers, post-acute care provider CarePartners, long-term acute care provider Asheville Specialty Hospital and the region’s only dedicated Level II trauma center. With approximately 12,000 colleagues and 2,000 volunteers, Mission Health is dedicated to improving the health and wellness of the people of Western North Carolina. For more information, please visit or @MissionHealthNC.

The above 130 words are an example of boilerplate copy; a wonderful exercise undertaken by PR (internal or external) to convey what a company “is” (in this case a regional healthcare provider), and some of its best characteristics. Unlike a brand strategy, boilerplate gets to be lengthy and inclusive. The problem with most boilerplate is it rarely acknowledges brand strategy. And for those not overly familiar with brand craft, brand strategy is not just for consumer packaged goods. It’s for all businesses.

The above boilerplate example does a good job of sharing company provenance, scale, along with a couple of cherry-picked “bests/onlys.” It does not explain “how” it is a good health system. The closest it gets is buried at the end “dedicated to improving the health and wellness of the people…” This sentence is the same for every health system extant. It’s marketing pablum.

What this boilerplate needs, probably in the first sentence or three is a demonstration of that so-called dedication. Branding is about claim and proof — but mostly proof. Organized proof.  While healthcare is getting better at branding but it’s still, en masse, pretty awful.

I love the challenge of messy brands. I wait by the keyboard.




Total Immersion.


“You gotta be in it to win it, like Yserman” is a favorite quote of mine. From a Kid Rock song.  

My business is set up for total immersion. I typically do a brand strategy in a condensed period of time; ideally one month. I’m all in during that month. Everything I read, watch on TV, see on a tee-shirt or bumper sticker informs my thinking about the brand, its targets and buying culture.

Whenever I find an assignment dragging out over a “couple, two, tree” (sic) months – a little Brooklyn color – the immersion wanes. And I need to ramp up again. One time while working on a cool Microsoft project, I took on another assignment for a global supply chain thingie. It was crazy complex and I pooped the bed. My insights were worthy but the boil-down never happened. I didn’t charge for my time. Total immersion didn’t happen.

Brand planning, at least my brand planning, is not a multitasking kind of pursuit. It’s full tilt boogie.  




Company Culture.


I read a lot about company culture.  When I first started working at McCann-Erickson I was told the culture was entrepreneurial. That translated into “Do what you think is right until a boss tells you differently.”  Or “Fall forward fast.” I guess that’s culture.

The brand strategist in me however asks the question “Is company culture prescriptive or is it free-flowing?”  Coming from the strategy side of the business I go with the former.

At What’s The Idea? brand strategy is defined as “an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging.”  I certainly could add the word “culture” here but it’s kind of superfluous. Kind of implied.

When studying anthropology at Rollins College it was a given fact that culture resulted from structuralism and/or functionalism. I forget what structuralism is but functionalism suggests that cultural behaviors are tied to functional outcomes.  Well, in brand strategy functional outcomes are prescribed. And that’s not just “sell more stuff.” It’s “sell more stuff because”…  If you are a company that makes web development easier or loan applications easier, then the company culture should be about improving usability. But sometimes culture decouples from business-winning pursuits, e.g., ping pong tables or kegerators. And that’s off-brand if you ask me.




Brand Missionary.


A synonym for brand mission ought to be brand objective. Today in branding work though, mission often refers to a reason-for-being that contributes to the greater good. Mission-based companies have loftier goals than shareholder value or after-tax revenue. Patagonia, the grandmother of mission-based companies, is all about preserving the planet. 501C companies can bypass taxes because their mission is not to make money but to make a difference.  

But a good number of marketers are using brand missions to position their brands. Often to curry favor with crunchier consumers. It’s a thing. “For every soda we sell we’ll donate $.10 to the save the piping plover.”  I am not belittling these efforts. But these good deeds aren’t brand craft.

A good brand mission isn’t a hobby, it is tied to the brand objective. Which is tied to a business objective.

I’ve written hundreds of brand strategies. All of them containing missionary work.  But that work is secondary to establishing a singular brand position, endemic to the product or service, that predisposed or post-disposes a consumer to action.





Brand Claim.


The claim for the TV show Soul Train was Black Joy is good TV.  How do I know that? Because I heard the statement on NPR and decided to make a blog post about it.  I’m in the claim business. I study these things.

While most consultants are paid by the page, delivering hundred-page analyses of business strengths, weakness, opportunities and threats, I deliver a single page, boiled down from all that information. A page with one claim and three proof planks (three discrete, actualized behaviors that allow consumers to believe the claim.)

In the case of Soul Train, conveying joy and using dance and music as the conduit was genius.

“A bottle so distinct, it could be recognized by touch in the dark or when lying broken on the ground” was the brief written in 1915 to the designers of the Coke bottle. Pretty short, pretty sweet. Today I’m sure a marko-babbling brand manager could write a good 20-page brief on the topic.

The work of the brand planner — for master brand strategy development at least — is to amass as much information about customer care-abouts and brand good-ats as one can, then boiling it all down into a single statement of value. Ava DuVernay recently said about Diversity, Equity and Inclusion “It came from a place of absence. Now it comes from a place of abundance.”  Well brand claims are all about coming from abundance and moving toward a place of absence… of singularity. A singular, powerful, endemic claim.

Master brand strategy is the most important work in all of marketing.



Italian Leather Branding.


I’m thinking of changing the name of my business to Italian Leather Branding.  I don’t know why I believe Italian leather is better than any other leather but I do.  Someone, somewhere planted that seed in my mind and it wouldn’t surprise me if you felt the same way. Italian leather is softer. More supple. The most beautiful tan color. And most important of all, it’s worth double maybe triple the price.

That seed that someone planted — that’s branding.  It’s what all brand planners aspire to. To create an image in the mind of a consumer that pre- and post-disposes one to purchase. Or to prefer.  I did buy some Italian shoes one time.  Most expensive shoes I ever bought. And you are not going to believe it but they squeaked. Swear to God. My local shoe maker, Gaspar, suggested soaking the soles in water and guess what? Italian leather leaches. I didn’t know that. Water-stained Italian shoes…ouch.

But here’s the thing, it wasn’t the shoes’ fault.  Couldn’t have been the Italian leather.

Feel me?



Novant Health.


Novant Health, a system based in Charlotte, North Carolina fired 175 employees this week for not adhering to their mandatory vaccination policy. Someone put on some big girl pants. If we are to trust healthcare providers with our health, it’s good to know some people in management support scientific facts. That’s why we have peer reviews and protocols and continuous improvement programs.   

While doing brand strategy research it’s important to speak with scientists to learn the rational truth and storytellers to learn the poetic truth. I never would have come up with the Northwell Health brand strategy claim had I not interviewed Yosef Dlugacz, SVP Quality Management.

Brand Strategy is about pitching and catching. And the pitching has to be based in science.   

Novant understands it couldn’t deliver on its Hippocratic Oath had it not followed the science supporting vaccinations. Love this company. For many reasons, but this is number 1!



An Exercise.


Boilerplate in the marketing world is the copy used on press releases at the end of a press announcement. It usually is preceded by the word About (insert name of company.) Boiler plate is almost always unimaginative. It usually contains a rote overview of company history, highlights, accomplishments and scale.

The exercise I am suggesting for brand planners is to ask company stakeholders, during discovery, to cobble together some boilerplate for their place of business or brand.  As an exercise, it will probably be best to have the stakeholder do it before the interview, as it will really bring the session to its knees. It’s hard work.  It might also be good to have the writer limit the boilerplate to three sentences. Last week I posted about what makes a brand or company “famous.” Crafting boilerplate is an extension of that idea.

Most people go through this exercise when creating their personal LinkedIn presence. It’s a boiled down overview of one’s self for the profile.

Doing boiler plate for a person is harder than doing boiler plate for a company. In both cases it’s an exercise in concision…and an exercise in branding.



Dynamic Strategy?


I like EP and Co and strategy lead Chris Plating, though I never would have changed the original agency name Erwin Penland to EP. (Stay on track Steve.) Everybody in the ad business is looking for an edge and to that end EP and Co. just launched a new research modality called EPiQ. 

I read the introductory LinkedIn post a couple of times and am not exactly sure what it is.  Marko-babble is a bear. It may be some sort of online panel that works as concept testing and creative testing.  And it seems to throw off consumer insights, either through AI or manual data nerds. Nothing wrong with that. And the name is okay. 

Where I get rubbed though is when I see explanations like this, from new hire Sheniqua Little, who comes to EP with serious chops: “Compelling research results fuel dynamic strategy and creative.”

The words dynamic strategy, in the context of brands, is an oxymoron. Brand strategy should not change with the wind. Even if consumers are driving that wind.  Brand strategy is built upon what consumers want most and what brands deliver best. (In What’s The Idea? parlance, those are care-abouts and good-ats.)

This tool seems to suggest strategy can change in almost realtime — as long as its consumer derived.  I love consumers trust me. But the Yin and the Yang of branding is a balance. Changing your strategy based on consumer Galvin Skin Response is a mistake. Lock down your brand strategy then use EPiQ to test communications effectiveness of tactics. But not the strategy.