The Pandemic and the Boil Down.


If the pandemic taught us anything it was to dig deeply into our businesses and to prioritize what’s most important.  When retail doors shut, people were furloughed. Bank accounts were assessed to see how long the runway was before other bills had to be paid. Founders realized whether they could afford to bypass their own paychecks.  

With no revenue is coming in, it was important to come to terms with what could go out. Accountants were called. Banks were called. Businesses looked to the government for leadership. There was a good deal of chaos and panic.

However, many people did what I call the boil down.  They evaluated everything about their businesses and tried to go on offense. “What can we do with our resources and competencies to make things better?” Liquor distillers made hand sanitizer.  A quieted fish distributor in the Bronx sublet his space to the city, so free meals could be packaged. Restaurants created take-out businesses.  

Those who looked inward to see what they did best and how to adapt found new strength. Remember those accountants? They built a cottage industry helping clients get PPP loans.

The boil down is a fundamental part of brand planning. It’s healthy when under duress. And it’s healthy when a business is thriving.  Self-evaluate, evaluate your customers, and focus.

As Keith Hernandez would say “Do the tighten up.”



Brand Strategy and Shortcuts


There’s an old axiom in police work that suggests the ability to solve a murder drops off precipitously if there isn’t a solid lead within 48 hours.  In brand strategy development, nothing could be further from the truth. It’s a long process. At What’s The Idea?– and we’re quick — it takes a good month.

I don’t even fire up the strategy side of my brain for good two weeks.  I need to collect.  Data, stories, insights, visual cues, user experiences, the list goes on. Everything contributes.

Maybe early patterns emerge before I get thoughtful, but those are often false dawns. I require lots of information before I begin the boil down. Snap judgments early on can taint the process. Clean slate, clean slate.

When you have enough info on your brand to start dreaming about it, you are in the neighborhood. You are getting closer.  When the information starts cascading like a waterfall in one direction. That’s when it’s time to put the strategy hat on and start writing.

Mark Pollard’s book is called Strategy Is Your Words. Strategy is your work, as well. Don’t make short cuts.





The Green Day Effect.


Green Day used to be one of the coolest bands in the world. They were on a mission. They were angry. Angsty. Hungry (literally and figuratively). And they thrashed out music from their bared souls. It changed a generation. Their art, their music, was easy for them.

Then they became millionaires. And lost their anger appetite. Mansions, Rolls Royce’s, having kids…can do that.

I’m working on a brand serving the small business market. They came from small. They were underdogs. Had chips on their shoulders. They lived small business main street. As such, they offered customers a familiarity and empathy few could offer. But then they started to grow. And grow. Scale became important. As did systematization, which savvy use of technology enabled.

My work is to help them grow while still maintain that small business appetite. It’s not a logo thing. It’s not a typography or tagline thing. It’s a brand strategy thing.   

Lee Clow or Jay Chiat once said about their ad agency Chiat Day (and I parapharase) “We’re trying to find out how big we can get before we suck.” It doesn’t have to be that way. But it takes lots of planning to fight off the Green Day Effect.




Brand Strategy Presentation.


When presenting brand strategy to a client, I typically start with a couple of quotes from industry leaders. Then I share the names of those interviewed during discovery.  Next, I share what the brand brief looks like in shell form before taking them through the completed brand brief.  I read the brief which plays out like a story. The big reveal is the brand claim and three proof plank array (that provide evidence for the claim). Organized evidence.

In closing, I share bullet points on brand claim Pros and Cons.  

I’m thinking about changing it up a bit though. I might lead with a verbal introduction explaining what makes their brand great. That “what makes the brand great” explanation will actually map to the three proof planks to be presented in the brief.  But it will do so conversationally, not presentationally. A foreshadow, if you will. Every parent wants to hear their baby in beautiful.

The heavy lifting of brand planning is finding the correct 3 proof planks. Selecting the values, from many, is the brand planner’s IP.  E pluribus threeum.  From many, three. Together, these planks are the values most proven to get consumers to commit to your product or service. A triumvirate.

Sharing with a client what makes the company or brand great at the beginning of the meeting can build trust, familiarity and set the table.




Brand Planks Explained.


My brand strategy framework presentation to prospects, contains an example of a strategy for a commercial maintenance company. An excellent company in a tough, price-driven category.

The three brand planks supporting the brand claim are: fast, fastidious and preemptive. Taken together, these three values – top customer care-abouts and brand good-ats – are drivers of business success. If customers believe this company is faster to resolve problems, pays more attention to cleaning and maintenance detail, and offers insights about potential problems before they occur, the company can charge more money and gain market share.

Here’s the problem. If the was to do an ad saying “we are fast.” It’s a comes off as a commodity claim. If they do an ad that says they provide quality cleaning, again commodity claim. And an ad talking about preemptive, well, it’s an unexpected value and needs explanation.

Let’s deal with Fast. This commodity claim can come with baggage. Fast sometimes implies sloppy. By paring fast with fastidious, we overcome sloppy. But to really seed the idea of fast with customers, we need to prove it. Productize it. Build a response mechanism into it so everyone knows the speed of delivery.  For instance, every customer calls to a service line generates a response in 15 minutes guaranteed. And for major issues, they guarantee a person on premise in 45 minutes. Guaranteed. Productized.     

Words are important. Fastidious is not quality. It’s ADD quality. That’s how this company has to hire. That’s how this company has to reward employees.  That’s how this company has to behave. And mostly, it does.  Yes, fastidious is a word, but it’s also a product and operational strategy. And as I said, it improves the take-away on fast?

Lastly, there is Preemptive.  This one’s the real kicker. Most commercial maintenance companies make money by completing tasks efficiently. To do so, they discourage employees from going beyond what they’re contractually obligated to do. My client does things differently; they keep their eyes open.  If they see a potential problem or anticipate a problem, they report it. This often solves issues before they cost the client money. A copywriter might spin the phrase “We treat your business like our business.” Don’t believe it. In the commercial maintenance space customers haven’t heard the word preemptive. It’s different language. And it can be operationalized. Maybe even productized. A history list of disasters avoided on the website maybe.

Take the three planks together, not individually, and you begin to see the power of the framework. When all three actively support the brand claim you have brand strategy.

To learn the brand claim that ties this company’s strategy together write Steve at WhatsTheIdea.




Teaching Less and Learn More.


I was talking to a client last week and something quite smart came out of my mouth. Unplanned. I like binary things — like “there are two kinds of women in the world, those who eat a sandwich with one hand and those who eat with two.” Don’t ask. Anyway, I was remarking to a this talented client who had lots of irons and revenue streams in the fire that in her line of work you were either “teaching” or “learning.”  I surmised she spent about 85% of her time teaching (in the hope of picking up consulting and speaking gigs) and 15% learning or getting smarter in her craft. I for one can empathize. Give it away in the hopes of getting paid-work down the line.

I suggested she should flip the model or at least even it up at 50/50.

People who constantly teach and don’t learn become pedants. And they’re not a lot of fun to be around. Teachers need to refresh so they can be fresh. And that requires listening. And positing. And debating.

The best part of being a brand planner is the learning. We open the faucet and fill up the stock pot. Only when the pot is full do we turn on the heat and start the boil down.

If you find yourself teaching to much in your line of work, do something about it. You need to up the ante on learning.



Copywriting? Creative Writing? Or Writing?


Writing is a core competence in marketing. And copywriting an even higher-level competence. A most powerful one. (Albeit there’s no Pulitzer Prize awarded. Hee hee.) Yet, one of the flaws of copywriting — and it’s a big flaw — is writers are often not well-informed about the products under their care. They may know a handful of key selling points but have few, if any, backstories or history about the product. What results is nicely written prose but very little of substantive value. 

It’s almost writing by numbers.

There’s an old axiom in advertising “If you don’t have something to say, sing it.” And that is what most copywriting is today. Sing songy assemblages of words that do little to convince. And they don’t convince because most ads aren’t built using a brand claim, or a cascade of proof to build a case for purchase. An ethnographer would say today copywriters live in copy bullpens, never setting foot in the product or consumer room.

Copywriters aren’t given enough time to adequately understand their products and services. They’re on the clock and unprepared. It’s not their fault they lack product training and understanding, that’s the fault of brand managers. 

Creative writing is what they do. Without proper product understanding it can’t even be considered creative.


PS.  There are a hundred of so brilliant copywriters out there, don’t get me wrong. But thousands and thousands of songsters.



An Example of Marko-babble.


I often use the term marko-babble to describe some of the effluvia being shared on the web about brand craft. Or marketing craft. It’s my mission to get rid of mark-babble. 

At a panel discussion the other day, I was close to nauseous by the constant use of the word “authentic.” Rather than babble about marko-babble I wanted to cite some content that actually fits the bill.  The brand services company that posted these words will remain nameless.  And I’ve Googled the entire sentences and the posting company name did not come up, so I’m in the clear.     

Let it rain:

We build modern, digital-first brands designed to lead through market change and create long-term value for shareholders, customers, employees, and wider society.

We build purpose-driven cultures that drive employee behaviour and accelerate business growth.

We develop powerful, multi-channel creative communications, and intelligent, user-centric digital solutions designed to create lasting impact.

So, do you have a good idea now of what these girls and boys do? Specifically? Uh…they build, build and develop.

As famous Broadway producer David Belasco once said “If you can’t write your idea on the back of my calling card, you don’t have a clear idea.”




Digital First Brands.


In my travels through the ether I’ve read more than once the proclamation such-and-such is “a digital-first brand.” I have to admit, I’m not quite sure what that means.  If digital is first, what is it second? A brick and mortar business? A print business? I know AI is a growing these days — is that what a digital first brand is?

If this was 1999, I could see calling yourself a digital first brand. That might be clearer. But today, everything is digitized and online.

Being digital today is the price of doing business. If usability is poor, you fail. If online visibility is poor, you fail. If findability is poor, you fail.

It’s simple really. Brands need to be something and mean something. Those spending time attempting to be trendy or common are lost.






Noah Brier wrote in the WITI newsletter today:

Loyalty is about nurturing behavior that defaults in a business’s direction.

Noah knows marketing. (Noah knows.) “Default” and “in a business’s direction” are spot on.  In a presentation on a digital comms planning tool “Twitch Point Planning,” I suggest “moving customers closer to a sale.”  Noah and I are intentional in being noncommittal. Non-absolutist.

Digital generation marketers think nirvana is going from an unknown brand to click-to-buy in a matter of keystrokes. That would be cool. (And it can be done. See a picture of a pair of unknown sunglasses on Kim Kardashian and BAM! Click to buy.) The belief that that steps-to-a-sale (Awareness-Interest-Desire-Action) can be collapsed into a click or two is a digital marketers’ dream. And fantasy. Frankly, it’s a cancer that metastasizes daily.  

A very famous McGraw-Hill ad states: 

“I don’t know who you are.
I don’t know your company.
I don’t know your company’s product.
I don’t know what your company stands for.
I don’t know your company’s customers.
I don’t know your company’s record.
I don’t know your company’s reputation.
Now – what was it you wanted to sell me?

Selling takes work. Building brand affinity and loyalty takes work. And it’s fragile. Back to Noah. If we don’t take a long-term approach to nurturing, if we don’t understand that loyalty is simply a default until something shinier comes along, we’re kidding ourselves.

One click sales is not branding. No foreplay. No demonstration of caring or consumer love. Just a click. A sale. Too many digital entrepreneurs are click-aholics. Clicks are not strategy.

Play the long game. The humble game. You have time.