Global Brand Strategy Firms. I Mean No Disrespect.


Global brand strategy firms, the ones that charge in excess of a quarter million dollars per engagement, are big on science.  I love science. But in branding, science is expensive.  In my pitch presentation I like to explain this by saying the big girls (and their business consulting sister-thren) begin with multivariate statistical analyses. Then they build a regression analyses. From which they plot the slope before delivering cluster maps. Science.  Who could argue. Expense. Who could argue?

But the reality is, science doesn’t always predict success in branding. Sure you can deliver quantitative research supporting your value proposition. Even quant on “agree to purchase.” Been there, done that. However, smart companies know the market is fickle and doesn’t always respond the way science says it will.  AI aside, that’s why we need people to make decisions.

95% of my clients buy my work (which is their work) based upon qualitative findings. My average engagement is less than $20k, less than a 4C page in a trade journal. My point here is, for less than 1/10th of what the big quant brand strategy shops get, they can get sound strategic advice.  You know how I know? Because they feel good buying. They know I know them. And they know I know their customers. They just know in their hearts. Science might make them feel secure, but when you know you know.  

Also, the big quant shops have multiple points of contact.  They are like electronic medical records. A loose federation of information. At What’s The Idea? the brand is tight. And brand managers and CMOs like tight. The heart feeds the brain which feels emotional decision making. That is branding.




The First Step of Branding.


Naming is one of the most important functions of branding.

For a tech startup I worked at, the CTO liked the name Zude. It rhymed with dude.  I liked the name Mashpan.  It sounded like a home brew device, was a cousin of Mashup and the word Pan stood for “all, complete, total.” (Our product was a web authoring tool used to build websites without code. It was a drag and drop play.) My point? A name should that convey information.  

This week I attended a meeting of startups working on their financial pitches as part of Elevate, a Venture Asheville program. Two of the very cool startups have names that make my point.  One company is named East Perry, the other Larry.  The former sells ethically sourced sheep-skinned home décor while the latter sells a refrigeration device. I can’t go into too much detail on the latter (and changed its masculine name) as the product is proprietary but suffice it to say, Larry doesn’t convey dittly. And though East Perry sounds like a nice street name or address, it too, is not particularly pregnant with meaning.

Naming takes time, energy and forethought. Words are important. In the way they sound.  Their harmony. Their poetry (East Perry ticks that box.) But most importantly, what a brand name conveys informationally is mission one.

Get your name right and the first step of branding is complete.




Follow Das Money.


One of my brand planning tricks is to fully understand a business’s financials before I dive into the consumerism of the brand.  Back in the day, when working at McCann -Erikson NY, I was asked to be on a task force pulled together by AT&T and McCann to help write marketing plans for a number of emerging new business services.  Collectively we came up a rigor which I have refined over the years and renamed 24 Questions — all of which are follow-the-money questions to help understand the balance sheet and the opportunity.

I’ve been using the 24 Questions as part of my brand planning discovery for years. When you understand how money is made, you have credibility with the chiefs of a company. And that is critical when discussing strategy. And justifying strategy choices.

Don’t ever forget to follow the money when brand planning. Plumbing the depths of brand voice, purpose, personality and narrative are but brand strategy tactics.  Money is the composition.  


PS. For a copy of the 24 Questions, write


Benefit-Shoveling Or Culture-Shoveling.


I was watching a 75 video, masquerading as a TV spot, on LinkedIn the other day for a company named CQ Medical and, because I know the ad agency’s work, thought it a fairly nice piece of healthcare ad craft. But one word in the copy (“design”) threw me. I thought CQ Medical was a healthcare provider, e.g., a hospital, or health system.  It turns out — after a second viewing and some research — they’re a medical device company. An equipment company.

The first rule of advertising is explain what you’re selling. Unless you have Coca-Cola awareness. Otherwise, the ad is impressionistic and there are few Picassos in advertising.

I often write about the Is-Does: Explain what a product/service Is and what the product/service Does. Those who miss this step are likely benefit-shoveling. Or culture-shoveling. Too far down in the weeds to register with consumers what one is selling.

In branding, it’s never smart to jump over the Is-Does. Even if you have a limited target audience that supposedly knows your name. It’s “smart” brand craft to identify your product clearly. 





Persuasion and Benefit Shoveling.


I, and many other people of the technological age, have a problem with the word “selling.” My belief is marketing is best done, not by selling, but by educating.

When marketers give consumers the kind of information which predisposes them to purchase from you, you’re doing everyone a service. When you slather them in overused, meaningless sales terms you’re wasting breath, time and money.  It’s like the dog that hears a master say blah, blah, blah, blah, want to go out?, blah, blah. Consumers today have become inured to sales pitches.  Not only do they not hear them, they’re often repelled by them.

Brand strategy — the “organizing principle for product, experience and messaging” — positions a product for success. The process by which one builds such a strategy is drive by boiling down “customer care-abouts” and “brand good-ats.”  But here’s the catch: those care-abouts and good-ats must be values that persuade.  Values that move a customer closer to a sale.  They can’t be generic values, e.g., best tasting.  And they shouldn’t be non-endemic values, e.g., best customer service.

I’ve coined the term “benefit-shoveling.”  When marketers shovel benefits at consumers, and they haven’t spent time boiling them down or choosing persuasive benefits, they are not building a brand.  They are tearing it asunder.   




A Powerful Brand Idea Is…


I wrote the brand strategy for a healthier-for-you cookie company, the brand claim for which was “Craft Cookies, Au Natural.”  At my practice a claim is supported by three proof planks. Those planks were: craft cookies are healthier, craft cookies offer complex flavors, and craft cookies are naturally moist.

In prep for this post, I reread the brief (from a while ago) and was happy to see it chock full of lovely, even poetic, marketing insights; all of which could launch scores of marketing efforts. (One such insight was “Mass-produced cookies use blanched, steamed, stripped, macerated, and filtered ingredients denuded of taste, texture and health properties. Mass-producers do this to save money and create efficient, flavored sugar sponges.”)

The hard part of brand planning is taking multiple insights noted in the brand brief and boiling them down into a claim (and then, proof planks).  Does “Craft Cookies, Au Natural” do that as a claim?  I think so. Might there be other ways to reflect a brand value prop for this brand? Sure.

The thing about brand claims, at least at What’s The Idea?, is they need to be memorable. Pithy. Tagline-like. In effect, they become the tagline for the brand until the ad agency creates a campaign for public messaging that trumps it. I often tell clients and prospects campaigns come and go, a powerful brand idea is indelible. Search for one.




Don’t Speak in Branding Tongues.


Tons of people in marketing will tell you what a brand is.  Right or wrong they can be reasonably articulate.  Few though, have a clean answer for what brand strategy is.  Most practitioners get all caught up in their underwear and speak in branding tongues, using words like story, personality, voice and mission.  

Brand strategy at What’s The Idea? is explained as “An organizing principle.”  What’s an organizing principle?  It’s a set of parameters for activity. It’s governance for marketing – all 4 Ps. It’s a way to decide if you are on or off your business-winning objective.

By calling it an organizing principle it seems little less dictatorial, allowing room for experimentation. Besetting an ad agency with (creative) rules makes them see red. No rules, no rules! But an organizing principle seems almost helpful.

So, what are we organizing?  The rest of the definition goes “an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging.”  In this approach, brand strategy informs the product itself. Secondly, it informs the experience, i.e., packaging, out-of-box, retail, web navigation and customer care. Lastly, it directs messaging; the place most marketers get it wrong. In fact, well enculturated into an organization brand strategy becomes an employee manual…without the table of contents. 

In summary, brand strategy is the epicenter of not just branding but marketing. Says the man with the brand strategy business.

For examples of brand strategies of real customer businesses, write Steve at WhatsTheIdea.



Pandering Palaver.


I’ve been thinking a lot about brand strategy claims lately. A brand strategy claim is a brief, almost poetic, statement of value which predisposes a customer to buy. At my brand house, it boils down a brand’s top good-ats with customer care-abouts. Endemic care-abouts.  (I may care about being a good father, but UBS investments aren’t going me make me such.)  

When you borrow non-endemic brand values for your claim, it’s disingenuous.  There are a lot of brand planners who think they will win hearts and minds using a pandering palaver of claims.  But when you promise to fix a person’s (or planet’s) weakness with a product that has nothing to do with it, it’s cheating.

Some brand planners, during discovery want to dig into company values.  But they define values in woo-woo terms. My definition of values is closer to benefits.  Having great social values is the price of doing business; it’s not brand position. For instance, Patagonia positions around sustainability, but I would venture to say product durability is a stronger position and brand claim. Imply sustainability. Let the creative teams color the work with it, but position around product durability.

Brand strategy claims have a responsibility to move customers closer to a sale – not make them better people.


PS. I’m about as woo woo as you are going to find. I live in Asheville. I haven’t taken a paper bag from a deli or bagel store in decades. Woo-woo R Us. Just not in my brand claims.


Tell Me About Your Advertising.


Where the rubber meets the road in my brand strategy practice is in the questions and answers. I have a battery called 24 Questions that revolve around money.  How do you make it? Where does it come from? When competitors get your money, why? Margins? Low hanging fruit? Recurring? You get the idea? When I have answers to these kinds of questions, it’s easier to build a case for strategy when selling senior executives.

But I use a whole other battery of questions for brand strategy input. Some are sales focused. Others management focused. And others target focused.  For instance, when I’m interviewing cyber security experts, I’m conversing more as a tyro colleague than, say, Uncle Lou at Thanksgiving. That takes some prep.

Lately, one question I’ve been thinking about asking is “Tell me about your advertising?”  An open-ended question, this presumes a company actually does advertising. People in the marketing dept may be able to answer this question thoughtfully. As may the CFO, who funds it.

That said, 85% of advertising today is shit.  Most company employees will agree. I can watch TV ads and more often than not haven’t a clue as to the strategy.  Most of it is “See me, here me, touch me.”  Not “Why Me.”  When interviewing lay people about their company/brand advertising, it’s what’s missing that is most telling. Non-advertising people will tell you what the ads should say. And that is input.



All Promise, No Proof.


Northwell Health of NY is a brand on which I cut my planning teeth. My work for Northwell began sometime after the year 2,000. The brand strategy developed back then still stands, even though many of the agency players have changed. When I started planning, Northwell, a system of hospitals, described itself as “a loose federation of hospitals.” Today, they are a tight knit juggernaut.

This week I saw a new :30 spot for the system under the new tagline Raise Health. It was posted on the LinkedIn account of CEO Michael Dowling, a superb leader and administrator.  He (or the proxy who posts to his LinkedIn account) lauded the ad. The strategy behind it is collaborative medicine…but the ad does not deliver. Visually maybe, but not in the copy.

The key copy point is “More experts, with deeper insights, getting to more breakthroughs.” This ladies and gentlemen is a claim. Three claims actually. And it’s an example of poor ad craft. Ads need proof. Scientific reasons to believe. This ad has none. Except for the promise that Tanya (patient) is better.  

Let me first say I learned a lot about branding by studying Northwell. This organization built its reputation on science. On maximizing protocols, sharing up and down its hospital network and constantly measuring data.  But that’s not what this ad does. It falls into the copy trap of all promise no proof. Even the words “more experts” is hollow.

Now, I did click through and found a story behind the Tanya case. I didn’t read the story. Most people won’t. Millions will see the ad though. And it’s nice film, nice words, but no proof. Nothing to remember.

Northwell Health and all its hard-working docs and professionals deserve better. Northwell is a system of hospitals.