January 2018

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I’m working on an assignment that has me reading a child development text by a PhD and clinician who also happen to be parents.  The text delves into brain function. Fellow brand planner and friend Megan Kent has built up a great practice mapping the brain to preference and emotional attachments to brands. Check her out.

When I look at my discovery process, I realize the success of my practice owes a great deal to they way I interact with my interviewees.  I listen, parry, enthuse (to join in) and redirect in ways that show interest in the interviewee, in their smarts and experiences. I do it to gain trust of the person — and for the subject. By jumping in as a nonjudgmental listener, they open up and tell me things they might not even tell a spouse. I show them a little of mine, they show me theirs. What I’ve been learning from my brain book, however, is this omniscient friend approach may leave some things on the table. I may not be truly listening.

I am going to work on that but must admit to loving the connection my approach allows me with interviewees. We laugh, we cry, we share intimacies and bond in ways that often creates brand planning magic. When the barriers are down in an un-clinical (listening) way, sharing happens. Some of it deeply cognitive.



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I was reading a recipe this weekend for chick pea chili (don’t judge) and decided right off the bat I’d never make it. Not for the chick peas, not for the drive to the grocery store(s), but for the over complication of ingredients.  I favor minimalism in my cooking. It’s easier to taste a few ingredients. (Google “Fruit Cocktail Effect.”)

My framework for brand strategy reflects this sensibility: One claim, three proof planks.  That’s how you build a brand. One and three.

Getting to one and three isn’t easy though. Trust me. You have to go through hundreds of ingredients to get to the one claim and three planks. When looking for brand good-ats and customer care-abouts, you’ll find many. But when forming brand strategy, don’t just look at the most common ingredients or the most abundant; this job is all about finesse.

For you tyro brand planners out there, use your palette when considering all the ingredients, but use your heart and brain when selecting the true flavors.





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Things we remember.

We remember beauty.

We remember new.

We remember rich.

We remember melody.

We remember funny.

We remember nature.

We remember poetry.

We remember pain.

We remember educators.

We remember warmth.

We remember charity.

We remember happy.

We remember love.

We remember triumph.

These are the things we remember.

These are the things consumers remember.

(I post this brand planning “prayer” once a year…as a reminder.)

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Brand strategy is an organizing principle that gives brand managers a “go-no go” guide for product, experience and messaging. It makes branding easy.

Nicholas Kristof in the NYT today was talking about the social entrepreneurs attending Davos and how refreshing they were to have around.  He was poo-pooing consumerists who are all about the money.

Doing “good” in a commercial sense is smart strategy.  In my practice, when I’m looking at care-abouts and god-ats, I try to plot and push brand planks that are socially positive. It’s not hard to do, and it can’t be forced, but it butts up against the nature of what makes humans humans.  

When a cigarette ad choses to shoot a photo at the top of a mountain on a bluebird day amongst cottony snow drifts, it’s hitting our natural beauty button. When a box of diapers shows an amazing toddler smile, it hits a warm, nurture button. But advertising which use positive imagery to cloud our judgement about what is “good” is disingenuous. And it give marketing a bad name.

A brand strategy, built with brand planks supporting positive social ideals is deeply human. And enduring.


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Anthony Noto was just names CEO of SoFi, the online banking lender. Mr. Noto came to my attention when named chief marketing officer of Twitter – with nary a marketing bone in his body. He was hired as Twitter’s CFO, then slid over into marketing side of the house (two hats) after spending time at Goldman Sachs and the NFL.  The gent knows finance and business. And gets technology, but he’s no nerd.  I’m betting he’ll really find his footing at SoFi.  Having spent time with Jack Dorsey and absorbing the Square’s platform and financial designs, he’ll have a nice non-Goldman view of the world.  

Still not sure if Mr. Noto is a marketer but marketing is easier with a great product. And I’m guessing he’ll be able to take Sofi’s gerrymander-the-lending-market approach and build some smart products.

Money, be it paper or digits, isn’t going away. And Mr. Noto is back where he belongs with some nice learning along the way.

Watch him.  



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Healthcare (B)Ads

I was watching a TV ad last night for a local hospital and groaned to the wifus as the fifth obligatory shot of a doctor group hit the screen. You’ve seen it before — the blue scrubs, four or five smiling heads. (Proper smiling is harder than surgery for some.)  The only things that set this spot apart from the hundreds of other interchangeable hospital spots was the fact that each doc/nurse held a card containing a smiley face. And each smiley face was on what I thought was an outline of the state of NC.  My wide told me it was a smiley face on a heart outline. A Valentines heart.

She thought it cute. Me not some much.

What was the muscle memory of the ad, which I think was created for Pardee Hospital?  If the cards they held were hearts, I’m assuming they have a cardiology practice.  Otherwise, the only take-away was they have a lot of white people working there, and 12.3% black. And they can all stand up.  The copy way gobbledy, the visuals deafening in their silence, no idea and, frankly, no heart. “We’re Here” advertising at is worst.

The state of the advertising art in healthcare continues to be at an all-time low. Search What’s The Idea? posts for comments about Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center to see that even the best practitioners are lagging. Pity.



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It seems that what I do for a living as a brand planner is similar to what I’d do were I a journalist. I interview lots of people to see where it takes me before culling the information and shaping the findings into a piece of writing. In my case the writing leads to a directive for a marketing team – a boil down – in the form of a brand brief. In the case of the journalist it leads to a fluid story meant to inform, educate and, perhaps, motivate.

I suspect journalists have a direction in mind before they start, either at the behest of an editor or an expected reader interest angle. Maybe that’s where the journalist differs from the brand planner. As a brand planner I have no going-in direction. My hope it to learn at the knees of consumers and product builders and let direction emerge. If my learning suggests the builders need to make changes, I share that. If it suggests consumers need to make changes, I share that too.

The process used by journalists and the brand planners may be similar, but the outputs are way different. In both cases, outputs need to be compelling. But for brand planner the rewards are etched in the tabula much longer.



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The Chess Team

Back a couple of decades ago I wrote a memo to the president of FCB/Lever Katz, an ad agency in NYC, during a new business pitch for the consumer portion of the AT&T account, expected to be a $200 million dollar account.  There had been a reorganization of AT&T and the head of the business business unit was moved to oversee consumer, a promotion of sorts. He was a marketing rock star. AT&T at the time was the clear market leader in telecommunications, but MCI was a smart, pesky and growing adversary. He business unit head was MCI’s nightmare. He was also very cagey. He would invent market-changing business “plays” for his ad agency to execute as ads by MCI, and confront his product marketing team with them to keep them on their toes.

The memo I drafted while at FCB/Leber Katz, outlined this gentleman’s modus operandi, his paranoia and his gunslinger mentality.

After the new business pitch was won by FCB/Leber Katz, it was reported that all competing agencies has come up with great ideas, taglines, cinema and media plans. FCB/Leber Katz, however, won the business, it was reported, because of a spectacular piece of music scored by a creative director (eventually recorded by Whitney Huston) and a strategic group called the “Chess Team,” a planning group whose sole responsibility was to predict future MCI, Sprint and other competitors moves.

The power of the memo.


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I found a little piece of scratch paper in my pile with this quote on it:

“Customers who share your values will be attracted to your brand and are likely to become loyal to your brand and even enthusiastic advocates.” 

The quote was by Brad Van Auken of Forbes.

If you believe this statement raise your hand.  As they say in NY, if you believe this statement “I have a bridge to sell you.” It’s a nice sentiment, but not something brand planners should be concerning themselves with. Brand planks are a marriage of “good-ats” and “care-abouts” — what a brand is good at and what customers care about.  

Unless you are good at values, as a non-profit might be, it’s best to focus brand strategy on tangible product benefits. Leave the values for the PR and corporate responsibility departments.

If you do go the value route, the values you pick are going to be noncontroversial and values others are likely to pick. I’m not being insensitive here just pragmatic. I don’t buy Hellman’s mayonnaise for values. I don’t drink Voodoo Ranger for values. I don’t buy Marmot tents for values. Values are nice, but they are not a brand’s day job.

If you are in a meeting with a brand shop and they’re going on and on about value-based brand planks, and charitable give-backs, politely bit them adieu. I’m sure they’re wonderful, generous people, but they have, likely, never build a resolute brand.


PS. Charity work and sustainability are important, they are just not brand planks. For examples write steve@whatstheidea.com.



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I’ve done a good deal of brand work with startups.  It’s not the easiest work but it is exciting because a great deal of the planning takes place “beyond the dashboard.” When I break out the “24 Questions,” (the follow the money questions) there’s not a lot of history to discuss. No last year’s earnings. No market segments. Just lots of nos and nones. (Note: Beyond the dashboard planning refers to tabula rasa planning, contrasting with the more common “rearview mirror” or “side view mirror” planning.)

And let’s not even start talking about how founders, especially in the tech space, can change strategy. Like underwear. More disciplined startup founders may change business strategy only once or twice. Sometimes a meandering proof-of-concept is the culprit, e.g., you build a brand around family doctors and specialists want to purchase, or you focus on ecommerce and people keep paying you for search. Shit happens.

The more flighty founders (the underwear changers) can be influenced by the last meeting they were in; say, an investor or a key industry blogger. (Been there, learned from that.)

But startups are a good training grounds for brand planners. Planners can have a powerful influence on direction. Even if founders don’t abide   It creates structure for them. Yeses and Nos. Ones and Zeroes. 

If you are a brand planner, you need to bracket your experience with some startups. Trust me.




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