Monthly Archives: February 2019

It’s Good To Be Organized.


There are two powerful titles in marketing: Director of Marketing and Creative Directors.  A year or so ago, prior to presenting at Cannes, Tom Morton the CSO at R/GA, asked 100 creative directors what they most wanted as input in order to make great creative.  The answer was a compelling insight.  Insights fuel creative.

Were one to ask 100 marketing directors what they would want in order to create the most effective brand work, I’m betting they would say an organizing principle. Maybe in not so many words, but marketing directors like order. They like predictability. Metrics and science. And that’s what an organizing principle gives them. An insight might lead to an organizing principle (for product, experience and messaging), but without organization the brand diaspora begins.    

Campaigns are also big with marketing directors. Campaigns organize. But they get old. Organizing principles don’t get old.

The insight and organizing principle are the yin and yang of marketing and advertising. Healthy together. Symbiotic. A place where a little tension is good.




Brand Planner Tip #15.


I changed my Twitter profile description today to include “operating at the intersection of never been and nowhere.” Until today it said “I operate at the intersection of nothing.”  The latter reference was a snark at all the people on Twitter who operate at the intersection of two things.  For the strategically minded that may be 10-20% of profiles. 

That’s the more caustic Steve. Today I dialed it back so there’s less cynicism and more focus on an actual idea. The idea relates to operating from tabula rasa. A blank slate. I attempt to come at a branding problem with an unbiased, untainted view of the category or business. Clean.

In most every initial meeting with a client I lead with “I’m a simple man.”  I look at things simply and hopefully without complication. I like to communicate with simple people through simple symbols, emotions and ideas. Done well, done with panache and believability, this approach resonates. (Even in complicated businesses like Blockchain.)

In order to get to simple, you must clear your mind. Cultural anthropologists get this. They watch, listen and go deep on understanding.  With preconceived notions you don’t get to deep. You can often find yourself tangled in complexity.

So I proudly operate at the intersection of never been and nowhere. Try it.





One of my clients is so good at what they do they take a “rising tide” approach to sharing their IP and tools. For free. This soooo goes against everything I was taught as a pup in the business, where “proprietary” and “patented” carried the day.  But the software and services worlds are a changing.  Look at what Satya Nadella has done with Microsoft, opening up much of the company and reaping massive rewards.

I’ve been sharing my brand strategy framework for years. I’ve borrowed from some of the leading lights of the “sharing” age, even meme-ing “open source brand strategy.”

The reality is, brand strategy requires doing something smart with all the data and discovery that goes into it. You can’t just pour the information into muffin cups and start baking.  You have to organize and prioritize your ingredients.  And that’s when a framework turns into strategy.

I share my framework – the claim and proof array – but I’m not nervous it will hurt my business. Sharing is never a negative.




Rising Tide Target.


I’m in a bit if a quandary regarding development of a target in my brand briefs. I learned most of my targeting craft from Peter Kim, head of strategy and number 3 executive at McCann-Erickson in the 90s. His approach to targeting was to articulate all the possible targets that might come into contact with your brand. Then massify those targets into one group, before culling the mass for shared care-abouts. Or as the brief stated “Define the largest grouping of consumers, bound by a single shared attitude or belief, that will be most motivated to buy/consider the product.”

I’ve used this for years as my targeting guide. Until recently, when I began to aim higher in the pyramid. Speaking to a high-minded, influential sector of the target, I’ve concluded, can also be effective.

In K12 education, there is a theory that removing “gifted” student from the class is a good idea. But doesn’t the whole suffer? Gifted students can help the others. As peers, they act as examples. They can inspire. Even in their fallibility. Similarly, in brand targeting, by finding the more aspirational, positive qualities in a high-performing group of consumers, we can create a powerful archetype that creates hope and ability through leadership. Not a watered-down version of every wo/man.

You say influencer, I say Rising Tide Target.

Always thinking.



Plant Based “Meats” Need a New Name.


There is a big branding opportunity for someone — renaming plant based meats. It has to happen, it’s just a matter of time. Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat had an opportunity, but blew it.  The Impossible Burger is a good product name, but a company?  Not so much. No Evil Foods also took a stab, but missed. The big opportunity is to Xerox or Q-Tip the category. To create a word that encompasses plant-based meats and creates a meat aesthetic without using the word meat, which is and ever shall be animal-based.  

I understand why comparing oneself to meat is a strategy, but it’s a near term strategy. This category needs a taxon. Readers of Whats’s The Idea? know I often use an Is-Does litmus for good naming. What a brand Is and what a brand Does. First movers to identify a new category claim the throne.

The growth of the plant-based meat-like market is close to hockey sticking…but still in search of a category-defining brand name. Let’s get to work.







The word “and” has killed more brand strategies than an online community college marketing course. Here’s a company mission that foretells brand strategy problems:

Our priority is school safety and accountability; our goal is to be the standard for integrated school safety and operations systems.

First sentence: How can something be your priority when you’ve added something else?  That’s two priorities. Second sentence: They added the word “integrated” to the mix, whatever that means. And for good measure, bringing up the rear is the tag along “operations systems.”  I’ve been to this movie before and it’s not pretty. Not from a branding standpoint.

I know this company. They do good work in the school security space. Their most in-demand product is smart cards. Cards with chips in them that have multiple applications but student safety is the key care-about.

If you parse the Is-Does from the statement, they are a security company that offers accountability. Accountability for what? Safety? And they integrate, but with what? And of course, operations systems are important, but what are they?  Is this a hardware, software or services company?

The positioning reality is — this is an educational smart card company. The other stuff are bells, whistles and features. Oy.

And. It will get you every time.






Startups, Brands and IPOs


After successful IPOs, companies add dough to the coffers, members to their boards, and oversight from investors. Near term, they are often given time to catch their collective breath. Funding a round is hard work. And depending on the size of the company and the raise, everyone needs a big exhale.  But within a year or so the pressures to grow start to mount. Where will growth come from? How will we accelerate? And don’t forget to watch the runaway – the burn.

Typically post-raise, lots of new server boxes show up. Popcorn machines. Software. Desks and Beats headsets. But when the accountants start asking about returns, the business hats come out.

Spotify, it was reported today, is looking to be more than a streaming music service. They are making two podcast purchases. And they won’t stop there. More forms of content are on the horizon for Spotify. Don’t ask me what. Pressure’s on. It’s what happens to highly funded startups.

Startups need a brand strategy to help them understand their value – to themselves and customers. It also helps with focus. When Netflix went from DVDs in the mail to streaming movies, 5 years after their IPO, they stayed “on value,” on brand claim. Nice evolution.

Startups without an understanding of brand claim and proof, looking to grow in non-endemic ways, are apt to wander the desert.

Study the care-abouts and good-ats, baby. 



Road To Somewhere.


There’s a design company in Asheville, NC – Sound Mind Creative – using this description to explain its craft:

Basically, we are experts at building and maintaining vibrant design systems, meaning we understand the power of visual consistency and the details of that are fonts, colors, photography, words and so much more. We create multi-page Graphic Design Standards documents that allow the look of a business brand identity/look to be replicated across print and web media, simply everything your company makes graphically matches (ex. your brochure matches your web site) and our standards manuals are rules.

Nicely put. The para perfectly explains what a design system is. Design is the “good stuff” in branding. Good design trumps bad ideas, daily, in our business. Good design can make a person stop dead in their tracks. It’s a craft like catching a football…many can do it, few do it exceptionally.

What often gets lost in all these design system discussions is the strategy — the words on paper. The motivation for the work. The binary “on/off” litmus that must be applied for proper brand building.  A design system without a brand strategy is a road to nowhere.

More attention needs to be paid to the “words.” (Mark Pollard, a smart branding dude, is someone leading the way in this words-as-strategy discussion.)



Binary Brand Strategy.


If you want to see a nice presentation on contemporary guardrails for strategy and brand planning (they are two different things, says the presentation), please click up Faris and Rosie Yakob’s video from this year’s 4A’s Stratfest, entitled the Gemini Agenda. There’s a lot to like here.

One key point they make is binary is bad. Their argument? There is soulfulness and smarts in the grays laying between bland and white. Hard to disagree.

But…the premise of What’s The Idea?, the premise of brand strategy as an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging, runs contrary.  That is, product modifications or developments, product experiences and the messaging supporting all are either on strategy or off. On or off is a binary orthodoxy.  Can a binary approach to brand strategy kill work? Yes. Must it? Not necessarily. Humans have antibodies for a reason. Brands can live and learn from off-piste activities. But they certainly shouldn’t be habit-forming.

For my money and my clients’ money, brand strategy is binary. On or off.  It’s freeing. It inspires value-building creativity. And it is the fastest way to build brands. Brand strategy is a formulary…much as Coke is a formulary.