Monthly Archives: March 2019

Branding is not Colon Surgery.


If there is a secret sharable sauce at What’s The Idea? brand consultancy, it’s proof. This business, this branding business, and all the brand strategies built for clients over the last 25 years, owe their being to proof.

Proof is perhaps the most underrated element in advertising. And sadly, well-constructed advertising, if not built on proof, can become a branding element sending brands off the rails.  Flame broiled for Burger King is proof.  The King is not.  The effervescent bubbles coming off a sweating Coca-Cola bottle is proof. Happiness is not.  

My approach to brand strategy is open source.  That is, I share my framework with all marketers: One claim, three proof planks. It’s simple and understandable. Google the words “brand strategy frameworks” and you get an assortment of marko-babble charts and circles that will make your head spin. Even the requisite boxes used in these frameworks are inexplicit. Brand Voice. Brand Personality. Mission. 

This isn’t colon surgery people. It’s selling stuff through a simplified organizing principle. One that gives people proof of why they should purchase and continue to purchase.

Find the proof and you can find your brand.



Brand Minimalism.


I’m a cook who believes in technique.  The more I cook, the more I understand that it’s not recipes that make the best food, it’s good ingredients well presented. If I look at a recipe and see 12 plus ingredients, I click on.  It’s a rarity when so many ingredients come together into something that has a distinctive taste.  Kind of like mixing too many paints as a kid.

In brand strategy, technique varies from planner to planner. Lot’s of behavioral observation. Quantitative numbers crunching. Segmentation.  Interviews with stakeholders and customers. Interviews with subject matter experts – knowing they’re not always your target. And sniffing around the ether, searching for poster not pasters.

But the last technique — the most important technique — is the planning framework. Extending the cooking metaphor, it’s landing on which ingredients to use in your strategy dish. For me, the ingredients are few. One brand claim and three proof planks. The planks are kindred ingredients or proof supporting the claim.  

You build brands with three proof planks. Not four, not five.  It can’t be four and a half. Too many planks ruin a brand. It’s the way the brain works. 

For examples the claim and proof framework in your business category, please write me at Proof.






Silly Billions.


Not sure I expect Apple Entertainment to be such a brand-positive venture. In fact the more I think about it, the more I expect it will not succeed. Maybe even close down in a couple of years. Entertainment is not in Apple’s wheelhouse. Devices are.  Best-on-earth designs are. Entertainment in the form of movies is a hit and miss business. And Apple is not in the business of creating failures.  B or even C+ movies or series will taint the brand.  They will make withdrawals from the brand bank.  You don’t see a lot of dog product designs being sold in the Apple stores.

The entertainment business is about herding content creators. They aren’t like designed and coders. They are not engineers. Not a lot of on and off or ones and zeros in the making of The Color Purple. Or the Star Wars franchise.

I wish Apple would stick to it’s knitting. In-home devices. Maybe medical telemetry devices.  Drones. Stuff.

This event in Cupertino March 25th will be fun and newsworthy. It may even ding the Netflix stock for a few days. But the Apple brand is making a misstep in my opinion. Silly billions.




Hudson Yards and Brand Strategy.


I was reading an amazing piece in today’s New York Times, written by architecture critic Michael Kimmelman.  This is why I subscribe to the NYT. It’s an amazingly constructed criticism of the Hudson Yards project. Nary a mention of state and city tax subsidies, the piece just discusses the beauty (not much) and blight (more than enough) of the project designs. The writer is brutal but fair. No name calling, no Trumpian vilification, but make no mistake he skewers the architecture. Old NY style. This is brilliant reporting and analysis. Bravo New York Times.

At one point Mr. Kimmelman refers to the project as an “architectural petting zoo.” His reference is to a loose federation of structure shapes and designs. (Does one put the zebras next to the sloths?) He makes a point about Rockefeller Center, the last out-sized project of this kind and how at least for that project there was a lead architectural firm — one firm to oversee the vision.

This reminds me of brand management. Good brand craft oversees everything brand. Poor brand craft allows for many hands and agendas in the pot. Just as the Hudson Yards is a “doggy’s dinner” of styles and structures, a good brand needs harmony and continuity as it scales.

Perhaps that’s why the terms brand architecture has stuck for so long.  But as we see from Mr. Kimmelman’s piece, there are architects and there are federations of architects.





Brand Planner Hacks.


Before there was an internet, brand planners had to leave their offices to find insights.  Before Google and the social web, you couldn’t watch buyers engaging sellers from your desk.  Even so, there were time-saving hacks. One of mine was trade journals. Business-to-business magazines that covered the beat.  Magazines for the business side of the industry you were studying: Beverage Industry, Communications Week, Architectural Digest.  Back then you could read a few issues, speak to some editors, track down big customers, find some SMEs (subject matter experts), gather market data and jump- start your learning and discovery. The trades aren’t so viable today.

Windshield time was another hack for planners. (Still is.) Sitting in a car with a sales person, tagging along on sales calls.  The crucible for learning is where buyer meets seller.  Interestingly, windshield time today can take place behind a desk. If your client uses “Live Chat” on the website, brand planners can monitor Care-abouts and Good-Ats with ease.

Agile business and efficiency are important values in American businesses consultants will tell you. Anything that makes business faster and cheaper is worth considering. But I’m still a fan of watching buyers meet sellers live. Smell the fear, taste the joy, experiencing the experience.

Get your bones and all of your senses out of the office.



Brand Strategy Built On Quicksand.


Brand strategy frameworks are a dime a dozen.  All of them are right…to a degree.  This framework, I was told, is from Interbrand.

The brand proposition at the bottom (in red) is also known as the brand idea or claim. As for the stuff above the claim, there’s nothing wrong there — it’s typical brief fodder.  

Interbrand attempts to codify brand strategy across the enterprise, but each office does have some leeway as to its approach. Deviations are allowed because not every brand is in the same place in its lifecycle. Not all targets are the same. Channels are different.  There are a multitude of reasons to tweak a framework, not the least of which is to sell work. I suspect this is the case at many brand consultancies. 

This brand placemat or one-pager is just too freakin’ broad. The proposition, as it should be, is the operative strategy. But there is just so much other stuff going on. 

At What’s The Idea? the framework is brain dead simple. And it is the same for every client. It comprises one claim, three proof planks. A claim is a claim.  Where we differ is that my feeder boxes aren’t values and personality, positions and drivers — they’re proof arrays.  Organized reasons to remember the claim. Reasons to believe. Reasons to argue. Proof creates muscle memory for consumers.

Leave the values/personality/target insights to the art directors and writers. Brand building is an upstream practice that precedes the build out.  If your brand strategy isn’t built upon proof, you are playing in quicksand.




Content Marketing Cons.


Business-to-business (B2B) brands have spawned a new type of marketing today, one growing by leaps and bounds. It’s called content marketing. Before it earned its current name, this was simply advertising and promotional material, e.g., brochures and fulfillment pieces. It was a big business, fueling ad agencies, trade publications and printing companies.

But content marketing today is very different.  It is primarily words in the ether. Fodder for search engines. Manufactured schema for driving sales though copy and to a lesser extent pictures and video. A new class of B2B content marketing shops have opened up around the country churning out real writing on topics ranging from agriculture to zoology. Gone are the days where you could bury your keywords on a page (white words on a white background) and raise your search profile. And you can’t just copy and paste other people’s copy onto your site to build search ballast. Google has caught on.

Today B2B marketers are employing “by-the-pound” content farms. Farms filled with ex-trade publication writers, retired professors, tyro English majors and other so-called subject matter experts (SMEs).  The problem is, they don’t work for the companies they represent. They don’t get the brand strategy. It’s original content, yes, which Google applauds, but it’s “Choice” content not “Prime” content. And it’s driven by the algorithm, not the brand.

The best content is homegrown. Prime content gets noticed and shared. It gets commented on and argued. If you can’t write about your own company, if you have to hire mercenaries, you are feeding Google but diminishing your brand.



Brand Strategy and Messaging.


Component three of the organizing principle that is brand strategy is messaging: What a brand or company says about itself. It starts with the Is-Does (what a brand IS and what a brand DOES), extends through employee communications and finishes with outside communications, such things as PR and advertising.

Messaging is the component easiest to understand, yet hardest to corral.

I worked for a company Teq that sold interactive whiteboards to K12 schools. They also offered professional development to help teachers use the technology. The company had about 250 people. On LinkedIn, some employees said they worked in education. Others said they worked for a software company. Some said computers and hardware. 

Messaging starts at home.

Zude, a startup I worked with in the social networking space, was even worse. The chief technology officer, built new features into the product weekly, which took it down unique and different functionality paths. (Google “Fruit Cocktail Effect” with quote marks.) Fail.

Imaging bringing up a puppy, changing its name every week. Like that.

The beauty of a brand strategy is it handles the Is-Does and sets the ground work for all messaging. Whether you are talking or typing about your brand you are either on or off brand message.

One claim three proof planks sets the brand strategy. Simple to understand, simple to follow.  




Brand Experience.


The second component of brand strategy is brand experience. I leaned about brand experience from Starfish in NYC.  At the time, the company was head by Megan Kent and David Kessler.  Mr. Kessler is still at the helm. Ms. Kent is sharing the branding love at the Go Lab, in Brooklyn.

The What’s The Idea? brand framework, built around “claim and proof,” feeds brand experience.  Using yesterday’s brand strategy example “the navy seals of commercial maintenance” with proof plank of “fastidious,” you can begin to see how to build a branded customer experience. Commercial maintenance companies are not known for being fastidiousness. 

But what exactly is brand experience? Well, it comprises things like retail environment. How one experiences the brand at the store. Starfish’s work for Dunkin’ Donuts years ago, was a tour de force in retail brand experience. It entails experience out of the box. Who has ever opened an Apple product and not said “ah.” Who has not opened a can of Coke and not recoiled from the fizz of refreshment.  And experience is reflected on the website. Who gets you to the world’s information faster than Google?  Fast load. No extraneous content. A lone search bar.  And, who teases a body into the outdoors better than Marmot? Web experience is crucial in brand building. An opportunity lost if not adhering to the claim and proof array.

Brands that organize their product, experience and messaging always know what they are doing. And why.

Tomorrow messaging.



The Importance of Product In Brand Strategy.


Yesterday I posted a definition of brand strategy: An organizing principle for product, experience and messaging. “Product” is the first component of brand strategy. It seems like a no-brainer but can be overlooked.

Most companies aren’t thinking about brand strategy when developing a new product.  They are looking for differentiation and successful position in the marketplace.  Or price advantage.

Brand strategists do most of their work on existing products; products with established manufacturing consistency and formulary, e.g. Coca-Cola, In-N-Out Burger. Where an organizing principle comes in handy is in cases of line extensions and reformulations.  White Castle, wouldn’t want to create a cat head size burger, for instance.

Where an organizing principle for an existing company most comes in handy is in the service sector — where the product is people.  Sure you can dress them up in a uniform but if you don’t organize how they work and deliver service, it’s harder to brand.

One of my favorite brand strategies in the service sector was for a commercial maintenance company. Their business is cleaning buildings at night and tending the grounds by day. Their brand staretgy became “The navy seals of commercial maintenance” (the claim), supported by “fast,” “fastidious” and “preemptive” (the proof planks). Think these employees didn’t know how to work? Or get a raise?

Tomorrow Experience.