Brand Strategy

    Brand Around The Love.


    I choose to be a lover when it comes to brand strategy, searching for the love of product and service when interviewing consumers and marketers. One of my favorite discovery questions has to do with pride. One day while commuting to NYC on the Long Island Rail Road I noticed the amazingly shiny shoes of the conductors – all of whom were in uniforms. I asked the conductor about the shoes and he explained that sparking shoes was part of the uniform. It was a pride thing. Who knows what Nikes conductors are wearing today but a couple of decades ago it was a thing.

    Another question I like to ask in discovery is “What is the nicest thing someone has ever said to you about your job…or the job you’ve done?”  Brand building is best constructed on love.

    Marketing, on the other hand, often is about negatives. Competitor negatives. Take for instance the new Bud Light campaign against the ingredient corn syrup. All-in negative. Good marketing. Good advertising. But probably bad for the pasteurized beer market overall. Another classic negative marketing play was Wendy’s “Where’s the beef?”

    Brand strategy, when based upon love, can overcome any negative marketing tactics or campaign ploys. But the negs should be monitored because they can drag down the love. (Politics anyone?) Monitoring should be done via a longitudinal attitude study, something I recommend for all clients.

    Plan your brand about the good stuff and compete with the negatives, but don’t get carried away.



    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.



    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.




    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.  




    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. 


    Benzer Pharmacy. Brand With a Difference.


    A pharmacy is a pharmacy, right?  A prescription at CVS is the same as Walgreens, is the same as Rite-Aid. Duane Reade, a venerable NYC brand, sells the same meds as the next girl. Duane Reade, built its marketing around its NYC roots but unless they sell hot dogs with red onions in the store, it’s not much more than an advertising play. Pluck the ethnocentric heart strings. So how would a brand planner build a unique pharmacy brand. 

    Enter Benzer Pharmacy, a regional player with national aspirations, headquartered in Tampa, FL. What they say in copy is what other pharmacies say. From the website: “Be The Best Healthcare Provider For The Families We Serve.”  

    But here’s what they do: Free home delivery, deliveries to hospitals so patients have meds before discharge, provide education on meds making sure patients have much needed understanding, and they provide a service that maximizes drug and cost effectiveness.

    Everybody wants to offer the best care. Few prove it.  Proof in a commodity business is where brands are built.

    Benzer Pharmacy gets product marketing. Therefore, they get branding. Next step, create a brand strategy and take on the world.



    Service Brands.


    I was wondering this morning who is doing a good job of branding these days and the question took me to my new home town Asheville, NC with its exciting beer, food and hospitality businesses.  Most of these brands are retail. Retail branding is organic, contained and a brand petri dish.  The owners and operators are on prem. The product is there. The experience is there. Messaging abounds. When you see a retail space that holds tight to an idea, it’s powerful. It’s even more powerful if the product, space, experience and vibe are unique from all the others.  There are 35+ brewers in Asheville, for instance.

    If the retailer had done a good job, 75 out of a 100 customers leaving the store will relate pretty much the same value statements.  And words like “cool”  or “awesome” are not what you’re looking for.

    So what happens, then, when your business is a service or professional company? A lawyer, doctor or accountant, perhaps? How do you build a brand then? When a tax return is a tax return, how do you influence the experience?

    The answer is with a brand claim and proof array. Also known as a brand strategy.  A plan for packaging your service…where no product package exists. If you’d like to see examples of service brand strategies, email me





    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.




    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.





    Buzz Words in Marketing.


    Marketers love buzz words. Here are a few ripped from the pages of today’s business journals: change management, design thinking, business development, disruption, innovation, and transformation programs.  Google these bitches and you will end up immersed in business-babble. Immersed in the writings of consultants, sales people, content jockeys and entrepreneurs.

    Here’s what I know. 

    These buzzwords are all tactics.  Innovation may feel like a strategy, but it isn’t until you actually have an innovation…a thing. Mostly these words are used to describe processes, promises of ways to make things better in the marketplace.  Can’t fault people for that. But as a brand strategist, whose job is also to make business better – to “sell more things to more people more times at higher process” (Sergio Zyman), I begin with a foundational brand strategy. One that governs and effects value and perceived value. With that in place, you can design think, change manage, develop business, disrupt, innovate and transform until your heart’s content. And do so in an organized way. With intent.