Brand Strategy



    The problem with most marketing communications is lack of originality.  I was speaking to business owner yesterday who said he went to a seminar on branding where the speaker told the crowd everyone had to decide which of the two types of business they wanted to be: quality or service. (I hope he didn’t have to pay.)  Can you imagine, thinking there are only two types of brand or company? These are price-of-entry values. Not positioning values. And franking if you are not offering quality and service you won’t be in business very long.

    Branding is about originality. Finding new ways to convey value. Using new, ownable, believable words. New demonstrations. And I’m not talking a smiling face next to a stack of tasty pancakes. I’m talking a line out the door of the pancake house.

    Some say “nothing is original” in advertising and marketing.  And I say everything has a chance to be. Find your brand strategy (one claim, three proof planks) and invent originality every day. And then do it some more.



    Diagnosing Brand Health.


    In healthcare, diagnosis is the second most important activity – next only to treatment. One without the other isn’t effective. That is not to say treatment always works. This we know.  But with proper diagnosis we are much more likely to have a positive treatment and outcome.

    Similarly, brand strategy requires a diagnosis (critical insight) and treatment (brand plan). The critical insight can be defined many ways and come from many areas yet in its simplest form it is the “identification of a business building or business detracting phenomenon.” It may come from any of the four marketing Ps (product, place, price or promotion) but rest assured the insight is a diagnosis.

    Extending the metaphor, the treatment lies in brand strategy — the way we remove the obstacles or magnify the positives. A brand strategy is one claim and three proof planks. This “one and three” framework organizes product, experience and messaging in a rich, memorable and provable way…so as to build sales conviction. It’s practice and regiment. 

    If you would like to see some examples of real-life claim and proof arrays and the diagnoses they address, write me at




    Brand Strategy On High.


    Yesterday I wrote about the need for brand strategy at startups. Today, I’m taking on existing businesses.

    When a C-suite executive drives into the executive parking lot in the morning the last thing s/he is thinking about is brand strategy. Let’s take IBM’s CEO, Ginni Rometty.  She may be thinking about invigorating the stock price or how making more money solving the rising security concerns of top clients. Or she may be thinking about the impact of Medicare For All on revenue. But is she debating and prioritizing the “good ats” and “care-abouts” that will shape perceptions of employees, customers, and shareholders? Prob not.  Leave that to the branding nerds. Mistake.

    In long term planning meetings at large corporations, the chiefs look at the bottom line by department: product, people, channel, real estate, taxes – not brand strategy. Yet brand strategy touches all those things. Brand strategy is an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging. It creates context for decisions across the corporation. From designing physical plant to hiring policy to pricing.  

    I tell clients that when a receptionist answers the phone and is asked to make a quick decision on behalf of the company, those who understand the brand strategy have answers.  

    For reals.






    The Difference Between a Startup and a Give-Up.


    Why should an entrepreneur consider developing a brand strategy while the product or service is still incubating. Or being built out? Perhaps, even before the product requirements document is complete.

    Here’s why.  Because startups are targeting people. Targeting buying publics. And while product requirement documents are built for engineers, a brand strategy is created to meet the needs of those willing to part with their hard-earned.  

    Most entrepreneurs are also consumers. But it’s not their day job. If it weren’t for nerdy tech entrepreneurs we wouldn’t have Bitcoin and Etherium. We’d have banks with more robots. So I love nerdy entrepreneurs. But what I am counselling here is to have your product requirements doc but also a brand strategy — built upon customer care abouts and brand good-ats.  Only then can you begin to measure true demand and effectiveness.

    I’ve worked at a startup. I have worked with a number of startups. And I am currently advising startups. Makers and builders love product requirement documents. It gets the cash flowing. It gets the there there. But without an “organizing principle for product, experience and messaging,” your startup is likely to become a Give-up.






    David Ogilvy once said and I paraphrase, the advertising business is infected with people who have never sold a thing in their lives. Dude!

    To build on David’s thought, the branding business suffers from what I call the brand-babble syndrome. Incessant use of words – coin of the realm, if you will — that sound good but have nearly completely lost their meaning.

    I don’t know Scott Davis and I’m sorry to use the video featuring him but here is an example of brand-babble. Please note, Prophet is a smart and successful branding company (Hell, they hired Charlene Li) and I’m sure Mr. Campbell is a great guy. Let’s just say the video editor was an intern and approvers were on vacation. Click here to play.

    The only thing of substance here is the idea that brand is owned by everyone in the company.  However, he doesn’t say the word strategy, just brand, so the point is diluted.

    The brand strategy business is infected with words like “transparency,” “pivot,” “authenticity,” “transformation,” “voice” and “customer journey.” At the end of the day it’s words like these that cause many customers of brand strategy to not know what they’re getting. Or what they are signing up for. Brand-babble is the enemy.

    (For an example of a real brand strategy framework, sans brand-babble, email Steve@WhatsTheIdea.)




    Words. Stuff. And Deeds.


    Tesla’s solar business, which needs a name change by the way, is revising pricing in order to regain momentum.  They’re going to make less SKUs (packaged goods term referring to product sizes/flavors) while asking customers to do more to minimize the number of site visits Tesla has to make, e.g., photograph meters and circuit breaker boxes, etc. These actions will drive cost out of the business enabling the price reduction. These latter costs are called soft costs. The panels being the hard costs.

    What’s The Idea? is a brand consultancy that makes paper, ideas and strategy. All soft costs.  At the end of a business engagement my clients have in hand a brand brief, a claim and proof array (one pager) and if they go the full monty, a marketing plan. Soft goods.

    Problem is, marketers really like stuff: Hats with logos, ads, signs, website and package designs. Stuff. My stuff happens to be words. 

    As Mark Pollard, a really smart brand strategist says and will publish in his upcoming book Strategy is your Words, words make brands more effective. Words are strategy. Strategy leads to stuff. Strategy leads to deeds. Strategy leads to valuable, organized thinking.

    Can’t wait for the book to come out. It’s stuff about words.







    Health System Brand Strategy.


    The surfeit of bad advertising in America today can be directly tied to the lack of brand strategy.

    Here’s an example of what I mean. Mission Health, a huge and important health system in Western North Carolina, saves lives. They’re good people with masterful intentions. They also recently launched a new ad campaign.

    Mission: You.

    Without a brand strategy in place to drive communications, the work defaulted to a copywriter’s pen. Using age old tricks like putting the company name in the tagline, Mission was left with a claim, so undifferentiated, it’s become the penicillin of healthcare marketing. Patients first.

    The problem with a piece of marketing poetry as a defacto brand strategy is that the idea isn’t cognitive. In this cardiology ad,

    there is no claim. No proof.  (You might say “one of the nations’ top 50 cardiovascular hospitals, 12 times” is proof. But of what? Certainly not Mission: You.) When Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, whose brand claim is “More Science” runs an ad “Cancer reaches beyond the five boroughs, we do too,” that’s not more science.

    Health systems are notoriously bad advertisers and worse branders. This is beginning to change but not fast enough. Before a health system starts spending tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on ads, they need to get the paper strategy right. Don’t leave that to the ad agency – not unless they have a good brand planning team.



    Proof Well Told.


    We undertake certain roles in life from which there is no return. Being mother is one such. My wife always felt mothered by my mom, but today my wife has similarly stepped to.  She not only mothers our children, she mothers me as well. (Oh, it’s a good thing.) As I said, there are some roles from which there is no return.

    For brand planners these roles are fertile ground. 

    I wonder if you can actually ask a person to accurately share their most important life role?  I suspect you wouldn’t get the cleanest of answers.  “Work is my life.”  “I live to teach.” “Saving lives.”  “My family.” These answers are a bit generic. They even sound like taglines. The planner’s job is to dive in, past the macro, and find the proof. Find examples of the claim. Because this is where the realities lie. Where the behavioral pictures truly emerge.

    Lots of planners talk about truths. And those truths may fill in lines on a brief. But to really understand the truths you must uncovering proof.

    McCann-Erickson’s tagline is “Truth Well Told.” It’s the best agency line in the business. It should be “Proof Well Told.”



    Engineered Preference.


    Campaigns come and go but a powerful brand strategy is indelible, is a line I wrote for a Gentiva Health Services pitch many moons ago. Gentiva is now owned by Kindred Health for those still counting. A powerful brand idea, is a difference-maker in marketing because it anoints a product or service with a value that only it can claim. Burger King owns “Flame Broiled.”  Coca-Cola owns “Refreshment.”  Google owns the “World’s information in one click.”

    Establishing and owning a brand idea is the job of the brand manager. Constantly and without pause, hammering home a key care-about or good-at, seeds the brand idea — building and reinforcing consumer preference. Preference is not the only job of the marketer but it’s an imperative job. I may prefer an Impossible Burger, but if it’s not in my store, no sale.

    The job of the brand strategist is to engineer preference. I choose to do it with a model based upon claim and proof. My approach is repeatable. Other’s do brand strategy differently.  Shades of right, I guess. Either way, preference is our goal. Preference makes the revenue.



    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.