Brand Strategy

    Phil Jackson, Yogi Berra and Business Strategy


    phil jackson quote                                                Andy Weissman, Union Square Partners

    I read this quote yesterday written by Union Square Partner’s Andy Weissman. It was mentioned by Fred Wilson in his blog AVC. The point of the quote was that venture capitalists are most effective when they provide a framework for decision-making to funded companies. Having worked at a start-up with a very special product, but no framework, I can empathize. The start-up went under but the lesson stuck. It stuck hard. A billion dollars hard.

    My business, What’s the Idea?, a brand and marketing consultancy, is dedicated to providing frameworks to companies –start-up or otherwise – who understand the need for business-winning structure. For business winning decision making. I’ve written scores or marketing plans; the ones that work adhere to a brand strategy framework.

    Yogi Berra said “If you don’t know where you are going, you might not get there.” To that I will add, if you don’t arm your players or employees with a framework they will have a hard time performing. Peace!

    Can save lives but not an idea.


    UnitedHealthcare (one word) is an insurance company with 78 thousand employees serving 70 million Americans. Those are some big numbers. And big numbers are what drive the company’s current advertising campaign. “Health in numbers” is the idea. With lots of data in hand and lots of analysts managing its output, the promise to consumers is an improved healthcare experience. That’s the micro promise; the macro promise is “we’re huge and can offer better insurance pricing.”

    I’m pretty sure Ogilvy is the ad agency for UnitedHealtcare and, sadly, the ads are forgettable. Today there’s one in The New York Times showing a 60-something man riding a motorcycle with a flurry of animated numbers flying in his wake. That’s the visual idea. I know this advertising is targeting number crunchers in corporate America more than patients, but this is high school stuff. The copy in the ad is focused on “knowledge in numbers” and how data records can prevent contra-indicated medicines from being administered to patients, so as a brand student I can see there’s a plan here. The other brand planks are: strength in numbers, humanity in numbers and comfort in numbers. (Okay, I didn’t say a good plan.)

    Here’s my diagnosis: Good strategy, not so good creative, poor client brand management. I’m betting the work was the product of a team of clients that couldn’t agree and therefore went with a hodgepodge, duct taped effort. The revenue was there for Ogilvy, the B team delivered a product, and the agency will live to see another campaign year. Maybe.

    Ogilvy is better than this. And a company that can analyze data in a way that can save lives, is better than this. Peace!

    Brand Strategy and the Question.


    Fred Wilson is a blogger ( and businessman I admire greatly. He blogs daily and share his knowledge without second thought.  He’s probably the most prominent VC on the east coast if not the county.  In a recent speech given at MIT, he mentioned that on his first ever test there he had gotten a zero.  About MIT he said, and I paraphrase, “When you go to MIT to go from being the smartest kid at your school to being the dumbest.” Anyway when asked about his nil test score his professor the response was “You didn’t understand the question.”

    Here’s the thing about brand planning. The ones who get it right aren’t the ones with the best methodology or framework. They are the ones who understand the question. The problem is that question always changes. Yesterday I posted brand strategy is not Chaos Theory.  But if the question changes for every brand strategy, isn’t that a bit chaotic?

    A generic question for all brands might be “What value or behavior does the brand provide that best meets the needs of the customer?”  Doesn’t seem like a bad question. But, per Fred Wilson’s professor, it’s the wrong one. Only when you are waist deep in a brand, customer care-abouts and brand good-ats can one ask the real question. It will be a business question, tempered by consumer insight, and help you pass that first and last test.

    Happy hunting!


    Insights are Money.


    curt cobain

    I’ve been watching a number of the Google Hangouts sponsored by the Planning Salon (my peeps) and find them all quite interesting. There seems to be a lot of career churn in brand planning as evidenced by the fact that a number of the planners interviewed now have new jobs. Another trend is that smart planners tend to be moving client-side.

    Why is that you say? “An insight is worth a thousand ads.” 

    Campaigns come and go…a powerful brand strategy is indelible is my business mantra. And I love campaigns. But the fact is, campaigns are often creative envelopes for strategy — and can become more important than the strategy. (At least to agencies.) And where do brand strategies comes from? Insights.

    I think it’s a little ironic that in my brand planning battery of questions for senior executives the word “insight” does not appear once.  I’ma (sic) have to change that.

    If money is the root of all evil, the proper mining and use of insights is the nirvana of marketing. (Where were you when Kurt died? I was a Midas Muffler.)  Insights are da monies.

    Peace in the Ukraine.                                     


    A Brand Plan Example.


    I often use an example of my brand planning rigor when explaining to prospects how I work and what I create. Brand plans are many things to many different people. Mine contain one claim and three support planks. The example:

    For a commercial maintenance company, one that does office cleaning, building upkeep, snow removal and lawn service among other things, the claim is “the navy seals of commercial maintenance.” This is strategy remember, not a tagline or creative. The support planks are: fast, fastidious and preemptive. These are qualities buyers want. These are also things the company is good at.

    navy seal

    Clients, big and small, often get the outbound nature of the plan, seeing how this organizing principle can drive communications. Yet sometimes they have a hard time seeing how it can influence the company internally. For a C-level executive or a marketing person who is truly influencial in the product, the internal part of the equation is easily understood. For this level thinker it’s easy to see how one can productize and build experiences around the brand planks — that’s what they are for.

    Back to the example — anyone can say they are fast, and in commercial maintenance most do. Anyone can say they are fastidious and many do, using words like “attention to detail.” But preemptive, that’s not so common. Taken together this value prop is unbeatable. And by proving these qualities every day, not just saying or printing them on a website, it is business-winning. Claim and proof…ladies and gentlemen I give you a brand plan.


    Wren Brand Idea.


    Sometimes I enjoy watching ads and trying to back out the brand strategy. While watching the viral video from clothing retailer Wren, entitled “First Kiss,” the desire to figure out the strategy never popped up. The idea was too wonderful, too perplexing; getting total strangers to kiss on video camera for the first time.  Shot in black and white pretty much from the waste up, the video showed the discomfort and comfort of this most intimate act.

    first kiss

    Watching the video you spend most of your time looking for visual cues as to the couple’s affinity, e.g., their looks, nerves, sexual attraction, etc. Then you start to asking yourself about the act of kissing itself? Is it an act of love? A greeting? Something strangers should share?  Is it alive? Meaning, can it begin one way and end another? You debate the culture of kissing. Fascinating.

    And after all of these thoughts, only then do you really notice the clothes…and the style. And stylish many of these people are. (The stylist for the shoot was wonderful.)

    Maybe the next day you think about the brand strategy — when you’re back to work.

    My take on the the selling idea? It shows how one can make the uncomfortable comfortable. Through intimacy. Through trust. The idea felt like a game of dare…a game of spin the bottle. Wear clothes you like but also clothes that make you feel a little uncomfortable. And to me that’s the brand idea.  Wren…if it feels good.





    R/GA Creating the Law?


    R/GA is a bold leader in the digital marketing area. As all advertising and marketing shops move toward the middle — toward the strategy — only one digital shop aspires to be the agency of record: R/GA. Most digital shops rue the fact that they don’t get a seat at the big table, R/GA wants the table.  And they make quite a case.  Their entrée is the “platform.”  

    In a video by Nick Law, R/GA’s chief creative officer (thankfully, he’s not goofily titled), he says advertising needs to move “from metaphors that romance a brand to seductive demonstrations of a brand platform.”  Agreed. Were he to have substituted the word “strategy” we’d be in perfect agreement.  The word platform, you see, is a euphemism for website (and other digital stuff residing on the website). Brand strategy is hard to put a price tag on and websites and digital assets are easy estimate. 

    Mr. Law is correct campaigns come and go. He’s right that tactics need to feed the brand strategy. He’s right that utility and community are the source of sales growth and retention. And he’s certainly not being disingenuous in suggesting that something needs to hold and tie all the brand building work together. So I’m going to cut him some slack and not argue the noun platform and favor a more verb-like version of the word. 

    In the video Mr. Law refers to one of R/GA’s most famous successes Nike+.  “Nike+ is a platform fueled by campaigns” he says.  Nike+ was first a product and it’s growing into a branded utility. Is it growing into a platform? You tell me. 

    These guys are the real deal. And as good marketers they are trying to create a new language for the marketing world.  As I said, bold.  

    Why I like brand planners.


    Brand planners are always observing. Always willing to learn. They crave learning. Part anthropologists – students of mankind – brand planners are also creative; it rubs off on them being around art directors, writers and creative directors. In addition to learning about consumers they must learn how to eroticize ideas for creative people.

    margaret meadBrand planners are always on. They can’t afford to be depressed. They love brands, the lifeblood of commerce. They are always friendly, even in the face of haters. There are lessons to be learned from hating. (Brand Spanking, in fact, enables negative discussions.) Brand planners are good lovers. They’re exocentric – caring about others. They are not academics. They are humanists, realizing it’s not always about being right…more about being. Environments are of great interest to planners. Stim in any form.

    Brand planners are paid to make money (for others) but are not motivated by money.

    I didn’t know it at the time, but seeing Margaret Mead speak at the American Anthropology convention as a college kid, cast the die.

    When was the die cast for you? Peace.

    Brand Strategy for Complex Businesses.


    I worked on an assignment recently where a tech company came back to me 3 years after having me develop their initial brand strategy. A strategy they loved.  It was for a complex business, which in three years’ time grew even more complicated. The service offerings got broader – and they entered into a white-hot new tech sector.  A sector with mixed reviews as to its viability, albeit one boasting tons of VC money.

    The CEO wondered if a reposition was in order. As someone who always tries to future-proof his brand strategies, I was a tad reluctant but willing to give it a try.

    Fast forward a few weeks, a couple of dozen interviews, some financials and a bevy of care-abouts and good-ats and the new brand strategy was complete. It changed. The brand claim evolved, broadening the scope of the business. It was a modest but significant change.  The proof planks stayed the same, though slightly nuanced.  

    The way to handle complex problems in branding is to render them not complex. Once you remove most complications, once you figure out the most important business and attitude drivers, you can lay down the track.