1 claim and 3 proof planks

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In a nutshell, my framework for brand strategy can be described as “one claims and three proof planks.”  What’s a proof plank?  It’s a series of like-minded examples or proofs. Tangible, intelligible evidence. If I make a claim I am strong, proof of that claim is me picking up 300 pounds.  When a restaurant says the food tastes good, you trot out the James Beard Award of its chef. A proof plank is tied inexorably to the brand claim and contains a list of proofs.

This is where most brand building falls down. Lack of proof.

Many brand nerds will tell you that brand success lies in understanding and promoting brand “Values” and/or “Attributes.”  Values and attributes are the false Gods of branding.  They sound good in meetings. Present well in analytics presentations. They are even measurable for infatuated data heads.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve build brands by doting on research report attributes. But the fastest way to positive attribute movement is through proof. The advertising business is infected with copy that is insubstantial. Copy filled with sing-songy value blather. Filled with empty adjectives.

Stick to proof, find your claim and proof array, and then you will have a real marketing job.



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Mitch McConnell recently accused President Donald Trump of “excessive expectations” with regard to the speed at which democracy moves.  As a brand planner I kind of like excessive expectations.  The right brand strategy can snowball into many more business accomplishments than most marketing directors would ever agree to.  I like to load up on business objectives when thinking about brand strategy.   

I once explained to the head of marketing at a huge health care system that the brand strategy would increase nurse retention. And reduce the cost of physician hiring. A demure man, he was near apoplectic. “Get the shredder.”

Don’t misunderstand, I am not suggesting a broad and diffuse brand strategy that attempts to accomplish too much – a.k.a. The Fruit Cocktail Effect. (Google it.) Brand strategy needs to be tight: One claim, three proof planks.  But the more excessive the expectations during the planning stages, the more likely the finished product will deliver.

Powerful bespoke brand strategy starts with high expectation.



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If asked to provide one word that defines my business practice – one word that drives my philosophy of brand planning it would have to be “proof.”

Proof is the most tangible of marketing words. And the most tangible building block in brand strategy.

Proof trumps subjective opinion. It overrides marketing insouciance. It answers that age-old creative brief question “What is the reason to believe?”.  Teach a man to prove and you build a brand for a lifetime. In brand strategy, of course, you need to organize your proof;  into no more than three proof planks. Random proof becomes a grade school science fair.

The best framework for brand strategy is one claim and three proof planks. Get the claim right then make the proof fit like a glove.

Here’s an exercise: Spend time studying your marketing materials. See if you can discern the proof from the blather. From the self-interest babble. Underline or highlight the proof. See what you’ve got. Does it focus you?



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In my brand strategy presentation I share real examples. The first couple of minutes are about theory and process then I trot out real client strategies, sans brand name, as they are proprietary.

The first examples, which everyone sees, is wonderfully tight, uncomplicated and easy to reckon. It’s for a commercial maintenance company – the people who keep buildings clean and operational: vacuuming, washing windows, emptying garbage and keeping the grounds in order. This particular commercial maintenance company had no brand. It had a logo, invoices, website and a strong owner.

When all the care-abouts and good-ats were understood and assembled, and the boil down complete, the brand strategy became quite obvious: “The navy seals of commercial maintenance.” The claim was supported by proof planks: fast, fastidious and preemptive.

As brand strategies go – and they are always 1 claim and 3 proof planks – this was a particularly easy metaphor. Not all are this easy. Done well, all brand strategies have a mellifluous quality to them. Almost like a song or hook, constructed out of product or company notes that create pride and desire.


PS.  If you’d like to see the presentation, please write Steve@WhatsTheIdea.com



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Probably the most overused work in marketing the last 5 years is disruption. Maybe the last 10 years.  If you were to put all the marketing conference speeches given since 2010 into a cull rack and block from falling through the ones with “disruption” in the title, you’d have a stack a mile high. Google SXSW speeches, book titles or blog posts.

Do you want to know something that is truly disruptive? Brand strategy. Huh?  Brand strategy.  Everybody has one they’ll tell you, but no one can articulate it. Not clearly.  Because brand strategy means so many things to so many people, it has become a nonentity. A quagmire within a morass.

Here’s the deal: A brand strategy is an “Organizing principle for product, experience and messaging.” Nothing less. The framework for such is “One Claim and Three Proof Planks.” Nothing less. And certainly, nothing more.

If you’d like to truly disrupt your business. If you’d like to make clear and easy marketing decisions. If you’d like to measure effectiveness with almost binary simplicity, consider a brand strategy. (And this is not a packaged goods thing. It’s a marketing thing.)



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“Deeds, not things, make father Berrigan one of the best-known Catholic priests of the 20th  century” is a line stolen from The New York Times today.  Deeds indeed.

At What’s The Idea? the framework for brand strategy (1 claim and 3 proof planks) is built upon deeds. And proof. They are the bedrock of a high-value selling proposition.

When I do discovery for a brand, I’m not searching for shallow platitudes or adjective-filled praise.  I need existential examples. When I ask hospital administrator why their healthcare is better than others, I’m often met with “It’s our level of care. Our people.”  That’s not input. That’s phonetic sounds and breath.  Hunting for proof and deeds, often through stories, is how we start the process. In a page of notes, you may only find 2 proof points. Read a web page or brochure someday. An ad even. Circle the proof.  Paltry.

When the same hospital says it does more cyber knife treatments in one year than any other NY hospital, that’s proof. But drill down. Find out why. Understand the proof and build upon it. The information is there.

Stories and storifying are big pop marketing topics today. I love stories…but as a listener. As a listener who’s looking for proof.




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The What’s The Idea? brand strategy framework is simple, 1 claim and 3 proof planks. To get there, the discovery process searches out consumer “care-abouts” and brand “good-ats.”  While exploring these things I’m always looking for positive ways to build strategic values.  For instance, a client launching a healthier-for-you cookie made with all natural ingredients, faced a category perception that products of this nature are often dry with harsh mouth feel. A negative. The brand plan made “moisture” a plank. A positive.

Leveraging negatives is a common marketing practice. But in branding, it’s all about the positives.

On the negative side of the ledger there is actually a continuum.  From most to least strenuous it includes: hatred, anger, annoyance, nuisance, irritation, and dissatisfaction.

When going positive, it’s important to have a sense of where on the continuum consumers lie when evaluating competitor or category negatives. Are dry natural cookies an annoyance or a nuisance? Then when promoting the moist nature of your cookie, you mete your response proportionately.

Today’s newspaper says the negative ads against Donald Trump are in record breaking territory, with $70M spent by fellow republicans alone. I wonder if they are using the negative continuum?




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My uncle Al Heckel was a great sailor. Renowned along the south shore of Long Island for his sailing prowess, Al used to ask me as a kid to crew with him, something I wasn’t too keen on. Too slow for me. At his funeral, his grandson Hankie mentioned Al used to say “sailing makes the world big again.” Love that quote.

Brand strategy, at a place and time where there are more marketing tools, media options, technologies and measures than even before, does quite the opposite. It makes the world small again. Why? Because a brand’s value proposition is limited to the most essential things. What customers most care about and what the brand is absolutely good at. Care-abouts and Good-ats.

New products, line extensions, customer experience, marketing communications are all easier when following a brand strategy (1 claim, 3 proof planks). That white piece of paper a freelancers looks at when asked to create an ad or brochure is by many measures more quickly done and more powerful, when following a brand strategy. 

An investment in a brand strategy is an investment in business. Peace.



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Can brands get stale? B-school professors will tell you companies go through maturation stages: growth, mature, harvest. Investment spending is heaviest during the growth period while milking profits and low investment occurs in the harvest period. Mature is the middle period where all the hard decisions are made. Mature is where real money happens and success is fickle. This is the period where brands can get stale.

(First off, let me acknowledge that brands aren’t companies and companies aren’t brands. Though sometimes they are. IBM is a company and also a brand. P&G is a company but not a brand. It’s complicated.) For this discussion let’s just say B2B companies are brands.

I’m a big proponent of a brand strategy: Once claim and three proof planks. This framework provides an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging. It works for tooth whitener, wholesale fish purveyors and billion dollar healthcare systems. Unlike a tagline, graphics style manual and ad campaign (the drivers of most brands), a brand strategy allows for freshness and flexibility. And it works in all the life stages of a brand. A brand strategy provides business winning strategy directives. It fights staleness when in the hands of smart brand managers.

Brands can get stale. Business executives become most sensitive to it when sales are down. When the campaign becomes too familiar. If business fundies are without flaw, e.g., headcount, distribution, pricing, then I always suggest getting the brand strategy right. It’s how businesses and brands flourish. Peace.


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Eliza Esquivel, an executive marketing lead at Mondelez, spoke at Google Firestarters-NY earlier this week. This lady can ball. No marko-babble from her.

I really sat up when she used what seemed an inside term of art “Building Memory Structures.” It warmed my self-taught heart to hear this because I’ve built a similar framework but never put it so elegantly. I often speak and write of “building muscle memory” and doing so using “1 claim and 3 proof planks,” but these words from the Mondelez camp explain why it’s a company to watch. And why Ms. Esquivel will someday be Ad Age’s Marketer of The Year.

In this Fast Twitch Media world, filled with more Pasters than Posters, Google brand planners (planner who rely on Google only for insights), in a country where every business owner feels s/he is a marketing expert, it’s nice to know there’s are some marketing 30 somethings coming up with big eyes. A generation not smitten by shiny ephemeral tactics and automation technology. Ms. E has some serious vision and a lovely sense of control.

It’s going to be fun watching her career.





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