24 questions

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I’ve done a good deal of brand work with startups.  It’s not the easiest work but it is exciting because a great deal of the planning takes place “beyond the dashboard.” When I break out the “24 Questions,” (the follow the money questions) there’s not a lot of history to discuss. No last year’s earnings. No market segments. Just lots of nos and nones. (Note: Beyond the dashboard planning refers to tabula rasa planning, contrasting with the more common “rearview mirror” or “side view mirror” planning.)

And let’s not even start talking about how founders, especially in the tech space, can change strategy. Like underwear. More disciplined startup founders may change business strategy only once or twice. Sometimes a meandering proof-of-concept is the culprit, e.g., you build a brand around family doctors and specialists want to purchase, or you focus on ecommerce and people keep paying you for search. Shit happens.

The more flighty founders (the underwear changers) can be influenced by the last meeting they were in; say, an investor or a key industry blogger. (Been there, learned from that.)

But startups are a good training grounds for brand planners. Planners can have a powerful influence on direction. Even if founders don’t abide   It creates structure for them. Yeses and Nos. Ones and Zeroes. 

If you are a brand planner, you need to bracket your experience with some startups. Trust me.




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There’s a business planning tool I’ve relied on for 20 years called the 24 Questions. It came from an AT&T/McCann-Erickson task force I was appointed to.  We used the questions to help determine what it would cost to properly fund a number of new and emerging business lines, one of which was AT&T’s business internet offering.  I’ve morphed some of the questions over the years to better help me understand a business’s fundies and to grow with the times.

Always on the lookout for new questions, today I think I’ve come up with one or two.  I may also use them in my other battery of questions  — the one used with executive management and sales people to help with the brand brief.

“If given the task of reorganizing the company into a smaller more profitable entity, what would you do?” 

If this questions doesn’t land well, you are either interviewing the wrong person, or that person is too politically correct. If that’s the case, try:

“If given the task of improving company performance through the purchase of another company, who would you buy and why?”

I haven’t used these questions yet but I promise to do so. And when I do, I’ll report in.




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When a latent adult working at McCann-Erickson NY, I was lieutenant in charge of all the AT&T data products. These were the data lines, the network software services and whatever other B2B things that were not particularly sexy — during a very competitive time when phone companies were spending like drunken sailors. My services eventually became the internet so I had a grand time. And managed a great team.

Anyway, I had this idea that if ever the agency president (John Dooner) was asked to go to a meeting in Bridgewater NJ on some of these non-big sexy products (sorry Bartolo) he would need a primer. So the Fact Book was born. The idea was to put all the relevant facts into a binder that could be read in 60 minutes (on the way to the client), giving the reader a foundation of knowledge, e.g., overall market universe, market share, competition, product explanations, YOY sales trends and futures. I stole the idea from Marian Harper, a McCann and IPG CEO, from back in the 60s.

At What’s The Idea?, my current business, a key deliverable is the marketing plan. The first step in its development is a document called the 24 Question. It is much like the Fact Book. Anyone, at any company, in the marketing department should know the answers to the 24 Questions. They are the financial and marketing fundamentals of business. If you don’t know the answers as a marketer, you are a danger to the company.

If you are interested in seeing these questions, email me Steve@WhatsTheIdea.com. And we’ll talk.


PS. Go see Steve Jobs.


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I’m always on the lookout for new ways to extract important information from executives about their companies. My 24 Questions, designed to follow the money, are not great at generating stories… and stories (aka proof/examples) are what create context and power for brand planners.  A flesh vs. bones thing. So the latest question I’ve been dabbling with is “Who is the industry’s biggest critic?” Or, “Of all the opinion leaders in your business, whose approval do you hold dearest and why?” I’ll probably test it out both questions. The first is the more open of the two and presumes a critical but, honestly, I am more eager to hear about praise. It is an open question and can be easily toggled.

Most people, be they executives or consumers, can articulate the opinion leader they most admire. That person is a good source of brand planning study. That person may not want to share all his/her secrets, but often provides shortcuts to pearls of wisdom and grist for the narrative mill.  Successful home brewers’ opinions are worth more to the average beer drinking Joe than are sports stars. An IT professional’s opinion is more valuable than a Best Buy salesperson.  Think “expert witnesses” in a jury trial, to the max.

Find these people, learn why they are great critics, and get their stories. Probe the “doing” part of their role rather than the “critique or praise” itself. Probe for story. Peace.


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I use a brand planning rigor called the 24 Questions.  It help me understand business fundamentals or lack thereof. Sales, unit sales, sales by channel, purchase process and lots of other things are covered. It helps inform the brand plan work – the work that is a little more positioning focused. More emotional.

Reading about new Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella got me thinking about what I would do on my first day on the job as a CEO.  My guess is I would probably meet with my top c-suite officers and have them topline for me what they were most excited and concerned about related to current operations. As a good CEO, this would be all probe and all listen. If these meetings were 30-45 minutes, I’m sure only the important stuff would come out.

Typically in my role as a brand planner I do the same thing; but I don’t always meet with all the c-level execs. So it’s not a 360 degree view then, is it?  We learn every day.  This is my learning for February 7, 2014. Peace. 

Off to Whiteface. A miraculous place. Wish me freshies.


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One of the 24 Questions I use in my deep dive brand planning rigor is “How much company revenue comes from existing or repeat customers?” When I compare this figure with lost customer and new customer revenue I get a sense of a company’s loyalty, loss and business development focus.

If you look at marketing job boards today you will notice a great deal of acquisition activity.  The majority of marketers are absolutely smitten by new customers; it’s akin to generals in battle who need to take new territory. Loyalty marketers, on the other hand, know it is the back door, the door customers leave by, that is most critical. 


Loyalty is engendered when customers are not overlooked. Everyone knows a broken family where mommy or daddy found s new partner because back at home they felt underappreciated. This behavior not only breaks up families, it drives wedges between parents and children. Loyalty, love, under-appreciation and inquisitiveness are human traits. Marketers try to build love through the AIDA principle: Awareness, Interest, Desire and Action, often forgetting Loyalty until it’s too late. Until the back door has been open too long.

Coupons (sorry honey flowers), shallow thank yous, and automated responses do not loyalty make. Understanding yourself and your customers through a well-principled brand plan, is the place to start. Otherwise, it’s off to the loyalty store for some quick fix tactics.  Peace.


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I was thinking about what’s wrong with education and it dawned on me that a teacher could go for decades without changing his/her  lesson plan.  Okay, that might be an oversimplification but bear with me.  So let’s says that happens for an American history teacher…how does that teacher refresh? Well, one might say they focus on the pedagogy – the teaching itself. With all students being different, the lesson may stay the same but the means of getting though, packaging, and connecting the lesson to “this years” student may change. (Let’s hope.) In other words the material doesn’t change the delivery does.

So what does that mean for branding and marketing? Do we use a syllabus to create our marketing approach? I suspect we do. I, for instance, have been using a couple of planning tools over the years that have not changed much: 24 Questions and a battery of Fact Finding questions.  Sounds kind of formulaic, no?  Am I lazy? These rigors act as fishing nets for me and what I catch will vary. What I do with that catch creates the differentiation. Hmm.

But suppose I approached each assignment more like composing a song. Or creating some other form of art?  It would dash the formula don’t you think? This would be a case of getting rid of the syllabus. And going commando. Let’s think about that in 2013 and see if we can blow some doors off our approaches to strategic development. Peace!


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Over the years I’ve found many words around which to probe when interviewing people to get to important, actionable branding insights.  “Pride” is one such word.  On the business side “tolerance” is another.  “What are some other things you are willing to tolerate if they help you make money.” For building a business plan, I have the 24 questions.  If going short form, a diff battery of questions to get at what’s what. 

But in all frankness, it’s not the forms; they are just a starting place — a brand planner has to have a good ear. And s/he turns that ear into a microphone that plays back what it hears into further probes…creating energy. If energy or heat is generated around an opportunity or an advantage, take that path because energy begets energy.  If the probee checks his or her mobile, abort and redirect.

As an anthropology student at Rollins College, I was once rebuked by a peer who thought as an ethnographer I needed to stay outside of the events observed. By insinuating myself into the situation I changed it, and he was quite right. But as a brand planner, people want to know you care about what they care about.  Then they open up.  I’m not talking about panelists talking about their itchy asses behind the glass, I’m talking about two people looking into one another eyes, and talking with personal energy and interest. Ask, listen, learn. Go off piste if it is where the interview goes. Probees can see your interest in your eyes. They can hear it in the timbre of your voice. If you are energized, they will deliver. Peace.

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The real art of brand planning is in knowing what not to say. 
When brand planning, I use something called the 24 Questions to help find the money. Once the money is found, job two is how to position. For this a number of hunting and gathering techniques are used; tools that are now vastly improved thanks to the Web. Information is amassed about the product, the competition, corporate leadership, the market, and current buying culture. Then future buying culture is projected, based upon trends. Only then, does the “boil down” process begin. 


The boil down is the point at which things are prioritized and edited. Evaporation occurs over time until only a powerful branding idea is left.  By itself, the idea may come off as mundane. But when presented to executive management along with the boil down logic, that’s when the magic occurs.  Marketing executives love logic and strive for simplicity, but are often too close to make it happen. A powerful brand strategy can set marketers free, but it is the logic of the boil down that sells it. Peace!

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