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Kylie Jenner’s makeup sold $420 million in 18 months with minimal advertising beyond her Instagram posts. Her lip kits and eyeshadow palettes, at one point, retailed for $27 and $42 respectively. At a street fair on Long Island teen girls were falling over themselves to buy the stuff. The police showed up after a while, arrested some entrepreneurial boys hawking the cosmetics, all of which turned out to all be fake. The teens didn’t seem to care.

Kylie got some game. Kylie has a brand. Just ask my SnapChat stock, which lost mega value when she dinged the platform after it updated the interface.

If you are not Kylie Jenner and there is not pent up demand for anything and everything you touch, you need a brand strategy. In fact, in 15 years when Kylie isn’t hot (commercially), she may rue the fact she didn’t establish an organizing principle for her brand. Kids!

Creating brands out of people is hard. Creating brands for companies and products is easy. Claim and proof is the fasted, most enduring way.
If you are interested in some success stories and examples, write


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Bad Brand Magic.

magic cauldron

Brands are meaningless without products. It used to be easy in the old days, before service companies came about. Everything was clean; you bought things that went thump on a table or desk. You bought stuff. Stuff had qualities to which you could associate value. Then along came services like insurance and banking — and value was derived from process and experience. In this world price became even more important.

Fast forward 30 years past the service economy to the information economy, fueled by integrated circuits and computers, business accelerants, and product have become a much smaller part of the economy. The science of marketing in this economy has become “magical.” And not in a good way. In a way where magic is unexplainable. Enter the overuse and obfuscation of the word brand. Brand has become the ephemera around which fees and silly ads are built… around which logos and taglines are traded.

But let me take a breath. Branding has evolved.

Service companies can be brands. They can establish muscle memory for the value of a process or experience. But it takes a framework. It takes, as I like to call it, an “organizing principle for product, experience and messaging.”

I’ve done brand strategy this work for billion dollar organizations, service groups within billion dollar orgs and small businesses who sell to billion dollar orgs. And you know what? Every service is the same and every service is different. If you’d like to take the bad magic out of your marketing, write me (steve at whatstheidea) and I’ll share some examples of powerful service brand strategies. Peace.


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Learn from a salesman.

One of the things that makes watching the Olympics on TV so compelling is the human interest piece they do on athletes before each event. Usually it revolves around a home town and a hardship conveyed by friends, family or teachers. These back-stories not only set context, but allow viewer a little emotional skin in the game.

In advertising, this is not really possible. It used to be in the early days of long copy print ads, not anymore; not in this fast twitch media world with smart phone ads the size of a pinky finger.

The ability to set the stage for selling using exposition is something great sales people do. They story tell with examples tied to the course of the conversation. And they story tell, not off the boiler plate talking points of the company, but using heart and soul of experiences (or proofs) that carry emotional “reasons to prefer” a brand. As I mentioned in my last post, that’s usually not material-based but experience-based.

This is the heart of storytelling today. And it was learned from belly-to-belly salespeople, as are most great selling schemes and techniques.

Web sites could borrow a page. Peace.


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Context Matters.

broadway boogie woogie

Look at the picture above. It is one of the most famous paintings in the world.  To some, however, it is a simplistic primary color pattern of boxes;  childlike in its construction. To art connoisseurs it is rapture. When I saw it in art class in college I fell into the former category. Today, though no connoisseur, I tend to see its virtue. Why?


This paint by Piet Mondrian is titled “Broadway Boogie Woogie.” Now, I am able to get it. Finally, I understand the painting. My years on the planet have allowed me to see the painting with a new familiarity thanks to the title.  The title, for me, makes this painting. Setting my mind afire.

This may not sound like a branding observation; it is. Context matters. Oh does context matter.




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If I keep writing about ROS or return on strategy it may become a brand planning meme. First, brand planning has to become a meme (hot web topic) which may be wishful thinking. Hee hee. Anyway, Return On Strategy suggests there is something to measure. Upper case DUH.  The problem with most brand design and redesigns is that much of the money and thinking is tied up in the mark. And tagline. The mark should be the last mile of brand strategy and brand design. It’s about the paper strategy first. The idea.

If Newsday’s brand strategy is “We know where you live” (Newsday is a top 10-15 daily newspaper in the U.S.), then the value of that claim must be measureable. To do that you need support planks – planks that are of value to readers. e.g., a great source of “local entertainment” or “events and legislation affecting local taxes.” The ability to measure attitudes, actions and perceptions against these planks is the heavy lifting of brand strategy.

The Interbrands and Landors of the world don’t spend real time here. They design and deliver logos, taglines and style manuals. You may be able to measure adherence to a style manual but that’s not likely to drive revenue.

Start with your paper brand strategy and you start at the beginning. Peace!  

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Facebook reported huge earnings yesterday. It has often spoken about killing it in mobile advertising but I couldn’t see it. I understand where the ads are placed on desktop Facebook but have yet to see how they’re used in the mobile interface.  Are they little banners like on Weatherbug? Sidebar text ads? Nah, no room. I have never seen any ads on my Windows Phone so the whole thing doesn’t compute.

Then the earnings article I read today cleared it up.  It said the ads appear in the feed, much like this shrunk down ad from the desktop Facebook application:

facebook ad

Ahhh, now I get it. The mobile version of this ad will measure about an inch in height, contain a logo or brand mark, an eyebrow, headline and a few words of copy, a visual the size of a thumb nail and link. At least this is the way I see it. Anything bigger will be too intrusive for the Facebook masses. This ad unit, to be named later, will be the advertising unit to replace all. It will be as common as the TV ad, the page 4C, the banner. Ad agencies will perfect it. It will launch video. This unit is why Facebook will be printing money for the next 10 years. The unit is here, the time is now.

If Facebook exhibits restraint on how frequently they can serve these ads there should be no consumer backlash. And don’t get greedy Mr. Z and Ms. S. Don’t sell super-premium size mobile ads that gobble the screen.

Does anyone have a good name for this new unit?



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I get major brand planning wood when landing on a cool target insight. Not a transplanted insight from my experience imposed on the target, but something from his or her very soul. Target transference besets all planners. How could it not? Young planners, planners in a hurry, planners without data and depth of consumer experience take from their own frame of reference. From reading. Past research. Input. But if it feels “safe” and “done” it probably is.

And let’s not forget that when doing brand planning, not project planning, there are often many targets to consider. For instance, a brand plan for a toothpaste needs to appeal to the brusher, household goods purchaser, and even the dentist. All targets count. So the target insight can have a tendency to get watered down. Don’t let it.

Be selfless. Remove yourself from the equation. Close your eyes and listen. Every word matters. Find the special words. If you are not getting special words, plants some and see where they go.  Some words have many meanings to your target. Plumb their depths.


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If there is one word that symbolized the U.S.A. it is freedom. It’s our brand, if you will. Do focus groups, quantitative…interview Nigerians or Oklahomans. You will get the same one word answer. It’s a little bit of a complicated answer, so you may not hear it if interviewing young children, but they will probably offer stories about schools, pizza, skinny jeans, music and other embodiments of freedom.

The internet has introduced the world to freedom – freedom of information. And it has had wonderful yet drastic changes. Many people and cultures are uncomfortable with the influx of ideas, ideology and real-time communication the web and its apps offer. And why? Because governments are being pressured and replaced, thanks to freedom of information. A story today in the NYT outlines many of the countries curtailing web access — now including Russia. Yes Russia.

As the planet gains increased freedom of information and therefore freedom, there will be growing tumult and restrictions. And America, with all its freedoms, will grow in stature as the bellwether of freedom. The rest of the world will bleed, but then come kicking and screaming closer.  All will be well, but there will be blood and seismic bumps. Peace.


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The New York Times Company reported a profit for the second quarter and that’s wonderful. It’s been a slog for the NYT but the company is getting its act together. It is divesting itself of non-core properties (Boston Globe,, ramping up its digital business and leveraging its worldwide brand by investing in changes to The International Herald Tribune, including a new name.

Print advertising is down but more surprisingly so is digital advertising – off 2.7%. In today’s word that’s just a little bit crazy. Perhaps these numbers are the result, not of, but of the other properties. Either way, didge should be growing like a dookie and with the NYT imprimatur, faster than the market.

Here’s a couple of thoughts for The Times to accelerate its recovery:

1. Feed the digital natives with more timely news stories, across more platforms. Online, that will require more video, podcast/audio, and slideshows. Immediacy and “first to report” is a key here.  Your audio video editing suite will need to grow significantly.

2. Keep the analysis for the daily print property, but feed and stream the big stuff from around the world on  Live is better than canned. (Obviously make the paper/paper analysis available online.)

3. Do not rename The International Herald Tribune. As much as I love the NYT, it’s an ethnocentric and brand-selfish.  

4. News cannot be commoditized, so continue to reinvent it. Innovate. Don’t curate. In 20 years, we may still have paper and we still may have broadcast; they are the plumbing. But we will certainly have news — and the organizations that capture it best, with the most accuracy and realism will win the day.


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