brand brief

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A brand strategy brief, at its very best, is a story. A story with beginning, middle and end. Like good entertainment it contains a problem, solution(s), tension and resolution. Most importantly, it needs to appeal to the reader/viewer (aka the consumer) in order to take hold.

I write brand briefs for a living.  In each and every one, the story has to flow.  If the flow is interrupted by some structural anomaly, the brief will confuse.  The money part of the brief is the finish — the claim and proof array. (Once claim, three proof planks.)  It is the organizing principle for product, experience and messaging.  If the claim does not fit the rest of the story like a glove, something is wrong with the story.

The brand brief story is written for the brand marketing lead. Once the claim and proof array are approved, and immutable, the brief is just a tool for brand managers and agents. Then the storytelling or as Co:Collective calls it Story Doing, is in the hands of the marketing team and creative people. And I am on the my next assignment.

In branding the brand brief is the greatest story ever told.



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Every brief is a brand brief…that is, until the brand brief is actually written.  This is my life. A friend asked for some help with his website. I was paralyzed until I wrote a brand brief.  “Can’t you just write copy for the website? Only a couple of pages?” Sorry.  

A brand consultancy asked me to work on an idea for a top six business consulting company – they really wanted a brochure. “Love to help. Gotta do a brand brief first.” Want me to write an ad for your energy drink? Brand brief.

I can’t go tactical — not in good conscience — until I understand the organizing principle aka the brand strategy. I’d have restless leg syndrome. I’d be afraid I would do something to hurt the brand – which would be hard since without a brand brief “Who knew?” what would help the brand. 

So this is my career dilemma. The boulder I must push up the mountain. Wouldn’t have it any other way.




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Rhode Island’s new tagline “Cooler and warmer” is catching a lot of flak from the state’s citizenry. The lovely ocean state recently launched a new logo and tagline, costing the taxpayers a couple million dollars, and the homies are not happy. The logo is okay, but the tag has no ballast. Poetic? Perhaps. Goofy? No doubt.

rhode island logoSo how did Rhode Island get into this mess?  I’m guessing there was no brand brief. And if there was, it certainly lacked a tight idea. I used to mentor brief writers by telling them your claim should have “no commas or conjunctions.” A claim should be about one thing. “Tastes great, less filling” is the rule breaker. And let’s just say the Rhode Island brand brief was tight, then the tagline writer and approver rode roughshod over the process. For my money, there was no brief. Or it was a poorly crafted piece of strategy.

If anyone has a copy (on the off-chance there was a brief) and would like to share, I’d be happy to do some forensics.  Peace!


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Master and Commandee.

Last night at Google Firestarters, Chet Gulland, head of strategy at Droga5 NY, mentioned “1 idea, 50 briefs.” For another Droga brand he spoke of 30 briefs. (The topic of the event, as you might imagine, was the brief.) The brief is what keeps agency planning departments in business. Each project should have a brief. It should outline the task, opportunity, problem and provide a solution spark. The more insightful and powerful these briefs, the better the work…so goes the logic.

An undercurrent at Firestarter and an undercurrent about briefs in general (check out this exceptional video) is that briefs are better seen not heard. Shorter is better. Problem-focus is important. Agile and open are also key.  One panelist, in fact, suggested no brief is the best brief – but he was from a product development/innovation company.

I completely agree with Mr. Gulland though I might word it a little differently. One brand brief, 50 creative briefs. At What’s The Idea?, the idea (claim) is the brand strategy. It is supported by 3 proof planks. Any creative brief, developed by any cohort, must be on idea. The actions, experiences and programs used to generate sales, guided by individual creative briefs, should all celebrate the idea (claim) and support one of the proof planks. Claim and proof.

The brand brief and the many creative briefs it sires will keep planners busy for years to come.

Thanks to Google, Ben Malbon and Abigail Posner for another wonderful event. Eliza Esquivel of Mondelez was exceptional too.





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Brand as Verb.


Brand is the new black. Anyone and everyone in marketing talks about brands, brand strategy and brand ______ (fill-in-the-blank). I was reading a proposal for web design yesterday and the word was used copiously. I was recently reviewing creative for a brochure designed by a very “strategic” agency, whose website by word count was overloaded with the words “strategy” and “brand.” (An art and copy shop.)

Many posers today know brand as noun, not as verb.

What allows a product to be a brand (noun) is the ability to brand (verb). The ability to brand (verb) is a process by which one presents a product to the market using an organizing principle that is strategic, codified and tightly managed. The only way to assess if an agency or vendor is meeting those criteria is through a brand brief. (A What’s the Idea? brand brief resolves to 1 claim and 3 planks.) If you are managing a brand, a brief is the tool you use to guide and measure actions. You can’t do that with a style guide or color palette. “Awesome use of the color orange Success Academy.”

So, when you are working with people who toss the word brand around, make sure they are not simply polishers of the noun. Ask them if they are working off a brief.

Peace in NYC.


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I was director of marketing at a company with a fairly substantial in-house creative group. We had an animator, two web developers, an application nerd, copywriter, junior art director and creative dept. manager who was a designer by trade.

Until I had written the brand brief we just chugged along doing project work, one-offs as had been done before my arrival. Nothing big was to be worked on until the brand brief was finished.

I briefed the in-house team once we were ready and asked them to start off by cracking the code on an ad campaign – thinking that was an easy way to get some ideas. Who doesn’t know how to make ads? With the right brief and a strong strategic idea, the team should be ready to nail it…and nail it quickly.

Ooofahhh. What a mistaken expectation that was!  They were like deer in headlights. Apparently they’d never seen a brief before. They may have understood what a campaign was but couldn’t wrap their heads around a brand strategy. I guess not every place labeled “creative” can do agency work.

“Let’s get out of the building,” I said. Let’s go watch sellers sell and buyers buy. Let’s hear consumer language, let’s share and talk and play act. The creative dept. manager, looked at me like a dog looks at you when you put the ball behind your back. Out of the building?

A few plants, a ping-pong table, a title or two, and some fun lampshades do not a creative team make.  Peace.



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In just about every marketing consulting meeting I attend the word “differentiated” comes up. It’s a word marketing directors love. Sadly, most think messaging can differentiate their products. True differentiation in marketing, positioning and branding comes straight from the product.

What I do as a brand planner, in my search for things that are “different and desired,” is to diagnose. Webster’s defines the word as “to know apart from” or “to distinguish.” Most look at the word diagnose and think medical. In a meeting this week someone said about my work “You are really like a detective, aren’t you?” Good strategic planners are diagnosticians and detectives. Both look for problems. But brand planners must look, too, for positives. The Coke Happiness campaign, being the ultimate positive. We know positive is better than negative, though B2B clients don’t always roll that way.

Good brand briefs serve up the positive by understanding the negative. A smart card marketer selling to K12 schools, for instance, knows security is a major issue today. It also knows that proper attendance and every hour spent in a class room can improve learning – an educational positive. Finding an idea that works both angles is the heavy lifting. A company like that wants differentiation. A line. A website. The planner wants the strategy. One that diagnoses the problem yet serves up the proper positive medicine.

Peace you all.

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When doing a brand brief I often look at two primary target types: movements and independents. Movement targets are communities of people driven by a desire for an outcome. When doing a brief for an obesity product this was a movement target; see how it extends beyond the patient to the family.

Ill Fitting – The morbidly obese understand morbid obesity is a diagnosis not an adjective. We call them Ill Fitting because they are both ill and view themselves as not fitting in with the normal population. They look different and are treated differently. (Other than home, the only place with chairs built for them is the bariatric physician’s office.) The Ill Fitting are loved, liked and often conduct their lives in typical ways, but know they suffer discrimination. Just as is the case with those who are discriminated against for race, religion, and sexual preference, the Ill Fitting have their hypersensitivities. The Ill Fitting are quietly defensive about their condition but willing to accept help so long as it is nonjudgmental. Much of their learning about the diagnosis takes place online. The ability of the Ill-Fitting to actively participate in their wellness is welcome but extremely difficult.

The non-obese population, caregivers and loved one of the Ill Fitting are also Ill Fitting when it comes to the condition. It is a topic they find hard to broach.

The other type of target, the independent, appeals to the individuality in people. The opposite of community really. Sometimes people don’t want to follow the crowd. They want to be the trail blazer. It’s a natural phenomenon but for marketers a little more daring. When writing the brief for Zude, the web’s first drag and drop web publishing tool, I used a target called Webertarians – web libertarians — a construct that identified people tired of being governed by closed, proprietary software tools.

Both approaches are viable. Pick one, don’t waver.


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For my upcoming workshop “A marketing consultancy, behind the curtain,” I suggested yesterday that the best way to undergird a brand strategy is by asking 24 Questions. With questions answered about business economics, processes and financials we move on to more of a customer focus, the brand strategy. Brand strategy (one claim, three support planks) is a coming together of what “a brand does exceedingly well and what customers want most.” An organizing principle, if you will.

Marketing and branding more specifically, are about claim and proof. Disorganized proof is not the answer. And claim, claim, claim without a reason to believe is what today we call “badvertising.” So once the claim is found the heavy lifting is finding the proof to support it.  Proof not platitude.

There’s a questionnaire I use to get to the brand brief, some of which I will share at the workshop. Questions are designed for customers, C-level execs and salespeople. I also like to do windshield time with salespeople. Watching them sell and buyers buy. If not a B2B brand, I turn windshield time into retail store time and customer observation.

For other workshop goodies tune in tomorrow. Peace


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WTI brabd brief masthead

A brand brief is the place where lots of data and learning are boiled down into a simple unique selling idea. The brand brief I use was borrowed from McCann-Erickson while under the reign of Peter Kim in the 90s. As hard as I’ve tried to make it better, I’ve only been able to tweak it. It provides a wonderful logic that when filled in serially (in order) delivers a strong reason to buy. Or Selling Idea as Mr. Kim called it.

I know when I’m not there yet or not fully prepared when tripping over the logic flow of the brief. Each element, an opportunity to create a mini-headline, contains an important insight. Done right, the insights link together like a beautiful song.  

What makes this brief a brand brief rather than a creative brief is that beyond the main strategy idea (claim) lie three support planks. This is an addition to the McCann brief. These planks focus and array the proof, pounding home and cementing the claim in the minds of customers. Claim and proof. There are only three planks because that’s what consumers can remember.

If working with a feisty creative person who doesn’t like long briefs, I can jump the logic and hit the idea. But the logic is telling, so I prefer the long form.

The brand brief is my secret sauce and one only shared with clients…though I am happy to share some of its outputs, upon request. Peace.

Steve at WhatsTheIdea


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