brand plan

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The problem with most brands is that they are skin deep. Products and services with derma measured only in millimeters. No  depth. No real rational and emotional meaning. Why is that?  Because brand building today is too randomized. No real brand plan.  No organizing principle driving long term, meaningful KPIs.

Sales and revenue are all that matters. Sales teams are motivated by commissions. Retail buyers are motivated by bonuses. Ad agents make money off of fee hours and volume.  And media is paid by the media transaction, not the result.

It makes me think of healthcare – where docs and hospitals are compensated for helping the sick, not preserving the healthy.

Brand planners dig beneath the skin. We get down to the organs. When we organize the selling principles, it’s not a Colorforms project, based on cut-and-paste tactics and theatrics. It’s a plan to build value leveraging what a brand is good-at and what consumers care-about. A plan driven by a deeply seeded claim, one that warms the hearts of brand employees and customers.

Salespeople can “sell anything,” they will tell you. Brand planners only want to sell one thing. Tink about it, as my Norwegian Aunt would say.




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The two fundamental components of strategic marketing are the brand plan and the marketing plan.  Most companies have a marketing plan. They also have brands. Not always to they have both. 

The marketing plan is viewed through a lens of “making money,” as it should be. Each tactic, event or channel strategy is gauged by how it contributes to topline sales and profit. The brand plan, on the other hand, is about creating value in the minds of the seller and buyer. It sets places in the minds of consumers differentiating the product and creating preference. It also creates a roadmap for brand managers and company stakeholders to deliver and create even greater value. Guideposts if you will. 

In all my years doing brand strategy I’ve never included a loci around profit or revenue. The proof array supporting a brand claim results from prioritizing care-abouts and good-ats. While profit is always the goal of the marketing plan, it is never the subject of the brand plan. This Yin and Yang, this republican and democrat balance is what make brands unique and powerful.

If every plank in a brand strategy was about profit and sales, every brand would be the same.

Profits are the motive of the marketing plan. Logical and emotional reasoning are the motives of the brand. Peace.   




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How do you build a brand?  It’s an easy question. Sadly, it has a thousand answers.

Were I to ask how to build a car, the answer would be with an engine, steering, wheels, transmission, chassis, etc.  How do you build a sandwich? How do you make beer? Of course there will be variations in ingredients but the components are pretty static. Not so much in brand building.

If you ask ten brand consultancies you’ll get ten different constructs for what constitutes a brand plan.  Components may include product development guidelines, packaging, a visual identity scheme, (e.g., a logo, style and usage manual) and rough communications guidelines, but for the most part the actors charged with building the brand are a federation of marketing people inside and outside the company (agencies) following a marketing plan, not a brand plan.

Marketing plans are built with line items transferable from one company to then next. Metrics include: unit sales, revenue, market share and profit plan. And lots of tactical cow bell. Brand plans, on the other hand, are devoted to building product and consumer value. Values based on care-abouts and good ats. They are not transferable line items but values endemic to the product.

The best marketers are also great brand advocates. They don’t care only about the plumbing, they care about the product and its unique value to the consumer.



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Brand journalists aren’t for every company. Certainly most small companies can’t afford them. The first brand journalist I ran into worked for JWT, a forward thinking ad agency. He worked on Microsoft and helped the brand do some really smart things in the B2B space. But he worked for the agency. When I moved client side to an educational technology company, I was lucky enough to have a chairman with enough vision to see the value of a brand journalist. We hired a photographer/videographer who was also a wonderful visual storyteller. His ability to make people feel things was amazing and powerful.

Thomas Simonetti was his name and he came to us with a newspaper background. The company we worked for, Teq, had a great brand strategy and I helped Thomas understand it: the claim and the proof planks. The plan was Thomas’s story guide. His mission: Go forth, research, compile and communicate stories that convince consumers that are what we say we are. We do what we say we do. We live how we say we live.

A traditional journalist has no agenda. That’s what makes them good. Brand journalists have an agenda. And that’s what make brands great. And rich. And successful. Peace.


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Brand strategies for my clients come with a lifetime warranty. That is to say, if a client takes a strategy to an agency to execute “buildables,” I am always available to provide feedback as to whether the work is “on” or “off” idea. Brand strategies at What’s The Idea are one idea, three proof planks, an organizing principle that allows brand managers to look at work and quickly tell if it makes a deposit or withdrawal in the brand bank. 

Agencies (ad, digital, social, other) are notorious for doing their own thing. For creating their own logic that supports the work. Once it starts, it seeps into all the marketing and dilutes the plan.

Campaigns and agencies come and go, but a powerful brand strategy is indelible. And defensible. My warranty.


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Branding is not life or death. Unless you are talking about the life and death of products.

Branding is about developing a claim and proof array that brand managers use to organize product, experience, deeds and messaging. Once a brand plan is designed, brand managers are paid to manage adherence. Here’s the big tip: There is no room for diplomacy in brand planning. Diplomacy may be great when dealing with the Russians over Ukraine, but there is no room to “make everybody half happy through compromise” in branding. You are either putting deposits in the brand bank or you are making withdrawals (AT&T’s Marilyn Laurie coined this wonderful metaphor).

Brand managers are going to have to say “no” a lot as they manage their brands. And that’s a good thing. People are going to crawl out of the wood pile with requests for projects to be funded, with promotional ideas, PR events and more – many of which will be nobly intended. But if they’re not “on plan,” not making a deposit in the brand bank, they are a disservice to brand development. Even if a lost kitty farm.

If you are a brand manager and you don’t know how to say “no” or why to say “yes,” it is likely you don’t have a brand plan. If you do have a brand plan but the rest of the company can’t articulate it and use it to make daily decisions in their respective jobs, shame on you as well. Peace.


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Bravery is big these days. A lot of agencies and marketers have tied their brand promises to the word, including David and Goliath and Mondelez – a couple of forerunners. And why not? Who doesn’t want to be brave? It’s as American as apple pie. I, too, rely on the word in my practice. A boast I proudly share with clients (after signing them) is that there will likely be one word in the brand strategy they may find objectionable. They’ll love the sentiment. Feel the strategy. Know in their bones I get them. They’ll proudly nod at the defensible claim. Yet often, they will sheepishly ask “Do we have to use that one word?”

A $5B health care system asked “Do we have to use the word systematized?”

The world’s largest tech portal asked “Do we have to call consumers browsers?”

The country’s 10th largest daily newspaper asked “Do we have to say ‘We know where you live?’”

The list goes on.

The point is, brand strategy needs to be brave.  If it’s not, is it really strategic? If your brand strategy is not bold, it will be a long, expensive build toward effectiveness. And may weaken your brand planks. (Three planks support your claim.) This brave approach takes brand strategy out of insight land and into claim land. Out of observation mode, into prideful attack mode.

Oh, and the answer to my clients one-word objection? “No, you don’t have to use the word. The creative people will create the words. But you must use the strategy.” And everybody, myself included, bobble-heads in relief. Peace.

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Brand Planks

Brand planks are business-building supports for the brand claim. (A brand strategy contains one claim, three supports.) With a brand claim in hand, in order for it to become real, remembered and practiced it needs to be proved. All claim and no proof is what befalls most poor marketing and advertising programs today. That’s where the planks come in. Combined, the 3 planks create an impenetrable barrier for brand success.

You can do all the quantitative research in the world to find out what consumers want in your product or service — but changing your business to deliver those things does not translate into success.   This is a perspective difference between a marketing strategy and a brand strategy. The brand strategy also factors in what the company is good at and famous for.

Brand planks don’t always fall into nice little containers either.  They can be features, benefits, qualities, behaviors, or functions. For an all-natural cookie, I once used “moisture” as a plank.  For a health system “community integration.”  For a commercial maintenance company “preemptive.”  

When I talk with clients about brand plan as an organizing principle, the claim gets all the glory but the planks do the work. Peace.


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One of the hardest jobs in the world, I suspect, is teaching special needs children. Spec Ed, insiders call it. I am no expert but I do know there are certain stimuli that get through to special needs kids. They like to touch. They like the color purple. Certain sounds and instruments are soothing. Special needs children learn better when distractions are minimized and their individual leaning sweet spot found.  This individualized learning modus extends to non-special needs children. Children learn at different paces because they are like snowflakes.

In marketing, there are some similarities. Predisposing a consumer to your product and pitch does not benefit from a cookie cutter approach. Brand planners who understand buying behavior, context and psychology have a leg up when avoiding the cookie cutter approach. This deeper understanding can give form to the organizing principle that is the brand plan (here defined as 1 Claim, 3 Support Planks). This organizing principle offers flexibility to teach consumers in different learning places, yet enough control for brand managers to stay focused.

Consumers are so overwhelmed by marketing, unsupported claims, imagery, song and marko-babble, they can’t concentrate. We need to create a distraction-less, replicable selling schemes that are indelible. With a tight brand plan we can impact product, experience, benefit set, and most importantly muscle memory. Marketing is about creating behavior or changing behavior. The pedagogy of marketing. Peace.

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I read a headline this past weekend “When a food writer can’t taste” which got me thinking about brand strategy and marketing strategy.  How does a food writer approach an assignment when s/he can’t actually taste the food? (How did Beethoven compose after losing his hearing?)  Had the food writer the ability to taste prior to losing the sense, the experience would be muscle memory-driven.  Of course the writer would need to know how the meal was prepared, the ingredients and the amounts. And watched preparation technique.  It would also help to watch people eat the food to understand tastes, aromas and textures.

Sadly, a good deal of strategic work in the market today is perfunctory. It lacks the hand and design of someone who has actually tasted the product or product experience.  Often there is a reliance on the muscle memory of other assignments. A reliance on demographics — and then the work is driven by nothing more than a media insight. jean-georges

Just as creatives know when the work is done, so do planners. Planners need enough time to mine insights, experience those insights and learn deeply about their meaning. Put that level of learning into your brand plan and you are, then, ready to start tasting. Peace.     


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