brand plank

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The most powerful cognitive trait on the planet is learning. Animal’s learn where to feed. Insects learn how to procreate. Children learn to associate pain with danger. Learning is everywhere.  Except in brand strategy.

At What’s the Idea? learning is a fundie. It has been a peeve of mine for years that most advertising is about claim. Our cereal is tasty. Our bank service is excellent. Our insurance is 15% cheaper. The claims are selling advantages, but not learning. Learning requires that the brain processes something and comes to a conclusion. Learning takes up new space in the mind.  

In grammar school students are more likely to remember something they process and logically understand, rather than something experienced through rote recitation. That’s why the What’s The Idea? brand strategy framework relies on proof planks. Proof of claim allows the brain to learn. It created critical thinking around a brand claim. It’s evidentiary.

Branding lasts when there is constant learning. When learning is refreshed. It’s a challenge, I know. But worth it.




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I manufacture brand ideas for a living. But each client that signs me on is only looking for one idea. A brand claim.

secret sauce

A lot goes into that claim. Hours of interviews. Days of observation. Book learning, article reading, blog scouring and research development. There comes a point during all of this discovery when I must start to boil down the learning and gleanings and circle the idea.  It’s a little Sherlock Holmes-esque, frankly, with deduction and gut instinct – but it’s the money making part of the business.

So how do 60 pages of typed and mistyped notes,  5 yards of OneNote links, copy, pictures and videos and a brain filled with stories, emotions and competitive brand noise reduce itself to one claim? Via two roads.

The Planks.

Brand planks for me are areas of proof that stand out for a company, product or service — a marriage of “good ats” and “care abouts.”  As I go through my material, I find “proofs” and highlight them. Proofs are actions, deeds, activities and results.  As these proofs begin to hang together or cluster they become planks. The planks, together, can inform the claim.

The Brief.                                                                

The brand brief is the document — actually a serial story — that explains the product, what it does, for whom, and why. When I write the brief I start at the beginning and, like a form, fill out one section before I move to the next. If there is dissonance in this serial story, it needs to be re-cobbled.  Only when the story hangs together can I write the final chapter: The claim. Once the claim is created, and once it fits like a glove with the three planks we’re done. Sometimes the planks need adjustment. Sometimes the claim. But it all must fit. It must be easy to understand. Contain sound logic. And a bit of artful poetry in the claim doesn’t hurt.

This is how I come up with a brand strategy. This is how I come up with an “organizing principle for product, experience and messaging.”  Peace.



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lululemon pantsThe first time I heard of Lululemon I was on a weekend marketing retreat with a number of women at the invitation of Nfinity, a wonderful women’s athletic footwear company.  I was a last minute replacement for a woman who had to beg out.  Most of the ladies were aware of Lululemon and sang its praises. They loved the category (yoga), styles (great looking, great fitting) but what they spoke most about was quality. I’ve never done downward dog in my life, but to hear them talk I was ready to buy. 

Come Christmas, off I went to buy the wifus some Lululemon yoga pants. Trying to explain hip size using your own hips to a young, comely salesperson is uncomfortable. But successful I was and I opted for a yoga mat too, hedging my bet. Hee hee.

As I read about Lulu’s quality problems today, which include previous grievances about material pitting, seam unraveling and color bleeding, I see how far the company have come. Backwards. Even with sales and revenue up  thirty plus YOY, someone has taken their eye off the ball. (Not sure if their equity partners or public stock offering put undue pressure on the company, but quality has faltered, even as the brand had grown.)

Quality is a tough brand plank to build around.  It’s most important in categories where it’s not common. Otherwise, quality is the price of entry.  But in yoga, where stress and strain and exertion are part of the experience it’s not a bad play. Lululemon needs a quality facelift. And fast! Peace.

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Brand for life.

When creating a brand plan it is important to see the long term picture.  Often, that can begin with speaking to teens.  Teens see everything so it’s important to make a good impression.  I once recommended to a health care system, whose young prospects would grow to be middle age prospects, a program to help get answers to difficult questions: sex, acne, puberty and other health things that would put the brand in good stead as those kids grew up. It would buy the system grace and fealty, the argument went.  “Advice about sex is not a good idea” I was told.  The system comment was good from a legal standpoint, not so good from a brand standpoint.  The idea, hand-wringer though it may have been, did support one of the system’s brand planks and provide meaningful information. 

Tactics are for building revenue.  Think of them as rent collectors.  Branding on the other hand is long term, similar to the efforts of the architect.  They must work together for maximum result.  Campaigns come and go…a powerful brand strategy is indelible.  Peace.

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