brand planners

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The advertising business, for years, has been a content assembly line manned by people expert in creating and polishing ads — experts, who are typically white, college educated, in their 30s, and lived in big urban centers. Some have emigrated from the burbs. Not a particularly heterogeneous group.

Brand planners and strategists suffer similar backgrounds, though suffer may be the wrong word. Unfortunately, these 5,000 or so well-paid people don’t really represent those to whom they’re selling. This group of ad men and women don’t look like the 300 million consumers targeted with doing the buying. These creators try to pretend they understand the targets, while really only understanding storytelling and ad production.

It is my view that content creation can best be done, most effectively done, using more creators who are part of the demographic and psychographic. Think about the best blogs. They speak to their targets by being part of the target. Let’s get more ads into the hands of people who really understand those they’e talking to. Not into the hands of a small class of interpreters.




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I was reading an ad this morning with the headline “Deeds not words.” If any words define What’s The Idea?, they are these. Alas, it is “words” that I sell. I sell brand briefs. I sell strategic plans. Words on paper. But…

My brand planning due diligence is all about “deeds.” Deeds are the actions that yield outcomes. Outcomes are where many planners spend their time. “We’re number 1. Low cost provider. In business for 35 years.” Outcomes are fine but they are the result of deeds. Once I’ve collected enough deeds, the claim (brand promise) begins to emerge.

I’ve written before about getting to the claim by first finding the proof.  Or assembling proof clusters first. But proof can be a step removed from a deed. Proof can be an outcome or a result.  It’s better to start with deeds. Nothing in marketing (or life) starts without deeds. Physical actions, investments, actualized promises from a brand put money and psychic investment in play. It’s existential.

This is where words stop and how brands are built. Peace.


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houzz homepage

Came across a cool new website called Houzz. It’s also an app on the iPhone. Someone showed me the app on the iPhone (my first user experience or FUE) where it displayed a picture of a kitchen with lots of scroll over call-outs. You scrolled over a countertop and lots of little bubbles (way too many) popped up – I assumed they were prices, or comments. For the life of me I couldn’t figure the app out. I later went to the website and subscribed and started receiving emails, which I didn’t open. Until today.

It’s a real nice website. Lots of bleed pictures, little text on the homepage, the way I like it. But I still couldn’t tell what the site was about other than home stuff so I dug in and visited the About Page. Here’s what they say:

“We are a platform for home remodeling and design, bringing homeowners and home professionals together in a uniquely visual community.”

Now that made sense. My FUE with the app did not.

The Houzz site (not the app) is an awesome resource. Power kitchen and remodeling users (people with leisure time?) spend a nice amount of energy here. This is exactly the kind of place a brand planner wants to do research. It’s the kind of place where thoughtful helpers, info seekers, and smart sellers spend time sharing. All in one location. Brand planners with ample asses (impolitic, I know) can learn a lot – sans fieldwork – on a site like this. I love finding gems like this in every category.  It’s where Posters go. (Google “Posters versus Pasters”.) Peace.


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This is a blog about brand planning and marketing. There are millions of marketers in the world and only a thousand or so brand planners. Most brand planners also known as account planners work at ad agencies. The rest are consultants like me, hiring themselves out to agencies or working directly with marketers.

A brand planner is a strategist. In my case, I am an up stream strategist who helps organize product, experience and messaging. My tool is a specialized brand plan, consisting of one claim and 3 proof planks. The word plank was borrowed the political world. Each brand plan has three key planks, all of which support the claim. It’s a family.

What resides in a proof plank? Real examples. Evidence. Existential proof of the brand claim. No platitudes. No marko-babble. No blather or bluster. Just proof.  People remember proof. They remember it before claim.  In healthcare there is lots of talk today about “evidence-based” medicine. That’s what makes a great brand plan. Proof and evidence.

For examples or just a chat about evidence based brand planning, write Steve at WhatsTheIdea.



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I read an interesting piece of research today, originally published in Science Magazine. The findings suggested a face-to-face talk with someone about a topic in which the conversation initiator has a stake is an effective communications tool. (Sounds like a duh, no?) The poll was conducted with a sample of 972 people and the topic was gay marriage. The methodology was neighborhood canvassing and the targeted people were against marriage equality. It turns out 20% of people who were engaged by canvassers changed their minds. What’s even more interesting is that only those canvassed by gays maintained that changed opinion 9 months later.

A couple of observations:

  • Nobody likes to be sold. Most door knockers are selling and it’s a nuisance. The script in this case called for canvassers to speak, listen, ask questions, show respect and dig deeper. The robotic spew was left at home.
  • Canvassers with skin the game are more believable and more convincing. Personal connection to the topic reduces the “sales” factor. (Non-gay canvassers altered opinion, but not over time.)

The study suggests a tactic that might be more effective than most in dealing with long time, deep seeded conflicts such as Christians-Muslims and Blacks-Whites. Why wouldn’t it work for Red Sox-Yankees or Burger King-McDonald’s. Tink about it (as my Norwegian Aunt might say.) Peace.


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Sorry I missed the Firestarter event for brand planner two nights ago in NYC. Doofus. Sounds like it was a cool event. The topic of interest, as reported today in Ed Cotton’s blog was the Agency Operating System. The traditional operating system is broken was the premise. (Sounds like something Marion Harper might have said in Fortune Magazine in the 60s, actually.) Anyway, as technology takes on more important things than social networking and selfies, attempting to fix education, healthcare and climate, we are beginning to see some very exciting new businesses emerge. And these businesses cannot be sold by ads alone. Or content marketing alone – the things agencies are good at. The things agencies monetize.

So the call to action at Firestarters was to look at problems differently. Deconstruct them into their parts. Understand through functional anthropology how problems might be addressed in new ways. Creative ways. The new agency OS, foreshadowed by the growing number of creative collectives out there today, needs new players: technologists, data geeks, engineers, producers and craftsmen. But which agency is going to have an Etsy department? Just as traditional agencies have TV commercial producers, the new OS need agencies need resource producers or curators. What shall be call these people? Ideas?




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Conde Nast just announced its intention to sell its Fairchild Fashion Media to Penske Media for a $100M so it can focus on its core brands. References to core brands and core business is what you hear from companies under financial pressure or companies with slowed growth. There was a lot of talk about core during the recession. The opposite is growth into new tangential businesses. It is what really profitable companies do. Growth companies are looking for that next big business thing. They are investing in futures. Finding places to write down taxes. Google’s self-driving cars, energy initiatives and hardware escapades are non-core.

Brand planners love the core. It helps them see what a company does really, really well. It helps them articulate and cluster competencies. It allows the planner to plumb the depths of consumer resonance. Understanding the core is important groundwork for beyond the dashboard planners. Those who do planning that is future-based. Before Steve Jobs and team came up with the iPod and iPhone, they had to understand the core. Then translate it into futures.

There are rearview mirror planners, sideview mirror planners, dashboard planners and beyond the dashboard planners. The best are a combination of all 4 — but focus beyond the dash. Peace. 


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A brand plan is an organizing principle for selling. The plan has a claim and three proof-of-claim planks. The claim, the heart of the plan, is something a product or company does well – a synopsis. It is also something the consumer wants or needs. Hopefully, the claim is pregnant with meaning and contextual. (At the Griffin Farley Beautiful Minds event last year, a claim developed by a team of tyro brand planners for CitiBikes was “bicycles with benefits,” a lovely pregnant claim.) Planks, on the other hand, are the proof areas that give consumers reasons to believe the claim. Also, they give employees and marketers content for their little elevator speeches. (Have you ever wondered why we need elevator speeches?)

B2B companies use salesforces to move their products and over the past decade there has been a proliferation of something called “solution selling.” Salesforces are trained to sell only after they’ve engaged prospects about their pain. Once the pain points are found, the seller can put his/her sales spiel together. (I like nothing more than to share my pain with complete strangers.) 80% plus of U.S. sales teams are solution selling these days. They believe it differentiates them. Hee hee.

With a brand plan “what the customer needs” has already been articulated. With a brand plan “what the product is good at” is already understood and provable. With a brand plan and the proper marketing and promotion, “consumers already are predisposed toward the claim and proof” because it has been advertised and promoted. Sales training that is based upon a strategy endemic to the product or service and based upon a consumer need is much stronger than solution selling out of a book. A sales trainer from one company that moves to another company can change the logo at the top of the presentation and make a nice living. That should tell you something.

Powerful, organized selling is based upon a brand plan — not someone’s pain. Peace.

PS. To see examples of brand plans mail

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I had an exploratory meeting last week with a brand planner I really admire who heads up an agency I really admire. We discussed what it means to be a classically trained planner (I’m not, she is) and her take was “It’s over-rated.” Old school recruiters care, but it is not what makes a great planner.

Of course one’s personal story is important. Why a brand planner? How a brand planner? I used to think good planners had a special ear; hearing things others didn’t. I still believe that, yet the big difference-maker is in the heart. My planning friend made that clear. The heart allow for empathy, excitement and succor when it comes to listening, learning and understanding. When interviewing targets and segments, these qualities get people to open up.  It is the heart that asks keywords that uncover inner motivations. Big data can then follow, but it doesn’t start with data.

In the advertising world, creatives care about art, ads, ideas. Marketers care about sales, share, effectiveness and brand. Planners, 10 years after the fact, remember people, interviews and insights. People are the planner’s product. Peace.


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tgi fridays

TGI Fridays is doing a big brand refresh in the hopes of slowing its revenue downturn. Recently sold to a new investment group, TGI Fridays launched as a single restaurant on the upper east side of Manhattan decades ago by Ben Benson and Alan Stillman. Some credit these two gents with inventing the “single’s bar.”

As part of the brand refresh there is lots of talk about talking tchotchkes off the walls, replacing frozen with fresh ingredients, updating the menu and removing potato skins from consumer muscle memory. All of which are good ideas, especially the food upgrade. But there is something about the original concept that might endure if the brand planners dig deeply enough. Places where the vibe is conducive to meeting people is not a bad business model. Look at online dating services. Look at the Axe strategy. Read a Millennials magazine.

Were I the planner on the business I’d try to understand what made the original Friday’s Fridays. What made it different from Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursday (other Stillman and Benson brands). Only Friday’s made it.

Readers know I’m not big on rearview mirror planning. But I am about providing consumers with experiences that meet needs and desires. So a little look back might help with Fridays look forward. Peace.


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