Brand Planning

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Before I became a brand planner I was a writer of creative briefs at an ad agency. One of the bigger refinements of my learning came at the hand of Peter Kim, McCann-Erickson NY’s the strategy officer.  He designed (or repackaged) the McCann creative brief to include what he called the Key Thought. The Key Thought was the “spark that propels the brand toward its objective.”  The word spark is what I preserved for my branding practice. I morphed Key Thought into “Claim” a more focused branding label but both are cultivated from and beholden to the word spark.

At an ad agency, a spark is the direction that gets the creative team excited about an ad.  In brand planning, the spark is the claim under which all marketing work is organized.  

When I wrote crappy briefs, before spark, they were lifeless sentences devoid of personality, culture and intrigue. Post Spark, they were strategic but poetic. More pregnant with possibility.  As a brand claim, a spark is strategic but also more interpretative.

One of my first claims with a spark was for ZDNet. Written in the 90s, the brand strategy was “For doers not browsers.” Still holds today.

Spark it up! Peace.

 

 

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I’m not sure when it happened, but at some time during brand planning career I began looking at assignments with the glass half full. Prior, there were a number of categories I walked into and start to twitch. “How am I going to learn this stuff? It’s too complicated.  It’s dense and unappealing.  Healthcare was one such category. Financial another. Digital Signal Processors and end-of-life also come to mind.

Maybe I just thought I wasn’t smart enough to learn a new technical language. Or I would be bored to death. I don’t have that problem anymore. I’ve chilled. And I’ve been able to find light in every product or service.

When you read decks and white papers on engineering projects in Africa or river blindness in Asia, it can be daunting. But when you interview the subject matter experts – the owners of the info and insights — it’s a different ballgame. You are in control. You make it interesting. People are people. People innately want to help.  So then it’s all about the questions.

As they teach you they get excited. As they see you gain category insight they start to perk up. Then they put some of the marketing pieces together. They become marketers. There is no more exciting human pursuit than learning. Plan to learn, plan to let your SME learn, and the activity rewards.

Love this job. Peace.

 

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Fred Wilson is a blogger (www.avc.com) and businessman I admire greatly. He blogs daily and share his knowledge without second thought.  He’s probably the most prominent VC on the east coast if not the county.  In a recent speech given at MIT, he mentioned that on his first ever test there he had gotten a zero.  About MIT he said, and I paraphrase, “When you go to MIT to go from being the smartest kid at your school to being the dumbest.” Anyway when asked about his nil test score his professor the response was “You didn’t understand the question.”

Here’s the thing about brand planning. The ones who get it right aren’t the ones with the best methodology or framework. They are the ones who understand the question. The problem is that question always changes. Yesterday I posted brand strategy is not Chaos Theory.  But if the question changes for every brand strategy, isn’t that a bit chaotic?

A generic question for all brands might be “What value or behavior does the brand provide that best meets the needs of the customer?”  Doesn’t seem like a bad question. But, per Fred Wilson’s professor, it’s the wrong one. Only when you are waist deep in a brand, customer care-abouts and brand good-ats can one ask the real question. It will be a business question, tempered by consumer insight, and help you pass that first and last test.

Happy hunting!

Peace.

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I’ve been thinking about the difference between apps and experiences.  It seems experiences are the topic of the day when listening to the purveyors of new social media applications. Facebook is buying experience companies, copying others and introducing then to the platform at record speed. And it’s working.

Some rue that Facebook isn’t innovating any more, too slow to develop its own experiences, but that’s not the point. The point is, “What do people care about and use?”  And experience based software is key.  The hot bed now is mobile phones. Pokemon Go was an augmented reality experience and it spread like a good plague. Sure it was an app, but it wasn’t just a database tapping info sources and serving it up as newer data, e.g., weather, ratings, geography, (well it was kinda), but it was much more experiential in nature. Not a static, paused moment, but an ongoing, live moment.  Think of it as a real life versus a screen grab.   

In brand strategy, many planners overlook the experiential side of things. They focus on the static. Is this “thing” on strategy?  Is this “communication” on strategy. This “visual?”  Brand planning and brand strategy are best when they also deal in the experience. The Megan Kent Branding Group. And Starfish Brand Experience get this.

So just as billions are now being made by focusing on experience software, so must billions be made doing the same in brand planning.

Peace.

 

 

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Many brand planners, by title, do the daily strategic work of advertising agencies: “Let’s write a brief for a new customer acquisition program,” for instance.  At What’s The Idea?, I concern myself with work at the root level.   I work on the master brand strategy; the brand “claim and proof planks” that drive all aspects of marketing.  Important as tactics are, they only support and bring to life the master strategy.

Master strategy is brand planning at is most scientific. Done right, it is measurable and predictive of results. But, I’ve just come to learn planning is just that – planning. Only when the plan is followed, activated and enculturated can it work. When not followed, when not complied with, it lays fallow.

Hence “Brand Engineering.”  Brand engineering goes beyond planning. It take a plan through to implementation.  Brand engineering rolls out the plan – insuring understanding and adherence.  When a brand strategy is understood it frees brand managers, agents and consumers alike to participate.

Smart brand consultants get this.  Landor and Interbrand make brand books about this – textbooks really — to explain how to live by the brand. But, sadly, they sit on selves more often than not.

Stay tuned from more thinking on brand engineering. It’s going to be a thing.

Peace.

 

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The difference between brand planners can be found in their respective abilities to do something “smart” with the info and data they collect during discovery. One planner’s questions will differ from then next, as will their observation techniques and data sources. Yet once all the hunting and gathering is done, it’s time for all planners to think. And apply. To fill out the brief, as it were.

My framework is different than that of some brand planners and the same as others. I use one claim and three proof planks as the organizing principle.  How I get to the one and three model, however, is through an exploration of “evidence.”  Evidence is not hearsay. It’s not marko-babble. It stuff. Actions.  Existential results. Proof.

When Eva Moskowitz stands on the steps of city hall, alone or with thousands, that’s evidence. When a prepubescent cancer patient has part of her ovary preserved in liquid nitrogen at age 9 so that 15 years later she can gave birth, that’s evidence.

I’ve read hundreds of brand strategy documents from so-called brand planners and am appalled by how few are evidence based. Tring to change that one brand at a time.

Peace.                 

 

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The Unknown.

It sounds like an AMC cable drama, The Unknown. But it’s the best way to look at any new branding assignment. Go in cold. Everybody wants someone with experience. But they really don’t. They should want someone who can come in and understand the business and brand, seeing them in a new light. 

The unknown can be scary. In the last couple of years, I’ve worked on assignments in cyber security, global health and security consulting, Accountable Care and web accessibility (making websites and apps usable by those with disabilities). Going in, scary. Coming out, not so much.  When you have no category experience it’s like walking into a dark cave. And that’s a good thing. If you have too much category experience you walk into that cave faster. Not paying as much attention. You can miss stuff. 

Dump the cache planners. Go tabula rasa researchers. Come to each project anew and clear headed.  You need to feel scared at the beginning of an assignment. It’s a good thing. A productive feeling. It helps you know when you are getting close.

Peace.  

 

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Truffle Insights

Brand planning insights are a dime a dozen.  Upper echelon planners know which insights are the truly special ones. They know which to chase and which to leave alone. Insights that change markets are like truffles. Truffle Insights make you sweat. They set off the galvanic skin response.  Truffle insights spark what Maslow referred to as a peak experiences.

I once did a deck while freelancing at JWT on the Microsoft Office business, containing 7 or 8 truffle insights. There were so many the deck got filed.  It impressed but was hard to deal with. Too many truffle insights creates the “fruit cocktail effect,” it tastes good but leaves no visceral differentiation. So savor your truffle insights. Don’t re-bury them.

I’m reading David Brooks’ NYT Op-Ed piece today in which he discusses the 10,000 hour rule researched by Anders Ericsson and written about by Malcolm Gladwell. It suggests 10,000 hours of practice can trump innate intelligence.  Do 10,000 hours make you a truffle insight digger? Not necessarily. But it certainly helps.

If you put in the work and burnish your instincts, you may just becomes an effective truffle insight hunter.

Peace.

 

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I’ve been thinking a good deal about prevention this morning. There’s an exciting article in the NYT on some Medicare trials to prevent diabetes among at risk populations.  Another article on the bombings in Brussels had be wondering how we can prevent the kind of hatred that causes people to blow themselves taking fellow citizens with them.  

Much of what modern societies do when faced with ills, illness and hatred focuses on curative or  after-the-fact action. Not root cause prevention.  

Yesterday’s What’s the Idea? blog post was about articulating positive “care-abouts” and “good-ats.”  By highlighting positives, the logic went, one can trump positioning around negatives.  So I’m asking myself today if I should be thinking about including a preventative plank in my strategies; rather than trump an existing brand or category negative, what if we look at ways to prevent them?

It may be a poor example but in a brand strategy I wrote a few years ago for a “healthier-for-you cookie,” I realized most cookies in the space were perceived as “dry.”  Rather than build a plank around moisture, which I did, perhaps I should have taken a preventative approach — highlighting the use of coconut oil as a key product additive. Coconut oil smacks of moisture.

As you can see, it’s not a full baked idea but you have to start somewhere.  And my gut tells me prevention and the education around it, is a def worth a strong look.

Peace.   

 

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A critical component of brand planning is understanding the special language of the seller and buyer. In the tech sector, the language can be quite unique, with many words to learn. As a young strategist working with AT&T’s Business Communications Services, I developed an acronym dictionary I kept with me every day. One could sit in a technical marketing meeting at AT&T back then and hear 10 acronyms in 10 minutes. In other technical businesses, e.g., healthcare, finance, and insurance learning the seller language is equally important. On the buyer side it isn’t as critical because the technical stuff goes thought a translation filter before it hits a consumer. (But if language is dumbed down too much, it comes out as marko-babble.)

When you learn the language of the seller, you hear things you couldn’t otherwise. Nuance. Emotion. It makes it so the sellers don’t have to teach, they can communicate. If you speak their language you also become more trusted.

Consultants and freelancers who don’t have a lot of time to learn the language are handicapped. It’s the first thing one needs to do on a new assignment. You need a good ear. No foreign word is unimportant. Study the language by reading trades magazines. Learning the language makes the first few meetings a bit clunky, but it’s necessary.

Peace.

 

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