brand planning insights

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The Toast.

My baby girl is getting married in a couple of months and I’ve been wondering what to say in the toast.  Stuff about her? Everyone in the room knows her. Stuff about her soon-to-be-husband?  Many will know him better than I. Should I lead with a joke? I’m funnier extemporaneously than when I write material.

I’ve also been thinking about the father daughter song. Should it be a song we have in common? From a concert we attended?  Should it be about a thoughtful topic or life-lesson? Will listeners parse the lyrics and read too much into it?

Then it hit me — my toast should be a tad instructive. I am, after all, a father who has been married for over 30 years.  I’m also a brand planner by training – someone paid to observe and make actionable important insights. So, how about I give this whole marriage thing some thought and share a couple, two, tree insights about the successful marriage practices. Hmmmm. I like it. So long as it isn’t about me. So long as it isn’t about my wife. Ish.

I’d like to share with my daughter something that lasts. Something that adds value to her  relationship. Something that can be passed along the family tree.

I have two months before my presentation, I mean speech. Stay tuned for the insights.



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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.



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“Insight” might be the most used word in the lexicon of the brand planner. If art directors and writers work in “creative,” planners practice the craft of insights. We may write briefs, manifestos and decks – but insights are the brand planner’s money shot.

I recently came across a chart outlining nine type of insights: consumer, cultural, future, product, brand, market, purchase, usage, and owner. To this I immediately thought of 3 others: jealously, success and re-use (and that without giving it much thought). So it’s safe to say insight work is rich. But here’s the thing, the best strategies are singular. Planners play in all of the listed insight areas, then chose one. One. The one at the nexus of what consumers want most and what the brand does best. The insight must “feel” organic, not forced. It must provide massive stimulus to the creative department (the makers of the messages, deeds and experiences). Because remember, an insight is not an ad. It’s not even a brief. It’s bedrock for the idea.

Really good planners wade through insights, be they 9, 12 or more, and land on one. Then they milk it until it flows free, clean and rich with protein. It is then turned into a strategic idea (claim) and proof array, before being handed off to the makers, business owners and the managers.

Remember, campaigns come and go, a powerful brand idea is indelible. And insight powered.



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A wonderful expression was used in a New York Times article today on the expansion of the American Museum of Natural History. It referred to the changing nature of museums and the old role of museum as “cabinets of curiosity,” where things were collected and catalogued. Museum president Ellen V. Futter, nicely captured the new role saying, “Now what we’re interested in is what the connections are among the different things we have. It’s a much more interdisciplinary world.”

Brand planners sometime get caught up in cabinets of curiosity. And we obsess about them. I know I can. We find an insight that just screams “importance.” And uniqueness. And cultural spark.  But to use Ms. Futter’s words, we must not forget the interdisciplinary role the insights play in the buying habits and behavior of consumers.  The insight we unlock may actually be trumped by another factor. And though it may be a mundane factor besmirch our exciting, newly uncovered insight, we must not overlook it. Awesome insights don’t operate in vacuums. So find them, truly see them, and make sure they fit into the full pattern of the buying consumer. Peace.



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One of the cool things about being a brand planner, probably not unlike being a psychotherapist, is being a student of man. Though I am not looking for maladaptive behaviors as does the psychotherapist I am looking for behaviors. All types. By doing so, I’m always learning. When on the clock, I’m learning about behaviors contributory to commerce in a specific business category, but when off the clock, I’m learning about human nature. Always learning.

I’ve been a painter, a waiter, and ad guy and a couple two tree (sic) other things, but brand planner and constant learner has to be the best. And when you can share what you’ve learned to help people, it’s among the best feelings on earth. The fact that brand planners help sell things shouldn’t minimize the job. When working on a elemental nutrition formula for infants with eating allergies and observing “a mother is never more protective than of an infant in distress,” the goal was helping, not selling. In my presentation “Social media guard rails,” one of the first slides is about this point. Help, don’t sell.

The best brand plans help; the result is selling. Words to plan by. Peace.



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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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I get major brand planning wood when landing on a cool target insight. Not a transplanted insight from my experience imposed on the target, but something from his or her very soul. Target transference besets all planners. How could it not? Young planners, planners in a hurry, planners without data and depth of consumer experience take from their own frame of reference. From reading. Past research. Input. But if it feels “safe” and “done” it probably is.

And let’s not forget that when doing brand planning, not project planning, there are often many targets to consider. For instance, a brand plan for a toothpaste needs to appeal to the brusher, household goods purchaser, and even the dentist. All targets count. So the target insight can have a tendency to get watered down. Don’t let it.

Be selfless. Remove yourself from the equation. Close your eyes and listen. Every word matters. Find the special words. If you are not getting special words, plants some and see where they go.  Some words have many meanings to your target. Plumb their depths.


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Cornflakes and PTSD.

I’m reading a book entitled Achilles in Vietnam – thank you Myra – written by a psychiatrist specializing in PTSD. I’m only 4 pages in but realize immediately how it will help in my brand planning consultancy. Vietnam veterans, especially those traumatized, want to be listened to. The whole listening thing is what good planners do well.  And as good as my ear is, I recognize I do a lot of questioning and probing.  That’s not how it works with PTSD.  It’s all about the listen.

Now I am not for a minute suggesting listening to a mom talk about cornflakes or a self-centered millennial chat on about imported beer is anything akin to a veteran talking about mid-night terrors, but if does give one pause.  A really cool insight I had for home care geriatric patients a couple of years ago turned into a target I called Captains of the Castle. This pay-for service looked at higher income men and women relegated to taking orders from their home nurses. They went from captains of industry to powerless patients.  Rich territory, that.  The point being, an attentive ear, when the talk is serious is seriously important. The more serious the topic the better the ear needs to be.

So how deeply should we dive in a cornflakes scenario? Should we still listen or should we jump at the shallow insights?  You tell me. (But you know the answer. ) Peace.


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As a young account supervisor at McCann Erickson working on the AT&T private data line business, I visited a tradeshow called InterOp.  In the land of B2B, trade shows are a great place to learn what’s up? They still are, to a degree, for tasting, touching and gauging the veracity of people with whom you’re speaking.  But the web has taken a little wind out of trade show sails.

At InterOp in the 90s, I trod the show floor asking lots of questions, meeting AT&T product people, competitors, chatting up salespeople and visiting presentations. When I returned home I had to do a write-up on what I learned.  The paper was my first real “good doggy.”  It contained an insight about InterOp that had to do with name badges. Every third badge said “consultant.”

At the time data interoperability was such a mess (think the opposite of open systems) that the business was in crazy turmoil. There was no leadership or firm technology consensus.  So many geekuses were making a living solving individual problems, on an island kind of problems, and demand for consulting was great. It was getting messier and messier.

AT&T knew near term that if they fed the mess they would make some nice money. But if they solved the mess, they would make even more money. “Reducing the complexity” was a brand strategy that resonated in the market.  So, you don’t always get your insights by talking to people; sometimes they can be found in the strangest places. “Hey, eyes up here.” JKJK.



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