Brand Planning

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Brand Planning Tip.

All brand planners have their tools. We use them to corral insights and generate ideas we can sell as organizing principles for the work other will do. My go-to tools are the 24 Questions, my Executive and Sales Team Questionnaire, and a Brand Brief. From time to time I’ve used a presentation format sharing “Insights, Implications and Recommendations” as well.

Here’s a new ditty I came up with for an art start-up a few years ago. I call it the 10 conundrums. I use it as an interim step before crafting the brand brief. After doing all my exploratory work, quant research and interviews, I cobble together a number of market, consumer and company contradiction. Perplexing contradictions or true conundrums. These I share with the client work team to see how they feel about them. How they deal with them. The dialogue about these points if often quite important. Here’s an example from my art start-up project:

Art appreciation is personal and subjective. Yet having a trusted art-savvy acquaintance to call upon can influence that subjectivity – adding dimension and a level of comfort.

Toolkits are nice to have. Reinventing them, adding to them and evolving them are how we get better at what we do.



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lucy skeletonWhen brand planning I like to see the product and brand strategy in historical perspective. It’s what I strive for. Big thinking requires looking at problems not of the moment, but from a higher, longer-term perspective. Marketers are paid to ring the cash register. Paid to transact business. Brand planners are paid to position products and services long term. Seeing what Al Reis calls the “position” requires viewing a product not up close but from afar.  So far, you may have to squint to see it. What is visible from afar is most visible.

This thinking is often what creates tension in a presentation of brand strategy to a CEO. S/he thinks of brand strategy as a tactic done once every few years prior to a new ad campaign exploratory. The tension comes from being asked to look at a brand long term, yet with a tightened focus. CEOs are great with stretch goals, but not with stretch strategies. They find them confining. Stretch strategies are only evident when looking long term.

If you were to ask Tim Cook to see his brand through a historical lens, he could do it easily. Ask the CEO of HTC and you’d get the dog’s “ball behind the back look.”

I can think of only one brand strategy I’ve worked on that has not lasted the test of time. The rest were built to last. See history me droogies.


PS. An example: Regardless of where you stand on president Obama now, his presidency viewed from a historical perspective – policy wise – will be viewed as momentous.



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Context Matters.

broadway boogie woogie

Look at the picture above. It is one of the most famous paintings in the world.  To some, however, it is a simplistic primary color pattern of boxes;  childlike in its construction. To art connoisseurs it is rapture. When I saw it in art class in college I fell into the former category. Today, though no connoisseur, I tend to see its virtue. Why?


This paint by Piet Mondrian is titled “Broadway Boogie Woogie.” Now, I am able to get it. Finally, I understand the painting. My years on the planet have allowed me to see the painting with a new familiarity thanks to the title.  The title, for me, makes this painting. Setting my mind afire.

This may not sound like a branding observation; it is. Context matters. Oh does context matter.




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femmes d alger

Ninety percent of branding is plan driven: understanding what customers want most (related to your product and category) and what you do best. You find a strategic claim and three proof planks, then you build equity using that claim and proof array until its hard as steel. But…but.

Just when you think you know something about the business, someone comes along and proves you wrong. And therein lies the other 10%.

Every one once in a while an idea comes along that is off brief, off strategy, and is just too good to pass up. It may be tangential to a strategy. It may be in the neighborhood but not on the right block,. You just feel in your bones it’s a business winner. That’s the 10 percent. And you have to go for it. As Eddie Vedder says “It’s evolution baby.”  It may help morph the strategy. It may not. This is a creative business plus we are dealing with people; so you have to try things that speak to you. Strategy is mellifluous. Impressionistic.

Show a person on the street a copy of Picasso’s “Les Femmes d’Alger, which BTW recently sold at auction for $180M, and they might think it childlike. Brand planners are in the business of creating positive product impressions. Impressions that draw consumers closer to a brand, not just closer to a sale. It’s so “not science” alone.  Cut the leash 10% of the time and allow in a little impressionism.



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I’m a meme-alist. That’s someone who likes to create memes. In my area of business — brand strategy — I own a few memes. Twitch Point Planning. Posters and Pasters. Brand Planners Prayer. Well actually, no one ever owns a meme, so let’s just say I started them. And they point to What’s The Idea?

My biggest business building meme (or it should be) is Claim and Proof. It’s undergirds every aspect of my work. The idea referred to in What’s the Idea? is the claim. The proof array or proof planks are the reasons to believe. The reasons to remember. 

claim and proof art

If you Google Claim and Proof you won’t find What’s the Idea? You’ll get lots of pages of bankruptcy links about proof of claim (claim and proof inverted). Google “Claim and Proof” in quotes and you will only find a picture from my deck on brand strategy. Above the fold. It will get you to my stuff, but it’s a picture not a link. Seems there’s a paucity of art related to Claim and Proof. Hint, hint.

For my business, the order of claim and proof is important. The words cannot be flopped.

If you Google Claim and Proof Planks you get What’s The Idea? in living color. It’s not as meme-able as claim and proof sans quotes, but it’s a bullseye. As a meme-alist, I help clients find their idea then develop ways to meme-alate it. Hee hee…I can’t stop!!!$%%.



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One of my latest brand planning memes is “what customers want most and what you do best.” (Shit, I need to start tagging that phrase.) It almost always drives the work of good marketers…certainly good brand planners. Problem is, most heavy up on one side of the equation. Case in point: A pal came to me recently in a business development situation asking for thoughts on a company he is pitching. He gave me a quick overview and said his agency is already working on some creative ideas. The company being pitched is in the home improvement space.

I asked if he wanted some thoughts on strategic underpinning to help with creative (or selling the creative). He said sure.  I heavied up on the “what you do best” side of the equation by reviewing the website – the only tangible representation of the company I was given beyond the initial 10 minute telephone overview. I neglected to look closely at the “what customers want most” side the house, typically a brand planner’s wheelhouse. (A dive into customer attitudes, motivations and experience.)

This whole exercise was a cursory, non-paid “quickie.” No real rigor. That being said, I dropped the ball by focusing on what was already built — what was already there. My wheelhouse, any brand planners wheelhouse, is the consumer viewpoint. Given the short timeframe, omitting that side of the equation was an error. Lesson learned.



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I’ve written a few times about my desire to open an ad agency named Foster, Bias and Sales – staying away from the surname convention. Foster meaning raise or promote. Bias intended to suggest “create bias” toward a product or service. And sales meaning, well, the cha-ching of the cash register.

I was reading about racial bias today in an Op-Ed piece by Nicholas Kristof which referenced some interesting studies of racial bias among children and realized my new agency should not attempt to create bias toward a product or service, but leverage existing biases. Big difference. By leveraging ingrained product context, one can create a richer purchase environment.

An example:

At a car dealership, to create bias towards Toyota a salesperson might cite JD Power data on safely. Or higher resale value after 5 years. These are good logical proofs of product value.

Were we to leverage existing consumer biases on behalf of Toyota, maybe we’d look at the percentage of Americans who only buy America made products. Those people who don’t like to buy imports. What would it take to get them to value the brand? That’s a negative bias. Let’s look at a positive bias. Toyota was once, if not still, known to be the best selling single car brand in America. Leaders and overdogs are sometimes thought to be complacent. How about turning that bias on its head. Position the brand not as the leader, but as the hungriest car company. A company with an underdog mentality. Almost start-up like.

I can’t tell you when, or if, Foster, Bias and Sales will launch. But it’s a great brand name and always evolving. Hee hee. Peace.


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teacher in class

A couple of years ago I worked with an education company. Travelling elementary, middle and high schools in the northeast, interviewing teachers, administrators and observing kids, I was amazed by how K12 education is changing. And, in many cases, not. The tools and pedagogy are there, we just have to use them.

What became most clear to me after my time in education was a simple observation about teaching and learning. The latter is the result of the former. But only if done well. You see, there is bad teaching but there is no bad learning. Understanding the linkage is important.

This observation powered an insight that changed my approach to branding and marketing. Most marketing is about teaching. While the best marketing is about learning. The old days of reach and frequency –smother consumers with repetition– akin to learning ABCs or months of the year, is not how we need to market in the 21st century. Not with the constant bombardment of media and messages. And messy messages at that.

With a rich “organizing principle for your product, experience and messaging” (a brand strategy), brought to life through learning moments and learning demonstrations, you can connect with and motivate consumers. Stand at the front of the class and recite benefits (teach) and you will fail. Peace.


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I was reading the paper this morning on president Obama’s state of the union speech and realized the word “politics” has become a dirty word. “We can get things done so long as politics don’t get in the way,” the speech suggested. When issues are “politicized” there is gridlock.   (I suspect this isn’t too different from the word “religious” or “beliefs” in the Middle East.) In the U.S. the word “diplomacy” is not a dirty word. It still suggests gridlock but in a more positive fashion. Using tools to work together. Compromising. Give and take. The word diplomacy is more leader-friendly. I once read that America Indian chiefs were not the greatest warriors but the ones whose decisions were most likely to help the tribe. (A learning moment when I lost my fraternity election.)

Words are important. How the meaning of a word evolves is also important. Very important. When words are used as weapons, take note. That’s why brand planners make a living listening. Contextualizing. Truly hearing. There are hollow words. Words that mean the opposite, e.g., transparent, return on investment. And there are pregnant words, words layered with meaning — ready to be unleashed. The latter is where we play. Seek them out and let them sell. Peace.



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