Brand Planning

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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.



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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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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.



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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.



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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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