Brand Strategy

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Discipline

Brand strategy is, in a word, discipline. I define brand strategy as an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging; that’s all fine and good. But if the paper strategy isn’t actualized by management and marketing, all is for naught. As someone who came up in the ad business, I know that getting work approved is the financial goal. Getting good work approved is the business goal. And in all the day-to-day management of those processes, holding to strategy often gets overlooked. That’s the ad business. On the marketing side, it’s even more complicated. More moving parts. So adherence to strategy isn’t easy. Business strategy is “make more money.” Brand strategy is “make more people love the brand, so you can make more money.”

It takes disciple during all the marketing horse trading to hold to a brand strategy. Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the according to Mike Tyson. That’s how it is with brand strategy. Everybody has a brand strategy until they get punched in the face. 

Strong brand is a most critical KPI. (Imagine if you changed your name every year.) It sets direction and it sets expectation. Disciplined brand strategy undergirds all successful brands.  Checkmate.

Peace.    

 

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Before Christmas, I was removing dead strings of Christmas lights from garland – not a recommended pastime – and as the mind wandered I thought of my favorite pastime brand planning. While hunting for the next light in the branches I found that my sense of touch was often more powerful than my eyesight. When I couldn’t see the next light I just had to feel for it.  It dawned on me, as my fingers began to lose feeling, that most marketing is visual. Even radio, though an auditory medium, paints a visual picture. Ads, websites, search links are all constructs that show or tell consumers what to buy.

Brand strategy, however, is a more “eyes closed” selling medium. Close your eyes and tell me why you buy Coca-Cola. Close your eyes and tell me why you prefer Burton snow board pants. Close your eyes and explain your preference for Disney World over Six Flags.

Of course there are visual cues in branding that spark associations, but done the right way the most powerful associations are feelings.

The difference between good and great brand planners can be found in their ability to drill past marketing jargon and ad phraseology and head straight to feelings. Feeling is believing.

Peace.

 

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I’ve been on a little discovery jag lately.  When you are a consultant and freelance for ad or branding agencies, you must often use discovery methodologies with which you are unfamiliar. You do it then calibrate your brain to cill the insights needed to write the brief. A brief that may, also, not be yours.

My discovery questions are somewhat static. But when I work for start-ups, there is nothing to discovery about the existing brand – it’s a start up. Other times, I’m working in a category I must learn anew , so I’m learning a business and language while mining brand values. In these cases the discovery question sets have to be developed on the fly.  When I learned about accountable care organizations in a transforming healthcare system, it was for a startup and new type of organizational category.

I’m always on the lookout for new discovery questions and today I’m wondering about a brand weakness question that goes down the “honesty” trail. It will work in any discovery scenario.

“When you are being perfectly honest with yourself, what one _______ (fill in the blank) worries you most.”  The cue of the question is more psychologist than business consultant.  It’s a strengths and weaknesses Q with a more powerful landing strip.

I’ll try it and report back.

Peace.

 

 

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Discovery.  

Radhika Jones was named editor in chief of Vanity Fair magazine yesterday. Vanity Fair is a literary brand with few global peers. Magazine brands like The New Yorker and Vanity Fair have a history of long standing editors, people who sit atop the title for decades. Great magazines get branding. When asked about her plans for Vanity Fair she says she will spend her initial time in discovery.  Immersing. Acculturating. Learning the love.

New GE CEO John Flannery, on the other hand, already has a plan.  Cut, cut, pare.  His board, unlike that of Conde Nast or parent Advanced Publications, expect action not discovery.

Brand planning is a business about discovery. Maybe that’s why, as a business, it offers small category revenue. If you were to add up the revenue of all the branding firms in the world, you’d find maybe $95 million per annum. And if you parsed those bills the lion’s share of that money would likely fall to logo design, naming, style guides and advertising grist. The puniest slice of the pie being discovery.

Brand churn is a result of poor discovery. Advertising and marketing directors “come and go, a powerful brand idea is indelible.”  It all starts with thoughtful and committed discovery. Anyone can slap paint on a canvas. Planned, extensible relevance takes time.

Peace.   

 

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Before there was Google Maps, before there was Waze, before Siri, we used to be get into cars and drive to places we had never been before, without software.  Only a couple hundred years ago we navigated by trails, celestial guides and landmarks.

Branding is a little old school like this. We create trails that over time become worn and easy to follow.  We branders provide general direction that with navigational tools-of-the-day help move individuals and masses toward our objective, e.g., sight, sounds, smell and other replicable assists.

When there were fewer products and less media choices branding was easier. Less clutter. Also less people touching and managing the sales channel.

Eight to ten years ago I used to rail against pop marketers who boasted how consumers were in control of brands. Not brand managers. Marketing pundits made millions touting this drivel. But consumers can only plot a map to themselves. “Follow me.” Not toward a brand.

Brand planners study consumers, landscapes, general directions and landmarks, then put on their big boy/girl pants and set the trail. A trail that is easy to follow.

Life and branding ain’t a grid. And in today’s digital world it can be even messier.

Peace.

 

 

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There was a time not long ago when the average job tenure of a CMO (chief marketing officer) was 18 months or so.  That kind of churn was mainly associated with the coming of age of digital marketing. And big data, social media and the underperforming economy. The good CMOs job hop. The bad ones were summarily replaced.

In biz/dev for What’s The Idea? I sometime cruise the job boards looking for companies in search of new senior marketing blood – which often poses an opportunity for brand work. As a matter of course I read a lot of job boards and job specs. One word that has become a pet peeve of mine is “passion.” It’s meaningless.  And gets in the way of a real job spec. We have a local election in town and a newspaper endorsement said this about three candidates. See if you can tell which candidate has the least to offer:

“I’ve been impressed with Kim’s dedication to improving transit, Dee’s passion and Rich’s policy analysis.”

If you need to put the word passion into a job spec, the job must have a history of being held by dolts.  Or it is a sorry-ass, boring product or service.

Passion is better seen not heard.

Peace.

 

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Mitch McConnell recently accused President Donald Trump of “excessive expectations” with regard to the speed at which democracy moves.  As a brand planner I kind of like excessive expectations.  The right brand strategy can snowball into many more business accomplishments than most marketing directors would ever agree to.  I like to load up on business objectives when thinking about brand strategy.   

I once explained to the head of marketing at a huge health care system that the brand strategy would increase nurse retention. And reduce the cost of physician hiring. A demure man, he was near apoplectic. “Get the shredder.”

Don’t misunderstand, I am not suggesting a broad and diffuse brand strategy that attempts to accomplish too much – a.k.a. The Fruit Cocktail Effect. (Google it.) Brand strategy needs to be tight: One claim, three proof planks.  But the more excessive the expectations during the planning stages, the more likely the finished product will deliver.

Powerful bespoke brand strategy starts with high expectation.

Peace.

 

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Vision On Paper.

I first heard of Masayoshi Son, head of international conglomerate Softbank, in 2,000 when he purchased Ziff Davis.  Since then he has been quite busy.  His new big care-abouts are  Artificial Intelligence and Robots.

He has always been cutting edge – some hits, some misses – but the man is paying attention. And the man is paying. His investments are legendary.

In today’s New York Times Vijay Sharma, CEO of Paytm, said about Mr. Son “Masa is in a hurry. He sees this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity where everything we touch can become a market, where we’re at the opening up of a new industrial revolution.”  

I love this “always in a hurry” worldview. I’ve never met a successful tech or industrial entrepreneur who wasn’t in a hurry. Andy Grove who drove Intel during its formative years admitted to constant paranoia. He was in a hurry.

Can you guess the best way for people who are in a hurry to be efficient? To make decisions. To learn? Brand strategy.

Brand strategy codifies vision. Ask any VC what they’re looking for in an investment and they will tell you vision. Brand strategy is vision on paper.

Peace.

 

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More and more, technology startups are being purchased by multinationals to help large ships chug into the future. Owners in hot categories like self-driving cars, streaming video and alternative energy are cashing in daily as billion dollar companies purchase their intellectual property. It’s a tech thing. The purchased companies are small, 8-15 people, so prices aren’t crazy high, but the stock agreements make sellers happy.

This makes me think about my company. I am not a tech startup. What I offer, however, is in demand: A way to harness marketing power by strengthening ties and building preference among purchasing consumers.  What I offer is a framework for business winning brand strategy. The secret sauce of the discovery process is “proof.” Ninety five percent of brand strategy firms, I’d venture, have discovery processes similar to mine: Interviews, research (primary and secondary), hierarchy of needs, stuff like that. But none look at proof, as a foundation.

I don’t expect large companies to buy What’s The Idea? Proof, my IP, is not technology. It’s not code. To many it’s ephemera.  Process is hard to value.

Peace.

 

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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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