brand strategy tips

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Proof Pulling.

You ever sit in the yard and pull weeds?  It’s a horrible job and even worse metaphor for what I’m about to share. My job is not pulling weeds but “pulling proof.”  Brand discovery is all about the search for proof points.  What is a proof point? It’s evidence. It may be an action. A practice. Perhaps a milestone. A result.  Proof is existential.  Why is proof in branding so important? Because 90% of all consumer facing advertising, packaging and promotion is sizzle. It’s claim, claim, claim. A promise without any foundation.

If an ad makes a claim about a product or service and the consumer asks “Why?” or says “Prove it,” is there a suitable response? Is there proof? Almost always there is not. That’s why brands today are media driven not idea driven.

Proof is what you use in a debate to make your point. Proof well told (McCann-Erickson’s mantra is Truth Well Told) makes a superior debater.

The process of brand discovery begins with proof pulling. Then organizing the proof into care-abouts and good-ats. Then, if you learn the language of the consumer, overlay some category culture, and organize your findings, you may have yourself a brand strategy.



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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.




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Just finished reading a story in The New York Times about the Robin Hood restaurant chain in Spain run by Father Angel Garcia Rodriquez, who operates a pay-for establishment during breakfast and dinner only to serve the homeless for dinner. The dinner crowd is served by waiters and waitresses, on real plates, using nice cutlery, not plastic. For free. In addition to the charity, his wish is that the experience will engender hope in his nightly diners. This planned act of kindness is popular and successful and may be on its way to Miami, Florida.

Acts of kindness and selflessness create powerful feelings for all involved. Selling is not a human trait. Charity is. Every brand should ask itself “What is the nicest thing we have done for customers this year?” If the answer is a one-day-sale or a pre-printed holiday card the brand needs to reexamine its approach.

Planned acts of kindness should be requisite for all brands. The financial officers may not always see the value, but they’re not building brands. They are building bank accounts.



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The Boil Down.

Every brand planner has his or her own toolkit. But basically they drop themselves into a category or brand space and learns. They understand the product, competition, care-abouts and functions. If they’re smart they also try to understand the business and finances. A dive into the culture of the buying is important. And learning the language of the category is not underrated.

After all information is amassed, balanced by some qualitative data, it’s time to put paper to pencil. Or finger to keyboard. This is where the good brand planners separate from the not so.  

My key tool is the brief. Many brand planner use a brief to create strategy…or a fill in the box template. Same thing.

The real key in crafting a brief is the “boil down.” The boil down removes all non-essential information gathered during discovery.  I call it the boil down because it riffs on the metaphor of the stock pot. Fill up the stock pot and boil it down to a very rich bullion at the bottom.

At What’s The Idea?, a brand strategy is one claim, three proof planks. This is the organizing principle for brand strategy. Four things. That’s a lot of boiling.




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I’m thinking about developing a brand planning workshop around the part of my practice devoted to “proof.”  I’ve spoken before groups on numerous occasions but those speeches tended to about theory.  Presentations include “Social Media Guard Rails,” some others about marketing plan development, and others sharing planning tips and tricks. But I have yet to do a participatory workshop. That’s what people want. A workshop where they learn by participating.

So my idea is to create a big dump of reading, maybe with some picture and video, about a company or product. It might include a piece of topline research and trade some press articles. The lion’s share would be interviews with customers and stakeholders. The dump will offer about 45 minutes worth of reading.

I’ll explain that their task is to underline the proof. Proof of value. Proof of superiority. Proof of “good-ats” and “care-abouts.” Not marko-babble…tangible, understandable value.

Tomorrow, I’ll share with you what we’ll do with that proof.

PEACE in Syria.


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I help companies build brands by combing their business for evidence. Evidence is also proof but doesn’t turn into proof until later in the engagement — when we know what it’s proof of. (The “proof of what” is called the claim.) So at What’s The Idea? the brand exploratory is all about evidence.

If Kitchen Magic has remodeled 50,000 kitchens, that’s evidence. If Newsday provides more news coverage of Long Island than any other news source, that’s evidence. If Northwell Health delvers 42,000 babies that’s evidence.  And, if Trail Of Bits, creates a product that makes digital passwords obsolete, that’s evidence.

Marketing and advertising is tainted and ruined by too much claim and not enough evidence. 

When doing brand discovery I’m often inundated with generalizations. “Our kitchens are of the highest quality. We offer the best obstetric care. Our newspaper covers Long Island better than any other. We’re the leader in cyber security innovation.”  

These soft claims don’t help. If we can drill down so the claims are supported by evidence, then we have a place to start.



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In my ongoing effort to define brand planning and share my framework for building strong brands, the word “proof” comes up a lot. No matter what type of brand I study, no matter how many insights rise to the top of the discovery effluvia, proof provides path to a successful strategy. “Proof of what?” you ask. That’s not only the question, it’s the answer.

pick axe

As a student of brands, marketing and advertising I’ve decided that 80% of the promotional side of marketing is baseless claim. Generic terms like “reliable,” “great taste,” “low cost,” and “best service” are ported to market by every marketer on the block. Listen to the claims in a pod of TV advertising and the claims are the same from one brand to the next. So consumers shut them down.

That said, it’s the “proof” of those claim that we hear. The evidence of those claims. Vestiges and residue of the claims is what remains. What is left for the mind to grasp after we’ve told people how great our product or service is.

PROOF is everything is brand planning. Insights may be the sexy side of planning, but mining and organizing proof toward a brand claim is how you build a brand.




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popping the question

What’s The Idea? readers know my brand planning framework revolves around the mining of proof.  Proof of actions, deeds and results. But how does one mine for proof?  Google might use the algo. Me? I ask questions. Done well, questions are the lubricant that bring forth critical values.

I’d be fibbing if I told you the battery of questions I use is unique to each investigation. That said I’m constantly adding, subtracting and thinking of question to help in discovery. Following are two new questions worth sharing.

What about this product or service heroic? Heroes are what make great books and movies. It’s what kids aspire to. Saviors of the neighborhood. Heroes are what make countries, religions and cultures great. Heroes are passed down generationally. This question requires thought and may take some prodding. Best to ask it early in the interview so it can be thought about if not readily answerable.

What about this product or service will stand the test of evolution? Students of natural selection understand the scientific order that culls out bad traits and preserves good. Genes that improve an organism will, over time, outlast the destructive ones. This question is meant to find brand strengths through a new lens. A scientific lens.

I can’t wait to pop these questions. Always be learning. And evolving.



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Brand strategy is all about playing offense.  The organizing principle behind brand strategy (1 claim, 3 proof planks), which drives product, experience and message is designed to build value and engender loyalty. This claim and proof array all brand and consumer-positive. Offense.

In this presidential election season, Super PACs are spending lots of money supporting their candidates of choice. But contrary to consumer brand building, Super PAC money goes into playing defense. Rather than say good things about their candidate, Super PACs line up bad things to say about opponents. We’ve seen and heard these ads and they’re not pretty… but they can be effective. The John Kerry Swift Boat ads helped put his candidacy asunder. Typically, one big ad can have an effect.  But those Swift Boat ads are rare. What about all the other drecky ads? They just create confusion.

Just as consumer brands are built using an organizing principle steeped in positivity, PAC attack ads must be organized for negative effect. They should also follow the 1 one claim, 3 proof plank construct. Otherwise, PACS are just throwing tons of negatives at the wall.  It can become cartoonish.

I’m sickened by all the negative advertising in politics and wished it didn’t happen but, hey, it’s life.  And it’s a big business. Why do it poorly?



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I was a psychology minor in college. Almost became a clinical psychologist. But it wasn’t until I spent some time under the care of a Freudian psychotherapist that I really learned a little something-something about the brain, psychophysiological responses, and the role of therapy in healing oneself. Anyway, I was recently interviewing a client for a brand consultancy job and at one point began to feel like therapist. Just a hint. What I realized was I was nearing some important truths about the business. Some uncomfortable truths. It was cathartic moment from the storyteller and brand’s point of view. I was in a good place with the interview.

It also helped me realize how unique a place it was and how infrequent was the feeling. Most interviews with business execs feel smart, real, but somewhat canned. Like I’m being treated like a reporter or a board member. I’m always evolving my question set but the last couple of years I’ve gone a little deep dish on successes and failures. I’m not trying to make an executive feel uncomfortable, but it’s important to recognize when I’m in that “truth” zone and use it.

Interviewees will either go down that hole with you or they’ll turtle shell up. The key is to encourage the former. “It must be hard to…”. “Give me an example of how you dealt with…”. “What did you learn from…?”

This learning may be too personal to alter the brand idea but it is likely to help get it approved. That said, if done ham-handedly, it could quietly get you the boot. Hee hee.



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