Brand Strategy

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The Nusra Front, a Syrian Al Qaeda affiliate, has rebranded (the NYT words, not mine) as the Levant Conquest Front.  Never in my lifetime has branding been more life and death. With the rebranding, which will heretofore be referred to as renaming, the Levant Conquest front has stated it is a local terrorist organization, targeting only the government of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. It no longer intends to target the west. It would not surprise me if this announcement was made via a press release. Such is the social media and terror media today.

After 5 billion words, America’s news media can’t even decides what to called ISIS; often referring to it by all three recognized names (ISIL and Daesh being the other two).

The fact that branding has now found its way into terrorist circles may sicken but it does explain the sophistication of networks, recruiting and geo-political posturing.

Moving forward, I refuse to use the word “brand” in association with terror groups. I wish the media would join me. It tarnishes a business that is all about hope and possibility.

Peace. For reals.        


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Insights and Briefs.

tighty-whitiesI love my briefs.  Not tighty whities  or bike shorts. Brand briefs.  I’ve got a million of them on the hard drive. What gets my engine going when reading old briefs are the insights.  Insights about targets, consumer desires, claims and proof arrays.  Insights are the stim creative people crave.  When well done, insights wrapped in a poetic, meme-able packages, light fires under art directors, copywriters and creative directors.  

Insights are catalysts supporting the brand idea. A good brief will offer up multiple insights – but it’s the creatives who figure out which are most actionable, motivating and fanciful. 

Early on I recognized I’m only about 15% creative. I’ve worked with, studied, and stalked some of the great creative minds in the business. I’m not them and never will be. Being a diagnostician and insight doctor is the next best thing.

My old briefs remind me of the love. Campaigns come and go, a powerful brand idea is indelible.

Peace, in this “post truth” campaign world.



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A few years ago I worked with a single store retail engagement ring outlet to develop a brand strategy. After much digging, discussion and thought it occurred to me that for this particular brand “amazing engagement rings are born (not bought).” That was the idea.

The target on my brief was “couturing brides to be” because they were not the type to want an off-the-shelf ring.  They were more emotional, even fussy. For them the ring was a deep symbol of their love.

This ring purveyor had developed a process that was broken down into three stages – which I liked to a baby’s birth: conception, gestation and delivery. The one hour conception or consultation stage was like foreplay, filled with desire and intimacy. The gestation period included stages of viewing, understanding and nurturing – between woman and designer. It included trying on wax ring molds for fit, stone placement and style. And delivery was a celebration of the actual casting and stones. Always ready for complications, the birth of the rings was seen as life-changing. Amazement was key to this part of the process.

The brand strategy claim (amazing engagement rings are born) and planks (conception, gestation and birth) focus on  a process. The strategy positioned around a process.

Mostly when I talk about brand strategy, I talk about care-abouts and good-ats. This one was unique. Though the process was a brand good-at, consumers weren’t sure it was a care-about. Sometimes you have to go off-piste in brand strategy. This was one of those times.



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Know More How.

I’m always on the lookout for arguments supporting brand strategy. A brand strategy, as I define it, being an “organizing principle for product, experience and messaging.”

Many marketing plans have firm business and sales objectives: increase stock price 4 points, slow market share by 1% per annum, reduce materials cost by 2%, increase sales 150%. These are important, hard metrics. Metrics with which no one can argue.

Accomplishing objectives is the purview of strategy. In marketing this is where things get problematic. Many marketers go to the marketing playbook. If there was a tactics store (An agency? A consultant?), they would shop there — given the money. Typical strategies one might find in a tactical plan are: customer acquisition, increased sales-per-customer, improved retention, increased efficiency in production or marketing. All are business imperatives. Sadly, they’re generic. Everybody has them in their marketing plans.

Where the road curves toward the light is with brand strategy. Brand strategy (one claim, three proof planks) provides the “how.”  Patton’s strategy was “kill more bastards than your foe.” Generic. But his brand strategy equivalent included things like “outflank, tank destroyers, thrust line, etc.”  Specific to the situation. And all actionable. 

I’m not going to go all Sun Tzu on you but will ask “What elements of your strategy are unique to you, differentiated, and non-generic?  What elements can every employee understand and personally act-upon? These are the elements of the brand strategy — the how. Know more how.    


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I’ve often heard advertising referred to as a mixture of art and science.  I agree. The thing about art is, well, it’s art.  You assume the artists is doing it because he or she wants to make a living but that may not always be the case.  I’ve worked with artists while brand planning on a web start-up and everyone I spoke to wanted to make money. They didn’t paint or sculpt, however, following a sales strategy.

The art that is part of advertising does have a sales strategy. Get attention, create interest and move product. The art may be pretty, mellifluous, poetic – if it doesn’t sell it isn’t likely to reappear.  

In branding, art and science are also important. The brand strategy (one claim, 3 proof planks) is the “selling structure” —  the science — and the selling tactics are the art.  Brand strategy is a vessel (structure) filled with art. And the art can change. Best practices suggest muscle memory is built with campaign-able ideas, yet the reality is as long as the art supports the strategy, the efforts are brand-positive.  That’s not to say all art is good art. So brand managers are paid to say “out with the bad, in with the good.”

Art and science are innately human traits. Those who get it right in marketing are the winners.




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Following is a mission statement from food start-up Smart Mills.

“We exist to positively impact the way food is made, enriching lives and bodies through delicious, convenient foods made from clean nutritious ingredients.” 

Mission statements often contain multiple commas and conjunctions; they tend to cast a wide net. As mission statements go, this one is actually modest. It doesn’t try to do too, too much.

Here is a brand strategy claim developed for a cookie start-up:

“Craft cookies, au naturel.”

Almost everything said about Smart Mills could be said about the cookie start-up, but with way fewer words. A powerful brand strategy is indelible. Why is that? Because it’s focused. It is not six things or four things.  It’s one big idea. An idea that is a customer care-about and a brand good-at. A brand strategy is comprised of one claim and three proof planks.

The human memory can remember one big idea. And it will believe that idea if proven in an efficient, impactful fashion. So by all means marketers write your mission statements. But when it comes time to selling, blow them up and create the most important selling tool you have at your disposal. A brand strategy.



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“Preservation is one of the highest forms of good citizenship” said the late John Belle, partner at Beyer, Blinder and Belle, the architectural firm that renovated Grand Central Terminal. Words to live by, also, in the branding business.

We want to preserve in the minds of consumers a brand’s “good-ats.” And we want to maintain the linkage of those good-ats to consumers’ most strenuous “care-abouts.”  Good brands start with good products. It’s simple really — build a product that is good at something. Make sure it’s something customers really care about.  Then work your ass off to preserve the product good-ats over time.  

One definition of branding is “identity + reputation.” It’s a nice definition but doesn’t take into account product — or should I say core product value. Good-ats and care-abouts.

So when you are spending a quarter of a million dollars with a big branding firm, make sure your strategy and tagline have a product component to it. Otherwise, your brand strategy firm may not be good-at branding. Peace.




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How do you make something out of nothing?  That’s the question for the brand planner when working on a startup. 

When I was hire #1 at Zude as marketing director, brand strategy was one of my jobs.  I didn’t start brand planning in earnest for months while the CTO and CEO were building, raising and creating the physical business.  In previous blog posts I’ve suggested the first thing one must do when developing brand strategy for a start-up is “follow the patent.”  I stand by that. 

Startups, as you know, are quite fluid. It’s product and code first, business requirements second. And what the build is one day it may not be the next. So when it comes to customer care-abouts, that’s the easy part – unless you are breaking new functional ground. It’s the brand good-ats that are hard.  There are none.

So what does the brand planner do at this stage? Keep following the patent.  Have daily observation and update sessions with development team, even for a few minutes.  Insinuate yourself into the product development process in a positive way. Offer help as needed. Do not get in the way of the creativity. Provide marketing stim to the team — subconsciously, it can help.  And continue to play back (to the dev team) any recurring patterns that smell like good-ats.

It’s a gnarly time. Work to enjoy it.


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I’ve never really parsed the brand name of my consultancy “What’s The Idea?”  While developing the company, which actually started out just as a blog, I wanted to name it What’s The Big Idea?, but I chose against it for URL and simplicity’s sake.  A big idea is better than an idea, one might think, yet it also seemed a big self-aggrandizing. So What’s The Idea it was.

What’s neat about the name is that it is a call to action. If a brand manager or stakeholder can answer the question, it probably has an idea. If the idea can’t be put into a succinct explanation, then un-uh.  If you have no brand idea you have no idea how hard it is to convey value to the consumer world.

Most sane women and men who are captains of industry would respond “How can I maintain a business beneath one idea?” The answer is “By using proof planks.” Proof planks (3 in total) drive business value, consumer value and shareholder value.

You want metrics, I’ll give you metrics. Write me. Steve at Whatstheidea.



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Yesterday I wrote about the role and importance of mining proof as it relates to creating a brand strategy.  But what does one do if working for a start-up – a company with no past? A company with no product?  Certainly that makes things tougher.

I’ve been-there-done-that and there always is a past. There is always some kernel of a product or service. In previous posts it’s been mentioned to “follow the patent.” In most start-ups there is a patent or a patent filing paperwork. There must be proof in there. Normal brand planning discovery looks at two things: customer care-abouts and brand good-ats. So for a start-ups, you’ll find it easier to rely on care-abouts. Always a good place to start.

While the director of marketing at Zude, a start-up in the social computing space, knowing what customers cared about helped form the brand idea which, then, informed product development (noun and verb). The Zude brand strategy claim was “the fastest easiest way to build a web page.” The idea came from the brilliant underlying drag and drop technology. With that as the North Star, everything moving forward became easier. For everyone – even the lawyers.

Start-ups think of brand but not brand strategy. Pity.




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