business strategy

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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.



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What I love about the U.S. government is its design. Checks and balances keep governance fluid. Every few years an election comes along that topples the status quo. As a brand planner I’m always the optimist, always looking for the good. The new regime in the US government was a euphoric cleansing for some and a devastating punch in the gut to others.  Let’s hope the euphoric side does smart things.  Because this is America and the gut punch side will be in power again. Once the “guts” get over their anger, sadness and disbelief, they’ll be energized like never before and set the cycle of democracy moving again.

This reminds me a bit of the ad agency business. When business is good everyone is happy. Things purr along and growth begets growth.  Then stasis and comfort set in. People become complacent and losses occur. It’s Darwinian.

Whether government or the ad agency business, we must constantly manage progress. Not take it for granted. Sharks know this. That’s not to say you have to hump 24/7, but you do have to keep moving with an eye toward the future. Otherwise you allow the rhythm or democracy to take its course. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just a thing.



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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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What do Google and Amazon have in common?  Google puts the world’s information one click away. Amazon puts the world’s goods a few clicks and a couple of days away.

When my daughter was young, she was waiting at a restaurant for a tuna fish sandwich. Every time a server walked by my daughter asked her mom and grandmother “Where is my sandwich?” “It’s coming, it’s coming.”  This went on for a while. And since the English language didn’t seem to be communicating properly to this very young girl, she clarified “I want my sandwich in my mouth now.”

Business ventures that take into account immediacy, instant gratification and convenience tend toward success.  

In a service business especially, people want faster, more and for less. As you are looking to improve your business and business strategy spend time understanding obstacles. Then remove them.



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A brand strategy done well encompasses the marketing strategy and is the business strategy. Why? Because it’s active. I define brand strategy as an “organizing principle that drives product, experience and messaging.” Messaging is last…because a message that doesn’t reflect product and experience is simply copy.

Ask any successful business leader to identify their company’s “one claim” (consumer promise) and three “support planks,” and they’ll be hard-pressed to do it. That is why brand strategy is so tough. A single claim and three product or service values, many will tell you, is too limiting. Until you see it on paper. On business stationery. A good brand strategy is not filled with marko-babble, it contains business-winning evidence. Business-winning behaviors and business-winning strategy.

I call it brand strategy and contrary to what some consultants will peddle, it is way more than a loose federation of tactics, metrics and tagline.

For real life examples, please write Steve at WhatsTheIdea.



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Follow The Patent.

I’ve done brand work on a number of start-ups and it’s hard. Hard, because there is often no product to evaluate pre-launch. No customers to interview. In the tech world you can work off user experience (UE) of the Beta or demo, but that’s not always real world. So how do you mine “care-abouts” and “good-ats”?

You follow the patent.

To receive a patent you must have a product or service that offers something appreciably different from what currently exists in the commercial world. Something worth defending. For most of my clients I like to follow the money but with start-ups, pre-product, it’s the patent. Start with qualitative, move to quantitative, maybe go back to quant, then get the founders to buy in. If they don’t buy in to the claim and proof planks, and I mean totally, you don’t have a brand strategy. Likely, you don’t have a business strategy.





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Some projects should never get off the ground. Last year NYC closed down a schools website called ARIS (Achievement Reporting and Innovation System). Parents, by and large, were not logging on to get their kids’ grades and test comments. Amplify, a usually smart education company, was paid $95M over 7 years (development by IBM) to build and maintain this well-intended, but flawed site. In fairness, they stepped in after the project was underway. Someone up front – at the strategy level – should have stopped this project before it started. Once the RFP goes out in instances like this, that’s not likely to happen. Before the RFP goes out — that’s when a business concept need to be vetted. Usually at a price of $1M for a project this size.

Next week a replacement site is launching called NYC Schools. According to the New York Times, the cost was $2M. And note the brand name. If a name needs an acronym, it is probably IBM-friendly not Main Street-friendly. Achievement Reporting and Innovation System? Oy.

Strategy before build. Strategy before investment. Strategy before hiring are all signs of good business acumen. Had Amplify not taken the job in its, then, current state, it would have saved the city time, money and improved educational outcomes. Had it said, “this won’t work” at the beginning, kids in college (or not) would be better off today.

Strategy, be it business or brand, is how smart business works. Invest in it. Peace.



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Square pegs?

My sister recently did some consulting work for a small, quick serve restaurant in the Southwest. I’m not going to go into it very deeply – trade secrets you know — but suffice it to say that one of the partners in this little venture is a tad high strung …when he’s not low strung. He handles the kitchen and the customers seem to like him.

So, the restaurant ran out of potato salad and what does Mr. High/Low do?  Does he say, “Sorry we’re out?” Nope. Does he send someone out the back door to Restaurant Depot for a bucket?  Nope.  He looks around the kitchen, finds a baking potato, throws it in the microwave, mashes it with a fork, adds celery, mayo, whatever, and bam — instant potato salad. Now I have no idea what this little side dish tasted like, and if it sucked bad on him, but you have got to like the creativity and initiative. The fact that he ran out of the salad to begin with says something, but so does the solution.

Everyone has strengths and everyone has weaknesses.  It’s what we do with them that goes in the ledger.  If Mr. High/Low is allowed to put his creativity as a cook into the restaurant without having to do the things he’s may not be well equipped for, it’s probably a win.  Can some of this creativity find itself into other parts of the business, that’s something worth paying attention to.

People, just like brands, are most likely to succeed if allowed to play to their strengths. Figuring this stuff out is the fun of business.  Peace.   

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Today there will be lots of stories written about Leo Apotheker’s plight at Hewlett-Packard. And of the HP board, and potential replacements for Mr. Apotheker. One lens I like to look through when doing strategic planning is the “history” lens.  When viewed over time – a long time – will the company, product or leader have made a historic contribution?  Typically, that means looking at strategy rather than tactics.

In Mr. Apotheker’s case, it is clear to me that his PR handlers were at fault.  His moves to purchase Autonomy, shed the PC and tablet business, and stop investing in WebOS were historic moves — looking well beyond the dashboard.  One might say, and say accurately, that when you put a software person in charge of a mixed media multinational, the road to the future is paved with software.  Mr. Apotheker saw deteriorating PC sales, reduced profitability in services (the cloud is getting not only bigger, but smarter), and device manufacturing (especially sans Steve Jobs) under enormous cost pressures. Think device kudzu.  Rather than stay and fight for integration of solutions hard and soft around his OS — which code-wise may not have been ready for primetime and perhaps at risk from new OS pushes by Microsoft and Apple — he decided to retrench with eye toward the future. Very ballsy.

The cloud is the future. Device complexity will reduce over time and when it does, the cloud, run by software, will become the electricity of business. And that is where Mr. Apotheker was going. Sadly, he had a lapse in judgment and bad guidance and announced it at the wrong time and inelegantly.  Como se billions in lost shareholder value?  Some strategies (read historic) are better left unannounced. Is that not so, Mr. Jobs? Peace.    

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In the advertising and marketing business, digital is its own channel.  Rare is the vendor that provides a truly integrated single source worldview of a brand. A really smart person once said to an important client “campaigns are overrated” which stuck me with a ferocity that shook my world, but he was right.  A campaign, when well-defined and well-equipped is a powerful selling mechanism.  It’s what people talk about. But translating campaigns across silos is not easy.  Heck, anyone who has ever worked at an ad agency knows campaigns don’t always transfer across media.  A great design-driven print campaign may not work well in radio or a murderously effective TV campaign may not work as out of home.  It’s tah-woooh.  And those silos are under one roof.    

Competing Market Forces

A bunch of hearty souls are trying to bring online and offline selling under one roof.  Yet a greater number of very skilled entrepreneurs are out there selling against the one roof approach — creating even greater and greater specialization.  A friend at CatalystSF told me that there are over 200 social media agencies in the New York area alone.  So what do you do about these two competing forces — the shops who want more pie and are trying to integrate and the shops selling best of breed, stand alone digital marketing specialties?  Well the planner in me usually starts problem solving by “following the money.”  In the case of integrated vs. stand alone I say “follow the strategy.”  

If you find a potential partner with a sense of business strategy that transcends tactical discussions, listen. Business strategy first. Marketing strategy second. Message strategy third and tactical fourth.  I don’t care if its RGA or TBWA. Peace it up! 

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