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Product First.

I was doing a little web research on a company yesterday and started looking for signs of a brand strategy on the “About” page. Atop the About page sat this quote.

“Customers are the most important people in any business.”

Many would find it hard to disagree with the statement. When writing market plans I spend a lot of time “following the money.” (If you are interested in such things write me for a copy of my 24 Questions. Steve at WhatsTheIdea dot com.) And money comes from customers.

BUT, a big but…I don’t agree customers are the most important people; product developers earn that mantel. It is the product, you see, that excites customers into action. Sure, product developers need to study customer tastes and proclivities. Sure, they must have a sense of consumer attachments to competitive offering. But when push came to shove, it was the people at Levi’s who designed the copper rivets, the soda formulator who put the Coca in the Cola, and the algorithm jockey who indexed web information that created Google.  Those were the most important people.

Customer are the bees, but sans flowers there ain’t a lot of buzz.

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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Trout and Ries turned me on to Positioning with their book Positioning: The Battle For Your Mind. It’s very hard to disagree with Jack and Al.  The logic is dead on. It addresses many marketing ills. But the thing about strategy is it is best when reverse engineered – a wonderful practice for book writers and theory writers.  It’s easy-ish to look in the rearview mirror and ‘splain why success happened. Positioning does work for some forward thinkers, but it’s a practice and process. An activity. Find a position in the minds of customers.

I prefer to rally around Claim rather than Position. A brand Claim is a strategic statement of customer value married to brand feature or function.  While Claims are malleable and organic, Positions are finite and immobile. If you Position a house by the river and the river moves, you’re toast.  If you Claim fertile soil and rich yield, that’s future-friendly.

One can argue that Coke’s brand claim of “refreshment” is both claim and position. I would agree.  So it’s not like they can’t work together. But mostly Positioning is process-focused. And Claim is product-focused. Therein lies the difference.

Peace.

 

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Someone on Quora asked a question about the worst taglines used in branding. Got me thinking. Brand planners may feel differently about taglines but for me they’re a powerful branding vehicle.  To the tagline falls the work of explaining and defining what the brand is when the name falls flat.   When a name doesn’t pass the Is-Does test (what a brand Is and what a brand Does), the tagline needs to. Coca-Cola was a great brand name. The fact that is was printed on a beverage can helped with the Is. Snapchat is a great brand name. The fact that it’s plastered on a web or mobile page helps with the Is.

But not all product or service names are that lucky. When a name shares no meaning, a good tagline can clear things up. For startups and new products, it’s crucial they pass the Is-Does test. In these cases taglines are even more important.

For established brand, where the Is is well known, the tagline can tighten the bond of consumer attachment — focusing of care-abouts and good-ats.

My biggest peeve is when a tagline is used as an advertising cherry.  That is, as a summation of the ad campaign. When it’s all about the ad idea not the brand idea, it is the limpest form of tagline.

Get your brand strategy right and picking the strongest tagline will be easy.

Peace.

 

 

 

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I was thumbing through old Quora posts and noticed I had made a ringing endorsement of Google Glass.  “How could it not work?” The medical field alone would be enough to keep it an exciting new product. Wrong!

Many years ago I worked for McCann-Erickson, a top 3 advertising global agency. McCann handled Coca-Cola. They had just brought on a new creative director, Gordon Bowen, who stood before the entire NYC office in the grand ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria and he smilingly told us, “It’s Coke, how hard can it be.” It practically sells itself, he implied. Coke was gone within the year to a group called Creative Artists. A west coast talent agency.

So here’s one for the prognosticators.  Expect to be wrong. Even when you know you are right. Don’t be paranoid, but keep an eye toward the future knowing there are no absolutes.

I love to position myself as a beyond the dashboard planner. It’s where, I believe, the successful marketers need to play. But you get a black eye every now and again. Expect it. Learn from it. Parlay it.

Peace.

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Coca-Cola’s key good-at is “refreshment.” There are few, few things better than a cold Coke on a warm day after a workout.  And when the consumer care-about is refreshment, a great product choice is Coke. Remember, brand strategy is about good-ats and care-abouts. 

Refreshment, rather than, longtime advertising attribute “happiness,” is an experiential, product-based proof. It’s a product reality. Coke’s current advertising tagline (brand line) is “Taste The Feeling.” An amalgam of cheerleading and emotion.   It is not a product based care-about or good-at. It’s advertising based.

Don’t get me wrong, I love advertising. Dave Trott teaches me the way to do it well it to connect. But connecting with the art is not the same as connecting with the product. Of course it’s harder to create compelling stories and poetry around products – but that’s the job.    

Brand planners need to focus the work on product-based care-abouts and good-ats. Coke should know better.

Peace.          

 

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I was driving to Rhode Island last week and happened to notice that a number of really rural road names were quite descriptive. Niatic River Road. Stone Heights Turnpike. Waterford Parkway. Sunset Drive.  It got me thinking about naming. Back in the 1600 and 1700 (and before) when there weren’t a lot of maps and people didn’t travel that far, thoroughfares were named based upon features and geographic realities. Heartbreak hill. Point O’Woods. Tip of the mitt.

Names that were easy to remember and descriptive were the strongest names. They added value. Names with no endemic meaning, less so.

The best brand names today follow this old maxim. They are descriptive. They are descriptive of product, value, and uniqueness. The strongest brands in the world are not silly constructs of Madison Avenue, they are like packaging…part of the selling fabric. Coca-Cola used cola beans to build its brand.

Naming is hard work. Just look at all the silly pharmaceutical brand names on TV today. It’s like we ran out of words to use. So the naming companies put the alphabet in the blender and BAM.     

While director of marketing at a web start-up, I wanted to name the drag and drop web creation tool Mash Pan. The Chief Technology Officer who used to say “dude” a lot, opted for Zude.

Opt for communication value. Consumers don’t need to work so hard.

Peace.                                                                                                       

 

 

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Sales of Coca-Cola’s flagship product, the carbonated sugary drink we know a Coke, dropped 3.5% last quarter; proof you can’t go against a cultural tide of healthier living and expect sales to hold forever. Coke’s parent has been doing a great job of diversifying its portfolio the last 10 years by adding juices, milk-based protein drinks, waters and energy drinks. Even with the tide receding for flagship Coke, earnings have been surprisingly okay. Looks like that is not the case anymore.

If you follow the tech sector as I do, you will know that product innovation can completely change markets is 3-5 years. The beverage sector has lots of innovations, according to Beverage Digest, but they are really incremental. Coconut water, craft beer, energy concoctions, and cold pressed juices are nice ways of redistributing marketing wealth, but haven’t fueled the big ass innovations we’ve seen in tech.

Coke needs to think differently. I’ve posted before about how they need to send R&D people into the jungles in search of the next cola nut…something with healthy properties. But Coke also needs to think about pricing and delivery. Why 12 oz. cans? Why cans and bottles? Why not explode the price point for a six pack? How about an annual subscription fee? Coke’s head is so tied up in its bottler arrangements, distribution networks, store detailers, fountain business it can’t think like an agile start-up. Sure they can buy 49% of the next Honest Tea, but can they be the next SnapChat.

My bet is they can. But not if they follow the innovation courses of GM or the financial industry. Follow the tech paradigm. Peace.  

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The T word.

I met with a technology CEO this week who has been doing some work with a brand strategy boutique. The executive shared with me the main output of the work – the main brand idea – and it was “trust.” Without giving too much away about the company and the category I will admit consumers who trust his product more than a competitor’s are likely favor the company with business. Trust is not wrong, but as a brand idea it is not right either. You can’t just manufacture trust. It’s a process. It’s something that has to be built. If the endgame, therefore, is to be trusted more than a competitor, one needs a strategy that engenders trust. So the brand idea needs to be the about the path not the end point.

A good branding shop should know better. But of course, one can sell trust to any number of clients to get heads nodding. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. That makes sense.”

Coke wants to create preference (end point) but it uses refreshment to get there. Branding is about the journey not the end point. (Did I just use the word journey? I must be slipping.) Branding is also about using words, images, deeds and experiences to create context that get you credit for other things. Things left unsaid. Things you earn but don’t have to say. Like trust.

Peace.

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A lot of money is going to change hands very soon in the ad industry because of McDonalds rearview mirror planning. Lately, they’ been doing some sideview mirror planning and one could say, with the introduction of salads a few years ago, they were looking beyond the dashboard to the future, but mostly they have looked backwards. Laurels canyon.

Just as Coca-Cola knew a time would come when high-fructose corn syrupy drinks would be seen as unhealthy and share would decline, McDonalds knew a better-for-you-food offering was in the offing. So they introduced salads, made the deep fat fryer less toxic, extended revenue with coffee (an off-piste fix), and reduced the salt on the fries. The freight train was still coming though. All the Millennials you see running around the lake or the park? They are drinking cold pressed juices and Instragram-ing the pics. They’re wi-fing pics of their Mediterranean Veggie sandwiches at Panera. The new generation of fast food buyers is trying to eat better as are their parents.

So while McDonalds was not trying to create a healthier, tastier new burger (veggie?, soy?, buffalo?) or the next branded healthy fast food, other QSRs have taken .2% of same store sales.

The new CMO has done some smart things, no doubt: flattened the organization, faster service, brought in some new ad muscle, but it’s product innovation that is lacking. They will fix it. It is just too bad it took a smack in the nose to wake up. You gots to look beyond the dashboard. Peace.

 

 

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