good ats

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I was just reading an article on the correlation of mass attacks and spousal abuse citing examples from years ago and continents afar — stories about which I’d never heard — and it dawned on me that with a few clicks of a keypad and the help of Google a reporter can do months of homework in minutes. Google is a freaking crazy research utility. Journalists use Facebook and Twitter to quickly source people for stories.

When in college I read The Modern Researcher by Jacques Barzun to help navigate libraries, newspaper and magazine archives to learn effective research methods. Today, with Google and Wikipedia you can be done before getting half way to the local library.

sitting at deskAs a brand strategist, Google offers immeasurable advantage. But there’s a term I’ve come across “Google planners” and it’s not a very attractive descriptor. It refers to brand planners who never leave their desk.  

Even if they use videoconferencing to conduct discovery interviews (another cool tool), Google Planners need to sit next to their interviewees to get higher def reactions. And emotions. Google is a wonderful assist, but Care-abouts and Good-ats are best mined in person, in situ, on prem, and up close. You gots (sic) to get out of the building boys and girls. Stim is the key to great ideas. And stim is multi-dimensional.




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I’ve been writing a lot lately about how brand strategy is the perfect intersection of customer care-abouts and brand good-ats. Earlier this week I posted that it’s best to have good-ats as part of company DNA rather than just build them based on customer needs research.

Enter Stitch Fix, a very cool clothing start up that melds the best of the online web retailing with features of brick and mortar clothing stores. Stitchfix has built its business around convenience, surprise and renewal. It’s genius. And addictive.

The brand planner in me loves what I interpret as the company’s three brand planks: “personalized,” “better every time,” and “on your time.” This organizing principle for product, experience and messaging is unique and, if done well, highly defensible.

The website lists these three things as benefits, which is another word for care-abouts.  They are presumably brand good-ats but time will tell. This is a case where a start-up has to build the good-ats as the business matures. And course-correct in real time.  But you can see how having a plan, an organizing principle and commitment to brand strategy can make it work.

If Stitch Fix gets benefit delivery right it is going be a high-flier.





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Growth Hacking is an idea for the times.  I’m kind of sure it’s a bad idea.

Here’s a definition from Wikipedia:  

Growth hacking is a process of rapid experimentation across marketing channels and product development to identify the most effective, efficient ways to grow a business. Growth hackers are marketers, engineers and product managers that specifically focus on building and engaging the user base of a business. Growth hackers often focus on low-cost alternatives to traditional marketing, e.g. using social media, viral marketing or targeted advertising[2] instead of buying advertising through more traditional media such as radio, newspaper, and television.[3]

I don’t take issue with rapid experimentation across marketing channels. I do believe, though, product development as a hack is a little iffy. If growth hacking is a synonym for research and development (R&D) that’s fine. But using the web to randomly and quickly build a business case is goofy.

When it comes to growth hacking, start-ups or recalibrating business better know their good-ats. They shouldn’t look to the web to find out what people want. Brand planning is about good-ats and care-abouts. At What’s The Idea? brand strategy is an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging.  It’s business strategy writ small.  Too much focus on care-abouts and not enough focus on good-ats is an extensible recipe for business failure. You may want to look like Cinderella but you are who you are.

Growth is what businesses aspire to. How they get there and how they get to success is a result of planning, learning and commitment. An hour-long presentation on growth hacking may make you feel all warm inside, but it’s not a sustainable business approach.



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I learned a trick from ad agency president Brendan Ryan many moons ago that has contributed mightily to my brand planning framework.  Mr. Ryan, who ran FCB New York, would ask for a print campaign to be tacked to the wall. And sans any briefs or account foreplay he’d review what he saw, explain the “idea,” and identify which ads fit.  It was after-the-fact ad forensics.

This approach also works in brand planning.

I did some work for an agency that handles a top 5 financial institution. I was helping the agency create a strategy for the holding company brand (sitting atop the retail and commercial bank, personal wealth group, and investor relations). Our strategy wasn’t being served up as a corporate branding assignment per se, just an organizing principle for delivery of the brand online (wink wink).

Anyway, one of the tools we used was borrowed from Mr. Ryan – we reviewed all the content on the site (stories, copy and videos) and pasted them up on a wall. Our team was then to cluster the content into discreet, organic segments. If we couldn’t find a segment, we were to move outliers off to the side.

I can’t share business secrets but this forensic approach helped show us where the centers of gravity were. Our next step was to make sure these clusters were customer “care-abouts” and brand “good-ats.” If they weren’t, we needed to make corrections.

It’s a wonderful brand planning exercise and one I must say was borrowed from another. Peace.



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The hardest part of quantifying the success of brand strategy (1 claim, 3 proof planks) is the act of tying measurement of “care-abouts” and “good-ats” (the proofs upon which brand value are built) to sales. I call this pursuit: Return On Strategy (ROS).

Back in the 90s while working on AT&T Business Communications Services, fighting off MCI (a smart competitors buying share with discount prices), we knew that messaging the right combination of “competitive price” (within 10% of MCI), “network reliability” and “innovative telecom tools” (the 3 planks) would result in added business users. If market perceptions of this trifecta were offset by MCI, they started winning new account “adds.” The trick was meting out the right combination of planks with our media budget.  We were using quantitative research to gauge attitudes and tie them to actions/sales.

This is the way one does ROS.  But numbers about attitudes can lie. Nate Cohn, The New York Times version of Nate Silver, mea culpa’ed today about Donald Trump. He spent a 1,000 words explaining why the numbers lied and Trump beat the odds.

I often write about “proof” in my blog posts. And about “deeds” — the actual activities that feed the care-about and good-ats. This line of thinking and study is where I need to spend more time. As was the case in Mr. Cohn’s explanation of Mr. Trump, attitudes and numbers can mislead. So I’m off to look beyond attitudes and on to awareness of deeds tied to sales. Should be interesting.





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I’ve been thinking a good deal about prevention this morning. There’s an exciting article in the NYT on some Medicare trials to prevent diabetes among at risk populations.  Another article on the bombings in Brussels had be wondering how we can prevent the kind of hatred that causes people to blow themselves taking fellow citizens with them.  

Much of what modern societies do when faced with ills, illness and hatred focuses on curative or  after-the-fact action. Not root cause prevention.  

Yesterday’s What’s the Idea? blog post was about articulating positive “care-abouts” and “good-ats.”  By highlighting positives, the logic went, one can trump positioning around negatives.  So I’m asking myself today if I should be thinking about including a preventative plank in my strategies; rather than trump an existing brand or category negative, what if we look at ways to prevent them?

It may be a poor example but in a brand strategy I wrote a few years ago for a “healthier-for-you cookie,” I realized most cookies in the space were perceived as “dry.”  Rather than build a plank around moisture, which I did, perhaps I should have taken a preventative approach — highlighting the use of coconut oil as a key product additive. Coconut oil smacks of moisture.

As you can see, it’s not a full baked idea but you have to start somewhere.  And my gut tells me prevention and the education around it, is a def worth a strong look.



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The SWOT Analysis is an age-old business planning tool. Mapping out Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats sets businesses up to self-evaluate and make better decisions.  Google the words business, marketing or brand consultant and you will prob find 50% of the websites referring to SWOT.

garden of eden

Well, I am a brand planner. I don’t do SWOT.  I look primarily at positives. My brand strategy discovery gravitates towards “Good-ats” and “Care-abouts.”  Brand strategy is all about positivity. Aspiration. Likes. Sure, some of these overcome negatives but branding, at its very core, is about identification and positive reputation. So why, why spend time in negative land.

If I turned my framework on its head, I’d be asking about “bad-ats” and what consumers don’t “care about.” As a single shingle brand planner, one who needs to be nimble and cost=effective, I choose to live in always-always land. Where goodness lives and happens — and where brands are built to serve people in positive ways.

And I’m sticking to it. Peace.  



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The three most important words in marketing are “pent up demand.”  Not “supply and demand.”  Pent up demand comes about when there is not enough supply — so the two concepts are linked. When there’s great demand for a product or service, it’s easy to sell. When there is over-supply, not so much. In the case of an over-supply situation, good marketers will find a feature or quality of the product that is under supplied and use it as a differentiation. Advertising alone is not a differentiator. Good ads help in a commodity business but real differentiation makes for better sales.

Marketing in a commodity world is the toughest form. It requires lots of research, data and anthropological study. When you find a feature for which there is pent-up demand, pound it. These features are typically found in the brand strategy under the headings “care abouts” and good-ats.”



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My uncle Al Heckel was a great sailor. Renowned along the south shore of Long Island for his sailing prowess, Al used to ask me as a kid to crew with him, something I wasn’t too keen on. Too slow for me. At his funeral, his grandson Hankie mentioned Al used to say “sailing makes the world big again.” Love that quote.

Brand strategy, at a place and time where there are more marketing tools, media options, technologies and measures than even before, does quite the opposite. It makes the world small again. Why? Because a brand’s value proposition is limited to the most essential things. What customers most care about and what the brand is absolutely good at. Care-abouts and Good-ats.

New products, line extensions, customer experience, marketing communications are all easier when following a brand strategy (1 claim, 3 proof planks). That white piece of paper a freelancers looks at when asked to create an ad or brochure is by many measures more quickly done and more powerful, when following a brand strategy. 

An investment in a brand strategy is an investment in business. Peace.



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The What’s The Idea? brand strategy development process can best be explained in three stages. They are quite serial in nature but can overlap. Discovery is discovery. Conduct category research, ask a lot of questions of stakeholders, customers and prospects and be in thorough learn mode. Learn language, customer care-abouts and brand good-ats. Part fact-finding exercise, part search for feelings and attitudes (pal Megan Kent counsels “Feelings trump reason”). discovery fills the brain and content receptacle with lots of stuff.

Fermentation is just as it sounds. It’s the part of the process where there is active, unbridled growth. Action and reaction. Some bubbles. Lots of churn. It’s the most creative part of the process. Sometimes fermentation occurs during REM sleep, other times it takes place in the shower, or while mowing the lawn. It’s where ideas beget ideas. The fermentation process is nature and random. Serendipitous and planned.


Lastly we have the boil down. This is where everything from Discovery and Fermentation goes into a large metaphoric stock pot. Heat is applied and evaporation starts. Water and non-essential information, data, proof, care-abouts and good-ats are boiled away. This is where the tough decision are made and priorities established. What comes out of the boil down, with the help of a brand brief, is One Claim and 3 Proof Planks, AKA the brand strategy.

And there, ladies and gentlefellows is how we make the sausage. Peace.


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