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First question, “Do you have a brand?”  Most marketers will answer yes.

Second questions, “Do you have a brand strategy?”  Those same people are likely to pause then offer a less-than-emphatic yes.

Third question, “Can you articulate your brand strategy?”  This is where the homina-homina kicks in.

It’s a simple fact that most brand practitioners (meaning client side marketing or brand managers) have brands but not a tight articulation of strategy. Most agencies (ad, digital, PR, direct) also don’t follow a tight articulation of brand strategy — because one doesn’t exist. Brand strategy is the least scientific business tool in commerce. It’s viewed as an ideal. Not a framework.

Brand strategy is an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging; all three of which are marketing’s domain. Brand strategy framework comprises one claim, three proof planks.

Ask Interbrand, Landor, Future Brand, Siegel+Gale, Lippincott, Brand Union and Wolff Olins what their framework for brand strategy is and all you are likely to get is brand-babble, talk about process and case studies. They are long on smart people, insights, approaches, logos and style guides, but not framework. No business-winning binary (either you are “on” or “off”) approach to building a brand.

When you have a true framework that shows when work is on or off strategy, you have found the brand building grail.



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Many brand planners, by title, do the daily strategic work of advertising agencies: “Let’s write a brief for a new customer acquisition program,” for instance.  At What’s The Idea?, I concern myself with work at the root level.   I work on the master brand strategy; the brand “claim and proof planks” that drive all aspects of marketing.  Important as tactics are, they only support and bring to life the master strategy.

Master strategy is brand planning at is most scientific. Done right, it is measurable and predictive of results. But, I’ve just come to learn planning is just that – planning. Only when the plan is followed, activated and enculturated can it work. When not followed, when not complied with, it lays fallow.

Hence “Brand Engineering.”  Brand engineering goes beyond planning. It take a plan through to implementation.  Brand engineering rolls out the plan – insuring understanding and adherence.  When a brand strategy is understood it frees brand managers, agents and consumers alike to participate.

Smart brand consultants get this.  Landor and Interbrand make brand books about this – textbooks really — to explain how to live by the brand. But, sadly, they sit on selves more often than not.

Stay tuned from more thinking on brand engineering. It’s going to be a thing.



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I was at a meeting yesterday with someone who used to work in marketing at neurosurgical practice in the NY area. She told how this band of brain surgeons decided they needed a new logo and spent $350,000 for it – using a smart boutique in NYC. For years, I’ve been saying that new logos and names cost about $250,000 from the big guys. The Landors. The Interbrands. The Brand Unions. I guess I’ll have to revise my data upward. The storyteller was flabbergasted that a new mark could cost so much.

Naming and design are big business. Especially for companies with deep pockets. A large health system in the midst of a name change recently explained the new name this way “It’s a beacon of our future. It’s unique, simple and approachable and better defines who we are and where we are going.”

New logo design and naming need to have a marketing objective. A measurable objective. If you are going to change your name or your mark, start with a brand brief. Something that gives direction to designers and creative people. Something that gives approvers a reason to approve. Strategy starts with words on paper. I’ll trade you two simples and one approachable for a brand strategy with a measureable objective.



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twilight zone

The conundrum zoned is like the Twilight Zone, but without the do do do do music. It’s my business.

Typically my brand consulting clients are small to mid-size businesses. Businesses who understand the value of an organizing principle for messaging. They don’t quite get the organizing principle for product or experience, but messaging gets me in the door. When I tell them it will cost $17,500 for a strategy and another $17.5 for a marketing plan, I tend to lose them. So, I parry: “You can’t buy a page ad in the regional newspaper for that.”

Large companies also get the strategy as an organizing principle thing. Many at large companies get branding, beyond the logo, tagline and design templates. But they tend to think $17,500 should only cover T&E. They’re more comfortable going with Landor, Interbrand or Brand Union – and paying $250,000. That’s what it costs to get a team with lots of suits and eye piercings. To them, I am the $.99 store. The conundrum zone.

So what is my approach to overcome this? You are looking at it. The web, ideas shared via blogging and social, and an ongoing battery of thoughtful strategic (one-to-one) emails. My brand What’s the Idea? conveys and suggests most brands lack an idea. Lack an organizing principle. Companies large and small understand this. Now I just have to get the pricing right.

Piece. I mean peace.


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I am on a quest to figure out what part of the US GDP is spent on marketing. The current US GDP according to the World Bank website is $15.6 trillion. Healthcare in America is estimated to be about 18% of the GDP and my gut is telling me dollars spent on market are probably in the same ballpark.

GDP is defined as the sum of gross value added by all resident producers in the economy plus any product taxes and minus any subsidies not included in the value of the products” so one might say since marketing comprise all four Ps, product being one, that all of GDP is marketing, but let’s use What’s the Idea? math and remove the cost of producing goods from the equation.

So what are we counting? Research and development of new products. Headcount of people in all marketing services; within the company and vendor.  All out of pocket for advertising, promotion, PR, research, sales, channel, web and service. Based on my seriously fuzzy math, let’s say we are spending $2.8 trillion in marketing sans production.  That’s some cheddar.

Of that amount, what percent do you think is spent creating an organizing principle that guides marketing? That allows employees and consumers to learn the unique value of a brand…and articulate it with meaningful language. Not taglines like “Chase what matters.”

The answer is not much. 

Were we to take all the revenue of companies like Interbrand, Landor, Brand Union and Siegel+Gale and brand planning practices at agencies, we would find that it amounts to a milli-portion of the total. So we’re building brand with lots of people, lots of tools, lots of services and very, very little strategy. I’m having a brain freeze and not even eating ice cream. Peace.

PS.  Getting to actual spending numbers would be a great econometric project for a business school student. 


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The two tools I use in brand planning are the brand strategy and the marketing communications plan. An old colleague used to refer to the education business as made up of “things and stuff.”  His logic was that things are the tangibles – something that goes thump when you drop it. The “stuff” refer to the stuff you teach. Nice idea, but poor word selection me thinks. Most people think of stuff as tangible and touchable. My brand planning tools are about the “strategy” and the “tools” (stuff).  The tools are the ads, the web, PR, promotions, etc.

Brand strategy in my hose comprises 1 claim and 3 proof planks. You can write a mission statement, messaging ephemera, tone personality and lot of other shizzle, but they tend to murky up the brand waters more often than not.  One claims and 3 supports is all you and anyone need to operationalize and organize your brand’s world.  Interbrand, Landor and all the other branding shops will agree (behind closed doors.) Once that heavy lifting is done all the stuff you make is either on or off strategy. 

So ask yourself, does you brand have a claim? And have you organized that claim’s supports into three discrete, powerful, endemic, customer care-abouts?  Few have.  It can be your edge.  Peace!

Go out and enjoy a parade this weekend!

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Wikipedia defines a brand as an identity.  Many years ago, while excavating a late woodland Indian shell midden on Moshier Island for the University of Southern Maine, I came across a piece of deer rib bone I assumed was some type of weaving shuttle. (It wasn’t my day job.)  It had some notches on the bone which gave it a unique appearance and I wondered if they were ornamental or a personal identifier. 

Outside branding nerds, many in marketing today don’t quite know the difference between identifier brands and ornamental brands.   What’s the Idea? builds and rebuilds identifier brands.  Only then do we allow them to be ornamented.  And that dress up, as beautiful as it may be, must add to the identification story.  Go into a room, turn off the lights and listen to the voices of your friends and family. You can identify them.  But if you feel their clothes, not so much.

The big girls and boys know this.  Whenever an Interbrand, Landor or Wolff Olin starts a new  logo project they create a brief; one that sets the identity direction.  Recently for a commercial maintenance company I developed a strategy suggesting they were the  “Navy seals” of maintenance.  Preemptive, fast and fastidious.  When the art director went off to do logo designs, he had a directive. When the client reviewed designs, he knew “how to buy” and “what to approve.”  Of course some ornamentation got in the way and he wanted to be a “green” company and, and, and.  But the CEO ran his group with navy seal precision – it was the company. It was his identifier.   The mark and brand organizing principles where hard to debate.  This is how we do-oo it!.  Peace.

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Okay, I’m reading about Coke today and get the sense that someone at the top is starting to pay attention. Here are some of the moves Coke is making: A new campaign out of the U.K., code-named Pemberton, that attempts to win back some water and tea drinkers by alerting the public that Coke has “no added preservatives or artificial flavors.” Research indicated consumer didn’t know this. Another campaign also begun in England called “Intrinsics” is all about taste. (Were you brought kicking and screaming to the table, Dan Wieden?)
Mother has also gotten in to the act creating some :05 ditties called “blipverts,” which I don’t have to see to know I like. Their titles are: “Cap”, “Fizz,” “Ice,” and “Pour.” Were I to add the next one I’d call it “Bottle Sweat.”
Here’s where Coke has gone wrong and it’s embodied by a quote from an Interbrand consultant in today’s NY Times: Coke is “taking a risk by deviating from its long history of very entertaining,aspirational advertising. People rely on Coke to produce commercials that influence pop culture.” Yeah, that’s what people are doing. Thirsty as hell…and looking for a bottle of pop culture.

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