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“Brand identities create memorable distinction and differentiation in marketplaces in which meaningful functional product or service differentiation is increasingly impossible to secure. They help convey stories and meaning that assist decision-making, establish relevancy and positive disposition.”

This is a quote from a friend and really smart branding person. Someone who taught me a lot. It is true as true can be. It explains brand identity in a thoughtful, complete and rich way — yet it is a bit dense and suffers from what I call marko-babble. If you parse the sentence slowly it makes sense. It’s cogent. However, in branding circles where there is so much marko-babble quotes like this gets sucked right in.

I have worked really hard to take the marko-babble out of branding. I like to think I’ve simplified the definition and the outputs. Here are a couple of boil downs, in consumer language, for you to ponder.

A brand strategy is an “organizing principle for product, product experience and messaging.” (Some might argue product is the domain of product strategy and they would be right. But after the product is created, enhancements, extensions and evolutions need to be true to the brand strategy.)

A brand strategy is 1 claim and 3 proof (support) planks. Planks are populated by actual and future examples of what a company is great at and what consumers want most.

In sum, my branding meme is this: Branding is about claim and proof. Proof and deeds. Deeds and experiences. Strategically organized and tightly managed.

Marko-babble beware. Peace.


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When I was a kid in the business the worst thing a supervisor could say to you — and it happened to me — was “you need to be more strategic.” Ouch. So I worked on my strategy chops. I read Peter Drucker, marketing manuals and texts, participated in corporate task forces. I sponged up strategy and I did fieldwork.

Today, as a consultant, I offer two outputs: brand briefs and marketing plans. The latter provides obs, strats, targets and tactics and is critical for successful business…at least the obs and strats are. The marketing plan is what builders need before that start assembling things. It’s the bread and butter of my consulting practice. People can execute, given a plan.

But the real magic is in the brand brief. It conditions employees to sell and position. It boils down the marko-babble into an easy-to-understand, differentiated, business winning value proposition. Brand briefs are the elixir of success. Yet some clients and minions nod their heads toward the brand strategy (one claim, 3 proof planks) but don’t really live it. Whenever I see this at an ex-client it hurts. BrandTuitive, brand planning friends in the city, do a whole training session, post strategy, to insure unrequited brand strategy doesn’t happen. I think I may try putting training into my next proposal. Unrequited strategy is too painful. It hurts too deeply. Away unrequited strategy!


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I have often wondered how difficult it must be to go work in a country with a different culture and language and do brand planning. I worked with a smart 20-something planner at JWT-NY who picked up and moved to Shanghai. Daring. I follow a really smart Brit planner who works at Wieden+Kennedy Shanghai. He’s killing it. How do they communicate? How do they feel? How to they see patterns and interpolate?

In an ideation session last week with some brand planning colleagues, all of whom had done customer interviews for a specific B2B client, we established some guard rails, talked about buying logic, purchase station, recited stories and delved into emotion. It wasn’t until this morning, however, that I realized what was missing. Language. We were speaking in marketing-ese. I was with smart people with great marko-babble radar, but we were missing the cues that come from natural business language. In B2B it’s important to know the language that cues the target to really listen. That gives them permission to listen. That is what was missing. That’s what must happen next. Peace.  

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I am putting together a workshop for next month and have decided to title it “A marketing consultancy, behind the curtain.” The subtitle is something like, the tools and trick of a marketing consultant. The workshop needs to fill 3-4 hours and as David Bromberg likes to say, I have a “pocketful of funnies,” but need to figure out which ones and in what order to share them.

First off and foremost I will talk about the brand strategy. Most think brand strategy is the thing Landor writes before they charge you $250,000 for a logo and style book. At What’s the Idea? a brand strategy is way more (but less expensive). Here, a brand strategy is defined as an “organizing principle” for business success. Not communications success. In order to create an organizing principle for business success one must first understand business fundamentals. One tool to do so I call 24 Questions. With the 24 Questions answered I can speak the language of the CEO, CFO and CMO. When you use a company’s data and language you tend to not fall into the marko-babble trap – talking about transparency, operational excellence, customer centrism, and elevator speeches.

So explaining brand strategy and the 24 Questions are the first two tools I’ll address in “Behind the Curtain.” Stay tuned for more. Peace.

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Does your company or product have a brand brief? Also known as a brand plan. It is a piece of paper outlining for senior officers, marketing and sales teams what your strategy is.  I’m not talking mission and voice and personality — all that agency gobble-di-gook; I am talking about a piece of paper on which there is an actionable plan that drives product development, consumer experience and messaging. Think brain, not words and actions.

I pretty much know you don’t.

Why do I know that? Because I study this stuff for a living. Because in my years of doing this work, I’ve seen very few with articulate brand plans?  I’ve read strategy documents from large Fortune 100 companies with hundred million dollar marketing budgets and you can drive trucks through them.  They’re like maps with myriad roads and routes leading everywhere.  Frankly, you can almost flip-flop brand names on these plans and manage the products with little negative impact on market share. 

And that’s the big boys and girls.  Imagine what happens to mid-size companies and small companies?  SMBs reach out to the only marketing partners they can afford (C and D level players), falling for some Svengali charm and marko-babble, and pay out $50,000 or $100,000 for some web design, brochures and pretty ads. But they have no strategy to measure, just tactics.

The Offer.

So here’s my offer.  For 3 companies I will conduct an audit of materials, product, packaging, web presence and stated marketing strategy. Learning and findings will be presented in the form of an assumed brand strategy, within 48 hours of the beginning of the audit.  The presentation will show how you really look to your consumers and the public, not how you see yourself.  The first 3 companies, with sales in excess of $750,000 will be awarded an audit. I’ll happily sign a nondisclosure agreement.  The offer does not apply to agencies and marketing consultancies. Tough love this brand work. Offer ends 10/31/13.

PS. Certain rules apply, e.g., cost of travel not covered. For more information, please write

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pregnant-red-apeWhenever I try to explain to business people what a brand strategy is, I find it often better to just show them a few strategies. When I go on about “an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging” eyes glaze over and I fall into the marko-babble trap. But when I display the brand idea and 3 proof planks, the synapses start to fire and they begin thinking about their own business.  Practice and a modeling (as they say in .edu) are brain sparking. Theory not so much.  

Then I typically walk prospects through the hard part of brand strategy: what we need to throw out. As in, what we needn’t say. The iPhone was positioned as a phone, not a camera-email-text-app device. The “i” carried all of that. The “i” was pregnant with all innovative things Apple.  

Pregnant context is what you get credit for even when you don’t say it.  Select your brand strategy words with precision and you’ll get way more than you ask for. In the recent tyro brand planner event at BBH, celebrating the life of Griffin Farley, the winning idea for the Citibike assignment was “Bikes with Benefits.”  The idea was pregnant with target information, aspiration, vitality and value.  The best brand strategies live a long, long time. First they borrow context then they create their own.  Peace in The House (of Representatives). 


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There were lots of clues leading up to the recent cultural/political explosion in Egypt. Guard dog sales were up and tourism jobs were tanking. Peru, a nation on an economic high, shopping malls filled with middle and upper class citizens, at first glance seems to be hitting on all cylinders. But monthly exports of copper, other metals, and minerals were down the first 6 months of this year; China is buying less.  Someone adding up mall sales may think all is good — but they’re measuring the wrong things.

In brand planning, knowing what to measure is a key planning tool. Paul Matheson, a planner with some big old chops taught me early on that we need to look at contemporary culture so as to have richer context for our strategies.  It’s not enough to use the typical brick and mortar marketing data, e.g., sales, share, demographics, etc.  And frankly, data sources are growing like crazy, thanks to big data computing and all the neat information trails provided by digital agencies.  That said, we must understand the beyond the data and see the culture of buying. And that includes the larger macro surround. Cue data, a la guard dog sales and the culture change it implies. 

The planner’s brain can do its own multivariate statistical analysis, without the math and expense, if it knows where to look. 

Find the cues and win the day. Peace. 

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Be fresh.

So I’m reading an article this morning in USA Today featuring interviews with some top hospitality CEOs, and their answers are peppered with language like: “price of entry,” “customer-for-life,” “providing value” and “surprise and delight.” A marko-babble fest.  Not implying these aren’t smart people, they clearly are. What I’m saying is marketing has become filled with terms of art that are nice on the ear but meaningless. 

Do a Google or Bing search of “whatstheidea+surprise and delight” and if this blog pops up, break out a can of whoop ass. Jargon may be acceptable in meetings but it is the antichrist in external communications. It was copywriting great Walter Weir, I think, who said “if it sounds like copy, it’s good copy.”  Dear old Walter was born in ’06.  The industry has published 10 trillion words copy since then. There is an entire class of ad agencies called “creative hot shops” whose sole reason for being is to break away from Mr. Weir’s premise.

So what should we do?  Drop the babble.  Invent your own selling premise and selling language. Be fresh. Freshies (Sorry, racing a storm to Whiteface today.) And it is okay to be a little fresh in a non-puritanical sense.  We are at 10 trillion words and counting. There are only so many pairings – as Google will tell you. Peace!

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Paul Ottellini is stepping down as Intel’s CEO in May. Implicit in the announcement was the notion that his leadership did not evolve or lead Intel into the mobile device age. It seems Intel is no longer inside the hand candy owned by nearly every man, woman and child in America and the ROW (rest of world). This announcement and an article on the transformation of education thanks to MOOCS (massive open online courses) got me thinking about the fate of ad agencies and whether they are evolving with the times.  

Let’s face it, it’s sad but true, outside of the third world humanity’s purpose on planet earth is “buy stuff.”   That’s why we go to school, work and pay taxes.  Advertising used to be about pushing product and product preference on would-be consumers, but today consumers are wound up and ready to buy, so marketers aren’t as much interested in creating demand as they are in predisposing consumers toward their products.  The web is the big pre-disposer. Broadcast and print are still great tools, yet these days they’re mere sign posts. The real selling takes place after the ad. Agencies that sell creative by the pound are not seeing this — the total picture. It’s great to have top reputation for creativity, though it is better to have a full understanding of modern marketing: brand planning, lifecycle, loyalty, aftercare, twitch points, insouciance, and timing. Honestly, not many shops have this view. 

Great creative is a price of entry for ad agencies but the web has changed marketing. Moving the desks around, being media-agnostic and practicing all sorts of other marko-babble are not going to fix the profitability and value of the ad agency business. It needs a new box.

Mr. Ottellini didn’t change the box. IPG’s Michael Roth isn’t going to do it. Tom Bedacarre would like to. Carl Johnson-ish. We need a savant. Peace!  

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Is there a word more used these days in marketing meetings than “passion?” I write and speak about marko-babble a lot — marko-babble defined as words so often used and watered down, they become meaningless. It’s like they come out of a handbook. Authenticity, transparency, ROI all come to mind. I’m not saying “passion” is marko-babble, it’s a price of entry, a means of staying  truly alive in your business category, but in brand planning, it is actually a negative word.

For less than a day, I changed my LinkedIn profile to read: “I am a passionless brand planner.  That’s right passionless.”  Passion can cloud the judgment. Parents are passionate about love of their children. Is that why many miss teenage maladaptive behaviors?  Company officers are passionate about their product and services.  Does that put a gauze over their ability to see market realities?  Brand planners must be ever-energetic in their search for insights, patterns and cultural observations surrounding commerce and purchase behavior, but passion should not enter into it. Peace!

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