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I help companies build brands by combing their business for evidence. Evidence is also proof but doesn’t turn into proof until later in the engagement — when we know what it’s proof of. (The “proof of what” is called the claim.) So at What’s The Idea? the brand exploratory is all about evidence.

If Kitchen Magic has remodeled 50,000 kitchens, that’s evidence. If Newsday provides more news coverage of Long Island than any other news source, that’s evidence. If Northwell Health delvers 42,000 babies that’s evidence.  And, if Trail Of Bits, creates a product that makes digital passwords obsolete, that’s evidence.

Marketing and advertising is tainted and ruined by too much claim and not enough evidence. 

When doing brand discovery I’m often inundated with generalizations. “Our kitchens are of the highest quality. We offer the best obstetric care. Our newspaper covers Long Island better than any other. We’re the leader in cyber security innovation.”  

These soft claims don’t help. If we can drill down so the claims are supported by evidence, then we have a place to start.



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Patrick Dolan bought Newsday back from European Telecom company Altice yesterday and so Newsday is in the, tah dah, news. I like the move. Over 15 years ago I wrote the Newsday brand strategy that went on to be its tagline for many years.  It was a tight brand strategy — competitive with the NYT, offered a very home-town and hearth angle, and strong family pull.  The brand claim was “We know where you live.” (A brand strategy remember, is one claim, three proof planks.) The tagline ended up being “It’s where you live.”

By substituting “It’s” for “We know” the strategy was more than partly eviscerated. The emphasis is all wrong. The push back from Newsday was “It’s stawker-ish and creepy. Voyeuristic.”  Too silly for words, was that criticism.  Putting the emphasis on Newsday as a place or community, rather than a journalistic endeavor devoted to understanding what makes Long Islander tick, may sound subtle but it was huge.

We know where you live is a strong today as a claim, as it ever was. Perhaps stronger. As an organizing principle for news, community and digital experience, it is a north star.

Good luck with the ownership Mr. Dolan, let’s talk brand strategy.




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When I when I started my blog What’s The Idea? in 2007 I had a tough decision to make. Originally, I wanted to call it What’s The Big Idea?, thinking big ideas were better than regular old ideas. Eight years out, I’m happy with my decision to leave off the “big.”griffin farley beautiful mind logo

The reality is, as much I seek big ideas for my brand strategy clients, sometimes just getting them to agree to an idea is enough. Big, bold, brave ideas are currency of the planning realm these days. According to Suzanne Powers, chief strategy office at McCann-Erickson, it is one reasons Team Catfish won the Griffin Farley Beautiful Minds competition last night at Google. And she wasn’t wrong. But “big” can sometime be a synonym for brazen. (And I get it, most of my brand strategies contain one word that make CEOs and marketing officers uncomfortable.) But brand ideas don’t need to be huge, or poetic, or brilliantly layered — they just need to be clean. More importantly they need to be followed. Enforced. And enculturated.

Coke’s “refreshment” wasn’t a big idea. It was a smooth sailing idea. “We know where you live” for Newsday wasn’t a big idea, it was a comfortable idea.

A brand strategy idea (the claim) doesn’t need to be big to be effective. It must, however, be believable, relevant and easy to understand. Peace!

P.S. Great job last night Sarah Watson, Angela Sun and BBH.



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If I keep writing about ROS or return on strategy it may become a brand planning meme. First, brand planning has to become a meme (hot web topic) which may be wishful thinking. Hee hee. Anyway, Return On Strategy suggests there is something to measure. Upper case DUH.  The problem with most brand design and redesigns is that much of the money and thinking is tied up in the mark. And tagline. The mark should be the last mile of brand strategy and brand design. It’s about the paper strategy first. The idea.

If Newsday’s brand strategy is “We know where you live” (Newsday is a top 10-15 daily newspaper in the U.S.), then the value of that claim must be measureable. To do that you need support planks – planks that are of value to readers. e.g., a great source of “local entertainment” or “events and legislation affecting local taxes.” The ability to measure attitudes, actions and perceptions against these planks is the heavy lifting of brand strategy.

The Interbrands and Landors of the world don’t spend real time here. They design and deliver logos, taglines and style manuals. You may be able to measure adherence to a style manual but that’s not likely to drive revenue.

Start with your paper brand strategy and you start at the beginning. Peace!  

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Coen Brothers.

A.O. Scott in his New York Times review of the new movie “Inside Llewyn Davis” today nicely captures what makes a Coen Brothers movie a Coen Brothers movie. Says Scott, they offer a “brilliant magpie’s nest of surrealism, period detail and pop-culture scholarship.” To me this description means their work a magnetic, unusual and blasting through context. The Coen’s attention to period detail is another reason I love these guys. Como se “True Grit?”  And pop-culture scholarship just suggests their storytelling is human and humane(ish).

It strikes me that these are qualities that also make for a great brand strategy.  

I often find a little tension when presenting brand strategy… and it tells me I’ve done a good job.  

  • “We know where you live” a brand strategy for Newsday, was a thought a little creepy.
  • “A systematized approach to improving healthcare” for North Shore-LIJ, a bit cold.
  • “We crave attention” for a women-owned PR firm, a smidgen gender-sensitive.

Just as good advertising creative makes you think, feel and do something, so should a strategy. Sometimes, for the squeamish, the do something is ask me “Do we have to use that one word?”  My answer is always “No, it’s a strategy, not a tagline.”

I’m no Ethan and I’m no Joel yet my work aspires to staying power. To muscle memory served up as product value. A great brand plan is an organizing principle that sticks to your ribs.   Peace.


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“This guy looks like he’s up to no good or he’s on drugs or something. He looks black” was a quote by George Zimmerman, taker of Trayvon Markin’s life last March 22. NBCUniversal is being sued for playing this snippet because it was edited together and aired without the dispatcher’s question “O.K. and this guy – is he white, black or Hispanic?”

Words are important, but context more so. Taking the dispatcher’s question out of the mix created a whole new context for Mr. Zimmerman’s quote.

Context is rarely the enemy of the brand planner.  For those who work on brands with limited budgets, context (an idea pregnant with meaning) is your friend. Contextual turns of a phrase, e.g., “We know where you live” for Newsday, orwebertarian” for (combing libertarian and web), use things already in people’s brains to convey information. Webertarian was the Zude target. Though webertarain was pregnant with meaning the product name Zude had little. It rhymed with dude and was similar to Zune but that’s it.  Without millions of dollars to promote it, the name was a poor choice. 

I have a hard time remembering people’s names.  How many Brian’s can you meet in a lifetime?  The American Indians had it right: Crooked Nose, Crazy Horse, Runs Like Deer…these names are memorable, narrative and contextual.

In brand planning you can build it or you can borrow it. Building is better when you are well-funded. Borrowing is faster but can be less differentiated. For my brand ideas, I use context as an appetizer and push for the new big idea as main course. Peace!

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Yesterday at the Long Island 140 Conference I had lunch with Jason Molinet. Those from Long Island know Mr. Molinet from his insightful bylined stories in Newsday over the years. He now works for Patch.

I like AOL’s content strategy and often urge the company to invest in big name online properties a la Huff Post and TechCrunch. As for Patch, I haven’t been as warmly disposed.  My first impression was that Patch (AOL’s local news play) was going to be a flop. A big time supporter of the need for more localized news and the internet’s ability to deliver it, in my experience so far Patch has been lacking.  Fact checking, reporting ballast, edge still seem lacking. I wonder if Patch reporters are tired and on second careers. Jaded me?

Well perhaps I’m wrong.  Tim Armstrong (AOL CEO) is heavily invested in Patch and he wants it to work, so maybe Mr. Molinet is a step in the right direction.

Earlier in the week I sat in on a talk at the Social Media Club of Long Island with a New York Times stringer reporter who lives locally.  She’s a heavy social media user and when combining her investigative reporting skills with fast twitch social media she has been doing some amazing things. Her sources are a fingertip away. Story backgrounders clicks away. Quotes immediate.  This woman gets the new journalism. And it is very, very exciting.

Once newspapers break the tether of the paper/paper and traditional reporters will combine their instincts and skills with social and web tools, it will truly reinvent the business. It’s the promise of Patch. Let’s see if they deliver. Peace!

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Over a decade ago, I wrote a creative brief for Newsday, a large metropolitan newspaper covering Long Island and Queens New York, using the insight “We know where you live.”   Newsday liked the notion but didn’t completely get the insight. They reframed it and turned the words into their tagline of many years “Newsday. It’s where you live.” 

“We Know Where You Live” was meant to provide residents of Long Island  — a diverse, but captive audience – with a reason to buy the paper in addition to The New York Times…and in place of The New York Post and The NY Daily News. Many of LI’s hundred thousand plus train commuters buy these other 3 papers every day for world news and sports and “We Know Where You Live” was intended to make them feel a bit out of touch with their local community news and home lives. (Sneaky, but true.)  It was also a means to create greater loyalty among current readers.   

This brand idea, if properly acculturated throughout Newsday, would have made every employee hypersensitive to providing an editorial experience that only a LI-based paper could deliver.  

Fast forward to 2010 and the underperforming  “We Know Where You Live”, though long gone, is still a powerful rallying cry for building online readership and participation.  The owners, architects and builders of the website, should be brainstorming how to deliver that experience. Instead, I submit, they are probably in brainstorming meetings chasing the latest social media twist, the next community promotion and the October program intended to build time on site. These are tactics, not strategy.  “How” is tactical. “Why” is strategic.  Newsday and need to revisit their brand strategy.  And let those 34 new reporters they’re hiring in on it. Peace!

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I had to look up the word enculturation a couple of months back while writing a pitch email. In fact, at the time I wasn’t sure it was a word.  Enculturation is mission-critical to my business and the goal of every brand plan I write.  A good brand plan helps employees drink the Kool Aid — educating them as to the unique and meaningful points of difference. By enculturating a company with the brand’s promise and supports marketing in its many forms is simplified and made more effective.  Only when a company adopts a brand plan can it truly be extended to consumers. The enculturation of a brand plan organizes employee and consumer minds, removing clutter.

Most advertisers and marketers hate “clutter.” I love it.  The more clutter there is in a category the more likely it can be broken.  A brand strategy may sometimes sound familiar, maybe even undifferentiated, but if it’s the right one, it will be actionable and defensible and its messages, demonstrations, and deeds profound.

Newsday knows where people (on Long Island) live. The Daily News doesn’t. North Shore-LIJ Health System provides a systematized approach to improving healthcare. St. Francis Hospital doesn’t.  Isopure Plus uncovers the taste of pure protein. Milky Ensure doesn’t.

When a brand creates a culture around its points of advantage it becomes a brand. When it doesn’t it remains a product.  Peace!

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NY venture capitalist Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures posted yesterday about how venture firms often follow the herd.  If social networks are hot, VCs look for a new good one. Mobile apps? They find someone second to the party, but who tells a fine story.  Mr. Wilson believes this is too safe and in being too safe it is not safe at all.

 Mr. Wilson is, drum roll, successful.  He is because he “fails harder” as Dan Wieden of Wieden + Kennedy says. Or “falls forward fast” as Joe Nacchio used to say.   Mr. Wilson is smart, hard working but most importantly unafraid to look to the future. He goes where the herd will be. Where the herd is is a little stinky –albeit an active breeding ground. Mr. Wilson looks for clean air.

Brand Planning.

Good brand planning and good VC investment share this “ahead of the herd” mentality. When I present a great branding idea there is often an odd look in the eyes of the decision maker.  It’s part smile, part fear.  The smile connotes I get them.  The fear can result from a few things but usually it’s the unknown.  When presenting to Newsday the brand idea “we know where you live,” they thought it too intrusive, maybe a bit creepy. But it was their differentiator. They added a little water and bought it.  For a health care system the strategy “a systematized approach to improving healthcare” felt cold and calculating.  Finally they agree as long as we didn’t use the “s” word, we were good.  They came to grips with the fact that they were a system. Herds are safe. Bold wins out. Peace!

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