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My branding practice owes a tip-of-the-hat to politics. I borrowed the word planks from politics, incorporating them into my framework. At What’s The Idea?, brand strategy comprises “one claim and three proof planks.” Organizing brand value around three proof areas focuses content makers and the consumer minds — the rule of three.

This morning I was reading a NYT article on political strategy and came upon an analysis of political memes. Cartoonist Scott Adams who developed Dilbert said something about political memes that really rang true to me as a brand planner.  The meme rhymed, he offered, and provided “brain glue plus framing and contrast.”

Whoa! Trifecta.

Rhyming always helps with memorability. Brain glue refers to the creative quotient. Do you want to remember it? Framing speaks to positioning and clarity of purpose. And contrast is all about differentiation and uniqueness. Much work today, brand and content-wise, does not differentiate.  If you hit all three of these strategy qualities, you have a good meme. Brand planners, much can be learned from this cartoonist’s advice.



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Nike is parting ways with 11 top executives in the face of an employee survey pointing to sexual harassment in the workplace. Facebook is reorganizing into three divisions to put senior management eyes closer to the work areas that have been a little lax in the security department.  It seems that firing and reorganizing are the reflexive methods of apologizing for public company problems.  Other typical tactics include NYT and WSJ apology letter ads and training days (see Starbucks).

Customer-facing business change is best served cold. Not right away. Business change needs to be properly thought out. Not knee-jerk. Poorly thought out change can be more disastrous than the disaster. Nike needs to live its shame for a while. As does Facebook. They need to publish and discuss what they’ve found and how they are going to deal with it. Most PR people will tell you to do something quick and put it to bed. I disagree. Companies need to spend more time living, learning and grieving. Glossing over big mistakes is a big mistake.

Act like a human and you can come back from it. Endure the shame, study it, heal – then move on.



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Farhad Manjoo, The New York Times tech writer, wrote today “Thanks to automation we now make 85% more goods than we did in 1987, but with only two-thirds the number of workers.”

Well, automation has had a profound effect on the advertising business too. Specifically Google and programmatic ad buying. The algorithm (Google) and ad buying servers that issue media bids in microsecond have removed thousands of people from the business of creating and placing ads.

These two automation facts are not alternative.

So what must we do to slow the robots?  It’s going to be hard to out-think them. But perhaps we can out-emotion them. Out-strategize them. There’s a saying I like to trot out every once and a while “Just when you think you know something about this business, someone comes along and proves you wrong.” Why is that?  Because intuitive rules don’t always work. Science says they should, but people don’t buy that way. People are people. We’re random.

So don’t worry about the robots, worry about your buyer. Engage them in new and exciting ways, and you will outlive the machine.



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The Nusra Front, a Syrian Al Qaeda affiliate, has rebranded (the NYT words, not mine) as the Levant Conquest Front.  Never in my lifetime has branding been more life and death. With the rebranding, which will heretofore be referred to as renaming, the Levant Conquest front has stated it is a local terrorist organization, targeting only the government of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. It no longer intends to target the west. It would not surprise me if this announcement was made via a press release. Such is the social media and terror media today.

After 5 billion words, America’s news media can’t even decides what to called ISIS; often referring to it by all three recognized names (ISIL and Daesh being the other two).

The fact that branding has now found its way into terrorist circles may sicken but it does explain the sophistication of networks, recruiting and geo-political posturing.

Moving forward, I refuse to use the word “brand” in association with terror groups. I wish the media would join me. It tarnishes a business that is all about hope and possibility.

Peace. For reals.        


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In the NYT today Dwight Garner described Bob Dylan’s lyrics as “tumbling.” Can you think of a better word to describe them?  Were I to pick one word to convey Dylan’s lyrics it would be that.  Tumbling means down the fall line. Effortless with an occasional jolt. Natural. Prone to the gravitational force.

I was reading Mr. Garner’s article and it reminded me what a poor writer I am. In my business I don’t need to write well, I just need to write well enough to incite marketing and creative. So long as my writing doesn’t get in the way, I can make a nice living writing brand strategy. (Google “brand planners prayer.”)  Bob Dylan uses words and with his own poetic vocabulary to define American music.  He does it because he can and because he loves to.  (I’d like to know how he did in English class.)  

Writing well, having a great voice, being beautiful are not requisites for a rich life. Trying is what matters.  Kudos to Mr. Dylan. Thanks for the lesson.

In these weird, weird times, Bob Dylan makes me proud to be an American.




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Auto Fill For Life.

There was a story today in the NYT about the potential ascendancy of Google’s digital assistant over all others. Over Siri, Cortana and Alexa/Echo. If not Google, who?  Assistant voice recognition is getting there as is voice response. But it’s machine learning that will make or break the digital assistant business. And one can imagine Google has a leg up with all of the data it has on us.

Do you ever find yourself driving around looking for directions and wondering why your nav. assistant doesn’t know you better? I do. Or why you phone can’t make your life easier with repetitive functions? Like an auto fill life? I do. A learned (pronounced learn-ed) assistant is going to be an amazing help to us.  It will save time, energy and planetary resources. The possibilities are truly endless.

As it stands now (according to the NYT), Siri owns the phone, Echo owns the home, and Facebook Messenger rules the streets – when you’re out and about. Google’s digital assistant, which I’m sure will have a much cooler name than Google Assistant aspires to be the lone assistant. (Learn-Ed is actually kind of a nice name. Hmm, you listening Learn-Ed?)

Anyway, should be a fun ride and amazingly profitable.




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I read Farhad Manjoo’s tech piece in the NYT today about Amazon’s drone plans. He seems to be coming around to believing it will happen. Drones will be delivering goods in the next 5 years, reports Amazon in the article. Certainly in the wilds of Africa.  

I was at a wedding the other day and the bride and groom decided a drone’s eye camera angle would be a nice-to-have during the outdoor vows. Have you ever hiked in the woods on a humid day? ‘Nough said.

I’m no geeze when it comes to tech but drones over Babylon or Bumpus Mills are not going to happen as envisioned.  For safety reasons (read security, etc.) home deliveries are not in our future. Not for a couple hundred years.  Perhaps there will be designated delivery posts or lots, like PO boxes, where we can pick up drone deliveries but drones will not be buzzing around our hoods and cities at all hours of the day and night. The idea to have an idea will work in this case. Drones will happen. We just haven’t quite figured out how they will contribute to “last mile” delivery. I’m guessing the last half mile will be more like the 1970s paper boy than a drone drop-off.




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A foundational element of my branding practice is “proof.”  When I start out, sans strategy, I am seeking proof.  Proof of what? I do not then know. I’m also on the lookout for deeds – the things people do in pursuit of commerce advantage. I filter out all the flah flah, adjectives and marko-babble about quality and people, and I mine for evidence.

In Lucent Technologies first ad after breaking off from AT&T, it claimed “Invented the Transistor.” Now there’s a pregnant piece of proof. An example of a question I might ask executives during discovery is “What business practice is uniquely yours?” Hunting for deeds.  

Today it was reported in the NYT that a Viking site may have been found in Newfoundland by archaeologists. A site that could help re-write North American history. They used input from oral Viking history but it is proof that will seal the deal: Smelting evidence, fire broken boulders, wall remnants.

If you are doing a branding project and your brand strategist curls your hair with talk of symbolism, authenticity, and customer journey you are likely in for a long ride.  But if you can tell the brand planner is on the hunt for proof, deeds and evidence, you’re know they are mining in the right place.




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black hole

According to the NYT today, the definition of black holes is “the bottomless gravitational pits from which not even light can escape.” Leave it to the Times to put something so complex into human terms. Einstein, when talking about the geometry of the universe likened it to a bed mattress, which only moves and reacts when a sleeper moves. It’s shape distorting with the movement of matter an energy. So basically, there are still some things that are quite hard to explain. And that’s brings me to branding.

Ask 100 people about branding and you’ll get 80 answers. From “branding is an empty vessel into which you pour meaning?,” a favorite of mine, to “”the process of creating a relationship or a connection between a company’s product and emotional perception of the customer for the purpose of generating segregation among competition and building loyalty among customers,” which is straight out of Wikipedia (did I say straight?).

Branding today is marketing’s black hole. Everyone is talking about is, everyone is doing it, everyone thinks they know what it is, but few can articulate it. For all the frameworks brand experts have developed and all the webinars and presentation on the topic, few have been able to boil it down. To a simple algorithm. Or formula.

The framework used by What’s The Idea? is one such…and it works. At the top of the framework is a brand claim. A claim of value; something customer wants and something the brand delivers. Every brand then needs proof for that claim. I use 3 proof planks for my framework. The theory of three.

If you have a claim and proof array and you demonstrate it every day, you are brand building. You are branding.

Mattress indeed.




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purple carrot

Mark Bittman makes my mouth water. As a New York Times critic he excited the food world for many years. It was just announced he’s moving to start-up Purple Carrot as content creator. In this case the content will be recipes and comms. Purple Carrot is a meal delivery and some-assembly-required service.

What I like about Mr. Bittman, along with his recipes and writing, is his current mission. Quoted in today’s NYT his goal is to get “people to eat more plants.” Can’t get more focused than that. Great brand strategy.

He and start-up founder Andrew Levitt are smart marketers and brand builders. Purple carrots sounds intriguing. The “meal kit,” is an awful and un-tasty food classification, but it’s descriptive and appropriate for the time.

I spend a good deal of time in Costco and BJs and must tell you the percentage of overweight people with poor feeding habits is appalling. Obesity may be a class thing and a money thing, but if the price point of these vegan meal kits can be made elastic enough, it may open up new markets for Purple Carrot and do some real good.  I’ve done enough marketing strategy in the obesity space to know that good tasting plant-based fare has a nice economic upside. I believe Mr. Bittman’s hire will be a good one.


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