one claim three proof planks

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$17,500 is the number I use as my brand strategy fee. It covers one month of work and a brand strategy. A brand strategy is here defined as An organizing principle for product, experience and messaging.  The brand strategy itself comprises “One claim, three proof planks.” What’s a proof plank, you ask?  A homogeneous array of consumer value examples.  I’ve been using $17,500 as a fee for close to ten years; it’s time for rate increase.

Starting February, the monthly rate will climb to $20,000. Inquires fielded before February will hold old pricing.

Many small companies spend scores or thousands of dollars on advertising and marketing. Larger companies hundreds of thousands. And most do so without a brand strategy. Without an organizing principle. Those who invest in a brand strategy make the best one-time investment of their business lives.

A pittance in the total scheme of things.




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The company Reputation Management has asked me to comment on how a brand can bounce back from poor online reviews.

I believe it’s best to leave them up. As hard and painful as it is, it’s “real world” online commerce. Not everyone is a super model. Not everyone bats .400. To err is human.  How you overcome quality or service problems dictates how you improve. If a product has flaws, fix them. Or acknowledge why they happen. When Chipotle made people sick, it acknowledged “farm to table” is not easy. Healthier is not easy. And they changed.

When Marmot, known for quality in winter gear, gets a bad review, it isn’t defensive, it works even harder to make better product.

Today, if an e-commerce site doesn’t have poor reviews people know it’s been cleaned.

Also, a strong brand strategy (one claim, three proof planks) is also a good way to maintain reputation.  Using an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging feeds the market the information it needs to understand your product. When care-about and good-ats align, brands are hard to tear down. When you simplify and strengthen your value, a few disorganized comments won’t hurt. They just make you real.



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In a piece of 2014 research conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit on the subject of customer experience, the top box response to the question below was about message uniformity.

I know to the hammer everything looks like a nail and to the brand planner everything marketing thing looks like brand strategy, but this one made my day. Brand strategy, defined here at  What’s The Idea? as “An organizing principle for product, experience and messaging,” is the key to message uniformity. Sure “voice,” “tone” and “personality” are important (ish) but the substance of the message is how one builds brands.

Find your claim. Identify your three proof planks, make sure they are key care-abouts and brand good-ats, and you have a strategy.

Stick to it and it will stick to your customers. And prospects.  

Happy holidays to all. Peace.


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The Boil Down.

Every brand planner has his or her own toolkit. But basically they drop themselves into a category or brand space and learns. They understand the product, competition, care-abouts and functions. If they’re smart they also try to understand the business and finances. A dive into the culture of the buying is important. And learning the language of the category is not underrated.

After all information is amassed, balanced by some qualitative data, it’s time to put paper to pencil. Or finger to keyboard. This is where the good brand planners separate from the not so.  

My key tool is the brief. Many brand planner use a brief to create strategy…or a fill in the box template. Same thing.

The real key in crafting a brief is the “boil down.” The boil down removes all non-essential information gathered during discovery.  I call it the boil down because it riffs on the metaphor of the stock pot. Fill up the stock pot and boil it down to a very rich bullion at the bottom.

At What’s The Idea?, a brand strategy is one claim, three proof planks. This is the organizing principle for brand strategy. Four things. That’s a lot of boiling.




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Tossing Arrowheads.


90% of brand strategies are arrowheads.  They have a points, are sharp, and are usually well crafted.  In most cases, brand strategies are ad agency crafted.  In the agency creative process – the building of the ads – the last thing often completed is the tagline. Taglines are summations of all the creative work.  In the case of Northwell Health, a huge NY area health system, the wan tagline “Look North,” is not a brand strategy. It’s a bow on the present.  In the case of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, tagline “More Science. Less Fear.” is both a tagline and brand strategy.  It’s provable.

Arrowheads are pretty and last a long time in the dirt as any archeologist will tell you but as a tool they are worthless without a shaft and flights (feathers providing stability.)  Ever try throwing an arrowhead?

Brand strategies un-complicate complication. As an organizing principle “One claim and three proof planks” transform pages and pages of product, positioning, segmentation and experience folderol into a workable business-building system.  Carrying the metaphor forward, brand strategy puts aerodynamics behind the tagline.   

Look at your marketing documents and outputs and see if you can put onto paper your claim and proof array. If you can’t, you are tossing arrowheads.



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I’ve never really parsed the brand name of my consultancy “What’s The Idea?”  While developing the company, which actually started out just as a blog, I wanted to name it What’s The Big Idea?, but I chose against it for URL and simplicity’s sake.  A big idea is better than an idea, one might think, yet it also seemed a big self-aggrandizing. So What’s The Idea it was.

What’s neat about the name is that it is a call to action. If a brand manager or stakeholder can answer the question, it probably has an idea. If the idea can’t be put into a succinct explanation, then un-uh.  If you have no brand idea you have no idea how hard it is to convey value to the consumer world.

Most sane women and men who are captains of industry would respond “How can I maintain a business beneath one idea?” The answer is “By using proof planks.” Proof planks (3 in total) drive business value, consumer value and shareholder value.

You want metrics, I’ll give you metrics. Write me. Steve at Whatstheidea.



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mass production

I am a big fan of content creation, the new marketing meme sweeping the nation. Content creation has been around as long as the written word. As a tool to promote and sell it has been around since Bass Ale invented its mark and the Sears Catalog was the Amazon of its day.  But the words “content creation” in this age of Google and iPhone movies has taken on, at least for me, a strong commodity meaning.  A creative-by-the-pound activity measured in attention then, maybe, sales.

I am a brand planner who measures success not by hits or vague engagement activities but by sales. And future sales. Sure I’ll write a speech on “web accessibility” for an agency trying to score points at a client’s annual marketing meeting, but I don’t want giggles, attaboys and future invitations, I want new customer contracts. Content isn’t oration, it’s selling.

So the brand planner in me thinks that content creation or content marketing ungoverned by a brand strategy (one claim, three proof planks) is wasted effort. Every act or action that marketing achieves needs to motivate a sale in one way or the other. If you are doing content creation and it doesn’t move a customer closer to a sale, you likely don’t have an articulate brand strategy.




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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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I was in a meeting earlier this week with a couple of smart agency guys, explaining the exigencies of being a brand strategist. How nobody wakes up in the morning, yawns, and says “I need a brand plan.” Or how the branding business is filled with a small group of people with a special lexicon of marketing and brand gibberish – I call it marko-babble – filled with words like “authenticity,” “brand voice,” “truths,” “journey,” etc. Lots of brand consultants have a process for doing business, but they don’t actually have a framework for what is delivered. Or, a plan for the future.

I do and I explained it: “One claim, three proof planks. This is the organizing principle for product, experience and messaging. The key to my framework is “proof.” I explained to my agency associates that my discovery, research and strategic development all focus on product proof. Proof of what? Good question. It’s not until the proofs are arrayed that the proof of what raises it head.

Proofs tend to be grounded in customer care-abouts and brand good-ats.

One brand planner’s discovery is often much like the next…lots of reading, interviews, primary and secondary research and cogitation. But at What’s The Idea? It is proof that makes the pudding. It is proof that drives the brand strategy.



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“Deeds, not things, make father Berrigan one of the best-known Catholic priests of the 20th  century” is a line stolen from The New York Times today.  Deeds indeed.

At What’s The Idea? the framework for brand strategy (1 claim and 3 proof planks) is built upon deeds. And proof. They are the bedrock of a high-value selling proposition.

When I do discovery for a brand, I’m not searching for shallow platitudes or adjective-filled praise.  I need existential examples. When I ask hospital administrator why their healthcare is better than others, I’m often met with “It’s our level of care. Our people.”  That’s not input. That’s phonetic sounds and breath.  Hunting for proof and deeds, often through stories, is how we start the process. In a page of notes, you may only find 2 proof points. Read a web page or brochure someday. An ad even. Circle the proof.  Paltry.

When the same hospital says it does more cyber knife treatments in one year than any other NY hospital, that’s proof. But drill down. Find out why. Understand the proof and build upon it. The information is there.

Stories and storifying are big pop marketing topics today. I love stories…but as a listener. As a listener who’s looking for proof.




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