one idea three planks

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I’m a big Al Ries fan. His and Jack Trout’s book on Positioning changed my career. I have memories of reading it on a Long Island Rail Road. It’s a great thought piece.

Today however, I take issue with the idea of positioning in branding. 

Positioning is the act of finding a competitive and defensible place for your brand in the consumers’ mind. The search for a position — a position being a noun. Position is defined as “a place occupied or to be occupied; site.”

In my brand consultancy branding is defined as “an organizing principle” for product, message and experience. This approach is much more fluid and alive. It allows for branding as a series of behavioral acts. Ongoing. Making ads, customer care, retail design, and web experience all fall into activities that define the brand and its promise. That prove its promise.

With branding as an organizing principle everything is viewed as an active, a non-machine related sales opportunities.  Built and enforced by people. Not a destination or compass point in the mind of a consumer.

Positioning was way better than anything before it. And barring any real brand strategy (one idea, three planks) it is the next best approach. But I think we can do a little better.




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business problem

Here’s my business problem. When I tell people I’m a brand planner and run a brand consultancy they immediately think I’m trying to sell them a new logo. New design and packaging. They think brand consultants are needed only for repositioning or brand extension.

The big ass fact is most of my work is done on behalf of marketers with existing brands and logos – not in the market for a design makeover. My clients tend to be making okay or good money but are adrift strategically. If they were hemorrhaging they wouldn’t be talking to brand peeps, they’d be engaging blocking and tackling business consultants.

My brand planning rigor is actually closer to that of a business consultancy than a design firm. The work is all about articulating a business winning strategy and the three planks that further that strategy. My “one idea, three planks” approach puts into English an action plan – a decision plan, really – that lets companies and employees know how to sell. From product, message and experience points of view.

Make more money is not a strategy. Make higher margin is not a strategy. Make customers happier is not a strategy. For an example or six of business winning brand strategies, please write And help solve my business problem.



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Brand strategies for my clients come with a lifetime warranty. That is to say, if a client takes a strategy to an agency to execute “buildables,” I am always available to provide feedback as to whether the work is “on” or “off” idea. Brand strategies at What’s The Idea are one idea, three proof planks, an organizing principle that allows brand managers to look at work and quickly tell if it makes a deposit or withdrawal in the brand bank. 

Agencies (ad, digital, social, other) are notorious for doing their own thing. For creating their own logic that supports the work. Once it starts, it seeps into all the marketing and dilutes the plan.

Campaigns and agencies come and go, but a powerful brand strategy is indelible. And defensible. My warranty.


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I wrote a piece last week about LOI or loss on investment. There used to be only a couple of ways for brands to let consumer’s down: A bad product experience — we all know how that can get tongues wagging — and poor or offensive marketing communication, e.g., an ad. The latter rarely happens because professionals are developing those and approving those. Also, ads are often researched.

Two ways to lose brand investment used to be the case, not today. Brands use way move channels to reach consumers. A poorly laid out website can tork off consumers. A slow or unfulfilling ecommerce experience. Some poorly thought out photos on Facebook accompanied by irate online comments. Digital and social have given consumers and poorly trained employees new hand in communications and it can dilute brand value. Undoing the good work.

Last week a friend emailed me having received a disingenuous email from Amazon. A huge fan who has fed lots of money into the Kindle engine she was pissed because Amazon asked her to take a survey about Kindle usage. She happily agreed but then learned they were just trying to upsell her a Kindle Fire. To add insult, they asked lots of inane questions they should have known having so much data on her. Her rant to me was paragraphs. She’ll get over it, but a petal has fallen off that rose.

The problem in brand management today is twofold. First, you actually have to have a brand strategy to manage. (One idea and three proof planks.) And second, you have to manage vigorously…with all partners, vendors, employees and publics. Find your brand strategy and feed it.



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Who handles social media at large companies? Corporate Communications? Public Relations? Investor Relations? Marketing? Website? Customer Service? Human Relations.  Yes.  And at large companies there are often regional and international offices. Yes and yes. Most large corporations have a number of agency partners, as well: ad agencies, PR shops, digital, retail, B2B, promotion shops – you get the idea.  And God forbid, some of the people on payroll are career climbers trying to do some new things, new ways and name a name for themselves? So who is orchestrating all of this stuff? Is it the CMO? That wo/man with the 19 month shelf life?

Social media, one component of marketing, is creating a dilution of corporate brands and products similar to what global warming is doing to the glaciers and icecaps. We know it’s happening, we just don’t believe it. And we are having too much fun with our carbons. I mean social tools.

So what’s the fix Mr. Steve Poppe (as my friend Rachel might say)? An organizing principle that governs the product, its experience, and all facets of marketing. A brand plan: one idea (strategy), three planks.

Customer service, guided by a brand plan is better customer service. Pricing supporting a brand plan, better pricing. These are the words of the brand planner. Peace!

PS. Thanks to Altimeter Group’s Charlene Li and Jeremiah Owyang for the thought starter. 


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immune system

Always on the lookout for metaphors that help marketers understand branding, I’ve come upon a new one: the immune system.  When a marketing entity has a brand plan (defined in my practice as one claim and three support planks) it has created an immune system designed to deflect all non-essential forces. Maintaining a healthy immune system takes work. It must be cared for and fed.  If the immune system has to work overtime, because the brand is constantly being attacked by outside forces, or it is spending time on off-plan activities, it weakens the immune system.

And let us not forget the immune system is a system. It is not separate unrelated functions or activities. Brand planks, discrete parts of the value proposition working together to increase brand meaning and loyalty, are not always organically aligned. Too much price message might negatively impact the quality message, say. Too much focus on tasty, may impact the healthy message.  Each brand needs its own balance because every brand is different.  But the quick story here is that “a tight, focused organizing principle for product, product experience and messaging” can create an impervious barrier for your brand to ward off evil.  

What are the parts of your brand’s immune system? Peace.   

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