organizing principle

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Every brief is a brand brief…that is, until the brand brief is actually written.  This is my life. A friend asked for some help with his website. I was paralyzed until I wrote a brand brief.  “Can’t you just write copy for the website? Only a couple of pages?” Sorry.  

A brand consultancy asked me to work on an idea for a top six business consulting company – they really wanted a brochure. “Love to help. Gotta do a brand brief first.” Want me to write an ad for your energy drink? Brand brief.

I can’t go tactical — not in good conscience — until I understand the organizing principle aka the brand strategy. I’d have restless leg syndrome. I’d be afraid I would do something to hurt the brand – which would be hard since without a brand brief “Who knew?” what would help the brand. 

So this is my career dilemma. The boulder I must push up the mountain. Wouldn’t have it any other way.




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Many people in the advertising, marketing and branding business get tongue-tied when asked to define branding.  Or brand for that matter. We come up with short pithy things such as “A brand is a vessel into which we pour meaning.”  For years, that was actually one of my favorites.   As a consultant with some clients falling into the mid-size business category, I need something more tangible. “Organizing principle” are the two words I use most often now. The extended version is “An organizing principle for product, experience and messaging.”  It’s a nice definition – perhaps the best I’ve come across. It defines branding – the verb for used for manage the brand (noun).

But an organizing principle as a descriptor doesn’t really provide pay-off or consummation of the act. It’s just the theory. It is the framework of the organizing principle that makes believers out of brand manager. And the frame work at Whats’s The Idea? is “one claim, three proof planks.” These are the parameters of the organizing principle. The tangible guidance.

Many brand planners love fluidity. They enjoy freedom for their ideas. I enjoy the freedom of a plan, a focus, and a finite value array for doing more business. That’s what an organizing principle does. Peace.



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I’ve been writing a lot lately about how brand strategy is the perfect intersection of customer care-abouts and brand good-ats. Earlier this week I posted that it’s best to have good-ats as part of company DNA rather than just build them based on customer needs research.

Enter Stitch Fix, a very cool clothing start up that melds the best of the online web retailing with features of brick and mortar clothing stores. Stitchfix has built its business around convenience, surprise and renewal. It’s genius. And addictive.

The brand planner in me loves what I interpret as the company’s three brand planks: “personalized,” “better every time,” and “on your time.” This organizing principle for product, experience and messaging is unique and, if done well, highly defensible.

The website lists these three things as benefits, which is another word for care-abouts.  They are presumably brand good-ats but time will tell. This is a case where a start-up has to build the good-ats as the business matures. And course-correct in real time.  But you can see how having a plan, an organizing principle and commitment to brand strategy can make it work.

If Stitch Fix gets benefit delivery right it is going be a high-flier.





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I came to a conclusion the other day while at the Griffin Farley Beautiful Minds competition in NYC. I decided my definition of brand planner is different from most other’s. Most feel a brand planner is a person who does strategy for individual projects, understanding the brand strategy and writing briefs for particular tactical projects.  In a brand’s life there is one brand strategy yet scads of individual executions or communications supporting it. These executions give brand planners constant day jobs.  My definition of a brand planner, however, is a macro definition. In my world, you write the brand strategy once and you are done. One tight brand strategy (1 claim, 3 proof planks) sets the “organizing principle” for life. The creative and the tactics then become ongoing expressions of the brand strategy.

I’m not talking about building Levittown here. There can and must be a crazy amount of creative inflections throughout, but the goal is to sell more stuff, to more, people more times at higher prices (thanks Sergio Zyman) using “a single claim and proof array.”

There is no doubt that the industry’s definition of brand planning – the ongoing supervision of a brand idea – is a solid one. The marketing and ad worlds are better places with planners around. But at What’s the Idea?, my vision is to teach marketers and creatives to fish. Using one amazing hook.



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When I do upstream brand work for companies my first deliverable is a brand brief. The brief creates an organizing principle articulating what a company does well and what consumers want most. The brief secret sauce is one claim and three proof planks. Claim and proof — organized proof — build brands.

When large businesses organize, they tend to follow a productized principle. HP has a PC business, a printer business and services business. Yahoo!’s latest organizing principle identifies search, communications and content. AT&T Business Services used to organize by inbound, outbound and data. This is how businesses organize. Organic, essential groupings that are clean, not messy and, likely, tied to line-of-business revenue.

This is not how brands strategy should be organized. What’s The Idea? uses brand planks that are benefit-driven. They may certainly offer a functional spin but always, always point to a consumer benefit. Unfortunately, when budgets are allocated for marketing efforts such as advertising, events and promotion, the money tends to come from functional/product areas and things gets messy. Product managers want product-based comms and the master strategy takes a hit. 

Now more than ever brand strategy needs executive buy-in and C-level champions.  Why are many CMOs unsuccessful? They are tacticians. They’re product pushers not brand builders.


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So you have a company or product. You have a name. You have a logo. You have some design parameters. Packaging. You may even have a marketing person or an agency. But do you have a brand? Most would say yes, I say until you have an organizing principle that brings together what the “company is good at” and what “consumers want,” you really don’t have a brand. The organizing principle to which I refer is a brand strategy. It must be built upon truth, aspiration and above all it must be sinewy. That’s the hardest part. A brand strategy must not be a big expensive blob boasting something for everyone.  

If you would like to see a sample or two, please let me know. Steve at whatstheidea. Everyone needs a plan. Peace. 

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In the advertising and marketing business thousands of briefs are written every day. 98% of them are tactical.  I was visiting an acquaintance at Wieden and Kennedy and he had to go off to write a couple of ESPN briefs for women’s tennis, or some such.  Sounded like a cool job. Briefs are what planners do. Planners also fill the holes in their day with insight decks.  I’ve done quite a few. 

The other 2% of briefs written are brand briefs the briefs under which all insight deck and tactics briefs will magnetically hover. These are the most important. Frankly, with a great brand brief, many of the other briefs need not be written at all. With one good idea (claim) and three planks (proof of claim), the organizing principle is set and the creative teams prepared.

Sure, specific tactics with unique goals may require a new lens through which to look at a program. A tighter target segment. A new product feature. Yet the organizing principle that is the brand plan is the default marching order. The reality is, many, many companies don’t have a brand brief, just digital folders with scads of the tactical variety. It’s sad and inefficient.

Tactical briefs are for now. Brand briefs are for when. Or better put, for ever. Campaigns and agencies come and go, a powerful brand idea is indelible.  Peace on Monday!

PS.  I am not suggesting here that W+K does not do brand briefs. The shop is too good not to.



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There are a couple of really smart consulting companies I’ve been following for a few years: The Altimeter Group and Dachis Group. The latter gave birth to a concept called “social business design” and the former more recently codified a similar practice they call “social business.”

Following Dachis Group from a far, it was my view that they should monetize by selling software.  Build it once, charge forever. Consult regarding the need for a new, more efficient way to do business then sell proprietary software that enables it. This approach is one with which Accenture’s has had great success.

Altimeter, on the other hand, is all about the consults and the hourlies. When you don’t have to push your own product, it appears cleaner to customers. Selling knowledge and providing the groundwork for companies to heal themselves is viable and healthy.

There is room for both approaches and each company has a long list of blue chip clients. Today in this very digital world there is enough pie to go around.

Because marketing is at the center of all things business and because brands are the drivers of what is marketed, there is big room at the table for brand planning. (You saw that one coming.)  In fact, social business without brand planning can sometimes be little more than a loose federation of processes, tools and measures.  Organizing everything with a principle that sells more, to more, for more, more often is the last mile of social business.  Peace.

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Christine Draeger, VP global marketing at Safeguard World Intenational is a pal and she asked to me to post on how a brand plan can help in recruiting.  

Here goes.  If you are involved in recruiting good people to your company (and who isn’t?), then you know what it’s like to interview someone without a clean presentation of their career arc, career goals, strengths and weaknesses and personality. (As my ad guy father Fred Poppe used to say about the latter, “If you don’t have one, don’t apply.”) When you finish conducting such an interview, the candidate has likely answered all your questions yet the presentation was jumbled — and you don’t have a sense of the person. It would be hard for you to talk about the candidate, save for an accomplishment, previous jobs, age, etc.

This is why a proper brand plan is important for a company. Because people interview brands every day… and they are looking for a clean picture. So when people are introduced to your brand, they understand what it does, how, and why.  A simple organizing principle, codified, shared within the company and lived by employees helps this.  Some call it culture – it’s not culture. Though culture can be derived from the brand plan. A brand plan is an organizing principle, based in product strength and customer need that showcases and leverages both.  Brands without a plan are ingredients and packaging surrounded by dissociated advertising. A plan brings it all together.

Next time you go into an interview and you are meeting with a higher up, ask them to discuss the key elements of the company brand plan. If they look at you funny be weary. Peace.

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The lifespan of a CMO is somewhere in the neighborhood 18-22 months.  Who would want that job?  I guess it pays well. The reality is chief marketing officers tend to be judged harshly by other C-level executives. They are Cs, but judged as Ds.  Would you like to know why? (I bet you saw this one coming.)  It is because they don’t have a brand plan and are judged based upon subjective criteria. 

Many think a brand plan is a color scheme, or new logo and signage. Or a new ad campaign from the new agency. 

A brand plan is so not those things. A brand plan is an organizing principle for doing business. As an organizing principle it provides direction for everything done on behalf of a brand. (Even hiring.) If a CMO has a plan understood and blessed by the CEO, then everything created by the CMO is pre-approved.  No more looking at a blank piece of paper for marketing program inspiration. No more trotting out last year’s program and for updating. There is a strategic plan in place that gives form to all 4Ps.  But most CMOs don’t have this tool.  They have an Excel spreadsheet with a budget, sales goals and deltas (the diff between goal and actual).  They have a marketing plan with line items for tools, functions and a KPI or two. If they are lucky the budget sheet and the marketing plans resolve to some sort of accountability (ROI), but that’s a rarity. 

 A brand without a plan metaphorically is like looking at a new home construction and blaming an ugly, dysfunctional house on the nails. “Less nails, next time.”

I know firsthand what CMOs face. And without a brand plan, sold in and sold firm, the clock on CMO tenure continues to tick. Peace! 



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