return on strategy

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ROS stands for return on strategy. In my world brand strategy is strategy. As “an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging,” there is very little that a brand strategy doesn’t touch.

So as Sears tries to become profitable out of bankruptcy and needs to sell under performing stores, that’s about the product. The retail stores being Sears product.  If Sears decides to double down on Spanish and Latino customers (as I’ve suggested for years), that’s about experience. And if Sears wants to let customers know it’s time to check it out again, that’s messaging.

The best brand strategies are business-measurable. Not in awareness levels, and engagement, and likeability, but in sales, loyalty and referrals. Attitudes and preference overlaid with sales.

That’s what return on brand strategy is. Returns that can go into the bank. Deposits.

Two decades ago when I told a NY-based healthcare system that proving you had better nurses resulted in higher physician retention, my client marketing lead scratched his head.

Return On Strategy ain’t no disco.


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What’s The Idea? is the name of this branding consultancy. The idea referred to in the inquiry is the idea that drives positive commerce and profitability. “What’s the idea that drives revenue?” One might ask how an idea can translate into measurable revenue.  A fine question. Few brand strategists will go on record with an answer. Every brand idea served up by WTI can pass the revenue test.

The long standing brand idea for Coke, and management might argue this with me today, is “refreshment.” Were someone to field a quantitative research study measuring the degree to which soda drinkers agree Coke is the most refreshing choice — and track that number over time to revenue, you would have a proper test. Coke wouldn’t do it, I suspect.

I wrote a brand strategy for elder care and acute rehab facility not long ago, the idea for which was “average is the enemy.” Were a research study to be fielded among patients gauging their agreement as to how the healthcare company measured everything and outperformed others, that too, could be tied to revenue growth. 

Every brand idea should be able to pass the revenue test. That’s why it’s called strategy. Return On Strategy (ROS).

If you have a brand idea see if you have a mechanism in pace to measure it.



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Wikipedia defines deterministic system this way:

“In mathematics and physics, a deterministic system is a system in which no randomness is involved in the development of future states of the system. A deterministic model will thus always produce the same output from a given starting condition or initial state.”

I am here to argue that brand strategy is s deterministic system. Most would argue it’s chaos theory.  Frankly, most people would be right. Brand strategy is chaotic. It is random,

Ninety percent of marketing organizations are set up to deal with brand strategy as a communications consequence. “We need order in our messaging, ergo we need a brand strategy.” Tasked with spending money mainly on ads and events, these orgs spend hundreds of millions each year on naming, logo development, style manuals and ad templates. Landor says, “Thank you very much.”

A smaller number of marketing orgs take it to the next level plotting out consumer experience; mainly in retail or online settings. What does t a Dunkin’ Donuts store look like? Where do we put the seasonal stuff at Costco? How do we offer online professional development at Teq?

And lastly, in the smallest percentage of marketing organizations, are those who actually think about the product. What do we do to the product to improve it to meet customer needs? Or with what do we replace our product to better deliver our value promise?

A tight brand strategy leaves nothing to chance. It speaks to all three marketing organizational models.  One claim and three proof planks drive all measures of business success. It starts at the brand level and IS accountable. I used to call it Return On Strategy (ROS), I now call it Return On Brand Strategy (ROBS.) Stay tuned.




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Recall of a Recall.

As I settled into my seat on Jet Blue last week a passing stewardess mentioned that all Samsung Galaxy Note 7s were barred from the plane. Glad I wasn’t a Samsung brand manager that day. That was on a Jet Blue flight. I suspect all airlines were making similar announcements. Hourly. Daily. For as long as it will take to eradicate the potential threat. That’s like 20 Super Bowl ads a week in terms of reach. (Please don’t fact-check, I’m riffing.)

All of this could have been avoided – yes, at quite an expense I know – by simply recalling the phones at first light (poor pun). Rather than doing the right thing, Samsung put a blight on its brand that will take a long, long time to quiet.  Especially for those who travel on airplanes.

That ROS (return on strategy) will be negative for quite some time.




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I have decided to work on the What’s The Idea? website, expanding it to include a number of offerings, real and in Beta. Here’s a list of the first few offerings to be included — some of which are also memes on the web.

Return on Strategy (ROS). Unlike return on investment where expenditures on tactical marketing dollars or project dollars are measured, return on strategy links revenue and value to strategy.  With ROS, attitudes, perceptions and dispositions are weighed against behaviors and sales to determine drivers of market success.

Brand Strategy Tarot Cards. In the brand strategy tarot card reading, client companies come to the meeting with 5 pieces of content.  Serially and in real time each piece of content is turned over and read.  Learnings and gleanings are shared with the marketing team until all five pieces are revealed. The reading ends with a summary of brand strategy and a view into the brand future.

Brand Strategy Workshop. This three part workshop walks attendees through the key stages of the What’s The Idea? brand strategy development framework. This hands on, participatory workshop allows attendees to more fully understand brand strategy by experiencing the discovery, boil down and synthesis process that results in powerful brand ideas.

Posters Vs. Pasters. Born out of social media research, Posters vs. Pasters is a quick-draw research tool used to arrive at consumer and market insights. It is a wonderful early stage brand planning discovery tool. At last count the market was make up of 92% Pasters, 8% Posters.

Twitch Point Planning.  A Twitch Point is a media moment during which a consumer changes his or her media consumption in search of clarification or greater meaning. Often changing devices or apps. Understanding, mapping and manipulating these twitch points in a way that moves users closer to a sale is the goal of Twitch Point Planning. Think customer journey with real weigh points.

Stay tuned. And all inquiries are welcome.




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I do a good deal of work with corporate brands and they are way harder than consumer brands to package, yet I approach them the same way. The brand strategy for a corporation is the same as for a packaged good — one claim and 3 proof planks. Corporate proof plank arrays are rich and deep while those for, say, an energy drink or break-and-bake cookie are few and shallow. (For CPGs you make actually need to create proof where none existed before.)

It is because corporate proof arrays are manifold that The Reputation Institute has made such a nice and successful living. They mine attributes and values customers feel are business-winning, then track them through quarterly quantitative studies – measuring key careabout movement versus competitors — packaging it as reputation. Brilliant.

But in B2B, reputation is just a lovely generic way of saying strategy. They are measuring strategy. Multiple strategies. And if you looks at some of Reputation Institute studies you will see they cluster values generically: product values, innovation values, governance values, ETDBW (easy to do business with) values, etc. These are market research-centric studies. Brand-centic studies look at the proof based on the unique brand strategy of the corporation, organized by brand plank.  Not multiple generics. This is how we measure ROS (return on strategy.)

When companies like Undercurrent and Altimeter Group talk about more responsive organizations or disruption, they are (and often may not know it) thinking about a brand value paradigm for organization, not a generic B-school paradigm. Stay tuned.









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There is a dissonance in my business. And it’s my own fault. I am attempting to redefine what a brand strategy is. I grew up in the advertising and marketing business thinking that goal of both is to make more money; or, as Sergio Zyman says “sell more, to more, more often, at higher prices.” But when I say I’m a brand planner or brand strategist, people think logo, packaging, taglines and style guides.

logo art The hardest task in advertising, also the most expensive, is educating consumers about a product they think they don’t need. Reeducating consumers about something they think to be true, but isn’t, is also heavy lifting.

So when I tell prospects brand strategy is business strategy, they go all “Huh?”

Most brand planners are about using strategy to enable tactical selling. Sow a nice fertile bed for flowering tactics, e.g., ads, content marketing, promotions. Me? I like my brand strategies to have direct measurable impact on sales. The brand plan must convey business-winning credential. Not culture. Not tone. Not likeability.

If your brand strategy cannot be tied directly to sales gain, it’s probably marketing art.

Find out what customers want, what your brand is good at, and create a strategy that offers bankable returns. Peace.

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Any brand planner worth his or her salt uses the word promise. I use it all the time. That said, as I codify and package my practice–trying to explain to business owners and marketing people what brand planning is–I gravitate toward the word “claim.” Branding is all about “claim and proof.”

The word promise is so much nicer it seems. Softer. More forgiving. Claim, on the other hand, feels boastful. Perhaps full of itself. The fact that most advertising is claim-based rather than promise-based is not a trivial obstacle either, when it comes to defending claim vs. promise. I am undaunted; it’s still all about the claim. Why? Because consumers want value they can count on. If consumers are let down by the claim and they really care, they will say so. They will rebel. Sales will take a hit. With a promise the whole position and sales thing is more nebulous.

A brand with a claim needs to prove it every day. A brand with a promise has leeway. Less urgency. I won a huge piece of business once by telling a multi-billion dollar company they had a great claim, but weren’t proving it. The fastest way to return on strategy (ROS) is to have a claim.

When your brand lacks real proof of value, it’s time to trot out the promise. Which is about as satisfying as bad margarine. Peace.

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If you are paying any attention to what’s going on in K12 education you’ll know many teachers are up in arms about the Common Core curriculum; a standardization of what and how students are taught. Teachers are particularly nervous about being graded on their performance against Common Core standards. Imagine — teachers upset by being graded.

Grading performance is as old as performance itself. It’s especially hard in marketing; the same place where it is especially lax. Just as teachers say, “It’s not my fault Dick and Jane aren’t performing, they come from difficult home situations” marketers say “It’s not my fault sales are down, the product isn’t great.”

Huge businesses have a hard time grading their marketing because there are so many moving parts. Small businesses have an easier time grading marketing but there is not much to grade; beyond the product, service and bottom line there is not a lot of spending or investing going on.

Mid-size business, on the other hand, is where grading marketing practices really falls apart. Marketing can have positive impact in mid-size businesses but $20,000 checks are hard to write.  Mid-size businesses are actually the ones most likely to benefit from grades but there has to be something to grade. In my work, I grade brand strategy. Why? It is strategic not tactical. A cume grade not lots of little grades.

I can go into a mid-size company, snoop around, review sales and selling materials, speak to 10 customers and know right away if there is a strategy. 70% don’t have one.

Mid-size companies are the ones who benefit most from marketing and brand strategy. Mid-size companies who grade themselves on sales alone are likely to stall. Return on Strategy is where they need to be. Peace.


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Never is a marketing consultant more ill at ease than when a client asks “How much revenue will this tactic generate?”  Or, “If I run this ad campaign, how many inquiries will it generate?” CEOs and CFOs ask these questions because they want to know what the return will be. I’ve often written about the importance of ROS (return on strategy) over ROI (return on investment) which tends to measure tactics. The reality is, all marketers and their agents want to know their marketing efforts pay off.  But just as tech start-ups get away, quarter after quarter, without monetization plans, marketers keep trotting out the old lazy axiom “I know half my advertising is working, I just don’t know which half” and muddle on.  

That’s why we should be measuring strategy, not tactics. Strategy crosses channels and tactics. Strategy informs tactics. Sure tactics can be strong or weak, but graded on strategy delivery creates a third dimension for analysis.

How well does this package design convey the brand strategy?  How well does this retail experience deliver the brand promise?  How convincing is this video at making a prospect believe the brand claim? Grading our marketing work not simply by action but by brand conviction is the way toward marketing monetization.  Measuring awareness, first mention or a porous tagline is not measuring strategy. Nor is measuring time on page.    

When measures become endemic to your business and not generic, you will know you are on the right path. Peace!

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