whats the idea

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The Chess Team

Back a couple of decades ago I wrote a memo to the president of FCB/Lever Katz, an ad agency in NYC, during a new business pitch for the consumer portion of the AT&T account, expected to be a $200 million dollar account.  There had been a reorganization of AT&T and the head of the business business unit was moved to oversee consumer, a promotion of sorts. He was a marketing rock star. AT&T at the time was the clear market leader in telecommunications, but MCI was a smart, pesky and growing adversary. He business unit head was MCI’s nightmare. He was also very cagey. He would invent market-changing business “plays” for his ad agency to execute as ads by MCI, and confront his product marketing team with them to keep them on their toes.

The memo I drafted while at FCB/Leber Katz, outlined this gentleman’s modus operandi, his paranoia and his gunslinger mentality.

After the new business pitch was won by FCB/Leber Katz, it was reported that all competing agencies has come up with great ideas, taglines, cinema and media plans. FCB/Leber Katz, however, won the business, it was reported, because of a spectacular piece of music scored by a creative director (eventually recorded by Whitney Huston) and a strategic group called the “Chess Team,” a planning group whose sole responsibility was to predict future MCI, Sprint and other competitors moves.

The power of the memo.

Peace.

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I found a little piece of scratch paper in my pile with this quote on it:

“Customers who share your values will be attracted to your brand and are likely to become loyal to your brand and even enthusiastic advocates.” 

The quote was by Brad Van Auken of Forbes.

If you believe this statement raise your hand.  As they say in NY, if you believe this statement “I have a bridge to sell you.” It’s a nice sentiment, but not something brand planners should be concerning themselves with. Brand planks are a marriage of “good-ats” and “care-abouts” — what a brand is good at and what customers care about.  

Unless you are good at values, as a non-profit might be, it’s best to focus brand strategy on tangible product benefits. Leave the values for the PR and corporate responsibility departments.

If you do go the value route, the values you pick are going to be noncontroversial and values others are likely to pick. I’m not being insensitive here just pragmatic. I don’t buy Hellman’s mayonnaise for values. I don’t drink Voodoo Ranger for values. I don’t buy Marmot tents for values. Values are nice, but they are not a brand’s day job.

If you are in a meeting with a brand shop and they’re going on and on about value-based brand planks, and charitable give-backs, politely bit them adieu. I’m sure they’re wonderful, generous people, but they have, likely, never build a resolute brand.

Peace.

PS. Charity work and sustainability are important, they are just not brand planks. For examples write steve@whatstheidea.com.

 

 

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I’ve done a good deal of brand work with startups.  It’s not the easiest work but it is exciting because a great deal of the planning takes place “beyond the dashboard.” When I break out the “24 Questions,” (the follow the money questions) there’s not a lot of history to discuss. No last year’s earnings. No market segments. Just lots of nos and nones. (Note: Beyond the dashboard planning refers to tabula rasa planning, contrasting with the more common “rearview mirror” or “side view mirror” planning.)

And let’s not even start talking about how founders, especially in the tech space, can change strategy. Like underwear. More disciplined startup founders may change business strategy only once or twice. Sometimes a meandering proof-of-concept is the culprit, e.g., you build a brand around family doctors and specialists want to purchase, or you focus on ecommerce and people keep paying you for search. Shit happens.

The more flighty founders (the underwear changers) can be influenced by the last meeting they were in; say, an investor or a key industry blogger. (Been there, learned from that.)

But startups are a good training grounds for brand planners. Planners can have a powerful influence on direction. Even if founders don’t abide   It creates structure for them. Yeses and Nos. Ones and Zeroes. 

If you are a brand planner, you need to bracket your experience with some startups. Trust me.

Peace.

 

 

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I’ve never used the word inchoate in a blog post before. Its definition is hard to remember, as is its pronunciation. I means “not fully formed” or “partially in existence.”  Okay, okay you know where this is going. Am I that transparent?

Most brands use inchoate brand strategy. Everyone says that have a brand strategy. Everyone believes in their logical minds, they have a thing called a brand — comprising a name, logo, and a Ramblin Jack Elliot value proposition. But were you to ask for an articulation of that strategy, in words, on a piece of paper, they’ll want to change the subject.  Ask marketing directors at service companies and B2B companies and it gets worse. You are likely to get push back about brands being for packaged goods. So “nope.”

With the disintermediation of sales and marketing, due in part to Google and the web, brands left unmanaged are brands without endurance.

Brand strategy sets direction for product, experience and messaging. It provides guardrails. Consumers understand brand strategy. They can articulate it, just like they can articulate words from an ad campaign. “We are farmers…” But only when clear. When managed.

Inchoate brand strategy is the enemy. Fix it.

Peace.  

 

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Discipline

Brand strategy is, in a word, discipline. I define brand strategy as an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging; that’s all fine and good. But if the paper strategy isn’t actualized by management and marketing, all is for naught. As someone who came up in the ad business, I know that getting work approved is the financial goal. Getting good work approved is the business goal. And in all the day-to-day management of those processes, holding to strategy often gets overlooked. That’s the ad business. On the marketing side, it’s even more complicated. More moving parts. So adherence to strategy isn’t easy. Business strategy is “make more money.” Brand strategy is “make more people love the brand, so you can make more money.”

It takes disciple during all the marketing horse trading to hold to a brand strategy. Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the according to Mike Tyson. That’s how it is with brand strategy. Everybody has a brand strategy until they get punched in the face. 

Strong brand is a most critical KPI. (Imagine if you changed your name every year.) It sets direction and it sets expectation. Disciplined brand strategy undergirds all successful brands.  Checkmate.

Peace.    

 

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Before Christmas, I was removing dead strings of Christmas lights from garland – not a recommended pastime – and as the mind wandered I thought of my favorite pastime brand planning. While hunting for the next light in the branches I found that my sense of touch was often more powerful than my eyesight. When I couldn’t see the next light I just had to feel for it.  It dawned on me, as my fingers began to lose feeling, that most marketing is visual. Even radio, though an auditory medium, paints a visual picture. Ads, websites, search links are all constructs that show or tell consumers what to buy.

Brand strategy, however, is a more “eyes closed” selling medium. Close your eyes and tell me why you buy Coca-Cola. Close your eyes and tell me why you prefer Burton snow board pants. Close your eyes and explain your preference for Disney World over Six Flags.

Of course there are visual cues in branding that spark associations, but done the right way the most powerful associations are feelings.

The difference between good and great brand planners can be found in their ability to drill past marketing jargon and ad phraseology and head straight to feelings. Feeling is believing.

Peace.

 

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I was going over some notes taken during a recent WARC webinar presented by (my boy) Faris Yakob and came across a slide on the customer journey.  I’m a fan of customer journey having created a facsimile I call Twitch Point Planning.  Twitch Point Planning attempts to “understand, map and manipulate a customer closer to a sale.” In effect, it’s a customer journey, but using media twitches.

The WARC presentation on customer journey had a wonderful slide entitled “Start with what customers are doing rather versus what we want to say.”

I love this advice.  It may be the anthropology major in me, but this is just such a rudimentary planning perspective. Everything needs to start with the consumer. As planners we can decide not to heed consumers’ behavioral advice, but we need to understand it.

Consumers first. Peace.

 

 

 

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Meme Metrics.

I’m a big proponent of something I call Meme Metrics. Wikipedia defines a meme as

A meme (/ˈmiːm/ MEEM) is an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture — often with the aim of conveying a particular phenomenon, theme, or meaning represented by the meme.”

As a blogger who tosses crumbs around the web in an effort to draw attention to What’s The Idea? and my marketing consultancy, marketing memes (phrases) are critical.  The metrics referred to in Meme Metrics are straight up Google rankings.  When I’ve done a good job pounding the digital pavement with phrases filled with brand meaning, they propagate.

The more memorable and longer the phrase to more likely it will point back to my website. I’ll show you how it works. My sister’s nickname is EJ.  Google “EJ” and you are likely to get thousands of results. Google the little sing-songy lyric I wrote for my kids to sing to her “EJ the DJ radio personality” and you will find my blog. But not today. Since I’ve never posted this phrase before. All I’ll need to do it post it a few times and it will point directly to my site.

So find a marketing meme, preferably one that is memorable, and put a little digital wood behind it. Meme metrics.

Peace.

 

 

 

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I’ve been on a little discovery jag lately.  When you are a consultant and freelance for ad or branding agencies, you must often use discovery methodologies with which you are unfamiliar. You do it then calibrate your brain to cill the insights needed to write the brief. A brief that may, also, not be yours.

My discovery questions are somewhat static. But when I work for start-ups, there is nothing to discovery about the existing brand – it’s a start up. Other times, I’m working in a category I must learn anew , so I’m learning a business and language while mining brand values. In these cases the discovery question sets have to be developed on the fly.  When I learned about accountable care organizations in a transforming healthcare system, it was for a startup and new type of organizational category.

I’m always on the lookout for new discovery questions and today I’m wondering about a brand weakness question that goes down the “honesty” trail. It will work in any discovery scenario.

“When you are being perfectly honest with yourself, what one _______ (fill in the blank) worries you most.”  The cue of the question is more psychologist than business consultant.  It’s a strengths and weaknesses Q with a more powerful landing strip.

I’ll try it and report back.

Peace.

 

 

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Discovery.  

Radhika Jones was named editor in chief of Vanity Fair magazine yesterday. Vanity Fair is a literary brand with few global peers. Magazine brands like The New Yorker and Vanity Fair have a history of long standing editors, people who sit atop the title for decades. Great magazines get branding. When asked about her plans for Vanity Fair she says she will spend her initial time in discovery.  Immersing. Acculturating. Learning the love.

New GE CEO John Flannery, on the other hand, already has a plan.  Cut, cut, pare.  His board, unlike that of Conde Nast or parent Advanced Publications, expect action not discovery.

Brand planning is a business about discovery. Maybe that’s why, as a business, it offers small category revenue. If you were to add up the revenue of all the branding firms in the world, you’d find maybe $95 million per annum. And if you parsed those bills the lion’s share of that money would likely fall to logo design, naming, style guides and advertising grist. The puniest slice of the pie being discovery.

Brand churn is a result of poor discovery. Advertising and marketing directors “come and go, a powerful brand idea is indelible.”  It all starts with thoughtful and committed discovery. Anyone can slap paint on a canvas. Planned, extensible relevance takes time.

Peace.   

 

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