Proof Well Told.


We undertake certain roles in life from which there is no return. Being mother is one such. My wife always felt mothered by my mom, but today my wife has similarly stepped to.  She not only mothers our children, she mothers me as well. (Oh, it’s a good thing.) As I said, there are some roles from which there is no return.

For brand planners these roles are fertile ground. 

I wonder if you can actually ask a person to accurately share their most important life role?  I suspect you wouldn’t get the cleanest of answers.  “Work is my life.”  “I live to teach.” “Saving lives.”  “My family.” These answers are a bit generic. They even sound like taglines. The planner’s job is to dive in, past the macro, and find the proof. Find examples of the claim. Because this is where the realities lie. Where the behavioral pictures truly emerge.

Lots of planners talk about truths. And those truths may fill in lines on a brief. But to really understand the truths you must uncovering proof.

McCann-Erickson’s tagline is “Truth Well Told.” It’s the best agency line in the business. It should be “Proof Well Told.”



Incrementalism or Absolutism?


There’s a lot of absolutism going on in politics today. Absolutism is very binary: on or off. Marketing has grown to be more absolute: sale or no sale.  But branding is best looked at as an incremental practice. That doesn’t mean you can’t sell a product to a person upon first impression, not at all.  But the process of building or engineering preference takes time. And if you are able manage all the steps to a sale “awareness, interest, desire and purchase” in a single web or retail session, you need to keep the foot on the pedal to strengthen that relationship.  Because someone who can go from unaware-to-brand love in minutes, is apt to do so again – at your expense.

So look at branding as a long term effort. Measure sales along side positive attitude changes, once or twice a year, and do it for a minimum of 10 years. It takes a while to seed and germinate your claim and proof array. 

That said, patience is not a virtue many marketers possess. That’s the reality. Yet it is a virtue brand manager must. Engineer your preference and it will last and last.



Accenture + Droga 5 = Band Aids and Champagne.


So David Droga has decided to sell Droga 5 to Accenture, a deal which should be completed by the end of May. Don’t count on it.  You think Brexit was hard, try getting creative people in a room with business nerds. And I understand Accenture Interactive will be the home not Accenture proper.  (Again, don’t count on that either.)

I actually think this exercise will be cathartic for both sides of the purchase. There will be agita. Some feathers will fly. But the reality is, the coming together of business and creativity is the exact aspiration of marketing clients. They are business nerds who aspire to be creative, but heretofore haven’t been able to pull it off. So they farm it out.

The reason businesses are using consulting companies more and more in marketing today, the reason advertising holding companies find the big consultants to be competitors, is because engagement, data and AI are all measurable.  And when you can bang some inefficiency out of the equation (poor or misdirected creativity) you do it.  Or you lose.

Droga 5 will learn about the dark side. Accenture and Accenture Interactive will learn about the light side. And learning in general will cascade across the marketing business. Break out the Band Aids. Break out the champagne.




Coca-Cola Brand Strategy: The Missing Piece.


I write a lot about Coca-Cola’s brand strategy which I see as “refreshment.” A brilliant brand strategy. I worked at McCann-Erickson in the early 90s when we were agency of record for Coke and the work was the best in the business. It hurt when the account left McCann and went to Creative Artists and later ended up at Wieden+Kennedy where “happiness” became the de facto brand strategy.  Nice advertising; not such a nice brand strategy.

I just read recently this is the current Coca-Cola brand strategy:

Coca-Cola is a thirst-quenching cola with a refreshing taste that brings joy to everyone.   

The What’s The Idea? brand strategy framework is “One claim and three proof planks.” If I parse the strategy above I see multiple claims: thirst-quenching, refreshing and joy.  It’s hard to juggle three claims.

A claim supported by three proof planks is different than a three-pronged claim. The difference being a proof plank supports the claim. They are indelibly linked. Not bolt-ons. Proof is what consumers are able to play back to you when you ask them “Why?”. So in the case of Coke, “Why is Coke refreshing?, joy or happiness do not answer the question.

When refreshment is the sole claim, “Thirst-quenching” certainly supports it and is a good plank. And Coke’s unique “taste” also proves the claim — another good brand plank.  But the third one is tougher. I’m going to give that some thought over the next couple of weeks. 

Stay tuned.



Engineering Preference Part 2.


Preference is a branding word you’ll come across in many books, briefs and meetings. It can’t be taught – not really. It must be experienced. Interest in a brand can be piqued through teaching and learning, but preference is a result of purchase, use and reuse.

The role of the brand strategist in creating preference is an engineer’s role. Engineers are all about science. Repeatability. They are builders and designers. Certainly, creativity is involved in engineering but at its most basic level there is structure. A solid foundation upon which to build a thing or output. Not a lot of spaghetti slinging in the engineering department when it’s time to build.

Brand strategists also operate at the foundational level. Creating preference with logic, science (proof), and synapse firing.  And we do it with an organizing principle that limits and hones strategic governance. In my case it’s with one claim, three proof planks.

One could argue that Miller Lite used two claims in its launch: “Tastes Great, Less Filling.” I’d say the claim is less filling/lower calories. As for three proof planks?  They are the reasons to believe, arrayed in a way that can be processed by the human mind – the law of three.

If you are a brand strategist you are also an engineer. Forget not.



Engineered Preference.


Campaigns come and go but a powerful brand strategy is indelible, is a line I wrote for a Gentiva Health Services pitch many moons ago. Gentiva is now owned by Kindred Health for those still counting. A powerful brand idea, is a difference-maker in marketing because it anoints a product or service with a value that only it can claim. Burger King owns “Flame Broiled.”  Coca-Cola owns “Refreshment.”  Google owns the “World’s information in one click.”

Establishing and owning a brand idea is the job of the brand manager. Constantly and without pause, hammering home a key care-about or good-at, seeds the brand idea — building and reinforcing consumer preference. Preference is not the only job of the marketer but it’s an imperative job. I may prefer an Impossible Burger, but if it’s not in my store, no sale.

The job of the brand strategist is to engineer preference. I choose to do it with a model based upon claim and proof. My approach is repeatable. Other’s do brand strategy differently.  Shades of right, I guess. Either way, preference is our goal. Preference makes the revenue.



Selling Brand Strategy.


Selling brand strategy is not easy. First, you have to explain what brand strategy is – “an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging.” Then you have to share the organizing principle, because without a framework an organizing principle is just a concept.  “One claim and three proof planks” is the What’s The Idea? framework.  What’s a claim?  That’s easy. But proof planks? That needs a little ‘splainin’. 

So let’s say you get a marketer to understand the organizing principle of claim and proof planks, now what? Well, you have to convey that the companies most in need of these services are those chaos.  And who wants to admit to that? And if not in chaos, at least companies that are disorganized. Same problem. Few will admit to it.

What marketers will admit to is wanting to make more money. They will admit to some inefficiency and perhaps agree they need to identify more customers. But chaos and disorganization? Not too likely.

One of my biggest challenges is showing companies how they present themselves to the world. How they are perceived by the unknowing public. And in doing so to make sure the findings are not accusatory. To that end, I’m working on a free test for business and brand clarity. I call it Brand Strategy Tarot Cards.  If you’d like to participate in the test please write me at



Brand Around The Love.


I choose to be a lover when it comes to brand strategy, searching for the love of product and service when interviewing consumers and marketers. One of my favorite discovery questions has to do with pride. One day while commuting to NYC on the Long Island Rail Road I noticed the amazingly shiny shoes of the conductors – all of whom were in uniforms. I asked the conductor about the shoes and he explained that sparking shoes was part of the uniform. It was a pride thing. Who knows what Nikes conductors are wearing today but a couple of decades ago it was a thing.

Another question I like to ask in discovery is “What is the nicest thing someone has ever said to you about your job…or the job you’ve done?”  Brand building is best constructed on love.

Marketing, on the other hand, often is about negatives. Competitor negatives. Take for instance the new Bud Light campaign against the ingredient corn syrup. All-in negative. Good marketing. Good advertising. But probably bad for the pasteurized beer market overall. Another classic negative marketing play was Wendy’s “Where’s the beef?”

Brand strategy, when based upon love, can overcome any negative marketing tactics or campaign ploys. But the negs should be monitored because they can drag down the love. (Politics anyone?) Monitoring should be done via a longitudinal attitude study, something I recommend for all clients.

Plan your brand about the good stuff and compete with the negatives, but don’t get carried away.



Insight Beasts.


There is an interview question I use when hiring, “What is your art?”  It’s a broad question and certainly open for interpretation, but therein lies its beauty. Asking the question of myself, I’d have to say my art is uncovering and romancing consumer insights.

Back in the day, when trying to learn from brand planning leaders, I’d send out emails asking for exploratory interviews using my “ear” as the bait. I’d write something to the effect that like a dog who hears high pitch sounds humans can’t, I can sit in a meeting or consumer interview and hear insights most don’t. A super power. Hey, it got me meetings.

Today, it’s still about the ear. My day job is vacuuming up information, usually on the phone or face-to-face. Always prompted by a set of preplanned questions but also following trails laid by interviewee’s answers. An engaged listener is a good listener.  But at the end of the exploration — when all interviews are complete, all data collected, and the boil-down done – the insights left on the table are the fuel that becomes the brand strategy. The care-abouts. The good-ats.

Planners must be insight beasts. Otherwise they’re simple hunters and gatherers.




Branding is not Colon Surgery.


If there is a secret sharable sauce at What’s The Idea? brand consultancy, it’s proof. This business, this branding business, and all the brand strategies built for clients over the last 25 years, owe their being to proof.

Proof is perhaps the most underrated element in advertising. And sadly, well-constructed advertising, if not built on proof, can become a branding element sending brands off the rails.  Flame broiled for Burger King is proof.  The King is not.  The effervescent bubbles coming off a sweating Coca-Cola bottle is proof. Happiness is not.  

My approach to brand strategy is open source.  That is, I share my framework with all marketers: One claim, three proof planks. It’s simple and understandable. Google the words “brand strategy frameworks” and you get an assortment of marko-babble charts and circles that will make your head spin. Even the requisite boxes used in these frameworks are inexplicit. Brand Voice. Brand Personality. Mission. 

This isn’t colon surgery people. It’s selling stuff through a simplified organizing principle. One that gives people proof of why they should purchase and continue to purchase.

Find the proof and you can find your brand.