One of my clients is so good at what they do they take a “rising tide” approach to sharing their IP and tools. For free. This soooo goes against everything I was taught as a pup in the business, where “proprietary” and “patented” carried the day.  But the software and services worlds are a changing.  Look at what Satya Nadella has done with Microsoft, opening up much of the company and reaping massive rewards.

I’ve been sharing my brand strategy framework for years. I’ve borrowed from some of the leading lights of the “sharing” age, even meme-ing “open source brand strategy.”

The reality is, brand strategy requires doing something smart with all the data and discovery that goes into it. You can’t just pour the information into muffin cups and start baking.  You have to organize and prioritize your ingredients.  And that’s when a framework turns into strategy.

I share my framework – the claim and proof array – but I’m not nervous it will hurt my business. Sharing is never a negative.




Rising Tide Target.


I’m in a bit if a quandary regarding development of a target in my brand briefs. I learned most of my targeting craft from Peter Kim, head of strategy and number 3 executive at McCann-Erickson in the 90s. His approach to targeting was to articulate all the possible targets that might come into contact with your brand. Then massify those targets into one group, before culling the mass for shared care-abouts. Or as the brief stated “Define the largest grouping of consumers, bound by a single shared attitude or belief, that will be most motivated to buy/consider the product.”

I’ve used this for years as my targeting guide. Until recently, when I began to aim higher in the pyramid. Speaking to a high-minded, influential sector of the target, I’ve concluded, can also be effective.

In K12 education, there is a theory that removing “gifted” student from the class is a good idea. But doesn’t the whole suffer? Gifted students can help the others. As peers, they act as examples. They can inspire. Even in their fallibility. Similarly, in brand targeting, by finding the more aspirational, positive qualities in a high-performing group of consumers, we can create a powerful archetype that creates hope and ability through leadership. Not a watered-down version of every wo/man.

You say influencer, I say Rising Tide Target.

Always thinking.



Plant Based “Meats” Need a New Name.


There is a big branding opportunity for someone — renaming plant based meats. It has to happen, it’s just a matter of time. Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat had an opportunity, but blew it.  The Impossible Burger is a good product name, but a company?  Not so much. No Evil Foods also took a stab, but missed. The big opportunity is to Xerox or Q-Tip the category. To create a word that encompasses plant-based meats and creates a meat aesthetic without using the word meat, which is and ever shall be animal-based.  

I understand why comparing oneself to meat is a strategy, but it’s a near term strategy. This category needs a taxon. Readers of Whats’s The Idea? know I often use an Is-Does litmus for good naming. What a brand Is and what a brand Does. First movers to identify a new category claim the throne.

The growth of the plant-based meat-like market is close to hockey sticking…but still in search of a category-defining brand name. Let’s get to work.







The word “and” has killed more brand strategies than an online community college marketing course. Here’s a company mission that foretells brand strategy problems:

Our priority is school safety and accountability; our goal is to be the standard for integrated school safety and operations systems.

First sentence: How can something be your priority when you’ve added something else?  That’s two priorities. Second sentence: They added the word “integrated” to the mix, whatever that means. And for good measure, bringing up the rear is the tag along “operations systems.”  I’ve been to this movie before and it’s not pretty. Not from a branding standpoint.

I know this company. They do good work in the school security space. Their most in-demand product is smart cards. Cards with chips in them that have multiple applications but student safety is the key care-about.

If you parse the Is-Does from the statement, they are a security company that offers accountability. Accountability for what? Safety? And they integrate, but with what? And of course, operations systems are important, but what are they?  Is this a hardware, software or services company?

The positioning reality is — this is an educational smart card company. The other stuff are bells, whistles and features. Oy.

And. It will get you every time.






Startups, Brands and IPOs


After successful IPOs, companies add dough to the coffers, members to their boards, and oversight from investors. Near term, they are often given time to catch their collective breath. Funding a round is hard work. And depending on the size of the company and the raise, everyone needs a big exhale.  But within a year or so the pressures to grow start to mount. Where will growth come from? How will we accelerate? And don’t forget to watch the runaway – the burn.

Typically post-raise, lots of new server boxes show up. Popcorn machines. Software. Desks and Beats headsets. But when the accountants start asking about returns, the business hats come out.

Spotify, it was reported today, is looking to be more than a streaming music service. They are making two podcast purchases. And they won’t stop there. More forms of content are on the horizon for Spotify. Don’t ask me what. Pressure’s on. It’s what happens to highly funded startups.

Startups need a brand strategy to help them understand their value – to themselves and customers. It also helps with focus. When Netflix went from DVDs in the mail to streaming movies, 5 years after their IPO, they stayed “on value,” on brand claim. Nice evolution.

Startups without an understanding of brand claim and proof, looking to grow in non-endemic ways, are apt to wander the desert.

Study the care-abouts and good-ats, baby. 



Road To Somewhere.


There’s a design company in Asheville, NC – Sound Mind Creative – using this description to explain its craft:

Basically, we are experts at building and maintaining vibrant design systems, meaning we understand the power of visual consistency and the details of that are fonts, colors, photography, words and so much more. We create multi-page Graphic Design Standards documents that allow the look of a business brand identity/look to be replicated across print and web media, simply everything your company makes graphically matches (ex. your brochure matches your web site) and our standards manuals are rules.

Nicely put. The para perfectly explains what a design system is. Design is the “good stuff” in branding. Good design trumps bad ideas, daily, in our business. Good design can make a person stop dead in their tracks. It’s a craft like catching a football…many can do it, few do it exceptionally.

What often gets lost in all these design system discussions is the strategy — the words on paper. The motivation for the work. The binary “on/off” litmus that must be applied for proper brand building.  A design system without a brand strategy is a road to nowhere.

More attention needs to be paid to the “words.” (Mark Pollard, a smart branding dude, is someone leading the way in this words-as-strategy discussion.)



Binary Brand Strategy.


If you want to see a nice presentation on contemporary guardrails for strategy and brand planning (they are two different things, says the presentation), please click up Faris and Rosie Yakob’s video from this year’s 4A’s Stratfest, entitled the Gemini Agenda. There’s a lot to like here.

One key point they make is binary is bad. Their argument? There is soulfulness and smarts in the grays laying between bland and white. Hard to disagree.

But…the premise of What’s The Idea?, the premise of brand strategy as an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging, runs contrary.  That is, product modifications or developments, product experiences and the messaging supporting all are either on strategy or off. On or off is a binary orthodoxy.  Can a binary approach to brand strategy kill work? Yes. Must it? Not necessarily. Humans have antibodies for a reason. Brands can live and learn from off-piste activities. But they certainly shouldn’t be habit-forming.

For my money and my clients’ money, brand strategy is binary. On or off.  It’s freeing. It inspires value-building creativity. And it is the fastest way to build brands. Brand strategy is a formulary…much as Coke is a formulary.





Educating A Market. Tread lightly.


Two fundamentals of marketing are supply and demand.  If you don’ have a handle on these factors you are not doing your job.  I’ve spent a business lifetime trying to work in categories with “pent-up demand.”

When there is no demand, the marketer’s job is to create it. That starts with a good product. And it ends with the ability to educate the market as to the value of the good product. Education is expensive.  Many moons ago AT&T had an 800 service with a formidable competitor, MCI.  MCI had a price advantage. AT&T had a technology advantage.  AT&T’s calls connected faster. Seconds faster. That might not seem like a big deal but to businesses doing millions of calls a day, it added up.  However, no one knew there was a problem.

AT&T had to educate America about the problem, then provide the solution. That educational cost; I’m guessing took about $20-30 million. Tough road, but it paid for itself.

The moral is, if there is no demand you have to incite it. AT&T had the money.

Virality being what it is today, many start-ups think the social web is all they’ll need to educate a market about a product’s value. Don’t count on it. Those stories are few and far between.



Buzz Words in Marketing.


Marketers love buzz words. Here are a few ripped from the pages of today’s business journals: change management, design thinking, business development, disruption, innovation, and transformation programs.  Google these bitches and you will end up immersed in business-babble. Immersed in the writings of consultants, sales people, content jockeys and entrepreneurs.

Here’s what I know. 

These buzzwords are all tactics.  Innovation may feel like a strategy, but it isn’t until you actually have an innovation…a thing. Mostly these words are used to describe processes, promises of ways to make things better in the marketplace.  Can’t fault people for that. But as a brand strategist, whose job is also to make business better – to “sell more things to more people more times at higher process” (Sergio Zyman), I begin with a foundational brand strategy. One that governs and effects value and perceived value. With that in place, you can design think, change manage, develop business, disrupt, innovate and transform until your heart’s content. And do so in an organized way. With intent.





When writing brand strategy there comes a point at which you need to profess yourself expert in the topic or category.  No matter our age, we are always young and inexperienced somewhere. Today I was wondering what it would be like to be a young tech executive attending Davos. Would s/he feel comfortable? I would hope not. Were I to go to Davos, I’d be a church mouse. Maybe an occasional chirp about branding but otherwise it would be all listen and learn. For a year or two.

That’s how I approach a new category.  Listen and learn.  Like Mr. Miyagi’s grasshopper.  When talking to doctors or security analysts, coders or block chain wonks, before putting finger to keyboard comfort with the topic is absolutely critical. Sometimes it requires learn a new language. Until that language flows conversationally, without awkwardness, you’d better not start your brief.

Maybe this is where the overuse of the word “authentic” comes from. If you don’t know of what you speak, if you are not comfortable, it shows.  In NY we used to call this “speaking out your ass.”  Comfort with content begets strategy. Everything else is copy.