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November 16, 2006

News & Opinion: Brand it Yourself by Lynn Altman

By: Dylan Schleicher @ 4:03 PM – Filed under: Management & Workplace Culture




Below is chapter 2 of Brand it Yourself. In it, you'll be introduced to Lynn Altman's Brandmaker Express and to a day in the life of Lynn.

The Recipe in Action

The recipe for success is only as good as the cake it bakes. So while you might agree (or not) with the theories behind our business model, youre probably wondering how it actually works to solve any number of branding and new product needs. By understanding what I go through on a day-to-day, project-to-project, challenge-to-challenge basis, you will better see how you can learn to become an expert brander in the chapters to come.

The Brandmaker Express process all starts with a thorough briefing. In most cases, this is a two-hour, face-to-face meeting where the client tells me his challenge, wishes, and objectives. This can range anywhere from a very broad new product assignment, such as: Whats the next new line of cough and cold products? to a very specific repositioning effort with a very specific audience, such as create a meaningful repositioning communication for Wheaties cereal targeted to the boomer market. The range of assignmentsand productsthat I encounter is truly amazing. One week Im branding a new small business loan, the next week Im creating the latest greatest finger food for four-year-olds. But no matter what the assignment, there are two essential questions that I must be able to answer before I feel comfortable moving on. The first is, What are the clients goals and best wishes for the product? Lots of times, clients have multiple audiences, multiple objectives, or they have a larger plan that my project is just a small part of. Other times there are certain buckets (marketing-speak for areas) they want me to work within or imperatives that each concept must meet. By understanding what the real expectations are for the project output, I can do a much better job of meeting them. Disappointment is one of the worst emotions you can ever evoke from a client, and death of the business to boot. But such disenchantment can come from being too creative, not just the other way around.

That brings me to the other must-have of a briefing: As important as knowing client wants is knowing client wonts. I am ever surprised at the number of consultants and gurus who shove their pet philosophies and their own favorite ideas down a clients product pipeline. Why would I ever want to create new products or branding options that could not or would not stand a chance when there are plenty of ideas that will? Theres no point in having a brilliant idea if its totally unusable, which is exactly what makes this kind of creativity so challenging and rewarding. For an idea to be a good one, it has to also provide a workable solution.

The balance of setting expectations and limitations in my work as well as yoursis essential to success. Before you do anything, you should be able to articulateto yourself if no one elseexactly what you are hoping to achieve in your branding endeavor. How do you find this out? Ask questions.

While there are certain questions that are common to all briefings, such as target audience and competition, there is no formal guideline to what questions I ask. In most cases, a briefing is a cross between a brain dump and a therapy session, where every bit of information I get leads me to a question that might dig deeper into the psyche of the audience, manufacturer, or product itself. If a financial company told me they want to brand a credit card for busy people, I might ask what these people are busy doing or what they wish they had more time to do instead of thinking about credit cards. Or if the product is a line of hair care products geared toward twenty-one-year-old women who love washing, conditioning, and styling their hair, I might ask what they like about it or how they feel once theyre through with their coiffing routine.

Sometimes, the briefing is no more than a conversation, other times the client has outlined every last detail, fact, figure, table, and graph based on weeks or months -- even years -- of market research. Neither way is better than the other. I love information in all its forms and would like to think that I pull out what I need from either one of those scenarios.

Each new assignment gives my brain a real creative buzz. Thats because my mind is simultaneously swimming in a pool of possibilities while trying to wrap itself around the complexities that each project brings. I get a rush of energy (and sometimes fear) and I dont want to wait too long to get my thoughts down on paper.

Have you ever left a meeting totally jazzed about what was being discussed and had so many ideas you couldnt wait to start? What happened to those ideas? Most of the time, they get diminished by other tasks and responsibilities and fall into the wasteland of good meetings that went nowhere. Thats why immediately following the briefing and before the excitement subsides, Im writing down all the possible ways to solve the challenge at hand. These include, but arent limited to, identifying specific functional, emotional, visual, and tactical opportunities. I also write down, in very broad strokes, the areas I think might be fertile ground. In some cases, it can be a word or a phrase, a characteristic, an attitude, or a general style I find promising even if I cant quite visualize how its going to play out. In other cases, I instantly imagine a solution but have to find the creative meat that will make it a strong piece of communication. Just like waking up in the middle of a night from a dream that I swear Ill remember in the morning and then dont, writing my initial ideas down is an invaluable discipline for me. I know that I can come back to these notes later, discard some, add others but if I wait a few days Ill never be able to recapture those first sparks of creative thought.

The next step in the process is translating each opportunity area into an exercise for two invention workshops that take place a few days after the briefing. Unlike a lot of blue-sky brainstorming sessions, these workshops are highly disciplined and designed to elicit potential solutions for one specific hypothesis at a time. In a typical branding project, Im looking for these solutions in the form of names, headlines, taglines, rally cries, and photographic images. Again, not because I am an advertising wannabe, but because these mediums give me an abbreviated, marketplace-driven communication for a certain brand or idea. I also want to fashion the exercises to force people to express themselves in ways theyve never had to before. For example, if I think the key to certain brand communication is the fact that its easy to use, I might ask how Calvin Klein, in his one-word simplicity, would name an easy-to-use product. Or I might ask for a song title or lyric that already has the word or thought of easy in it, such as Easy Rider, ABC, Easy as One Two Three or Take It Easy. (Its interesting to note that one of the most creative challenges of the process is developing the format for the workshops. The format is my version of trend analysis, my strategy sheet, my marketing plan; and it is the step that is most responsible for carving out new creative opportunities and solutions.) The benefit from creating the format is twofold: As much as it helps me get a grasp on the project, the parameters, and its possibilities, the exercises themselves are responsible for generating an incredible amount of raw creative materialbits, pieces, and parts of ideas that will act as creative inspiration and fodder for our finished concepts.

In the end, there are about thirty exercises that comprise the format for the workshops. A team of two facilitates the session tag-team style, so that with each exercise comes a fresh voice and a fresh face. No one ever has more than thirty seconds to respond to an exercise because especially in a brainstorming environmentI want only their initial responses, which are as instinctive as they are intuitive. Those top-of-mind replies are the ones that generate the best ideas, the best products, and the best brands precisely because thats how consumers shopintuitively, instinctively, impulsivelyand the more of those cues I can tap into, the better.

There are two consecutive workshops per project. The first includes a range of participants from the client side, including the tried and true folks in marketing, sales, market research, and product development. But we also love having the less-than-predictable participants from legal, finance, and operations. They have the knowledge of the product or brand, without having the common been there, done that mentality that lots of the marketing veterans have. The added bonus to having a diversified group is that everyone gets excited when they start to see the possibilities at hand, and also feel (and rightfully so) that they played a role in its success.

The second workshop taps into the creative minds of people whom we call our Creative Souls. These are entrepreneurial and inventive people who, by vocation or avocation, are creating the trends and not following them. These creative souls come from the fashion industry, the cosmetics industry, graphic design, editors and contributors to popular magazines, creative writers, actors, bartenders, chefsthere may even be an extremely creative marketing maven in the mix. They are incredibly inventive, expressive, use none of the typical jargon, remain blissfully unaware of internal buzzwords, and have complete freedom from the negative baggage that the client may have accumulated. Now be very sure that this is not a focus group, nor is it intended to be. The clients have already covered the close-in thinking, based on experience, knowledge, and familiarity with the objectives at hand. And because the format is so specific and disciplined, these fresh minds only react to what we give them, which ensures that even if they dont know a lot about a particular subject, they can still create ideas relevant to the project. Some more traditional marketers might find this hard to believe, but Ive seen it happen again and again.

The key client team is there to observe this second creative workshop. The team has already participated the previous day, so this gives it a chance to be a little more subjective. The team members can listen to the actual strategies and thinking behind each exercise in the format, and also take a step back and listen to the responses that spout from the mouths of this very dynamic, creative group. Some of the ideas that come out of the second workshop reiterate and substantiate the client responses, which is good. To me that means that people who have rarelyif everthought about this particular business react and respond in the same way as those who think about it all the time. Other answers, to be sure, are totally new and different than anything any of us have heard or thought of up until that point. Admittedly, half of it is what Joe likes to call dreck, which means that its either too weird, too already done in the category, or just too . . .too. But the other half, well its a mother lode of raw material and nuggets of genius that add greatly to our work and our output.

Immediately following the second workshop, we meet with our clients for what we call the Reality Check Luncheon. This is where the single-minded thinking really comes into play. After two very intensive invention days, Ive been exposed to lots and lots of ideas. My job now is to pick out what I feel are the areas worth pursuing. How do I do that? How do I know which ideas are worthy and which are not? The I know it when I see it method of Justice Potter Stewart is the methodology I practice. Certain areas of exploration are more fruitful, and its obvious from both the quantity and quality of the replies for that particular exercise. Other words or visual thoughts make every person nod his or her head and make each of us wish that we had been the one to create it. These are the good ideas and they naturally rise to the top.

I start the discussion with about thirty to thirty-five of the ideas I find most promising and review each single minded area with the client. I am looking for their thumbs-up, thumbs-down, cautionary words, or red flags for each conceptual area. Together, we usually narrow the list down to a workable twenty potential areas for creative development. This reality check is not a frivolous step by any means. I know that my team has only ten working days to create twenty fully developed concepts, and I have no interest in wasting valuable time or effort on any less-than-favorite solution areas. This is such an essential step in our success because it allows us to communicate on a very practical and tactical level with our clients. Theres no blue sky, no pontificating, no fancy words (like pontificating)just the cut-to-the-chase identifying of the areas to move ahead with and a comfort level for everyone involved. I know that I can continue developing the ideas that are pre-stamped for approval and the client knows that the only surprises will be how the concepts come to life.

The ten-day countdown begins here. It marks the time from concept agreement to creative execution of the ideas and is crucial to achieving marketplace magic. Any consultant can paper the walls with a million ideas but few actually see them through to a finished product or brand. The discipline of bringing the ideas to finished form lets us and our clients see what happens when the theoretical and the strategic become real. The ideas are flung from the safety of research-friendly concept statements, theoretical products, and branding strategies and brought into the uncertain world of consumer communications. They will become vulnerable to all the same irrationalities, idiosyncrasies, and impulses that real products and brands must face.

All of the work I do is presented in the form of an introductory print advertisement. Again, not because my secret hope is to break into the advertising world, but because the print medium forces ideas to be communicated quickly and concisely without the luxury of a hundred-word concept statement or a thirty-second television spot. During this step, my partners and I literally tackle each concept one at a time. We create headlines, taglines, and visual thoughts first, since those are the three key touch points of our style of communication. We start out by focusing in on what we want to say and see if any of the verbatims from the workshops or ones we create on our own could work. Sometimes its a name or a visual that gives us the key to communicating the idea. In any case, we know that each idea has to be easy to understand, compelling, and singular in focus. This requires a lot of pushing, pulling, and refining in order for it to work.

Here is what you might overhear, if you were a fly on our office wall:


Lynn: Lets do the concept about consumer satisfaction.
Joe: Okay. Someone at the workshop had that line, Your customers will be satisfied for a lifetime.
Lynn: Well, that also has longevity in it. I think we should just focus on satisfaction, something like:Satisfy your soul.
Joe: That doesnt really make sense to me. Is there something visually we can do that says satisfaction?
Lynn: How about just a close-up of a smile, like a billboard, with the words: You are here.
Joe: Love it! Then the enduring rally cry can be: Get satisfied here.

Its an odd example, I admit, because its totally out of context and without a real product in mind. However, there are a few interesting things going on in this kind of interaction, which is the point of the example in the first place. First of all, its a constant discipline to come up with a truly single-minded idea. Secondly, ideas do not happen all at onceits good to have someone to bounce ideas off of if possible, and, if you dont, then its good to play devils advocate with yourself. Create ideas in a vacuum and you usually come up with clouds of dust. Lastly, and perhaps most important, theres a huge difference between a strategic direction such as satisfaction and the consumer-friendly expression of what that actually means.

Theres a second scenario here and one that I think bears mentioning. This is when the idea sounds good on paper, but is very difficult to bring to life in a concept. It typically happens when an idea is too broad, too convoluted, or trying to do too many things at one time. Often, we dont know it is any of those things until the actual moment we try to convert it into consumer-focused language and visuals. Take a look at scenario B, this time with a product:

Lynn: Lets take a swing at customer satisfaction because of our one-page approach to insurance.
Joe: Okay. How about, One page and youll be happy.
Lynn: One page of what? How about, After just one page, our customers are happy.
Joe: No . . . it doesnt really say enough about what the one page is all about. How about if we give the one page a more formalized name, like: Were proud to introduce the One-Page Approach to insurance.
Lynn: I love that idea, but now its missing customer satisfaction. But at least now I get what the idea is all about.

In a case like that, we may decide that since weve covered customer satisfaction in another concept, the real news here is indeed this unique one-page approach. Maybe customer satisfaction becomes more of an umbrella concept for lots of different product thoughts, such as the one-pager. Point is, a lot of times, consultants who stay in the theoretical dont have to put their ideas through the same kind of practical filter, and never get to see exactly how message hierarchies can work within a brand. Conversely, if we only thought executionally without having to commit to one specific selling message, then wed be no better than ad agencies who often fall victim to very creativehowever hollowcommunication.

The process of bringing the ideas to life in this one-at-a- time fashion takes nearly three full days. For each one, we have to agree on a thematic set of words as well as a visual thought that best conveys every single concept. We have to be able to envision how it might play out, and also make sure that each one could potentially provide a real and complete solution to the challenge at hand. And when twenty concepts are at stake, it amounts to a lot of work. When naming is involved, it typically happens during this time, although names are tough and can slow down the project momentum, so we often add in names throughout the ten days. Once we have the headlines, taglines, and potential names with the ideal visuals in mind, we meet with our art directors who are responsible for understanding what each concept is about and finding the right kind of images and pictures that will best communicate each idea. We dont want to show a general, meaningless picture of a woman smiling in her kitchen simply because were talking about a dishwashing product. If the idea about this dish soap is that it will take less time to wash the dishes, then we want to show the woman specifically leaving the kitchen, not standing in it. As the art directors search image banks, stock photography sources, and magazines for the right kind of pictures, it again forces us to make sure that the ideas we have envisioned can actually be communicated. Sometimes the art directors tell us that our ideas dont make enough sense, sometimes they find a picture and we realize that its the picture we want, but the words we initially chose have to be revised. Other times (and I truly love when this happens), they find a picture, and it either changes our thinking altogether or inspires a whole new concept we had never thought about before. And thanks to so many online resources such as Google Images and royalty-free stock photography sites, it shouldnt be hard for you to also find the pictures that best suit your concept.

Once the pictures are in place and the ideas are beginning to take form, we return to the concept wording. For each concept we must write a concise paragraph of supporting copy that explains in very brief terms exactly what the concept is about and the reasons to believe whatever it is that were asserting in each one. I am a staunch believer in the three sentence rule: Say what the concept is about, why the product fulfills that idea, and say see you later with a nice wrap-up thought. To continue with the dishwashing liquid concept, we might say:

Speed up your dishwashing routine with One & Done dishwashing liquid. This incredible dishwashing treatment contains fast-acting beads that go to work fast and rinse off in a flash. Plus, it comes in such great scents and is so gentle on your hands, youll fall in love in an instant.

Considering that this short paragraph is still three sentences more than consumers ever read about a certain product, there is a definite takeaway here, which is speeding up your dishwashing routine. There have been projects where weve taken much more of the billboard approach, where the visual element and main headline told the entire story and body copy simply didnt exist. This happens more often with high imagery brands, such as spirits, fashion, and other nonfunctional categories where clients knew there would never be an actual reason to believe in the products communication. Take Absolut vodka as an example. The imagery was the brand. If forced into a typical marketing-concept writing, it would say something absurd such as Absolut vodka is the brand you drink when you want to reflect your sophisticated self or The more you drink Absolut vodka the better you will feel about yourself.

All of this creative development takes us ten full days. On day eleven, were back to our clients with the finished project, and theyre typically quite delighted. Sometimes they have minor refinements with a visual choice, name, or product claim. Other times, they go straight from presentation to research, utilizing the concepts in qualitative or online testing.

I know you must be wondering about the times when a presentation has failed. Thankfully, there have not been that many, but they do happen and usually one or more of the following four elements are in play: The key decision maker has not been present throughout the process and doesnt see his or her pet idea in the mix; there are multiple agencies working on the same project and competition (and criticism) becomes fierce; objectives are elusive and change several times throughout the project; or, we screwed up. While the built-in reality checks and spectrum of ideas lessen the likelihood of a total train wreck, snafus are unavoidable. I remember right before one presentation the client was mad because he had wanted us to join him for lunch but we couldnt because we had to catch the last plane out in order to get to a meeting in another city the following morning. In our defense, no one mentioned anything about lunch, but that was not taken into account. He sent down his subordinate to tell us that he was not a happy man and that we had to change our travel arrangements, which we couldnt. So we presented to an already unhappy client who had some other agencies at the presentation who took advantage of our doghouse status and critiqued nearly every concept we presented. Years later, this client switched companies and hired us on four separate accounts. Nobody (besides Joe, maybe) was more surprised than me.

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This excerpt comes from Brand it Yourself by Lynn Altman, Penguin Books, November 2006. If you like the excerpt, perhaps you should check out Lynn's visit to our blog.

About Dylan Schleicher


Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.