First Create “WOW” — Brand Strategy Comes Later


*Excerpted with permission from Brand Slam: The Ultimate Hit in the Game of Marketing, by Frank Delano and published by Lebhar-Friedman Books.

“Whether you’ve eaten in a café restaurant or a three-star Michelin restaurant, it’s all about coming away and saying ‘WOW.'”

Oscar-winning actor Robert Duval

When a company’s chief brand officer tells me that their first order of business is to develop a brand strategy, here’s what I say: “What you need to create first is WOW – the brand strategy to launch WOW comes later.” Without a new product or business venture with WOW excitement, you’ll end up with a brand plan that’s about as exciting as eating a slice of Wonder bread. Unless you have incredible toppings to spice it up, you could be facing a costly product or business venture failure.

Famous brand name retail stores including B. Altman’s, Bonwit Teller, Gimbel’s, Abraham & Strauss, John Wanamaker, Montgomery Ward, Korvettes, Alexander’s, and Woolworth are all gone. They simply ran out of WOW. Meanwhile, Ralph Lauren and Polo brand stores, now numbering more than one hundred in America and overseas, are racking up billions of dollars in sales. Why? If you’re looking for designer menswear and fragrances, sleepwear, bath towels, footwear, underwear, hosiery, hats, scarves, handbags, luggage, sunglasses, jewelry, watches, furniture, and even wall paint – Ralph Lauren delivers WOW. There’s nothing that the designer Lauren does that’s second-rate or boring to the eye. Therein lies his marketing genius. Paying attention to product design and manufacturing details, keeping his stores in pristine condition, and recruiting the brightest people in the retail business are all factors that separate the Ralph Lauren brand from the pack.

Jeff Bezos,’s founder, CEO, and chief strategist, did a TV interview after he appeared on the cover of Time magazine’s “Man of the Year, 1999.” He said that the idea to start a Web bookstore just came to him out of the blue while he was cruising along a Seattle highway. That idea made Bezos a billionaire. And in return, he’s been hailed as the person who gave the world a vision of how the Internet could revolutionize the way consumers buy goods. NBC News reported that during the 2000 Christmas shopping season, received 31 million electronic consumer orders; 99 percent of those orders were delivered on time. That’s almost double the orders received for the previous Christmas shopping season, and a vast improvement in on-time delivery.

Bezos started his e-commerce business out of his parents’ garage in 1994, when the World Wide Web was emerging on the horizon, but still in its infancy. He realized that books could be shipped easily and that a Web bookstore could have a larger inventory than a typical “Main Street” book shop. Bezos also visualized other products in addition to books that would be easy to sell over the Web. In 1998, added music CDs to its Web site. Since then, toys, videos, vintage watches, art and collectibles, tools and hardware, and beauty and health products have been added to the Web menu list. Again, an idea to achieve WOW in selling products via the Internet came first, the business and brand marketing plan followed, and the rest is history.

An Obsession with Strategic Brand Planning

Over the past twenty-five years of building brands for industry giants, I have found two styles of managing a company’s brands. One is the entrepreneur-managers cut from the same cloth as the legendary brand maker H.J. Heinz who are always looking for inspiration and the opportunity to create WOW with a new product. The other is the brand caretaker-managers who like to manage workdays planning meetings with staff, ad agency people, and outside advisors. Some of these folks have been known to up to three years in the strategic-brand planning stages before getting the show on the road. While they’re busy editing and rewriting sections in a 300-page brand plan report, their competitor’s knock-your-socks-off new product debuts on ABC’s Good Morning America, NBC’s Today show, CNN News, and CNBC’s Power Lunch segment.

Too much time spent writing and rewriting strategic brand plans leads to a condition called “new product constipation.” The best remedy for that ailment is to start cranking out ideas for a brand slam product, and toss the unfinished “strategic brand plan” report in a waste bin.

Before you form a committee of twenty-five people to spend the next eighteen months developing and writing a strategic brand plan for a new product or business venture, take some advice from best-selling author John Irving. He knows how to turn his ideas into brand slam novels like The Cider House Rules, which he also adapted for a screenplay. Irving received an Oscar at the 72nd Academy Awards for that brilliant work.

Are you ready for this? Irving writes the last lines of his novel first, before he develops a story line for the book. He believes that if the reader plows through 350 pages of printed text that there should be something waiting at the end to make the journey worthwhile.

When a client sends me a 300-page “strategic brand plan” report to review, I turn to the summary usually found at the end of the report. If the last paragraph reads, “In conclusion, this committee recommends to management that it allocates the necessary budget and human resources to develop a new product that will prove to be a marketing success with consumers when it’s launched,” the report is useless to me. That’s because there’s no product idea to evaluate.

What are the lessons here for new- and old-economy companies?

Lessons Learned

  • “Big Ideas” that create WOW are simple and clear in concept.
  • Only use the word “strategic” when you can back it up with real substance.
  • Write down what you think will be the last lines of your “Brand Plan” report to management. If they don’t sound like WOW to you, then focus your time and efforts on coming up with WOW before you write the report.
  • It’s worth repeating again: Enough with the strategies, strategies, and more strategies. Ball games usually are won when a player steps up to the plate and smacks one over the outfield fence. There’s no strategy for that, just the human instinct to win.
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