Something about a brand promise.

Ah, look; late again. But better late than not at all. Let’s do it.

A very long time ago I worked for a terrible, terrible boss. Irredeemably terrible (to this day, I’m told, though I wouldn’t know). A vile, belittling, mean-spirited, beady-eyed tosser.

So for me to give him credit for anything good is notable, and there are two very good things that came from working for him, skills I still use almost daily.

The first and most important thing I learned while working for the terrible man was how to speak up for myself, how to stand up to a bully. I did not learn this from him, to be clear, but because of him. And that lesson has served me well. Full stop.

The other very valuable gift from this (blessedly brief) stint in my career was the training to write a tight, solid, killer creative brief.

Let’s pause here: If you’re not in marketing, communications, advertising, fundraising, or any related field, then the rest of this entire post might be utterly uninteresting and useless for you. It’s OK. You do not have to keep reading.

Remember: This is time you can’t reclaim.

Still here? I’ll continue….

Since I was on the account team (the “suits” as opposed to the “creatives” of the team — funny, right?), the terrible man sent me to a week’s training conducted by the American Association of Advertising Agencies (AAAA). One of the techniques I learned – one I’ll tell you about another day, not today – turned out to be a life skill, applicable far outside of any marketing, advertising, or creative project (which is why it deserves its own post, another day). I promise, I’ll tell you about that one day. Just not today.

(You’re thinking, perhaps, “now this seems like a very boring post indeed, Jennifer. Where’s the vodka?” I get it. Just hang with me.)

A creative brief is a written plan that guides creative work. And yes, it does seem very boring indeed, especially to the impatient, Marlo Brando-style “creatives” who just want to be expressive. But a concise, no BS, well-written creative brief is the golden key that unlocks great creative work. I promise this is true.

And the critical component of the creative brief, in my personal experience, is a section that goes by a variety of names, my favorite of which is “Key Claim.” (Runner up? “Brand Promise.”) (Sign of a likely-terrible creative brief? “Key Message.”)

(I know, I know? Very Boring! Still!… keep reading…)

The “Key Claim” is the short statement that sums it all up, lays it all out there in a few plain, direct, no-BS terms. It’s not a slogan or a catch phrase. It’s the Main Thing.

Here’s an example:

In the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” there’s a scene in which George and Clarence go to Martini’s bar. (If you don’t know who George and Clarence are, then just stop reading right now, because this just isn’t the place for you, I promise.) Nick, the bartender/owner, asks George and Clarence what they’d like to drink, and Clarence orders a flaming rum punch but then changes his mind and asks for mulled wine.

And Nick says, “Listen, mister, we serve hard drinks for people who want to get drunk fast.”

That right there? Yes, you’ve got it. That is a Key Claim.

A few years after I was trained in creative brief development, I was on the other side of the agency-client relationship, working for a company that built massive fiber optic and wireless networks around the world. I managed advertising and public relations agencies in about a dozen cities, and one of the things I noticed very quickly was that few, if any, of the account folks I worked with could write a decent creative brief. The step they always got wrong? The Key Claim.

(I know. V.E.R.Y. B.O.R.I.N.G. We’re almost there…)

So I decided to try teaching what I’d learned, working with the account reps assigned to me (they were always junior level staff, because that’s how agencies work — which is yet another post, for another day…) to help them write stronger creative briefs that would support better creative work for our projects. Yes; it was selfish. But also, it wasn’t. Teaching was my first love (will always be my love, to be honest), so I enjoyed this part of my work, and the young women (they were all women, because, ad agencies…) seemed to enjoy learning something that the agency muckity-mucks hadn’t taught them.

After that job ended (ah, the mergers and acquisitions of the late 1990s), I turned this informal teaching into a curriculum for a seminar that I taught at trade show marketing conferences. (Writing that, I must say, feels like writing about another person, from another time.)

In every session, every time, people got stumped with the same part of the work. Yes, you guessed it: the Key Claim. And the way I taught the Key Claim portion was by using this example.

Let’s say you want to sell soap. There are ONE MILLION soap products on the market. So which one of these would make a good Key Claim for yours?

  • We make soap for people who are afraid of germs. (Or: This soap is for people who are afraid of germs.)
  • We make soap for people who like to smell good. (Or: This heavily perfumed soap will keep you smelling good for hours after you bathe.)
  • We make soap that cleans humans without killing animals.
  • We make soap for doctors and scientists, not tree-huggers.

Hint: Any of these would work. That’s actually the point. Get the idea? It’s not a slogan; it’s the truth.

The other suggestion I offered in this exercise? Think like a 5-year-old child, because children don’t have filters, and filters are what get in the way of good Key Claim statements.

I’ve been thinking about all of these things for many different reasons, both in my current work-work and in my personal life. We’re doing some branding work at Kindred Place, and many of my past experiences in branding and advertising hold true, still today.

The truest of these truths is that it’s surprisingly hard to get people to own up to the real, nitty-gritty essence of a thing – the “we serve hard liquor for people who want to get drunk fast” kind of true essence. No one wants to say something that might be interpreted as unflattering or coarse or common. (God forbid anything be common.)

But truth is always better than fluff. Truth shines the light, guides the way, blah-de-blah.

And unless we’re willing to start with the truth – about ourselves, our products, our companies, our endeavors – then any marketing or promotion will fall flat.

Not the “why” (as is so popular … ), not the aspiration, not the goal, and not the vision.

The truth.

Start there, and see how much farther it can take things.

There. #43 of 56. I did it.

(I write meandering stories that sometimes are interesting to few people, most of whom are my very-forgiving friends.)


This post is 43/56 in a self-directed challenge to write (or at least post) something (SOMETHING) every day – a birthday gift to me from me, because writing gives me a place to put the clutter that lives in my head.

3 thoughts on “Something about a brand promise.

  1. YAAAASSS, the TRUUUUUTH!!! “I want people to treat each other better! I will call you out/forth to do so every chance I get, and I hope you will do the same for me. Can we agree to do it kindly?” That is (one of) my truth(s) right this minute. Does it count as a key claim? Does it matter? Standing firmly on our core truths is such a confident, meaningful way to live, no? Thank you for this!! 😀

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