The Pony Sheet – how to develop your brand and ride it


“With that much horse manure,” she exclaimed, “there must be a pony in here somewhere.”

Here’s a useful tool for how to develop a brand, leading your team through the brand discovery process. I’m including it here with relatively little explanation, as most of it is Branding 101 stuff. It isn’t brain surgery, but it takes skill and diligence to pull together a successful brand strategy in actual practice.

The name Pony Sheet came from the old story about the young girl whose parents took her out to the barn on her birthday and announced, “We have a big birthday surprise for you.” Opening the door, she spied a huge pile of horse manure in the middle of the floor, a rather disappointing sight. Yet being a young optimist (most children are), the lass clapped her hands with joy. “With that much horse manure,” she exclaimed, “there must be a pony in here somewhere.”

In discussing what is a brand with executives, I use the pony story to illustrate the long, often frustrating process of digging through mounds of information and piles of attributes that everyone thinks must be included in the brand. At some point, it seems much like digging through a mound of horse manure, but with diligent effort, I can promise that eventually, we will discover the pony.

The Pony Sheet is a list of steps and discussion points leading toward the identification of the core principles of the client’s brand.

I. How to Develop a Brand, Phase One (Brand Insight)

A. Market, Competitive and Organizational Analysis

Phase One work provides information to guide strategic decisions moving forward.

1. Market/Customer Analysis–what are the market factors most relevant to the client’s on-going brand strategy?

  • Market Trends
  • Customer Motivation
  • Customer Unmet Needs
  • Segmentation Highlights (Geographics, Demographics, Psychographics, Buying/Usage Patterns

2. Competitor Analysis–what are the competitive factors most relevant to the client’s on-going brand strategy (top 2 or 3 competitors)?

  • Brand Image/Identity
  • Strengths
  • Weaknesses

3. Organizational Analysis–what are the internal organizational factors most relevant to the client’s on-going brand strategy?

  • Existing Brand Image/Brand Heritage
  • Internal Brand Perceptions
  • Strengths and Weaknesses
  • Organizational Values

II. How to Develop a Brand, Phase Two (Brand Promise)

A. Fundamental Brand Attributes 

List the client’s brand attributes, as we have discovered them to be.

B. Primary Brand Attributes

Can we boil down the above list into one or two brand attribute categories?

C. Value Proposition (One Idea)

Can we boil down the primary brand attribute into one or two words?

D. Brand Promise

Can we explain the value proposition in a crisp statement that expresses the client’s promise to customers and other audiences?

Pony Reality Check

If the Value Proposition and Brand Promise are clearly defined and on target, there should be some excitement at this point. Do a gut check. Is the team energized by the promise? Does the promise suggest opportunities for market advantage? Is it clearly differentiating? Will it be motivating to the client’s customers?

III. How to Develop a Brand, Phase Three (Brand Proof)

The following steps are designed to “prove up” the promise and provide information that will guide the client in the implementation of a branding plan based on the selected market position.

 A. Authenticity

What makes the client’s organization uniquely qualified to deliver on this brand promise? Express this in terms of unfair advantages that can be defended over the long-term.

  • Culture and Heritage
  • Product Offerings
  • Natural Monopoly
  • Location and Sales Channels
  • Organizational Structure and Staff
  • Operating Philosophy
  • Other
B. Organizational Vision, Mission, and Ideology

Developing a high-level corporate mission statement is a project unto itself, but we should be able to address these topics in a simple way, based on the brand promise.

1. Organizational Vision–can we express what we feel the vision should be based on the brand promise?

2. Organizational Mission–can we express what the mission is, based on the brand promise? What is the core purpose (other than profit taking)?

3. Organizational Ideology–can we express what we feel the organization stands for? What is the philosophical underpinning of the organization as it relates to purpose and methods? Consider management style, employee behavior, internal culture, market approach, ethical stance, etc.

C. Organizational Aptitude

What are the reasons to believe the organization can deliver on the brand promise? What unique capabilities exist in these major categories? Where are the weaknesses?

  • Marketing Effectiveness Relative to Competitors
  • Organizational Stability/Ownership Structure
  • Financial Strength
  • Clear Strategic Vision
  • Management Strength
  • Right Product/Service Mix
  • Technical Innovation
  • Overall Customer Satisfaction
  • Market Reputation
  • Right Staff/Right Skills
  • Culture Promotes Flexibility
  • Momentum
  • An Urgency to Change (as felt in the organization)
  • Competitive Will
  • Audience Mindshare
  • Product/Service Reliability
  • Quality of the Work Environment
  • Other
D. Market Differentiation

What is it about the brand promise that will be unique and different in the marketplace as compared to current perceptions? What is the spark that will be noticed by customers? What is the new insight that did not exist in the marketplace until the unveiling of this brand promise?

E. Customer Outcomes

Describe the specific behaviors and attitude changes we expect to see in customers, based on this brand promise.

F. Tagline Approaches

Is the brand promise so clear and distinct that it suggests some quick ideas on potential taglines? Not finished lines, but sharp enough to quickly convey the brand promise. Good enough to show to your colleagues and not be embarrassed. (WARNING: If we cannot easily jot down some rough tagline ideas at this point we probably haven’t found the Pony yet! Go back to the brand promise and look for additional clarity.)

IV. How to Develop a Brand, Phase Four (Brand Delivery)

A. Brand Identity Drivers

Describe tactical changes the client should make in each of these areas to ensure the brand promise is effectively delivered to all audiences:

  • Company Conduct–reputation, history, finances, culture and community involvement
  • Leadership–vision, communication and management structure
  • Processes and Organization Behavior–salary, benefits, working methods, internal and external systems
  • Services–installation, repair, and availability
  • Products–features, performance, quality, reliability, flexibility and compatibility
  • Communications–advertising, public relations, marketing and promotions
  • Pricing–discounts, terms, and deals
  • Support Services–education, manuals, training, and consultation
  • Sales and Distribution Channels–competence, service, reach and relationships

All set? There’s plenty more on how to develop a brand, but the Pony Sheet is a great beginning. Saddle up!

Screen Shot 2018-11-30 at 8.05.38 PM