Harvard Business Online

The Downsides of Branding


Posted on The Change Master: July 23, 2009 9:44 AM

Recent efforts to put a brand on Nigeria to attract tourists remind me of how easy it is slap a label on something and hope that its uglier characteristics will go away. Long before the phrase "lipstick on a pig" became an election issue, I had warned of the dangers of putting "lipstick on a bulldog"—that is, making superficial cosmetic change in organizations rather than looking at the real underlying problems. The problem with putting lipstick on a bulldog is that it is hard to wrestle the bulldog to the ground long enough to do it and then doesn't change the nature of the beast.

(Just so that no one accuses me of being unfair to Nigeria and its new tourism brand image, let me say that crime-ridden, corrupt, oil-rich, poverty-ridden sub-Saharan nations—and I'm not saying Nigeria is one—can be charming spots for calm, peaceful vacations.)

Brands are wonderful assets when they capture the essence of a product, service, or event succinctly, meaningfully, and with endurance over time. Consumer product companies have brand guardians to protect those conceptual assets. But when branding becomes a fad, it can reduce communication.

Political labels often resemble lipstick on a bulldog—cheery phrases trying to put a face full of makeup on something that requires deeper scrutiny and deeper change. Politicians float laws called defense of marriage intended to keep people from marrying, or use income security slogans for anti-tax bills when people would have less security without certain government programs. Enormous sums are sunk into branding campaigns for countries ("Cool Britannia"), states, and cities (Providence, Rhode Island, paid Midwestern marketers to come up with its "brand" as a creativity center).

(And just so that no one accuses me of being unfair to chief marketing officers, advertising agencies, or public information officials, let me say that sloganeering is an art, and inventing product jingles is one of my favorite games for long car rides with kids.)

George Orwell, the renowned British author of anti-fascist works, warned of the evils of lipstick-clad bulldogs that co-opt words and distort their meaning. In his book 1984, the war department was called "The Ministry of Peace," the watchdogs called "Big Brother," to make them sound protective rather than oppressive. Orwell was particularly outraged by euphemisms promoting mindless acceptance of atrocities. In his essay, "Politics and the English Language," he warned that since the label democracy is felt to be positive, the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy and prefer not to have the term pinned down to any one meaning. He wrote: "Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different... The great enemy of clear language is insincerity."

Branding should start with an authenticity test. This is especially important in our overloaded digital world, which rewards breezy slogans. One-minute elevator pitches convey the essence of a business plan, people tweet in 140 characters, and PowerPoint-speak is a new language (all headlines, no verbs). These can be excellent tools to capture attention. But if labeling becomes a way to hide the truth rather than invite dialogue, then we could slide into Alice in Wonderland's topsy-turvy world where no words mean what them seem to. Consider this wisdom from Tweedledee and Tweedeldum. "'I know what you're thinking about,' said Tweedledum; 'but it isn't so, nohow.' 'Contrariwise,' continued Tweedledee, 'if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn't, it ain't. That's logic.'"

Did you get that? I didn't. Lewis Carroll, like Orwell, was parodying politicians and other crafters of empty euphemisms. He wasn't intending to make sense.

Whether country branding or personal branding, the search for slogans is a trendy quest. I am simply making a plea for authenticity. Before reaching for the lipstick or using the catchphrase, first make sure that the underlying reality can sustain the claims.

Happy vacationing in Nigeria.
Rosabeth Moss Kanter holds the Ernest L. Arbuckle Professorship at Harvard Business School, where she specializes in strategy, innovation, and leadership for change. Her strategic and practical insights have guided leaders of large and small organizations worldwide for over 25 years. The former Editor of Harvard Business Review (1989-1992), Professor Kanter has been named to The Times of Londonlist of the "50 most powerful women in the world".

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