Innovation & Design

Time for Some Buzz-Kill


O.K., I'm going to say some mean things here about branding and marketing. But first, a disclaimer: In the past, I have sat in front of a client -- many clients, actually -- and, in all seriousness, used words such as "marketecture," "contenterprise," and "brandology."

I know, I know. Looking back at it all, having a clever "TM" methodology seems to me like wearing spandex or liking "nouvelle cuisine," but I get the feeling that some people are still a bit stuck in the whole '90s dot-com make-yourself-sound-clever-by-using-long-words thing. People like the whole branding and marketing industry, for example.

Some statistics for starters. Googling "brand" brings up 830 million hits -- with almost as many definitions, lots of them trademarked, and hardly any of which make any sense whatsoever. Brand Fingerprint. Brand Voltage. Brand Harmonization. Brand Magnetics (which, in case you're wondering, is defined as "the search for an integrating, energizing, and sustaining force that creates a common purpose within the business, and a strong affinity with customers, employees, and shareholders. Brand Magnetics is about creating a brand with the properties of an organizational magnet, where the whole business' operations and behaviors are driven by this values-based magnetism.")

NO NEED FOR TRICKS. Then there are the names for methods of quantifying a brand's value by giving it some kind of "score" that ranks it against the competition. These range from the sublime BDI (Brand Development Index) to the faintly ridiculous BAV (Brand Asset Valuator) which claims to "quantify your brand's meaning." Um, O.K.

So here's where I'm going with all of this. After all the miserable, expensive, and well-documented failures of recent years, (O.K., soda anyone? Maybe to wash down your McDonald's Arch Deluxe?) everyone knows that getting a brand right and marketing it cleverly is really hard. So maybe we don't all need to make it sound more complicated simply to justify what we do.

Like a lot of you, all my clients (in whatever category they're in) want to be like Mini, which burst into the automotive market -- the most crowded, cliched, and macho category out there -- and redefined it in one word: "motoring." I know it looks really smart to put up a chart with 45 words and benefits and benefits-of-the-benefits and apply some quantum physics, to "ladder" the words with a cleverly named process and make them all add up to 20. A tip: Take Blaise Pascal's quote "The present letter is a very long one, simply because I had no leisure to make it shorter," and stick it up on your wall.

VODAFONE'S RIGHT CALL. The hardest thing that marketers and brand managers have to do right now is simplify. Marketing and branding need to get back to first principles -- people, feelings, stories, and things. Tangible things. Not weird words. And for all of us agencies out there, we need to feel more confident that actually the best thing we can do is to tell it simply, both to the organization we're working for and ultimately to the consumer.

I don't know about you, but I've never heard a consumer say they've been "magnetized" by anything, least of all their brand of fabric softener. On the other side of the coin, I can't help but be impressed with the simplicity, authenticity (and continuing relevance) of Dove's new campaign, which tackles head-on the fake mystique and claims of the beauty industry -- 73.7% less wrinkles! Nanocollagen! Nouveau Innovation Complexe! (That's French-beauty-speak for "New Innovation Complex," by the way.)

So, how do we get there? It's all about creating more confidence. Confidence in the fact that the insights we gather at the start of the process are robust, inspiring, and above all, true -- the days of finding clever "spin" and myth behind things are over. Case in point: Vodafone (VOD) recently launched a phone in Britain for the 50+ crowd. When target customers were interviewed, it turned out that extra-clever features and ding-dongs were a no-no -- all they wanted to was to retrieve messages easily, get to their friends' numbers quickly, and make calls. So the company launched a simple, intuitive phone, called Vodafone Simply, to great success.

MAKING SENSE. We need confidence in the fact that we (consultants and our clients) will find those insights together, out in the real world, not behind some one-way mirror. Next comes confidence in the fact that the solutions we develop are relevant, desirable, and tangible. And above all, confidence in our ability to articulate those unmet needs and communicate them to both the organization and the consumer in plain-speak, with no fancy terminology and silly buzzwords.

I know a lot of you out there have your "process" -- your pyramids and your positionings -- but at the end of the day, and I'm sorry to say this, they often don't make a lot of sense. A matrix of clever hybrid nouns doesn't communicate anything, it often confuses it.

And I do this stuff for a living, so heaven help the consumer. Bob Sutton in his book Hard Facts, Dangerous Half Truths & Total Nonsense quotes Wells Fargo (WFC) CEO Richard Kovacevich, "I could leave our strategic plan on a plane, and it wouldn't make any difference. No one could execute it. Our success has nothing to do with planning. It has to do with execution." While I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Kovacevich, my bigger fear would be that the competition would mistake the strategy for its own because it had all the same 40 words and ambiguous terminology.

LESSONS FROM HOME. So try this. Buy a train ticket home for the weekend. Not your current house, but home-home, to your parents. Now sit them down at the kitchen table and, in 50 words or less, tell them what you do for a living, what product you make or sell (or if you're a consultant, what process or deliverable you sell), and what's good about it. Don't use weird words or anything with lots of syllables. Don't quit until they understand you. I told my mother once that I worked in Conceptual Marketing and I swear she thought I had joined a cult.

Remember what you said. Now go back to work, and apply this principle to your job. Simple stories, truths well told, no made-up nomenclature and gilded lilies. It's more clever to be simple, don't forget that.


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