Brand language is bad language

Gary - 25 th February 2018

It’s been a year of conference speeches for me and as I reached slide 10 in my last one, I knew there was the possibility that I’d go off on a rant. A good old fashioned one, born of despair, and frustration. I warned the audience that it might happen, begged forgiveness in advance and hoped I could navigate my way around it. But when it came, slide 10, I couldn’t help myself. Rant time.

It’s all about the language used to describe brands. It’s fair to say that all sorts of ‘innovative’ methods have crossed our desks in the past 20 years - brand onions, brand footprints and brand keys are just three that spring to mind. We have been given brand descriptions with 20 values (I kid you not), multiple personalities, and the most sophisticated paradoxical essences you can ever imagine, with ‘very clever double meanings’. We have also been given books, diagrams and multi-dimensional drawings to explain what the vision for a brand is.

Of course, describing a vision for your brand is key to most businesses. It’s a pivotal activity. But in the old days (10 years ago), only a few people needed to understand the onion, footprint, key or whatever it’s called.  All you needed were the experts in marketing, a few designers, copy writers, art directors and planners understanding and believing it, and you were at the races. As part of the process of working out the vision, they would ponder for an age on the pin-head difference between the meanings of two seemingly identical words and they could come up with endless terms and funky ways of describing the brand. The results were some brilliant brand descriptions. Their only downside was that they needed a lengthy explanation, a film and a degree in English to help describe what they actually meant and what people needed to do about it.

The over-complication and over-intellectualisation didn’t really matter though. As long as those 20 key people felt that it was inspiring and differentiating, and they had a single view of what it meant, everything was hunky dory. The key 20 controlled the comms output of their brand and as they dealt with this stuff every day, they knew how to turn the brand vision into a comms and design reality. Having said that, I would contest that even amongst those 20 people there were different interpretations of what the brand was supposed to stand for, what its values were and how it should express itself. Personal slants were inevitably put on the brand, dare I say as often as not, to accommodate creative preferences. But there is no need to be nasty. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt because it doesn’t matter anymore; those days have gone.

Quite simply, it’s all about customer experience now. The influence of the ‘top 20’ is still there but the way that brands are built nowadays is through customer experience. It is the new advertising, the new battleground, the new business imperative and now the brand needs to be understood by thousands of people not just 20.

This isn’t new thinking of course. The communicators know and accept this. The problem is that they still try and use the same technical, vague brand language to engage thousands of shop floor colleagues, operators, engineers and all the other people responsible for delivering the brand. It’s nonsense.

Most people have no idea about the differences between brand values and brand personality, the nuanced description of their essence or how internal cultural values and brand values align, nor do they care.   

Brand builders today need to grasp this nettle. Throw out the intellectual codswallop, bin the thesaurus and ditch the old language. We have to get real. It’s people and processes and operations and HR as well as marketing that keep a brand on the straight and narrow. That means a new language needs to be adopted with some urgency, ensuring the brand is understood by the majority of people on first reading so that they can start acting on it every day.

I can’t help squirm though... what was I thinking when I tried out a double meaning essence and an obscure personality reference on 30 customer-facing employees of one of our clients?  Of course it never had the chance of working!  But, it did teach me a lesson that I have never forgotten. We have ripped apart the brand language of the past and turned the bad language to good. We use words we all understand - proper words - and not many of them. No clever paradoxes, double meanings or use of intellectual nonsense-speak. If you are ever presented any of these things again, turn their purveyor on their heels and send them back from whence they came and tell them to wash their mouths out, it’s bad language.

Rant over.

Gary is the chairman and one of the original founders of Brand Vista. With over 20 years of brand experience both on the client and agency side he loves finding out what customers and consumers are really thinking and turning this knowledge into compelling brand propositions that succeed in the real world.
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