The language of branding

I'm feeling more and more uneasy about the language of marketing/branding. I've felt this unease for a long time, but I'm finding it harder and harder to ignore or even tolerate.
Johnnie Moore

Johnnie Moore

I’m Johnnie Moore, and I help people work better together

I don’t use my Dr Rant category very often but I’m doing it today. The following is intended as a provocation rather than a definitive position. It may not be totally logically coherent… but then you’ll see that that’s the point.

I’m feeling more and more uneasy about the language of marketing/branding. I’ve felt this unease for a long time, but I’m finding it harder and harder to ignore or even tolerate.

Many marketing people constantly try to present marketing as a very rational business. I think this is largely scar tissue from so many encounters with finance directors and analysts who insist on proof, ROIs etc. I notice my own fear in making that comment is that readers will lecture me about the “realiities” of business. But I’m not arguing for an irrational approach, just challenging the rational, mechanistic way in which we talk about the business of marketing.

What I notice is that many narratives in marketing blogs about “how to” are accompanied by epilogues like… “well it didn’t actually happen because of budget cuts/that fool CEO/black Wednesday etc.” It seems to me that in presenting this rationalist approach the narrators are constantly rubbing up against the actual day to day realities of life… that it’s complex and unpredictable. They get angry with people who argue for a more emotionally authentic approach (nice irony there).

This is NOT an argument for the kind of hot headed, hey wow!, glitzy stuff that I’ve just blogged about at Mutual Marketing.

But I do think folks talk about marketing as if it is this mass of matrices, “value propositions”, and descriptions of “brand architecture”. These things may be ways of desribing brands but I don’t think they capture at all authentically how real brands actually come into being, which is always a far more chaotic or complex process with false starts, blunders, arguments, misunderstandings etc. And the excessive use of such approaches blinds us to the REAL world we’re actually dealing with.

I have sat through too many meetings where values are talked about and conceptualised but not actually practised.

I am weary and sometimes repulsed by the model of the world that marketing language imagines. Here are some typical topics from a flyer for an upcoming conference I’ve been invited to:

Equipping your leaders with tools and techniques… for Successful Delivery of Brand Values

Achieving consistency.. to ensure everyone is speaking the same language inside and out… ensure management team are using the same vocabulary, look, feel and tone of voice in all forms of communication from post-it notes to emails

Driving change in colleagues behaviour

This “rational instrumentalism” describes a world where people are just objects we do things to. It describes a world far more fantastical than Tolkein or Harry Potter. Brand values are not “delivered” like a FexEx parcel. The middle one of the three is the most astounding. It seems to me to descibe an Orwellian vision of regimentation. What kind of dead organization is it where everyone uses the same language and tone of voice on every post-it note? I find such language absurd; if I thought the speaker really meant it I would be offended.

The bookshelves heave and my aggregator is flooded with seven-point plans and how-to-do-it essays, and I confess I have written a few myself in my time. I just searched on “business definitive” at Amazon and there are 128 hits. But the real world is not definitive, it is fuzzy and weird and perplexing.

Jim Berkowitz highlights a day-to-day example of Branding reality:

The experience I had occurred during a recent visit to a large Rite Aid store in Littleton, Colorado. I’ve visited this store a number of times because the bank branch I go to is right next door; so it’s a convenient stop for me. My experience of this store is that it is never well stocked and service stinks; they never have any staff people available to assist you on the floor, there can be long lines at a single check-out counter while 5 Rite Aid employees are milling about who will not open up another check-out station and the employees are not at all customer-centric in their behavior. For example, I went to a check-out station where 2 employees were standing and was told to go to the other end of the store to check out because they were doing employee training; they couldn’t be bothered with my needs, they were too busy with their own.

Well, I nearly s… my pants when I saw this huge banner at the exit doors: “It’s not just a store, it’s a solution! Service, Selection, Quality, Price, Savings, Value – The Rite Choice.”

First of all, I think that their tag line (about a “solution”) stinks. Secondly, as I mentioned, their service and selection is lousy. And finally, isn’t price, savings and value really all the same thing?

Now to me, that’s an easy to understand narrative that tells me something about the store in question and about Jim the narrator. Great.

Jim wonders, so how do companies come up with their branding strategies and messages? Interesting question, but then I notice how the business-speak comes in and my sense of engagement drifts. I hope Jim will forgive me for this, and let me say that you may well find plenty of examples of me doing the same thing…

Next, I’m having them build a “Marketplace Value Proposition Matrix” that includes their company as well as their top 5 competitors. The matrix identifies the value propositions that each company is emphasizing in their branding messages…. Finally, we are asking several questions in the customer survey in order to measure the loyalty of each customer so that we can segment the customer base into several loyalty categories

Here are two different ways of representing the world in words. The first I find engaging and affecting; the second I find somewhat disengaging. That’s just me, you be the judge. But I don’t think that Value Proposition Matrices lead to great brands; I don’t think Richard Branson aged 17 wrote a Value Proposition Matrix for his first foray into record retailing. I don’t get pissed off with BT because I don’t fit into their value proposition matrix.

I just don’t believe that brands – or indeed life – actually happens this way. And I wonder if a lot of dull and lifeless brands have some terrific matrices worked out. This language may be useful as a way of post-hoc rationalising a brand, but to my mind it cannot describe the true, unmappable, complex challenge of taking one forward.

The question is: do matrices and maps contribute to our ability to explore that unknown future together, do they support us in dealing with the anxiety and excitement of going forward, or do they just suppress these emotions? Do they create the engagement that comes from a sense of venturing forth together?

Actually, I don’t know for sure. It could be that filling in the matrix is an engaging activity for the folks Jim works with… and so much depends on context… but I do sense that we need to pay more attention to the way we are talking about branding as a clue to the sort of branding we are creating together.

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