The problem with topics such as Brand Honesty or Brand Openness is that they border on the ethical. As such, the conversation can quickly get mushy and idealistic. There is a compulsion, even among accomplished strategists, to wax lyrical about a future where brands willingly air all their laundry and every motivation and action is shared and discussed. But this is not a likely tomorrow.
Nevertheless, we do expect a push towards greater (albeit not total) openness. And we expect this push to be driven by two closely related forces:
1. The brand-busting/building powers of an increasingly connected and chatty online society.
2. A very slowly growing social bias towards authenticity in branding (and away from corporatism as a desirable quality).
As a result, things are likely to keep changing in this department. In 20 years time, many of us will most likely look back at the brands of today with a mixture of nostalgia and disdain. The ‘puffery’ that local brands have scrambled to allow for within the confines of the consumer protection act* will one day appear laughable. That we once bought ‘spiritually enlightening’ room spray, believed that plastic shoes would save the world or that some cigarettes were more rugged and individualistic than others will seem outright absurd.
But this is a distant future. What of 2012? As with any long-term trend, the journey is likely to be an incremental one. This year we are on the lookout for three micro-trends towards this end.
First of all, keep an eye open for some major internal brand reality checks.
Global brands are already on the lookout for ways to more actively align their communications and actions. To be who they say they are. As customers, our BS detectors are becoming better tuned and better fuelled than ever before thanks to the WWW. Consumer activism is markedly on the rise and more vocal customers, it would seem, are up for a fight. And there is nothing that raises consumer blood pressure quite like brands that say one thing and do another. This is especially true of bigger brands. The American Marketing Association, amongst others, has commissioned and cited research that documents the high levels of damage wreaked by perceived hypocrisy on corporate and brand reputations. Our own experience in SA also suggests people often respond more negatively to inconsistency between message and behaviour than to openly bad behavior. Last year, Time Magazine’s Person of the Year was: The Activist. Expect the trickle-down of disillusionment many are feeling with political stagnation and Wall Street excess to begin hitting brands. With our IDs we vote once every five years. With our wallets we can vote daily. The good news is that this all comes with a corollary: the possibility for smarter brands to stand out by be being real and, subsequently, to be truly loved.
Our disdain for double standards is one reason why an environmentally unfriendly battery in a Prius can inspire more ire than a gas-guzzling hummer, even though the latter has a far greater environmental footprint**. Indeed, just a few moments before sitting down to write this post at the local Wellness Warehouse, I watched a member of their cleaning staff destroy the brand integrity with a can of Pledge. There she was, amongst shelves stacked with environmentally-friendly household cleaning alternatives – not an aerosol or industrial cleaning agent in sight. Wellness Warehouse’s shelves are stacked with products which make you feel better about the world just by looking at them. Made, as they are, by happily employed yoga-practicing indigenous peoples using recycled Tibetan rock salt, spring water and so forth and transported to the store by solar powered bicycles. Yet they – these very same shelves – are cleaned with a Pledge aerosol (from the Pledge Industrial Cleaning Pack according to the toxic yellow sticker that adorned it).
A decade or two ago, this kind of naughty oversight might have made it to the ear of a friend or two in the immediate vicinity. Now here it is. On a blog. The internet means you get caught out faster when you slip up and more people know about it than ever before. And the hypocrisy needn’t be explicit as it is in this case either. Cadbury’s didn’t build their brand on the promise of child-labour free chocolate. But nevertheless, chocolate bars and sad children do not mix well in the mind of the average mother. To be sure, it is implied and expected from all companies that their labour force consists of consenting adults, regardless of their industry. But kids’ treats! The global confectionery category, once populated by giant dough-children and golden bunnies is now scrambling just to assure us that consenting adults – not impoverished children – are behind their merchandise.
Secondly, expect a rise in more open and accessible brand language.
Brands are beginning to hide less behind monolithic corporate speak – especially when addressing customers. Increasingly greater experimentation with tone and nuance is helping forward-thinking brands differentiate themselves through language. Love it or hate it, Kulula is a good example. If you can stomach it – spend a few moments listening to safety and other announcements on a Kulula flight. The kind of flippant familiarity is a major departure from the normal ponsiness of airline communications. And, as annoying as many of us may find Kulula’s attempt and decorporatisation of language, Mango crew seem to be following suit with their own collection of terrible jokes. With Mango flying around half the volume of seats as similarly priced Kulula, it seems imitation really is the most sincere form of flattery.
Also, take a look at FNB’s use of tone (“Take some time to see what (FNB) is offering. You’ll find something exactly for you and much more”) vs say Nedbank (“Nedbank offers a diverse range of products and services that can be tailored to our clients specific needs…”). No prizes there for guessing which bank is trying harder to position themselves as accessible. And, in keeping with the first micro-trend above, FNB has delivered on the expectations set by the conversational tone of their copy. Gripe or moan about #FNB on Twitter and you’ll be sure to meet “FNB guy” (RbJacobs). True to their promises, he is their man on the ground, starting conversations and helping out FNB clients and ‘engagees’ on behalf of the bank before naysayers can get a foot in. And here we have South African airlines and banks – two traditionally stuffy categories. Some global players have been at it for years. Virgin is amongst them… of course. Their friendly easy-to-understand tone is pretty much all over their brand. Take a few moments to read the disclaimers at your local Virgin Active gym next time you hit that early morning Pilates class. Virgin trains? “Get where you want to be… for less”.
There was a time when companies were so detached that they often referred to themselves in the third person. Expect a more conversational approach to copy in the immediate future. To veer off course for a moment, quite a cool parallel can be found in the presentation of global affairs. Note how the tone of news anchors has changed to become more natural over the past few decades. Watch any news report from a few decades back and you’ll find its presentation eerily false and stuffy. Perhaps the underlying compulsion there was to establish authority and convey detachment. But a shift in values towards honesty and accessibility in news reporting have resulted in the presentation tone becoming more natural and sometimes outright conversational. Witness the proliferation of panel discussions, casual morning newspaper readings, debates and banter on global news channels. Still pretty false granted, but as with brands – the change is, out of necessity, incremental.
Finally, in terms of design, signaling humanity is becoming an important part of conveying openness and approachability.
The use of more handcrafted elements and the rise of imperfection as a design tactic are two ways we’ll be bringing this to life in 2012. The Japanese have long held to a cultural tradition of purposeful incompletion in design, it’s called “Wabi-Sabi”. Roughly understood – it’s based on the typically Japanese-romantic notion that true beauty is found in imperfection. Hence the random scattering of rocks in a traditional Zen Garden or the floral arrangement with a missing flower.
Here’s a more Western example of this mechanism in action: Feiyue shoes have been available locally for a couple of years now (and the trendy local distributor has recently taken to selling some of his inventory himself… out of the back of a retrofitted pop-up-shop on the back of a truck – hint: trend number 3). For those unfamiliar with the brand’s distinctive look – a Google image search will reveal all. The more design-minded will notice the marked difference between the corporate logo and its application onto the shoes themselves. Also: the lack of alignment and uneven kerning as well as the difference between the treatment of the logo on either side of the shoe. The brand in its current incarnation is only 6 years old and it’s not a small boutique brand yet the look is somehow partly unpolished and old school. The pseudo hand-written labels of the last decade were (thankfully) just the beginning. Expect a resurgence of more innovative analogue design techniques used in far more elaborate and sophisticated ways to produce quality identities and looks with a human touch.
Now what on earth does all this mean for your own brand? Well for a start don’t lie. Don’t. But being honest is just that: a start. Signaling this honesty and aligning your policies to your claims can be much more than a containment strategy. It can be a brand-building boon. One of our favourite brands is Patagonia and it’s built on brand-openness. Witness a remarkably well-meaning company that really does seem to live up to its ethos. The US brand makes clothes and equipment to enjoy the great outdoors. Consequently, staff are encouraged to spend time, on the clock, exploring the world around them. They also help customers to preserve the environment they enjoy with Patagonia by encouraging them to ‘buy less’, recycling and repairing their existing Patagonia clothes rather than buying new ones. You can see what they have to say about that here. And for a balanced outside perspective this is what the Harvard Business Review has to say about them. The company famously hires only outdoor enthusiasts and is known for its barefoot and pet-friendly corporate culture. The result, aside from an ongoing flurry of PR and a very loyal customer base? Patagonia has risen to the top of the outdoor clothing pile with sales increasing from US$ 20 million in the 1980s to nearly US$ 300 million a year.
In a nutshell, successful brands in 2012 and beyond will most likely seek to increase partially (but not totally) their degrees of perceived (and hopefully, actual) honesty and openness. The objective will be to “get real”. And this will find form in due course in increased alignment of their values and actions. Brands will move to signal this through more open and human use of language and more real and accessible design. Like Patagonia, the brands that do this first may well stand to benefit too. Taking the first to step out in the direction of a long-term trend such as this one is a powerful strategy. And it’s one we expect to start seeing more of in the year ahead.
* Side Note 1: The CPA, which otherwise frowns on outright lying as a selling technique does, in its interpretation, seem to make allowance for exaggerated claims as part of what the legal fraternity have delightfully termed “puffery”. So we can still say that deodorant will make you an object of insatiable sexual desire when it in fact will not.
** Side Note 2: You may have heard that the Prius comes at a higher overall environmental cost than many SUVs but MIT amongst others have refuted this claim.
About Engage Brandcraft
Chris Human is founding partner and strategist at Engage Brandcraft, a Cape Town based, national, full-service, owner-run brandcrafting agency with a track record of creative excellence and delivery. Their service offering is focused mainly on brand origination, which includes: brand concept development, corporate identity, naming & logo design as well as brand communication.