Branding doesn’t have to be propaganda

The greatest brands tell the biggest lies. Although not all branding is bad, the art of modern branding is indeed very often the art of manipulation and propaganda.

For many years, Coca Cola has been the world’s most valuable brand. Think about that for a moment. Here is a company that is more responsible than perhaps any other for spreading the global obesity and diabetes epidemic with its sugar-saturated drinks. Here is a company more than any other that is responsible for the mountains of plastic waste that are poisoning our lands and seas. And this is a cool brand?

Think of H&M and Zara. Are these cool brands? Fast fashion sits next to oil as the biggest polluter on the planet. Today, we are buying far more clothes, wearing them far less, and dumping them far more often. Most of these cheap new clothes are made by poorly-paid workers who toil in unsafe conditions. The clothes themselves are increasingly made from plastic polymers, thus they are not recyclable and result in toxic waste. Most of what we donate to charity shops end up being sold on to poorer countries, thereby collapsing their native fashion industries. And we think the brands who do this are cool because they have good branding.

Even organizations that offer valuable and useful products and services get caught up in the allure of toxic branding. The Coca Colas of this world must tell big lies because the more you know about their product, the less likely you will be to buy it. Therefore, they must invent fictions because their reality is so toxic.

If you deliver something useful, then you don’t need fake branding. Why not consider telling the truth? McKinsey reported about a government tax agency who used to say it would distribute refunds in an average of two days, when it actually took much longer. Instead, they started saying that people would receive the refund within 21 days—which was much closer to the reality. Customers were happier and support calls were reduced dramatically.

If your product is actually useful then don’t be afraid to show off how useful it is. Don’t hide behind big stupid stock images that say absolutely nothing. Don’t suffocate your customers with empty marketing jargon when you can actually say something useful. For organizations that are useful, marketing and communication should stress the use.

I once sat in a room presenting a design that allowed customers find what they needed really quickly. Everything was simple. Everything worked. We had lots of evidence of how the design had evolved based on use. It was fast. It was simple. It did exactly what the organization needed it to do. It just worked. Everyone was really impressed, even the branding guy. He thought it was fantastic, but he just had one question: “What about the branding?”

Unless you need to lie to customers, your branding is your simplicity. Your branding is your usefulness. Every time a customer can find something quickly and easily, that’s branding. If the product you make starts every single time without fail, that’s branding. Transparent pricing is branding. Great customer service is branding. Branding can be about what is good and what is useful. Branding can be about the truth.

4 thoughts on “Branding doesn’t have to be propaganda

  1. Rao Kasibhotla

    Gerry, Hate to be a Debt Downer, but have to point out that Coke and other brands has no incentive to change when lying is working. For so long with seemingly no downside on the perceived value.

    I am not condoning their behavior, but just saying that it is likely that there is so much gray area between complete and total honesty and propaganda and that propaganda may in fact be an essential element of value received. As Seth Godin says, companies lie because customers lie to themselves.

    1. Gerry McGovern Post author

      For sure, lying works for some brands. Yeah, we do lie to ourselves. Also, brands have the know-how to manipulate our deepest instincts. They do their research well and can push all the right buttons. Some see other people as suckers to be fooled one more time. And, you’re right too that there’s a huge grey area where it’s a type of game the consumer and the brand plays with each other, and if the consumer is happy enough to pay, well then that’s their choice.

  2. Paul Smith

    We pay approx 1000% price premium (compared to supermarket own brand colas) for some thing that supposedly takes rust off cars and cleans coins overnight (if you leave a dirty coin in a glass full of coke overnight). If you repeatedly shake all colas and let the fizz out – they are, in my opinion, simply undrinkable. I once interviewed the Euro Mktg Dir of Coca Cola who told me CC was, IN FACT, inferior (taste-wise to Pepsi). Ask people why they drink CC & they’ll say it tastes better! Bit like cigarettes or your first beer – disgusting but after a while we are conditioned (classically) & believe it tastes good. Extraordinary really!

    1. Gerry McGovern Post author

      It is indeed, Paul, extraordinary how we can be conditioned by constant repetition of messages that target our addictions.


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