The surreal crazy, crazy world of branding

After a long time spent working with various different kinds of organisations, I have consistently found the branding department to be the craziest, most surreal and most disconnected from anything remotely approaching reality.

There must be some city of 10 million people somewhere, that we have never heard of, with factory after factory churning out branding people. Because they’re all the same. I’ve worked in more than 40 countries and whenever I meet branding people they dress the same, talk the same, think the same.

The first serious interaction with branding I had was back around 2000. I was speaking at a travel conference. I told the audience that “low fares” was being searched for about 3,000 times a month and that “cheap flights” was being searched for about a million times a month. A hand shot up in the audience. He was a branding expert. “We would never use “cheap flights,” he said. “It would hurt our brand.” And all the other branding experts agreed. Of course, a couple of years later the vast majority of the brands were using “cheap flights” because it was that or go out of business.

Some years later I was in a room full of executives. We had a deep discussion about the products and services of that organization. We talked about pricing, simplicity of ordering, service and support, and how the website could help the organization sell more and increase customer loyalty. Then the branding expert put up his hand. “That’s all very interesting,” he said. “But what about the branding?”

Recently, I dealt with a very large website where onsite search was really important to customers. They had just appointed a new VP of Marketing. As a result, there was the inevitable redesign and ‘rebranding.’ I looked at the new print brochure website and couldn’t believe that they had hidden the search box. The new ‘branding’ guidelines had dictated that there could be no form fields immediately visible on any pages because it would “hurt the holistic feel of the brand.”

Imagine if one of the these branding experts was in charge at Google or Amazon. “Sorry, guys, we have to remove the search box because of holistic feel reasons.” But don’t mention Google or Amazon to these branding guys. Because, to these branding experts, Google and Amazon are not real brands.

Real brands dominate the page with brochureware hero shots of fake customers. Real brands use gushy, meaningless, emotional language. Real brands have thought leadership corporate videos. Real brands have the greyest of grey text. Real brands obsess about font choice. Real brands are fanatical about image.

How 1970s jaded these ‘real’ brands look in the age of social media and mobile. In an age when time has never been more precious, these brands are still full of pompous certainty that they can control the message, that they can control your experience, and dictate your journey. They believe with an arrogant certainty that no matter how poor the product or service is, they can make you feel you’ve had a great customer experience through the magical power of emotional branding.

And these branding experts get the ear of senior management because they whisper the compelling promises: “You are in control. You can control the message. You can control and manipulate the customer.”

Digital makes it harder and harder to control the customer journey. Much better to give the customer more and more control.


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