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Not words, but meanings

July 24, 2011

A little while back I wrote about some of the issues that I’ve been having with branding.

This post is a bit of an extension from that.

Something that has been worrying me recently is the fact that not only is it harder for a brand to have a USP these days, increasingly the way that they describe themselves – the words that they use to create this unique sense of who they are and how they behave – are flawed too.

(all picture creds go to Terry Johnston)

I’ve been lucky enough to work on a lot of branding projects recently; creation, naming, development, differentiation.

And don’t get me wrong, I love working on them.  They are the best sort of puzzle and one of the most rewarding and enjoyable kinds of projects when you see the finished product.

But, the one flaw (having seen so many of them simultaneously) is the lack of real differentiation that can come through a set of two or three words.

And the fact that often finding those three little words is treated like the holy grail of the whole process.

I recently sat in a meeting with a group of client and agency people, all getting excited about the new brand that was being created.  The background and explanation was finished.  The essence of the brand was unveiled … as three words.  Which together could have described any number of brands in any number of sectors.

These were in fact the right three words for how this particular brand needs to behave; however, my issue is that these words alone cannot ever describe the brand to the exclusion of all other brands.

There’s a section in Cultural Strategy where Cameron and Holt debate a similar issue:

“Participants spent most time debating what the company terms ‘the core proposition’ […] all these variations were intended to inject emotion into the brand, but they did so by reshuffling a laundry list of generic adjectives.  These adjective lists could reasonably depict virtually any existing drinks brand”.

The brand pyramid model that I use, and my company uses, has a box in it entitled “brand values: guiding principles”.  Our creative brief has a box on it for ‘personality – how does the brand behave”.

Very often, no matter how hard you try, this does feel like “reshuffling a laundry list of generic adjectives” (on a related note, please find me the brand that doesn’t want to be “honest”, “friendly”, or “helpful”).

But I’m still not convinced that the answer is, as Holt and Cameron put it, a hugely detailed manifesto that works to “specify nuanced direction”.  That feels both incredibly prescriptive – especially when you want to get something creative back again – and also seems to fly in the face of something that I’m coming to believe planning stands for – namely to take things that are really complicated and detailed and make them as simple as possible.

People need simplicity.  Remember Miller’s magic number 7 (+ or – 2).  We aren’t built to remember things.  We need things to be simpler.

Maybe the trick is to accept that words alone will never be able to get across the essence of something. Because the English language, in all its brilliant complexity, relies on context to make sure of meaning.

Without context – the words are just a skeleton. And as far as I’m concerned, one skeleton looks pretty much like any other.  They need some flesh on the bones before it starts to be a unique being.

It’s just a case of working out what the flesh needs to be to remain simple, and still convey meaning.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 4, 2011 10:19 am

    Few things in this business suprise me, but the recieved wisdom about brands still does.
    I’m still amazed at the number of experienced agency and client people who think their brand is a logo and few words.
    But it also suprises me how many think a brand pyramid is much use too. Of course it’s useful to have a shared view with clients, but isn’t really much use for communication with real people in the real world, which as much about what you do (more?) than you say. Like human communications, body language matters more than actual words.
    So I’m quite a fan of the Holt/Cameron stuff. I don’t entirely agree their manifesto is unhelpful, my view is they help pack lots and lots really important non-verbal stuff into communications, the kind of stuff brand pyramids miss out on, the things people really respond to. Of course, if that ends up as over complex, woolly ads and stuff, it’s more the fault of the people that bring the brand to life than the manifesto thingy itself.
    If you look at the actual work for Clear Blue, Fuse TV or some of the work Strawberry Frog do that follow this approach, the explicit ‘message’ is beautifully simple. The ‘implicit’ message conveys all sorts of meaty and relevant stuff. As you say, words are not enough and we need a way to get the ‘not words bit’ right.

    • August 4, 2011 10:34 pm

      I completely agree that brand pyramids are unhelpful, past being able to unite people behind a common thought. (I wonder what your average person would make of a pyramid, even of a brand that they know and love…?)

      It’s working out what that happy medium between words alone that don’t really get to the heart of how the brand behaves, and a document that is too detailed and unwieldy for people to digest.

      I’ve been working a bit on naming theory just recently, and it strikes me that it’s perhaps a reduction of what is going on here. The names that express a simple truth about the product / company are not the ones that can become interesting. Instead the names that have more nuances – the “meaty and relevant” bits that people can attach their own meaning onto – are the ones that seem to capture people’s imagination.

      You’ve hit the nail on the head when you say it’s about the non-verbal communications – the brand equivalent of body language. Do you use a version of the manifesto approach to get that across?

  2. August 12, 2011 9:09 am

    Usually, although it tends to be a little shorter than the Cameron/Holt stuff – and then collaborating with creatives to turn that into a 2 minute video. I still find brand books useful too, as long as both creatives and clients have collaborated on it.

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