(A 5-minute cringe test for your brand, inspired by a brutally funny takedown.)
Important conversations happen in the most unexpected places. And the most valuable conversations about your industry may well be happening outside of it. That was certainly the case last week, when the subject of bullshit in branding came up on a top-rated ethics and science podcast hosted by a philosopher and a psychologist — just 5 days after our own rant about it. They talked about Henry Frankfurt’s ever-relevant essay ‘On Bullshit’, too; but their rant was much funnier, because Tamler Sommers and David Pizarro, known collectively as Very Bad Wizards, made their point using a real case study: an actual brand guidelines document that had come their way and turned out to be the funniest thing they’d read in a long time — not that it had been the authors’ intent.
Tamler and David spend a good 25 minutes reading out their favourite parts and ridiculing the hell out of the writing: from cringeworthy language to what they describe as transparent lies. It’s worth a listen, if only for the laughs — but if you’re involved in branding in any capacity, or own a business that has a brand guide, there’s a good chance it will feel more embarrassing than comedic. You might even start leafing through your own brand guide, or past work (if you work in the industry), to see if you’re guilty of producing the same type of ridiculous, pretentious, meaningless drivel.
That sense of unease is good, because this brutal mockery session may just be the reality check we all need. What you’ll hear is what happens when an intelligent person outside of the marketing industry sees the monstrous fruit of our labour. The hosts conclude by pondering whether anyone who does branding for a living actually believes that what they do is meaningful; and really, this is what we should be asking ourselves every day.
I won’t name the university; it’s easy to find that information, as well as the brand document itself. My goal isn’t to name and shame a particular institution or branding agency, because the point is: this stuff is everywhere.
Why? Has it always been like this? And is there a way out?
Branding in itself isn’t BS. It’s just a way to differentiate businesses to help them attract and retain customers (duh). But somewhere along the way it started taking itself too seriously. Probably close to the point where a branding project would start taking years rather than weeks, and involve entire departments as well as armies of stakeholders. At some point, when branding fees started hitting seven digits, people started to lose sight of what it was all about, and more replaced better. Perhaps it was agencies themselves that had created this by coming up with cool-sounding but unnecessary new things to charge for; or it may have been the clients asking for those small-country’s-GDP-sized budgets to be justified not by clear, original, strategic thinking and brilliant creative work but by the sheer amount of work presented in a branding deck. Either way, critical thinking and self-awareness had left the building.
Forget clever, concise thoughts, honest craft that speaks for itself, or ideas that look as good on a napkin as on a 96-sheet billboard. For this amount of time and money, we need at least 60 pages of hardcore, in-depth, impressive-sounding branding stuff. Let’s create some new terms, like brand pillars, and say that anyone not using them is a hack and/or loser. Let’s throw in a few tortured visual metaphors: why not represent our brand-new brand pillars as sound controls that can be dialled up and down depending on the situation (less irreverence for the donors and stakeholders, states the brand guide dissected on the podcast). Let’s come up with a cheesy acronym full of shoehorned-in generic terms representing our values. You know the type…
Sustainable. Human-centric. Uncompromising. Dedicated. Driven. Unique. Positive.
The end result of this kind of branding is so pungent that even total outsiders like David and Tamler will occasionally catch a whiff and take a pause from discussing Nietzsche or the merits of meritocracy to poke fun at the blatant BS, self-aggrandising statements, and sentences too vague to parse. Granted, as people far from the industry, they don’t fully understand that a brand guidelines document is only intended for marketing and communications professionals, making sure that all their work for the business in question is consistent and recognisable. But it doesn’t make their points any less valid, or funny, and you can’t help snort-laughing and cringing at hearing things like…
“Extraordinary. We also see this as “Extra Ordinary.” As in more than the usual.”
“Expand the horizons of your horizons.”
“Simply put, there is nothing that we don’t do well here. Which is uncommon.”
You laugh, and yet you can probably think of at least one similarly stupid example you’ve recently read (or worse, written) in a branding document without stopping to call it out. It’s hard to stay immune when everyone around you is spewing this stuff on the daily.
The real problem, though, isn’t that someone will find your brand guide laughable, generic, or pretentious. The real problem is that letting these things fly makes you an accomplice in creating actual garbage. Hundreds of pages of it. Stuff that serves no purpose other than stroking egos and ticking boxes. An absolute waste of ink, pixels, time, money, and more importantly, perfectly good human brains that have been clouded by spending too long inside the perfect, Certified Glossy™ bubble of brand marketing. And it’s not neutral for business — it’s a smear on the face of the business. It’s what makes people rate advertising among the least trustworthy professions of all, surpassed only by politicians and car salespeople (in the US), or completely unsurpassed (in the UK). It’s the reason Bill Hicks famously suggested that anyone in advertising or marketing should vacate the planet.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re a brand owner or branding professional: BS ruins it for everyone. It wastes your resources and destroys your credibility.
And it’s not that hard to check your branding for BS. As always, a few good questions will make things pretty clear pretty fast. Why not start with these:
1. While writing your brand guide, did you at any point want to high-five yourself or anyone else on the team? If you did, delete that part immediately.
“We search. We re-search. We research.” Sarah wrote. She felt immensely proud. This was both playful and clever, like those Economist ads. She contemplated saving it for another project, because the client hardly deserved this level of copywriting, but who knows when she might get her next chance to do branding for a university…
2. Take each value or quality you claim in your brand guide and run the ‘as opposed to what?’ test. Simply put: would any brand in your category claim to be the opposite of it?
“We collaborate, innovate and find better ways.” — oh yeah, unlike all those other universities that are against collaboration and pro- standing still.
3. Would you volunteer to read it all out loud in front of some really smart people who know you personally? Rewrite it until the prospect feels less terrifying.
“We are not a content agency. We’re a dynamic ecosystem cultivated by hundreds of talented, industrious worker bees,” Max read out and gulped. He couldn’t dare look at the audience. He heard a cough that sounded like a suppressed giggle. Max took a deep breath and finished, breathlessly: “…working hard to create sweet, valuable liquid gold every day.”
4. Is everything you’ve written going to help someone do their job creating brand communications, or did you include some bits whose sole purpose is to stroke egos or show how smart you are?
“There’s just something about this place. The energy on campus is palpable. The electricity in the air at our events is astonishing.” Marina typed. She could almost see the approving nods and smiles from the dean and heads of faculties when she would read this out in front of them. “A few more of these, and we’ll get approval on the spot,” she thought.
5. Did you use a thesaurus (or some dusty recess of your brain) to find a less simple way of saying what you’re trying to say? Burn it. Both the thesaurus and what you’ve written after consulting it.
“Symbiosis is not just our ethos; it’s built into our modus operandi,” Nina read this out loud twice, savouring the ending in particular. Finally people would take her dog-walking business seriously.
If your brand guide has made it through the list unscathed, pat yourself on the back real hard: you are not part of the problem. And if it didn’t, that’s fine too, because you’re on the right way: just like with 12-step programmes, acknowledging the problem is the first step to recovery. You know what’s wrong, you know how to fix it, and that means you can.
Bullshit branding isn’t just something we don’t need. It’s something we should help each other get rid of, because it’s bad for business as well as for our long-suffering, marketing-corrupted souls. So check your brand before you wreck your brand — or before you become the laughing stock for a couple of acerbic academics with a large audience.