Bullshit-Free Branding

This article accompanied my speech at the 2010 Pivot Conference, in NYC.

 Let’s be honest: There’s a lot of bullshit in branding.

It’s a pity — and it’s a threat. Because today, brand or marketing communications exuding any whiff of bull will be distrusted, discredited and derided by today’s cynical audiences.

And no audience is more cynical than the 18-34 years-olds — the Millennials — who were born into an online marketplace awash in spam, paid “user” reviews, phishing and other greedy deceptions.

These cynics can sniff out bullshit from a mile away. Actually, they’re waiting for it. And when they zero-in on the source of a communication’s stench — an exaggeration, an ambiguity, an inconsistency, nonsense, a promise too good to be true — they’ll pounce. And rather than just take their business elsewhere, they’ll take up a cause to expose and punish the bullshitting offender by urging others to boycott.

Bullshit-free branding has always been important. Today it’s important and urgent.

Because nowadays, you can’t fool any of the people any of the time.

Armed with Snopes, mass reviews, WikiLeaks and other trusted sources, everything a company claims can and will be verified, almost instantly. Every pissed-off critic holds a megaphone and now the whole world can hear their rant.

Online customer rants: Not good for business.

So what exactly is bullshit, this offensive toxin?

Based on my deep-dive research into bullshit, including On Bullshit by Harry G Frankfurt, Deeper Into Bullshit (pdf) by G.A. Cohen and Your Call Is Important to Us: The Truth about Bullshit by Laura Penny, I’d define “bullshit” as any communication that is:
  • Nonsensical
  • Insincere or disingenuous 
  • Unclear and unclarifiable
  • Exaggerating
  • Inaccurate or
  • Not believable
Bullshit is like obscenity: We know it when we see it. These are some specific indicators of bullshit in branding:
  • Anything too good to be true
  • Exaggeration, superlatives and hyperbole
  • Proprietary claims
  • Weasel words
  • Vagueness and ambiguity
  • Omissions
  • Euphemisms
  • Triteness and clichés
  • Inconsistency
  • Dishonesty
For cynics, this list practically defines marketing. But it doesn't have to be that way.

Marketers would be well-served to avoid these customer repellents and instead practice bullshit-free branding.

So what's bullshit-free branding? It's brand definitions and communications that pass the SNIFF test:

Self-aware

Your brand should not try to be more — or less — than what it is.
Natural
Writing, ideas, and brand names that are not contrived

Integrity
True to itself and customers


Forthright
Straightforward, revealing, sincere, specific

Factual
Claims are true, verifiable and evident; endorsements are earned not purchased

You can't fake your way through this. It takes honest marketing to pass the SNIFF test:
  • Be who you are and act that way
  • Wear your consumer hat
  • Be real and honest but not folksy
  • Write simply and clearly
  • Be specific
  • Avoid triteness, clichés, weasel words and exaggeration
Beyond the tips offered here, there are books and online resources to help you practice bullshit-free branding:
Follow the advice I've offered here, read the resources and links provided, and use the SNIFF test to evaluate your brand communications to ensure they remain bullshit-free.

And remember: Let's be honest.

Please share your ideas on how to create and evaluate bullshit-free branding.

- Anth

Thanks to Amanda "Gucky" Peterson, David Schargel and Matthew Cross for their contributions.

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