Humanity has disappeared out of branding, writes John Moore,
who introduces ways to get rid of the BS in favour of authenticity
John Moore, Director of Ourhouse,
studied Philosophy and Politics at Oxford for three years and managed to forget
almost all he had learned within a few weeks of leaving. After stints as a political
speechwriter and four years in advertising, he formed his own consultancy in
For the last few years John has combined his career in marketing
with training in humanistic psychotherapy, NLP and Improvizational Theatre.
This has given him a different perspective on the marketing process and a desire
to help organizations that want to create real value for stakeholders.
WE LIVE in a world of too much marketing and too much branding. People’s faith
in advertising has fallen to new lows, as we simply fail to engage with the
claims advertisers make.
I think the humanity has been driven out of most branding
programmes, replaced by an ever-growing list of clever-sounding jargon and "tools"
designed to manipulate rather than engage with consumers. It’s time to put human
Many fundamental principles of marketing and branding would be regarded as deeply
dysfunctional in person-to-person relationships.
Here are a few examples.
"Put the customer first"
A wife who always puts her husband first (or vice versa) is likely to
have a deeply unhappy marriage. Oddly, both partners will be unhappy because
none of us really enjoy the company of sycophants (even though a lot of
brand managers spend their time in the company of such people).
At extremes, in relationships this leads to battered
Or both partners may try to constantly please the other
and neither find out how to satisfy themselves. This leads to dull marriages
that end in affairs.
The general label for this kind of behaviour in real
relationships is co-dependency.
"Differentiate or die"
Branding puts far too much effort into differentiation. But this is simply
another way of being co-dependent, because we allow our identity to be
dictated by others.
An individual whose main purpose is to be different
often wastes energy on pointless cosmetic changes instead of realising
that the easiest way to be different is to be true to yourself. Many brands
lack any sense of purpose which can be the key to standing out. This is
manifestly the case with banks like Barclays with its absurd giantesque
advertising with Anthony Hopkins.
"Consistency of presentation is vital"
It’s absurd that companies produce multi-volume manuals to control the
exact colour scheme for their logo. This is like the dysfunctional adolescent
who is obsessed with appearance to the point of bulimia or anorexia. Instead
of building self-esteem, they undermine it.
And no sensible employee wants to be guided by a rule
book, they want to be inspired by example. Presentation is completely
secondary to behaviour, as the British Airways tailfin and Consignia examples
An approach based on more human principles would favour authenticity
over perfection. It’s also likely be more effective: as we are constantly bombarded
by marketing claims, our willingness to believe them decreases. The solution of
many marketers is to seek out ever louder or more intrusive creative work, but
in a "tragedy of the commons" this solution makes the underlying problem
even worse. The truly distinctive choice is to reduce the hype and increase the
The low-cost airlines have been big beneficiaries of cutting
through this nonsense with under-promise. They are (relatively) cheap and
offer a matching level of service. Easyjet seems to revel in the ITV series which
frequently demonstrates its human shortcomings. With no investment in CRM and
frequent-flyer pseudo-loyalty, they seem to have created a more realistic relationship
with customers. Of course, Southwest Airlines takes the biscuit for no holds barred
self-mockery. After a bumpy landing, the flight attendant announced: ‘We ask you
to please remain seated as Captain Kangaroo bounces us to the terminal.’
Such straightforwardness makes perfect sense in our personal
lives: none of us would be long attracted to a friend who spoke of himself in
the same narcissistic language as many advertisers. Likewise, if we formed a relationship
with someone who claimed their life would be dedicated solely to our pleasure
we’d be wise to expect some serious problems down the line.
In a network economy of great transparency, all marketing rests
on a series of real human conversations and relationships. These more authentic
relationships must start inside organizations.
In praise of "negative" emotions
Bad news: if you want passion in your organization, you can’t pick and choose
what form it takes. You might get laughter but you might also get tears; you
may get enthusiasm but you’ll also have to deal with anger.
I remember taking part in meetings to steer a £30 million
two-year branding project in which everyone was very polite. One day, a skirmish
broke out as someone (me) started to openly criticize some of the work. Arguments
broke out, until the brand director intervened and expressed his disappointment
that the normal spirit of teamwork seemed to have failed us.
Of course the "normal spirit of teamwork" was code
for a spirit of denial, where doubt and challenge were suppressed in favour
of the illusion of unanimity. As the cause of the skirmish, I soon found myself
marginalized from the process. One participant subsequently revealed his strategy
at these meetings: to sit there and not allow the wrenching of their stomach
to manifest in any discussions.
And the inauthenticity of these meetings resulted inauthentic
marketing to consumers. This campaign, which shall remain nameless, is without
question one of the most spectacular rebranding failures of modern times, and
was canned by its financiers after two years of negligible results.
Yet the teamwork exemplified is exactly the type that many
businesses inculcate. (A friend recently told me that at Hewlett Packard there
was something called the "Hewlett Packard Yes": which meant the passionless
assent of people unwilling to state their real views.)
Play to human strengths
What’s needed is a balancing intervention in favour of practices and ideas
that play up to our human strengths. Perhaps foremost among these are techniques
from the world of improv theatre, as well as some tools from psychotherapy.
These techniques focus attention on what creates real satisfaction in human
For example, I recently worked with a niche furnishing brand.
I was asked to help the sales team become more effective but quickly discovered
a series of misunderstandings and anxieties between them and management. I started
using a simple concept created by family therapist Virginia Satir. Called a
temperature reading, it is designed to help couples or teams to actually examine
the nature of their relationship by going through a simple and consistent agenda.
The starts with appreciations, and works its way through new
information, puzzles, complaints with recommendations to wishes and hopes. Without
going into detail, this relationship tool allowed all concerned to give voice
to deeply felt but as yet unexpressed needs and concerns—many of which could
be easily resolved one exposed to daylight. None of which were emerging in conventional
Another powerful tool is improv. Actors in Improvizational
Theatre have learnt how to create compelling scenes totally spontaneously, with
no script. In doing so, they have inadvertently stumbled on principles that
are a powerful antidote to the prevailing mentality that stifles the power of
the human spirit in organizations.
Get businesspeople playing a few of the warm-up games that
improv actors play and strange things happen: the energy level of the group
rises and often laughter bursts out. Gradually, people get better at creating
greater spontaneity in their communications and their emotional state changes.
They start to experience the power of (forgive the jargon) co-creativity.
For example, take a game called One Word Story. A group of
players make up a story, where each can only contribute one words at a time,
in a circle. After a few stumbles, most story circles start producing funny
and satisfying stories, yet no-one is really in control and everyone must acknowledge
that they have contributed to the outcome. Arguably the holy grail of team building,
within minutes of first trying. And people can be encouraged to ask: what if
my working relationships and meetings could be more like this?
Relationship thinking starts to undermine the fundamental
economics of brand consultancies and ad agencies, which depend on claims to
control and manage relationships on behalf of their clients. What’s
needed is an approach based on facilitation, rather than agency;
a style that relies on improving the quality of human contact to allow participants
to access more of their innate resources for connecting—instead of claiming
to do it for them.
As Alan Mitchell points out in Right
Side Up, ‘The counter-intuitive effect of the information age … is to
shift the focus of value from financial or industrial wealth to human wealth;
to search for competitive edge by unleashing the full potential of people assets
rather than thing assets.’
If you want your brand to be truly engaging, you have encourage
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