Saturday, March 29, 2008

Brand characterlessness or another thing I haven't figured out

I was writing and rewriting brand character words for most of yesterday afternoon and it reminded me just how weak the whole concept is. For me, the brand character/tonality/look and feely section has always been the lamest category on the brief. The convention of three perky adjectives--optimistic, confident and contemporary or irreverent, hip and energetic—always seemed like a throwaway gesture, raising as many questions as it answered. Out of context, these three words can suggest a broad array of possibilities. And is there any word more deadly than the dreaded “fun.”

I seem to recall a time when some planners stuck in a celebrity as a representation for the brand personality, but that’s been kind of out of fashion lately. Maybe clients got tired of seeing Hanks name on the bottom of too many briefs.

Some people seem to be fond of the those Jungian Archetypes: Jesters and Heroes and Lovers which are intended to embody and represent cultural identities and aspirations. The problem with all these analogies is that they just create another concept to interpret. You start with Tide or Miller Lite and then you add a Jester or Tom Hanks and suddenly you have multiple concepts that are open to interpretation (Tom Hanks in “Big” or Tom Hanks in “Catch me if you can”?) and we know how useful ill-defined words are on a brief.

I know that planners have tried cultural representations in the spirit of movie pitches: It’s a cross between American Idol, Girls Gone Wild and Animal Planet. Which at least has the advantage of matching two things in the same general category of cultural products and forms of communication.

And then there are those full-blown consumer profiles in the great Bachelor/Bachelorette tradition: Zach, 24, lives in Burlington Vermont. He loves boarding, skating and hanging out with his friends. He works at a hip design firm and plays guitar in an EMO band but his true passions are Orchids, his pet Bichon Frisee and his Master whom he refers to in private as Ralph the Invader.

You get the idea. What I find lame about all these methods is how quickly they submit to convention and cliché, mapping out the details of familiar stereotypes. That’s fine, so far as it goes, but I don’t think it’s going to help inspire interesting work, which is one of the main points of the brief. On the contrary, they tend to drive creatives toward conventional solutions. Being a cranky skeptical sort, I tend to like defining what the brand is not or and who it is not for, which at least maps out some boundaries without having to write a lame-ass consumer portrait as imagined by a Marketing Director living in the suburbs of Detroit.

Of all the conventional tricks, I find the cultural analog one probably the most useful. At the very least, it matches the brand communication to another cultural product that has achieved some relevance and thereby also suggests both the cultural condition that made it relevant and a reason why someone might care.

But I’m open to new suggestions. In the meantime, I’m going to remain frustrated, skeptical and perpetually defeated by my own pointless intellectual exercises, kind of a like a cross between Paul Giamatti in American Splendor and Wittgenstein in his late period.


Paul Soldera said...

I had to laugh when I read this. How about those carefully crafted segment descriptions as well? The ones that tend to summarize a cloud of points into a succinct profile that then takes on a life of its own. Sooner or later you start marketing to an ill-conceived average that gets you nowhere. But isn't all Marketing about aggregating complexity to a manageable level? Isn't that the very definition of Marketing versus Sales?

Scott said...

Great point, Paul. Marketing, or mass marketing, is definitely about managing complexity to a kind of, dare i say it, artificial simplicity. But I'd argue that any document that's designed to guide creative work needs to maintain a sharp focus, with details that inspire new ideas rather than forcing the creatives to fight through a wall of cliches. In fact, you've got me thinking that maybe the "character" needs to have the power of a compelling fictional character which inspires identification through specifics.

Paul Soldera said...

For pure character generalization (if we have to), what about conveying a set of decisions rather than traits? Outward appearances can be deceiving and easily maintained as illusions. Decisions force us to confront who we are and who we aspire to be - and force a choice between the two. What would Zach watch if he had a choice between American Idol and Lost? If a stranger asked for money for a bus ticket, what would he do? etc etc. Sometimes it's easier to understand a person this way.

Scott said...

Agreed again. You don't have to convince me about the relative value of behavioral vs. attitudinal factors. And your suggestion reveals yet another weakness of those lame profiles. They don't put these claimed attitudes and actions in context of alternative choices, which more accurately reveal a target's real investments. To refer to my example above: character revealed through plot.