Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Webs. Tangled.

I want to talk about branding today.

And I'm not using the word branding the way too many people misuse it.

I'm not talking about a logo, a font, a set of colors and some misguided mishymashy mishagoss of words someone calls a 'mission statement,' I want to go back to almost pre-literate times and think about the purposes of symbols in communicating complex ideas simply in a crowded marketplace.

Branding symbols--logos, colophons, trademarks--had to be imbued with meaning or--tautologically--they were meaning-less.

If you had a shop before there was widespread literacy, you would hang an image of what you sold outside of your store. A button-maker would show a button. A chandler, a candle. A mohel, well, you get the idea.

In the world of publishing--the printing-press helped make books and magazines some of the first mass-produced goods, the colophon, or brand-mark, was meant to tell the reader "this came from a credible press and it is not iniquitous and evil. It abides by the dicta of the times." 

In short, the brand-mark, or branding, or logo, was a shorthand way of saying "trust me." Because at its simplest and purest a brand--everything it says, does and shows the world is supposed to mean that the brand is something you can trust to do what it says it's going to do. 

If you believe, as I do, that brands we like act like people we like, brands start with trust. You're probably not going to hang with a person or a brand who's a flat-out liar. Or even a partially-deflated liar.

But today, brands, from the giant global ones, to smaller local ones, like sports teams, to the companies we work for, to the plague of personal branding, it seems to me nearly every brand is lying. Taking more from you than they're giving and pretending they give a shit about you. 

In the parlance of British advertising from decades ago, they don't do exactly what it says on the tin.

They're liars.

Sorry if that's Old Testament bull-headed for you. If it is, you might find a different blog to waste your time on.

Further, they're trying to cover up their lack of honesty with some design-sleight-of-hand. Look at our new name, they seem to say. Our boffo new logo. They were all part of a multi-million dollar effort to improve our product and/or service. 

Only they don't.

Like musk changing a bird for an x, there is an aesthetic difference but nothing meaningful has changed. I'd be fine with this: "X. Twitter with 20% less hate speech." Or this, "Meta: Facebook with less ad fraud and surveillance capitalism." Or "Pepsi. Now with 20% fewer diabetic Black people." Or even, "Burger King. Same horsemeat, revamped 70s logo."

I personally am tired of American corruption from sea to shining sea.

Corruption seems everywhere. Companies, who a short-while ago, elevated people to Chief Diversity Officers, are now eliminating the position. It was never for real. It was only for show. Or universities that admit the rich at more than twice the rate as the ordinary. Or the defense-industrial-complex who are shipping cluster bombs to Ukraine and propagating the Orwellian notion of "defensive weapons."

It goes on without end. 

In what used to be the advertising industry, virtually every holding company and every ad agency plays the fake awards game. The fake numbers game. The fake account win game. And of course, the fake ad game. Oh, that last sentence, btw, got over 14 billion free impressions and won a platinum ocelot in the Bratislava Ad Festival.

Trust used to be the primary thing we wanted from brands. Now, an online magazine, The Drum, runs articles about the viability of fake ads--and industry denizens extol their value.

Fake is fake.

Fake presidents. Fake promises. Fake resumes. Fake santos. Fake language. Fake manipulation. Fake data. Fake people. Fake evidence. Fake allegations.

As an industry, our only real reason for being is to tell the truth about brands in a way that makes it easier for people to make decisions about which brands to buy. 

We serve our clients by telling truths. Not by spinning lies.

Just as a logo is nothing but a facade if it doesn't represent beliefs, behaviors and values, our industry is nothing if it doesn't do the same. 

As Bob Levenson wrote half-a-century ago in the house ad above for Doyle Dane Bernbach:

"And above all, the messages we put on those pages, on those television screens must be the truth. For if we play tricks with the truth, we die."

Not to amend Mr. Levenson, but it's worse than that. 

"If we play tricks with ourselves, we deserve to die."

No comments: