The deliberation game

I regularly pose the question “Why do so many brands seem to look like each other?”

Usually my argument concentrates on a failing spirit of creativity within the industry, but there is another significant reason. It is because we (consultancies and clients) have found ourselves talking about brands in the same limited way. We seem to have subconsciously developed a vocabulary of terms which are interchangeable – sector to sector, brand to brand. It follows that we produce strategies and briefs that are general rather than specific.

This was emphasised at a conference I recently attended. A speaker asked delegates to think for a moment about what makes their brand unique in its sector. “Right,” he continued, “will anyone who doesn’t have quality as a core differentiator please identify themselves.” There was much nervous shuffling because, of course, everyone thought they had exclusive rights to this word.

Reliable, is another overused term. I may be ever so slightly naive, but I would hope that anything being offered for sale would perform as the manufacturer promised.

Tasty, or delicious? Again I would expect anything masquerading as food to be edible at the very least!

Integrity, or genuine, – oh, I always chose the dubious looking one!

Positive, or optimistic – strange, I’m motivated by negative and cynical brands.

Natural, healthy, premium, aspirational, accessible, are others that figure in Marketing Word Top Ten (or should that be words that have become totally devalued by their overuse).

Fact, or the rantings of a cynic? I would argue that the evidence is there. Just look at the press releases with which we have become familiar. Lines like “the brief was to increase food values”; “our task was to highlight the healthiness of X”; “the strategy was to make Y more contemporary”; or “we wanted to emphasise the authority of Z” are as common as some of the brands they describe.

A brief should be just that – brief, focusing on which particular aspect of the brand you want to communicate. In turn, this will inspire designers and give people on the team something against which to evaluate work (forgive me for stating the obvious).

The trouble is that a great many of these vacuous words simply fluff up creative briefs. They get in the way, often overshadowing whatever it is that makes the brand unique.

Such catch-all briefs have come into existence for a variety of reasons. Usually it’s the fact that too many cooks are involved, with everyone at the client end wanting to add their pet words to the list. Sometimes it’s a preoccupation with borrowing from a competitor, or simply the misplaced desire to be all things to all people.

But when briefs become catch-alls, they can never hope to deliver more than the lowest common denominator. In an attempt to say everything, we often say nothing. It follows that if we all view brands in the same way, we will, of course, deliver brands from the same mould.

Worryingly, we’ve progressed to a whole other level. To overcome the tricky times when a client wants to be modern, yet traditional, we’ve developed the term “contemporary classic”.

Another good euphemism when the client brief says different, yet familiar, is that the brand needs to “have a twist”. And iconic, has come to be a way of softening the blow when a client wants a big logo.

Even strategies have become shared. For instance who, working in fmcg, hasn’t had the mood-changing concept hit their desk in some guise over the past 12 months? Everyone, brewer to confectioner, appears to be in pursuit of this one.

At the end of the day, I imagine most of us are from the school of thought that good brands are about depth or concentration and not breadth – really meaning something to a specific target rather than meaning little to the masses. That idea of concentration has to start with a clear strategy and meaningful brief.

The crux of the issue remains that design output can only ever be as good as the brief to which it is responding.

Therefore, my advice to any designer currently staring at a check list of vacuous words is to remind the author of the offending document, that Eskimos have over 400 different words to describe snowflakes! They presumably make the time to find the right one for the occasion – so should those charged with briefing creative work.

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