Too close for comfort

Brands frequently adopt a chummy, over-familiar tone in their marketing, but forced bonhomie can never lead to meaningful relationships. Jim Davies says they should show more respect

I remember a rather weaselly, cloying character at school who used to go around asking people if they’d be his friend. You could almost smell his desperation, and unsurprisingly, this uncompromising approach had few takers. It didn’t help that his target audience was so broad and haphazard… he’d ask literally anyone who came into his orbit, which made you feel like you were a bit of a last resort, but what the heck, he’d give it a go anyway. It was a kind of lose-lose situation… you’d both retreat from a highly unsatisfactory encounter feeling a tad worse about yourself.

More recently, I’ve been having a similar experience with brands, though in some respects they’re worse. At least No Mates Minor had the decency to make a polite enquiry before sloping off with his head in his hands.

Brands, on the other hand, just seem to assume we’re on a back-slapping, pally footing, whether they’ve been invited to the party or not.

Many brands adopt a persona. It helps them stand out and gives them direction. So for example, Bacardi Breezer is a young ladette out for a good time, but Vogue is her soignee elder sister. Nike is the street-smart elder brother who wears his jeans around his knees, while Werther’s Original is the glinty grampy with the zip-up slippers.

Others take the idea further, aligning themselves with real people – a company founder like Richard Branson or James Dyson,or a hand-picked spokesperson like Kate Moss or Jamie Oliver.

Even from this crude pencil sketch, it’s glaringly obvious that I wouldn’t want to be friends with all these types, despite being a welcoming and open-minded kind of chap. And yet each and every one of them feels perfectly at liberty to address me with a breezy familiarity, as if we’ve been firm friends since kindergarten. I’d possibly spare a couple of idle moments to hear what the lady from Vogue has to say for herself, but as for the rest of the motley crew, that’s about as far as it goes.

And yet so many of today’s brands seem to feel they can shimmy right up to us, brazenly caress our inner thighs, and seduce us with their chummy colloquialisms. Brands like Barclays, which insists on calling an ATM a ’hole in the wall’ (who uses that anymore?), and asks us to ’take the weight off’ when we’re in a happy queue waiting for one of our best muckers to cash a cheque. Or even – whisper it – Apple, whose staff have taken to high-fiving people as they venture into one of its dazzling, pearly white stores.

Of course I’m not advocating prickliness or obtuseness. Although they might come as a relief from the usual gush of forced bonhomie. It’s just that meaningful friendships have to be earned and reciprocated. Besides, you can have perfectly civil, productive relationships without pretending you’re as close as two sides of Velcro. I don’t walk in to a lawyer’s office or a doctor’s surgery expecting to be invited to the next performance of Mamma Mia.

Indeed, I’d far rather the people who looked after my money, professional services, technology and transport needs had some gravitas. I don’t want to be addressed as ’guys’, or asked if I’m good. I simply want a clear, straightforward dialogue, and to make my own mind up.

And who knows, in the fullness of time, we might even be ready to move on to the next stage in our relationship.
Jim Davies is founder of copywriting studio Total Content

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