The risks of brand ego tripping

I nodded vigorously as I read Mark Ritson's latest "Ritson rant" about how "brands’ inane visions have lost touch with what consumers really use them for" in Marketing Week here (sign-up needed). He suggests that several brands have "Climbed from product features past functional benefits and emotional advantages to the top of the ‘benefit ladder’, leaping dramatically into an aspirational swan dive that plummets into an ever growing sea of bullshit below." The examples he quotes include:

– Coca-Cola's global mission to inspire moments of optimism, refresh the world and make a difference. 

– McDonald’s new brand vision to use fast food as a catalyst to oppose “all the negativity that surrounds daily life” 

- Kellogg’s global brand positioning of ‘Let’s make today great!’

– Starbucks' mission to ‘inspire the human spirit’.

I've written many times about the risk of brands climbing too high up the "benefit ladder", leaving behind the product and thinking they can change the world. I call this "brand ego tripping." Tom Fishburne did a great cartoon that brings this problem to life (see below)

So, what are the risks of this brand ego tripping?

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1. Lack of relevance

The first and most fundamental problem Mark highlights is that "Twinkly-ass horseshit that has nothing to do with the actual product or consumer, leads inevitably to tactical work that exhibits the same bizarre, detached quality." He quotes as an example Starbucks baristas being encouraged to discuss race relations with bemused customers and writing #racetogether on their cups.

2. Lack of credibility

Mark's says that people "Just want a coffee, or a burger. They also want race equality and loving feelings – but they don’t want hamburger multinationals telling them how to achieve it."  You do wonder how credible the lofty ambitions of these everyday brands really are, especially for younger consumers who are more questioning about brands and their real motivations (selling more burgers/fries, coffee or sugary drinks)

3. Lack of distinctiveness

The final issue with brand ego tripping that Mark highlights is that brands' higher-order visions tend to look and sound similar, as shown by Starbucks’ quest to “inspire the human spirit”, Kellogg’s dream of “making today great” and Barclaycard’s desire to “get more from today”. By losing sight of their product truths, these brands risk losing touch with the real roles that play in consumers' lives.  

An example of a brand who climbed back down the brand benefit ladder to reality is Dove. I posted here on the learning of the Dove team and their agency, Ogilvy, during the creation of their Campaign for Real Beauty, an example from the Brand Vision book. The team developed three different "brand anthem" campaigns that urged women to stop judging themselves so harshly ('Beauty Has A Million Faces One Of Them Is Yours', 'Give Your Beauty Wings' and 'Let's Make Peace With Beauty'). However, as the planner from Ogilvy agency commented :

"Unfortunately, women were not impressed. They found our ideas patronising. The top-down approach seemed to lead to rather didactic, theoretical and distant work. So we decided instead to work bottom-up – product first, wrapped in beauty theory.

The Dove team decided to get the "sausage" (product) and "sizzle" (emotional values) working together, telling a product story in an impactful, emotionally engaging way. This led to the launch of Firming Cream, with the now famous advert of real ladies in their undies. It was fresh. It was honest. And it plugged a product: "As tested on real curves". "Real-ness" and "honesty" was the brand's personality, but not the idea itself. This helped create impact for the brand, at the same time as selling lots of product.

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In conclusion, be on the watch-out the next time you work on your brand vision to avoid brand ego tripping where, as Mark puts it, you "depart from consumer reality and enter the kind of aspirational emotion zone that only ad agencies and the most deluded brand manager inhabit"