It’s time for brands to get ugly



Photo: Angelica Huston photographed for US Vogue, Jan 1973 by Avedon

I am going to stick my neck out and say that too many brand identities are plonked onto companies without considering the realities involved. As our audiences become more and more able to investigate the realities of a company’s behaviour, we can’t underestimate the importance of a brand’s identity and personality being realistic and genuinely reflecting how the company, agency or product works and interacts with its customers, staff and the environment. When you try to force a company or product into an ill-fitting brand it will misbehave somehow and eventually the cracks are going to show. You might well end up with the kind of mess you get when a highly-strung beauty queen hits 40. 


I believe the problem is related to cognitive dissonance – a disparity between the expectation and the experience – but I’m no psychologist. However, in branding as in life, I believe honesty and acceptance is essential for success. This might sound like ‘branding by Gok Wan‘, but bear with me. (And actually, Gok’s brand is so well-defined and cleverly diversified that it’s well worth looking at as an example.) There’s a tendency to regurgitate the same old same old values when you’re working with brands. I’ll put my hand up to it; I’m as guilty as anyone of slinging about brand values like: effective, trustworthy, forward-looking, innovative, reassuring. In fairness, we know that successful companies tend to have those kinds of values, and they’re all very positive – exactly how you’d like a ‘dream company’ to behave, and how you’d hope all companies would aspire to behave. 


While it might sound like a bad idea to include brand values like ‘lying’, ‘cheating’, ‘greedy’, ‘lazy’, ‘mean’, actually those are real-life attributes that we and the people we know and love do have. They are realistic. They reflect the ways in which our companies operate. And when you think about it, aren’t all the most successful businesses differentiated by some kind of quirkiness of character? Some companies are shockers when it comes to paying their bills, but hey, that’s OK, because they work in ways that are interesting and exciting and they’re fun to do business with, so we don’t mind too much having to send a reminder invoice. Others are punctilious and prissy, but the products they make are so well-engineered and robustly made that you can’t argue with their fussiness. Others are insanely demanding and beyond annoying, but so uniquely visionary that in working for them you feel you’re part of an incredible movement for universal betterment. It’s a part of their character and part of why they excel at what they do. But I doubt you’d see ‘slapdash’ ‘diva’, ‘fussy’ or ‘nitpicking’ written up on their list of brand values. I think it should be. Be brave. If your company has a reputation for being a little stingy, do the Yorkshire thing and say ‘we care about not wasting money, which means we’re going to give you good value’ – channel that potential negative and let it take you somewhere positive. (And this is where we’re back to Gok Wan – I’m not saying companies should just let it all hang out. There has to be an element of spin to turn a possible negative into a definite positive. It’s the branding equivalent of Spanx pants.)


You don’t think that this tactic would work? Well, isn’t ‘greedy’ pretty much the USP of the delightful and very successful Nigella Lawson? I have every one of her cookbooks and her recipes are fantastic because as well as tasting good they are very dependable, and she is a very honest writer. As for greed being appealing, well, several gentlemen of my acquaintance tell me that Nigella is the ultimate in posh totty and a major sex symbol for blokes over 40. (That’s a whole different kind of aspiration though, chaps.) Nigella is greedy, so you trust her to write recipes that are a whole lot more delicious than Gwyneth Paltrow’s (I saw her terribly healthy cookbook knocked down to £3 in WH Smith yesterday). 


The French phrase ‘jolie laide’ literally means ‘pretty ugly’ and describes someone who doesn’t have conventional beauty but is nonetheless very attractive; I think it’s well worth considering when talking about branding. Embrace the ugly bits of the business and find the attractiveness within them to create an honest brand with some self-knowledge and originality, not just some cookie-cutter blah. How much more appealing is Angelica Huston than the bland pneumatic blonde in the Guess jeans ad whose name I can’t remember?


Floris – a perfectly preserved brand

ImagePhoto – Floris

I had an interesting experience last weekend, one that few people are lucky enough to enjoy. I traveled around London smelling perfumes with a group of other fragrance geeks that included three perfumers. In St James, I visited the Floris shop at 89 Jermyn Street with Karen Gilbert,  a respected perfumer, trainer and product developer who has worked for well-known brands and has a phenomenal grasp of the industry.

The oldest British perfumery, founded in 1730, Floris has a very well-defined brand, which draws heavily on its history and tradition for imagery and positioning. The shop is a glorious mahogany-lined High Edwardian vision, with a marvellous dapper French-accented manager who understands the fine line between helpfulness and intrusion. While the point-of-sale materials and window displays are modern, the bottles and packaging are resolutely 1920s in styling, and give an impression of solidity as well as luxury, and the online presence is absolutely in tune with the physical. Both in the shop and online, Royal Warrants from the Queen and the Prince of Wales are discreetly displayed, as are letters from customers including Florence Nightingale, Winston Churchill and Marylin Monroe.

The overall brand image is of a very British quiet elegance and insistence on quality, that places Floris squarely in the ‘upper’ bracket of our class system. It is so immaculately curated that it veers close to Disneyfication, but doesn’t quite become a caricature because of the subtle and intelligent use of modern touches, such as simple black and white website imagery, the modern point-of-sale materials and an ongoing product development programme which has seen new fragrances released that fit with current market trends.

This was when it became very interesting to be smelling perfumes with a professional perfumer. While I would spritz a paper strip and say ‘oh, this is modern, nice and fresh’, Karen would sniff several times, mutter mysteriously about Dihydromyrcenol, Galaxolide and Hedione and say ‘this is a nice twist on CKOne, made with good materials’, placing the scent squarely in the context of the successful products on the market. Karen explained that this is something most perfume-making companies do; take the fashionable or iconic form that customers understand, and simply add a half-twist of this or that to keep it from being a straight copy. This is a particularly intelligent thing for a company like Floris to do, because it keeps the brand’s offerings current and relevant to a larger and younger audience.

However, one of the problems with exclusivity and perfume is that your potential customers need to be able to physically smell the products, but you need to maintain your brand image. Consequently, Floris is stocked in John Lewis department stores and independent pharmacies in county towns; exactly the kinds of shops frequented by the fictional tweedy Honorables that are the backbone of a very British perception of what is ‘upper class’. Interestingly, the Cefiro fragrance which Karen described so precisely as being similar to CKOne is Floris’ choice for their range of hotel toiletries, used by selected five star hotels – another way to very efficiently place their products in potential customers’ hands while maintaining brand values and equity.

While that bottle of Floris perfume or bath essence might look as if it belongs in the bathroom of a Duchess’ country house, it’s equally likely to be bought by a tourist, as a present, or by someone who has used it in a hotel bathroom and enjoyed it. Whoever is managing the Floris brand is exceptionally skilled and I take my hat off to them.