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?