Who’s kidding who?

Pierre d’Huy
Experts Consulting

Translated from the French by Stanley Moss

The Journal of the Medinge Group, vol. 3, no. 1, 2009

AA Often the criticism gets levelled that specialists in strategy try to manipulate the public by using brands. This article proposes to demonstrate that the accusation makes no sense. Not for moral reasons, but for reasons semiologic. Any sorcerer’s apprentice in branding who uses such manipulative techniques to mislead their interlocutors will inevitably find themselves challenged by the question, ‘Who’s kidding who?’*

BB For the past decade the Medinge Group (see www.medinge.org) has brought together brand experts from around the world to ponder questions such as this one. Though their mother tongues are different, their business is the same: to advise customers and help build a patient approach, a complex of signs and signals which correctly represent the organisation in question. This structure of thought is dynamic, even organic. It unfolds gradually over a period of years. The client grows older, changes along with its mark, like it or not. The brand always influences, an iteration of the concept of cognitive dissonance, described in the annals of psychology by Leon Festinger around 1957. This conceit states simply that everyone in the presence of mutually incompatible knowledge experiences a state of unpleasant tension. Once we reach the discernable point of discomfort we consult our knowledge of strategies to restore cognitive balance. One such strategy to reduce cognitive dissonance is called the process of rationalization. This is precisely what occurs when an approach to branding is overambitious, and seeks to be better than it truly is. To rationalize the difference between what is said and what really happens, the change proposed will itself need to undergo change. Being unable to move, the piano is reconciled to the piano stool. It is the classic challenge of corporate brand-building. The nuclear heart of branding must be handled with care, while its imperfections—intentional or not—will be naturally smoothed by time. Its speech may be opposed by journalists, shareholders, employees, if the words are not followed by facts. That is the beauty of branding: brutalized, used like an instrument, it turns against its creator.

CC A fake brand rings false. A fake brand acts like a truth serum. During the exchanges at our seminars, we were able among professionals to share our discomfort in instances where brand fakery revealed itself. Our experience validates this—the Nokia brand for Thomas Gad, the Orange brand for Patrick Harris, to mention only the most prestigious—are great branding stories because they endeavoured to build honest brands, sincere brands.

DD The only redemption for branding is this sincerity, or at least the application of a large dose of good faith. The client, whether a company, a city, a theater, needs to speak to its public. But the signs do not know they cannot lie. The result of a manipulative approach to branding is ultimately an unmasking. It’s the responsibility of Medinge’s specialists to announce unequivocal reality to their clients: we do not brand dishonestly. You can’t play with signs and escape the consequences.

EE Naming is betrayal
‘To name things badly adds misery to the world,’ Albert Camus said, and the same holds true for badly named brands. The modern understanding of the word branding originates from the archaic word brand, the red-hot iron employed to mark ownership of cattle. Naming memorializes the key moment of the birth of an entity. Badly named, or worse—something deceptively named—dooms an entity to failure. A bad name creates a fake identity. A bad name self-mutilates the brand. A brand is an indelible marking. Thus a small brand which wants to achieve the stature of a great brand, but bears such a name, will never say more than that. Far from succeeding in impersonating a major brand, its name reveals nothing more than ‘I-am-a-small-brand-that-wants-to-be-seen-as-a-big-brand. A frog who wants to be as big as an ox.’

FF Let us observe two examples of badly-named brands which have since disappeared. Boo.com was the name chosen by three Swedes, Ernst Malmsten, Kajsa Leander and Patrik Heddelin, in 1999. This start-up distribution company spent $135 million in eighteen months, before filing for bankruptcy. A bad name is like a bad casting in metal. It constitutes an incoherent and schizophrenic identity which subverts any hint of success or stability at its base. Boo is an onomotæpia, a sound used to scare, startle or take by surprise. This brand development launched itself at the dawn of the internet, and sought to establish a relationship of trust with future customers. A second example concerns the failure of a French bank launched in 2001, which called itself Nabab, a subsidiary of Société Générale. It demonstrated that in matters of money, little comfort could be taken from renaming a financial institution in an altered tone.

GG All schools of psychoanalysis devote a good deal of thought to the nature and question of hidden identities. Freud, Jung and Lacan continually return to discussion on the literal or subliminal significance of names. The act of naming signals an intention. With branding, the name is never manipulated. To name is to inevitably translate, and often to betray that which was not meant to be discovered.

HH The choice of typography and its associated symbols occurs in the natural order of design, that is subsequently, arriving at a set of mnemonic keys. It is most often tested in the final moments of engagement, but as validated by Malcolm Gladwell in his book entitled Blink, the client recognizes the signal in an instant. The brand adviser waits until the client exclaims, without too much justification, ‘Yes, that’s certainly us.’ Again, no conspiracy possible, just a clear feeling of identification.

II To this we add the notorious practice of determining an entity’s values. The difficulty falls much more in the direction of laziness, of a certain unanimity in the temptation to lie. Most of the time our role is to encourage the customer into selecting specific values the brand will express. The risk is the adoption of a bunch of hollow words, an accusation generally leveled at competitors whose catch phrases are often engraved on slabs of marble in the lobbies of US companies. A list of values, seemingly endless, not binding, and demonstrating concerns mainly designed to show others who we believe we are. This is the key: branding requires disclosure. To make an effective brand you must agree to deliver.

JJ Branding compared to a mobile by Alexander Calder
Branding is an exact science, but neither truth nor lie can figure in it. The slightest false move is clearly visible. Thomas Gad analyses this phenomenon in his book entitled 4-D Branding, with a scheme that employs analysis of four dimensions. He describes branding as an unstable balance, living between four poles and connected by two perpendicular axes. One axis shows the functional dimension relative to the spiritual dimension; the other shows the social dimension relative to the mental dimension. A complementary visualization would be to consider branding like a mobile by Calder, consisting of a series of branches, all linked. If any of these branches is modified, the entire mobile as a whole is affected. All these branches will be fully aligned over time with the identity of the whole (‘the brand’). This metaphor describes a mobile’s resilient architecture, one which is much like a well-researched brand’s. It absorbs the movements of its ecosystem in a dynamic manner, then invariably returns to its original position.

KK Sign language requires the skill of a bomb disposal expert. Anyone who cheats will sooner or later step on the very landmine he has placed. It doesn’t happen in a dramatic revelation like, ‘It’s a scandal that company isn’t what it claims to be, and their whole approach to branding is complicit in the deception!’ Rather, perception recognises a form of systemic failure. The principle of dynamic branding affects the entire company. A sincere and consistent branding programme directs the marketing strategy, inspires innovation, unites staff, while it reassures the President and Executive Committee. Nothing escapes the brand. The risk from an attempted manipulation is that no positive contributions are carried out. The active principle of branding no longer works and the client is at worst the victim of an unreliable, poorly designed and inadequate campaign.

LL A brand is both a reflection of the present and a promise for the future. From that dichotomy comes the misunderstanding, causing stakeholders to believe either that the reflection is not sufficiently accurate or that the promise will never be fulfilled. A good brand settles itself perfectly equidistant from the two ideas. An overdone descriptive fixed to the present prevents the brand from evolving. Investing too deeply in the promise, a pretentious outburst is betrayed, a weakness created. The brand consultant needs to be vigilant with such fine-tuning, free from obscure intentions in the practice of his profession, instead attentively gardening, with brand solutions elegantly arrived at, built over long years to achieve a sincere likeness. It is beautiful and appetizing brand identities like these which the Medinge Group has chosen to honour since 2004 with their annual Brands with a Conscience award.

* Here Pierre d’Huy employs the French expression ‘l’arroseur arrosé’, literally, ‘the sprinkler sprinkled’. He originally indicated this would be the article title, but has since retitled the essay, ‘Nul ne peut se jouer avec les signes’, literally, ‘Nobody can play with the signs’.

Pierre d’HuyWho’s kidding who?

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