Do you remember last year when Pepsi capitalized on the Black Lives Matter movement with that cringe-worthy Kendal Jenner ad? I can’t forget about it.
In an interview last year with The Drum, Jason Snyder commented on the implosion of Pepsi’s Kendal Jenner ad, saying that “brands often suffer from myopia when trying to articulate their own value to the marketplace. I like to think of a brand as a metaphor for a story. Being the story and telling the story at the same time is rarely a successful combination.”
The Pepsi ad sparked widespread debate in the advertising world around who best tackles campaign creation: in-house teams or ad agencies? Many felt the Pepsi scandal proved that in-house creative teams don’t always have the necessary perspective for telling brand stories that will resonate. “Without assistance from those outside the company, it’s very difficult for brands to see themselves clearly and predict how their stories will be received. A good agency will provide objective examination, done with real rigor, of how, where, why and when to tell a brand story,” Snyder told The Drum. “And that is a very valuable thing."
Brands are not always able to see themselves clearly or find what’s true about their brand. Which is why Nick Law tells us that most advertising campaigns begin with a lie, a lie about the company itself. In an interview with Debbie Millman, Law uses mission statements and brand values as examples of strategic platitudes that very rarely mean anything at all. While they may be worthy aspirations, they say very little about what makes the company successful or about the people at the heart of the organization.
For branding consultant Mike Rigby, his most important task when working with clients is to give them “an understanding of themselves they’ve never felt before.” Brands are like people and that it’s the job of the branding agency to discover the very best with that brand.
But, as we learned from the 2017 Swedish film The Square, hiring an outside firm or consultant doesn’t guarantee a win. In the film, which looks at hypocrisy within the art world, a Stockholm art gallery hires a marketing firm to develop a viral video campaign to advertise an upcoming exhibit. I’m sure you can imagine the outcome. Needless to say, external agencies can help brands and companies be more self-effacing, but bringing in someone from the outside can also breed misunderstanding and lead to missteps.
From Thinking to Making
The speed at which we’re required to feed the content monster has led most companies to publish now, think (or apologize) later. Along the way, we’ve littered the digital world with content that’s poorly thought out and says little about who brands are or want to be. Whether creating in house or working with an agency, we ought to rethink our creative processes and develop new strategies for distilling down and polishing our ideas.
In his many years building brand identities, Law has developed a process for seeking out brand truths and turning them into advertising narratives. He calls the process 4 Steps from Thinking to Making:
Finding what’s true about the company precedes all else. Most companies ignore truths about themselves that have tremendous creative potential, and instead perpetuate inaccurate versions of what makes their company great.
Once a brand’s truths have been rooted out, it’s time to sort through them and decide what’s most important. Not all truths are worth sharing or will make good stories. Some truths are just plain boring. The truths that a company places at the centre of its brand stories should serve the company and be relevant to their audience.
Next, it’s time to package that truth in a way that’s compelling. This is a creative endeavor where designers, writers and other creatives bridge systems and stories. The goal is to make the relevant truth interesting, to get people to care about it.
Once something is interesting, it needs to be distilled even further so that it is as clear and simple as possible. Clarity takes time and effort and this process is much harder than it seems. But as James Victore tells us, making things look like they took no time at all to create, that’s our job as creatives.
The word “authenticity” is considered passé these days – the jaded among us roll their eyes when they hear it. I think authenticity has gotten a bad rap because we’ve given up too easily. In the face of this monumental word, marketing and advertising professionals toss up their arms, saying “what does authenticity even mean?”
Answering that question requires serious work and a willingness to be self-effacing, both as an individual and as a collective company. It requires digging deep during brand identity exercises, not merely checking of the boxes. To find authenticity within creativity, we must invest fully in the process if we’re to find truths that will resonate with our audience.
To “contribute more meaningfully to culture,” as Rigby puts it, requires that we rigorously seek out the truth within the organizations we work with/for and place those truths at the heart of our advertising, branding and content creation.