times square billboards
PHOTO: Cris Tagupa

The greatest brands tell the biggest lies. Although not all branding is bad, the art of modern branding is indeed very often the art of manipulation and propaganda.

For many years, Coca Cola has been the world’s most valuable brand. Think about that for a moment. Here is a company that is more responsible than perhaps any other for spreading the global obesity and diabetes epidemic with its sugar-saturated drinks. Here is a company more than any other that is responsible for the mountains of plastic waste that are poisoning our lands and seas. And this is a cool brand?

Think of H&M and Zara. Are these cool brands? Fast fashion sits next to oil as the biggest polluter on the planet. Today, we are buying far more clothes, wearing them far less, and dumping them far more often. Most of these cheap new clothes are made by poorly-paid workers who toil in unsafe conditions. The clothes themselves are increasingly made from plastic polymers, thus they are not recyclable and result in toxic waste. Most of what we donate to charity shops end up being sold on to poorer countries, thereby collapsing their native fashion industries. And we think the brands who do this are cool because they have good branding.

Even organizations that offer valuable and useful products and services get caught up in the allure of toxic branding. The Coca Colas of this world must tell big lies because the more you know about their product, the less likely you will be to buy it. Therefore, they must invent fictions because their reality is so toxic.

If you deliver something useful, then you don’t need fake branding. Why not consider telling the truth? McKinsey reported about a government tax agency who used to say it would distribute refunds in an average of two days, when it actually took much longer. Instead, they started saying that people would receive the refund within 21 days — which was much closer to the reality. Customers were happier and support calls were reduced dramatically.

If your product is actually useful then don’t be afraid to show off how useful it is. Don’t hide behind big stupid stock images that say absolutely nothing. Don’t suffocate your customers with empty marketing jargon when you can actually say something useful. For organizations that are useful, marketing and communication should stress the use.

I once sat in a room presenting a design that allowed customers to find what they needed really quickly. Everything was simple. Everything worked. We had lots of evidence of how the design had evolved based on use. It was fast. It was simple. It did exactly what the organization needed it to do. It just worked. Everyone was really impressed, even the branding guy. He thought it was fantastic, but he had one question: “What about the branding?”

Unless you need to lie to customers, your branding is your simplicity. Your branding is your usefulness. Every time a customer can find something quickly and easily, that’s branding. If the product you make starts every single time without fail, that’s branding. Transparent pricing is branding. Great customer service is branding. Branding can be about what is good and what is useful. Branding can be about the truth.