Don't Convince Us Your Brand's Better If It Isn't

Be True: So Your Product Isn't Inherently the Winning Choice? No Matter; Just Tell an Honest Story

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Eat more healthfully. Sleep more soundly. Save the environment. Recycle. Buy local.
All these brands use messaging that teaches rather than preaches and tells a story that's consistent against consumer-resonant benefits.
All these brands use messaging that teaches rather than preaches and tells a story that's consistent against consumer-resonant benefits.

Now more than ever, we all want things to be "better" in our world.

As marketers, we are charged with inventing the perfect marketing campaigns to show our consumers that our brands are better than the rest when it comes to helping them actualize their "better living" goals. This charge can leave some of us in a bit of a precarious situation: What do we do when we know that our brand is not better than the rest? Forge ahead and do whatever we can to convince the public that it is so? Unfortunately, there are many marketers in our industry who believe the answer here is yes. They do whatever they can to superficially wrap themselves in some "responsible" do-good message. In fact, on NPR the other day, I heard a term that I thought perfectly described what this segment is doing: "greenwashing." These marketers are attaching their products to green messaging without doing much of anything to really deliver. And while I understand the desire to appeal to the ever-growing trend of consumers who consider themselves green, these marketers are playing a dangerous game. When found out, their brands will be vilified; Dell customer service comes to mind.

So I ask you, is green washing worth the gamble? How can you avoid the temptation of jumping on the greenwashing band wagon? Is there a way to practice a more brand-balanced diet?

Taking stock
To determine how desperate your situation is and how aggressively you need to seek a brand balance, first understand all of the pressures facing your brand and company. There are regulatory pressures, pressures from distribution channels, pressures from competition, pressures from invested constituents and pressures from the general public. Measure your signal-to-noise ratio to determine your situation: The more noise, the better your signal needs to be. Second, it's important to understand how the dialogue is shifting -- though this lesson has been pretty much beaten into our heads by now, I suppose. (See chart summarizing the tone that balanced brands are now taking.)

Third, it's important to decide, based on the pressures your brand faces and the dialog your consumers demand, where your brand should be on the balance continuum (see chart).

Balanced diet
If you practice what I call a brand-balanced diet, the following criteria will sound familiar:
  • Your brand story is consistent and can be measured against consumer-resonant benefits.
  • Your brand teaches rather than preaches.
  • You enable your consumers to have choices and are sympathetic to "studied cheating."
  • You invite your consumers to be part of your brand through ongoing dialog.
Weight Watchers is a perfect example of a brand that is literally playing in the "balanced diet" arena. "Learn how to lose weight and keep it off!" The brand's tagline sums it up: We are not a quick-fix solution, but a lifetime plan. The brand takes pride in teaching consumers that they don't have to give up their favorite foods or restaurants in order to lose weight. Rather, it helps them police their own weight loss by applying points to foods so they can learn how to dine out while still maintaining their weight-loss goals.

This educational system is incredibly successful. By not telling their consumers what to do but, rather, how to do it, Weight Watchers enables their consumers to still "live the good life" and inspires consumers to stick with the brand's plan for years to come.

Lean Cuisine and its "Do something good for yourself" messaging is also spot-on. And, love him or hate him, Jared struck a balanced chord for Subway, with its "Eat Fresh" tagline. One of the original brands in balance is Miller Lite, with its "Tastes great, less filling" position.

McDonald's is trying to strike a balance as well, on the one hand selling McFlurries and running ads that say "Nothing eats like a Big Mac," and on the other hand offering pretty good salads. Coca-Cola sells sugar water but also Diet Coke Plus (with vitamins). Pepsi has its Smart Spot program, and Kraft has rolled out Sensible Solutions labeling. Dove celebrates real beauty. Safeway has a fabulous line of store-brand organic products under the O name.

A little better is OK
However, there are many brands that operate in the "superficial," "naughty," or "just plain bad" arenas. Telltale signs include:
  • Aligning with hot topics with little substantiation.
  • Having superhero tendencies.
  • Walking a precarious line between the truth and fabrications in communications.
  • Ignoring the new consumer dialog.
But what if you can't accurately say where you operate because you are not a marketer who identifies with the extremes of Weight Watchers or Patagonia? What if your brand is just trying to do a little better? Is this OK?

Let's look at a brand that is doing just that, doing a little better: BP. Helios House, a BP gas station in L.A. doles out environmental information to its consumers and is built and operated in an environmentally friendly way. The station is "doing better" than regular gas stations, but is it enough? Is this a type of brand balance or a type of greenwashing to fool the public?

I polled various marketers and asked them this exact question. The majority of those who answered told me they felt that doing something was better than doing nothing, and that they don't look poorly on the brand for doing what it can. Trying is better than nothing and is the first step toward bigger improvements (if it works.)
Brand-to-consumer dialogue
You have to!
Let's work together to make this easy for you!
We know your taste, substance and demeanor, and we know what's right for you!
You don't have to give up your substance to achieve your goals ...
If you want to achieve your goals, you have to change your lifestyle!
We would like to show you the way ...

Another brand that is finding balance is Toyota. While one might find it hypocritical that Toyota makes both the environmentally friendly Prius and the gas-guzzling Land Cruiser, I think it's ingenious. Rather than creating a one-size-fits-all approach to making cars, the company creates vehicles that fit into an individual consumer's lifestyle. It is up to each individual consumer to make the choice of what works. And, as a result, the company manages to create messaging that is authentic; it is proud to make both environmentally friendly products as well as products that will appeal to larger families. It gives consumers the room to make choices that fit lifestyle needs.

As marketers, I wonder: Shouldn't we push ourselves and our brands not to just do better but to do the best we can? Or am I asking too much? In the end, if we have the right intentions (based on what our consumers are telling us they want and need), and we are trying to solve real problems (vs. doing just enough to avoid trouble), then we're on the right path to better brand balance. And that's plenty to wish for these days.

The balance continuum

Determine where your brand falls based on the unique pressures it faces.

Jim Holbrook is CEO of Emak Worldwide, a family of marketing agencies including Upshot, Equity, and Logistix. See Mr. Holbrook's white paper on this topic.
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