Your brand is talking about itself too much

More me, please?

You’re at a cocktail party, and you find yourself standing next to a guy you’ve never met. He seems pleasant enough at first, offering his name — let’s call him Eric — and a friendly handshake.

But then, unprompted, Eric tells you what he does for a living, where he’s from, where he went to college and what he majored in. And then Eric rattles off all the places he’s worked, what he did at those places — and babbles on about a new project he’s working on — in painstaking, mind-numbing detail — as he produces his business card. Just minutes after meeting him, you’re frantically scanning the room for any to get away.

We’ve all run into that guy. We hate that guy. So don’t let your brand be that guy.

These days, everyone’s trying to figure out “content” (a terrible term, but that’s for another piece) — while, every year, advertising spend on social media spending keeps going up. Given those two trends, it’s surprising how many brands still prattle on incessantly about themselves like that blowhard Eric.

I’m not saying brands no longer need artfully crafted communications about their products and services that are compelling and grounded in a human truth—they still do, and always will. But an important question marketers should be asking today is:

What should my brand talk about other than itself?

This isn’t a new concept. I’m an Ogilvy guy, and one of my favorite ads from the archives is this one for Guinness that ran in Esquire in the early 1950s.

Now that’s what the kids today call “native content.” And it’s great. A lot of people love oysters, but almost no one knows anything about them. So in addition to its eye-catching art direction that immediately draws you in, the copy holds your interest, in part, because it’s not about Guinness — it’s about a delicious mollusk. And it wasn’t a one-off. There were ads about cheeses, game birds, and steaks. In short, it was a beautiful and highly effective campaign for Guinness that wasn’t about Guinness.

Let’s pause for a minute.

Think about the kind of people you find interesting and enjoy being around. They don’t ramble on endlessly about themselves. They’ve got a knack for finding what interests you—and they always seem to have some interesting tidbit about that subject that captures your attention. They meet you on your level. They listen. They fascinate. And so should brands.

A lot of brands understand this.

Nike doesn’t just talk shoes, they talk about hard work and human achievement. REI doesn’t just talk about ski equipment, they talk about the transformational power of being outdoors. And Apple doesn’t just talk about smartphones, they talk about design and creativity.

But other brands have some catching up to do. Take the major pizza delivery chains. Why do they seem to talk about pizza and prices and little else? People already love pizza, and a dollar here or there isn’t going to buy their loyalty for the long haul. Or consider retailers that dominate a category — like say, toys or music. These brands have a wonderful opportunity to talk about something other than themselves and they’re mostly not taking advantage of it.

So let's say you've accepted my premise. How do you know what your brand should talk about? Two things you need right off the bat are a razor-sharp definition of your brand — yes, brand still really matters — and a deep understanding of your customer. But tread carefully. To enter certain conversations, brands need credibility.

Guinness could credibly talk about oysters and cheese because beer goes pretty well with both. And almost anyone can talk about say, the Olympics. But even if they had done so in a less ham-fisted way, Pepsi didn’t have the credibility to talk about the Arab Spring and Black Lives Matter.

The bottom line: in an increasingly distracting world, brands can’t expect people to be interested in them just because they show up on their television or tablet. They must start with the premise that people just don't care about their heritage, their ingredients, their propriety processes or their "solutions."

To attract interest and build loyalty, they need to talk about something besides themselves that’s relevant to their customers in an entertaining or provocative way. In other words, brands should be more like REI and hell of a lot less like Eric.

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John Long

John Long is group creative director at Ogilvy & Mather in New York City.

All by John