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Keep it real: why brands must connect with real life



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April 29, 2021 | 6 min read

You can’t handle the truth

You can’t handle the truth

Authenticity and transparency in branding is key for longevity and building consumer trust. Confidence in your own product can often elevate a brand and propel it forward based on quality alone. If the product is that good, there is nothing to hide. It’s a great starting point on which everything else can hang. Simply based on truths.

We have all worked on jobs where we perhaps know the product isn’t the best and the challenge is to make the design work as hard as it can. You don’t always get to pick the nice parts of the salad and as designers we come up with solutions whatever the brief. However, for true brand success, companies who connect with real life and talk in non-fictional terms will stand the test of time.

Take the phase of pseudo brands, like Tesco’s Willow Farms in 2016 where a ‘fictional’ name was created. It certainly caused a stir with a retail expert saying: “The word ‘farm’ will give a perception of quality and a perception of provenance for the product itself’.” In other words, pulling the wool over consumers’ eyes. Making claims that aren’t strictly true or worded in an ambiguous way is used in all walks of life, especially this year from politicians to the people down the pub. To coin the phrase: ‘don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story’.

Recently the Netflix series ‘The Crown’ left people googling afterwards “did that really happen?”. The series is ‘based’ on a true story and I guess if this is clear, then we all are open to a bit of creative license especially in a boxset series. However, in real life we want just that, realness. Some of you will notice my reference to the Jack Nicholson film, ‘A Few Good Men’, quite apt in Willow Farms case.

Quality of product

Brands that give off an honest persona cut through the noise and give people a reason to come back. It builds a trusted relationship. Take Heck sausages for example, I loved their on-pack claims when I first saw them. I love the clarity and direct approach in putting 97% pork on the front of pack. This says it all. A claim to be proud of which clearly promotes the quality of product. Alongside this is a family story started as a small business based in Yorkshire. It’s real and connects with people. You suspect their door is always open for a factory walk around. The design itself has stand out in the category, breaking the normal sausage packaging cues. Bold colours, playful icons with an injection of wit. Obviously, the design and tone of voice helps, but it all starts with transparency.

Another way for a brand to exude confidence is to show more of the product. The Spice Tailor springs to mind, the ingredients held together by a visually pleasing matt card sleeve. Product out on show, nothing to hide.

Act natural

Recently we have seen a lot of companies rebrand. Take McDonald’s and Burger King for example, both moving to a more natural look and feel. Burger King upped the food quality and harked back to design cues of the past, making the brand feel less artificial and more real. This was delivered through a combination of loose ingredient illustrations, foodie-wit and expressive typography.

Unapologetic value

Of course, you don’t have to be just be about quality to be authentic. People probably don’t like Ryanair but they are confident it is the cheapest airline, and Michael O’Leary is very consistent in his behaviour. The message effectively is “If you want the extras, fine, you can pay them or fly with someone else. We are about delivering the cheapest ticket possible”.

Aldi knocked ‘the big four’ off their perch in terms of value, but they are also perceived to beat their competitors on quality. The above the line campaign ‘like brands only cheaper’ was clearly understood and got straight to the point.

Greater purpose

Co-op’s Honest Value range is a good example of a sub-brand acting with greater morals and integrity. Alongside the ethical commitments, the white background gives off that stripped back feel. Just the product nothing more. Essential Waitrose & Partners applied a similar treatment, albeit a bit more sophisticated.

Brewdog’s integrity is there for all to see as the brand continues to grow at pace. Whether you’re a craft ale drinker or not you have to admire the communication on all levels. Not only are they fiercely independent, but they also talk of radical transparency. Accounts, profits and future plans shared. Nothing to hide. The recent rebrand has had a clean-up too, the white multipacks now having great stand out in a noisy aisle. At first, I thought it had lost some of that rebellious charm, however it has since grown on me and has helped them push away from the now expected craft category cues.

Human emotion

There are other ways to project integrity in design. Nike’s ad “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything” was a powerful campaign. The words and close up imagery connected on an emotional level, inspiring humans to do the right thing, standing up for the people. If they do this, what other good are they doing?

Achieving brand cut-through

So how do you cut through your current perceptions or the way you are viewed as an organisation?

Work out what it is you stand for or your point of view. Is it clear for people to understand? Then deliver an unambiguous and consistent message. Connect on a human level. Focus on what you’re good at or reset your company ‘vows’. As with everything, it is never too late.

Then finally, to truly punch above your weight, simply base everything on truths.

About the author:

Pat Hawkes is a design director at CreativeRace. He has 20 years of experience in the industry; specialising in Packaging and POS, having worked for a wide range of brands from Boots, Asda, Co-op, Greggs, Hain Daniels Group, Masterfoods, Diageo and Young’s.

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