When words mean nothing: Is it time to ditch 'storytelling' and endless other brand buzzwords?

Lynda Relph-Knight is The Drum's consulting design editor and the former long-serving editor of Design Week. Follow Lynda on Twitter.

Stefan Sagmeister has railed against 'bullshit' storytelling

A LinkedIn invitation from a designer I’d not met prompted me to Google his company, ANTI. According to the website, the name of the Norwegian branding group is an acronym for A New Type of Interference. ANTI’s founders maintain that brands should display a different kind of ‘interference’ in their visual communication to stand out in an overly crowded marketplace.

There’s nothing new there then. But ANTI’s terminology got me thinking about the edgy, cataclysmic words entering everyday marketing speak, ‘interference’, ‘disruption’ and ‘disturbance’ among them. They owe their provenance to the heady combination of global austerity and technological shifts that are overturning the social order.

Reminiscent of the revolutionary agitprop spiel at the dawn of the twentieth century that was revisited by 1970s political activists, such language tends to denote youthful or ‘happening’ brands in the way ‘grunge’ summed up a lifestyle reaction to the City-fuelled glitz of the mid-1980s.

Just as Neville Brody tried to subvert the norm through the Anti Design Festival he staged in London in 2010, so people like ANTI aim to shock us into believing a new order is upon us. In Brody’s case though it was a powerful acknowledgement of a wave of hand-crafted experimental design emanating from London’s East End and beyond against a background of ever slicker, ‘safe’ designs being produced by most branding groups. For ANTI, it smacks more of new badging for an old approach.

For most in design though, current buzzwords remain rooted in comfort and reassurance. ‘Authenticity’ and ‘storytelling’ are still the order of the day in visual branding and the words often used to describe a product or service. The aim is to promote the idea of stability through turbulent times.

These descriptors will be short-lived, of that we can be sure. Like the ‘added bran’ claims of food brands in the health-conscious early-1990s, they will likely prove a passing fad geared to winning the hearts and minds of the customer. And once the social and economic mood shifts, so will brand-owners’ claims.

Good design is invariably ‘authentic’ – without necessarily brandishing homespun visual references. And we all buy into a story with our purchases – even if it’s a tale we tell ourselves about childhood memories, aspirations to physical perfection or the intellectual brilliance we believe these brands will bring.

The last word on this must surely go to seminal designer Stefan Sagmeister. Singling out ‘storytelling’, the New York-based star lets rip against the universal brand claim in his Vimeo interview, ‘You are not a storyteller’. He accuses those brand owners and designers of a different sort of storytelling. It’s all ‘bullshit’, he says. And he could be talking about any number of marketing descriptors.

Maybe it’s time to revisit the honesty of Innocent drinks and the humble Ronseal in branding design. These examples have yet to be surpassed. A bit of originality would certainly be refreshing – and achieve the standout ANTI promises without overt ‘interference’.

Lynda Relph-Knight is The Drum's consulting design editor. You can follow her on Twitter @RelphKnight

Join us, it's free.

Become a member to get access to:

  • Exclusive Content
  • Daily and specialised newsletters
  • Research and analysis

Join us, it’s free.

Want to read this article and others just like it? All you need to do is become a member of The Drum. Basic membership is quick, free and you will be able to receive daily news updates.