There have always been brands whose standards of behaviour and claims have been somewhat less than honest. Tobacco companies were aware they were killing people for years before they came clean, car companies have known for years their cars didn’t actually work that well and no food manufacturer ever truly believed low fat foods were the silver bullet for weight loss.
The public is well accustomed to dishonest brands, so familiar with this that we all know how to navigate through it pretty easily. But in recent years a new breed of brand arrogance has begun to emerge with an expression more troubling and ugly than simple, straightforward dishonesty.
We of course talk here of the ‘Smug Brand’, the new wave of brands who are going to save us and the world, release our inner mojos and be our soul buddies. We can probably trace all this back to Apple’s, “we don’t have customers, we have evangelists” conceited double-think. And whilst Smug Brands expect us to buy this without question, it’s reassuring to see that we don’t - at least not always.
This shift of power away from marketing-heavy brands and their Ad Men to the public, was brilliantly and hilariously evidenced by Pepsi and their toe-curling attempt to replicate Coke’s famous Mad Men ending, “I’d like to teach the world to sing” ad. But instead of global harmony, when poor oblivious Kendall Jenner tried hijacking a cultural movement (Black Lives Matter) by giving a can of second rate cola to a cop, the world scoffed at the brand’s extraordinary pomposity.
Rather than exploiting someone else’s culture, the ad execs should have asked themselves a couple of simple questions: will a can of soft drink credibly have peace inducing powers? Are people really as stupid as we clearly consider them to be? And, are we arses to trivialise a serious issue just because it doesn’t impact us?
There is a common theme amongst Smug Brands, the institutionalised belief that their constituents are commodities to be exploited. For obvious example, Facebook (God, Facebook!) farming its users’ lives, loves and relationships for data to flog to anyone who’ll give a shiny shilling. It’s a behaviour as Orwellian as anything the great man wrote in 1984.
But in Facebook’s case, nobody cares! Every user is a pawn in its complex game plan - does anyone ever read its terms and conditions? Users are probably vaguely aware they are just data points but simply don’t seem to care. Cats doing funny things is powerful, right?
And it’s not just these headline-makers. Take reliable old Land Rover guiltily launching the marketing man’s dream that is the Evoque Convertible. Really? The assumption here is that we, the public, are so in love with the brand that we’ll buy any ill-thought-through concept they can excrete off a production line.
Even otherwise reasonable brands can be guilty of a little smugness. Aesop’s stores apparently “weave ourselves into the fabric of the street and add something of merit rather than impose a discordant presence”. Right oh, how come they all look pretty much the same then?
As we move into a post-brand era those companies who offer a product that reflects a real purpose, make a genuine contribution, don’t exploit their customers and don’t take themselves so damned seriously will stand out as beacons. Compare Margate skin care brand Haeckels with Aesop, or, heaven forbid, even Dove. They have an honesty to let the products speak for themselves, forge an adult relationship with the customer based on being proud of what they do and allow people to discover the product for themselves.
The tragedy for many of these brands is that they probably didn’t intend to become so smug. But the insidious presence of lazy marketing and branding crept in where the quest for short-term gain supplanted long-term thinking that reflects a true principle or purpose. But it needn’t be this way.
We can all resist smug brands as customers and, as people who work with brands, we should apply the same rules of simple statement, honest claim and realistic self-awareness. After all, we are just people talking to people, so we should create brands that talk like people talk and make things that people will like - without manipulation.
Brands should make a contribution to people’s lives - it doesn’t have to be so big, it can be just making us smile. They should bring more to the table than they take away and realise that it’s a privilege and a pleasure to have someone’s attention, thoughts or company for a time. They should not exploit that or take it for granted. Most crucially, we all have a responsibility to resist the rise of the Smug Brand in any way we can.
Geoff Wilson is brand strategy director at Household. He tweets via @HouseholdDesign.