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Marketing Brand Purpose Brand Strategy

Brilliant brands have little in common

By Philip Davies | EMEA President



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February 18, 2022 | 6 min read

You can emulate the best brands, but copying them might not get you far because every brilliant brand is brilliant in its own way. Siegel+Gale’s Philip Davies tells us that there are only three things that unite excellent brands: truth, simplicity and a kind of irreverence.

A red tulip in a field of yellow

What makes a brilliant brand stand out? / Eric Prouzet vis Unsplash

Isn’t ‘brilliant’ the most overused word? Like ‘legend.’ Or ‘genius.’ Hear it and eyes roll. Sighs ensue. Tutting begins. The thing is, not everyone has it. In just the same way that there aren’t that many brilliant people – if brilliance in people is the top half of the top 1% – there can’t be that many brilliant brands.

Brilliant brands are made of different stuff, but what?

Truth and ice cream

The first thing they are made of is the truth. They never try to be something that they’re not. It’s one of those endless quotes perhaps apocryphally attributed to Oscar Wilde: “Just be yourself, everyone else is already taken.” Brilliant brands know themselves and know only to be themselves, and always make a virtue out of that.

In a world where we’re constantly being encouraged (sometimes, it feels, force-fed) to eat healthily, it’s refreshing to see a brand such as Vice Cream differentiate itself with honesty about its unhealthy product. Full fat and proud. Unapologetically indulgent. Perfectly named. It’s a true contrarian success story. It’s selling by the bucket-load in the US.

Founded by Dan Schorr after he beat lymphoma cancer, he decided that not only would he live life to the fullest; he would live indulgently without guilt. And so Schorr launched a super-premium-priced ice-cream that shows people’s desire for truthful brands, in contrast to the health-obsessed society of yoga-bunnies that we’re purported to be. Brilliant. As they say at Vice Cream: “Life’s short. Eat fucking ice cream.”

Truth works. If an inveterate fibber decides one day to start only telling the truth, they will discover that their life becomes immeasurably easier – because they don’t have to remember anything ever again. It’s the same for brands.

A recent piece in the Harvard Business Review shone light on the fact that many startups and their founders are apt to stretch the truth when courting investors and other important stakeholders, going well beyond Steve Jobs’s ‘reality distortion field.’ This is not advisable for those selling brands to consumers. Some investors buy hope. But consumers don’t buy from liars.

What makes Vice Cream so compelling is that it deploys its compulsive truthfulness with large servings of irreverence to make it memorable. It shows a marvelously healthy lack of respect for things that are generally taken very seriously. Flavors are given amusing names including Choc of Shame or Breakfast in Bed, each with their ‘take my top off’ lids.

Depth of commitment

Irreverent positioning cannot just be for a season, or a campaign. It must be core to a brand, or it risks being shallow; hollow; tinny.

Gambling site Paddy Power has managed the experience of its brand with a delightful, anarchic irreverence that plays perfectly to its consumers. Year after year, it has kept up the same brand idea of irreverence that attracts and compels.

Conversely, the Brit Awards always presented itself with much irreverence, often coming across as shambolic and unpredictable, with guest appearances from politicians eager to connect with their ‘youth demographic’ getting routinely humiliated. Brilliant. But over the last few years it has evolved into a more polished and sanitized affair, and viewing figures have dropped every year from 9.5m in 2000 to just over 2.5m in 2022. Its lack of irreverence has lost it its relevance.

Another kind of irreverence

Maybe stamina is another ingredient of a brilliant brand – being able to stay the course with an idea based on truth, simplicity and (perhaps) irreverence. It’ll be interesting to see how Vice Cream stays the course. Like Volvo, a brand that always had a healthy lack of respect for things that are generally taken as sector norms. Years ago, when car brands were selling themselves on design or comfort or efficiency or pure image, Volvo was featuring safety.

Probably the best car commercial ever made was Volvo’s multi-award-winning ‘Twister,’ which said “we’ve made a car so safe you can drive in the most dangerous conditions possible (a massive Colorado twister) and be safe.” Volvo has owned this simple idea of safety for decades, and today its ‘Aiming for Zero’ vision shows what makes them who they are.

Truth, irreverence and simplicity are all that brilliant brands have in common. Put these key three ingredients together and you move from a brand that just presents and promotes itself to a brand that persuades consumers why it’s right for them. That’s brilliant.

Marketing Brand Purpose Brand Strategy

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Siegel+Gale is a global branding company headquartered in NYC. Our core expertise spans brand development, brand strategy, design, and customer experience.

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