Last week I wrote about the balance between style and substance and how easily the former can undermine or overpower the latter. A fascinating and limitless topic, which easily sustains another week. So, here we go again, a bit deeper, en route to the core so to speak, and perfect for this season of big feelings and even bigger commerce …
Someone (was it Susan Sonntag?) once said that kitsch is art without tears, a hollow something lathered in sentimentality rather than rooted in originality and emotionality. Something that can be fun and entertaining, at least for a while, but that will never stand the test of time – or truth – because it lacks depth as well as transcendence. It’s not charged with the pain of creation and will thus never be truly radiant.
And that’s where I see the parallel and the problem with today’s marketing. Of course, marketing – or advertising – is not art. But does that mean it has to be kitsch? A soulless, uninspired and uninspiring confection of cheap sentiments and effects?
Some would probably say invariably so, seeing commerce as the antidote to art, revolving around greed and speed. But it’s more than 50 years ago that Warhol showed us, how art can re-conquer the commercial sphere, or that conversely, art doesn’t necessarily need tobe killed in a liaison with money and power. A point that was actually proven long before by the Renaissance masters and is to more or less success still visible in today’s art market. But in our supermarkets? Not so much.
I am a firm believer that brands and branding while not being works of art, can certain learn a lot from them. They need to shed more tears, proverbial ones at least. Particularly brands aiming to achieve a higher status need to go a bit deeper, unearth and listen to their heart. That’s why our third principle of super premium brand building is subtitled “the best way up is to go deep”. You need to invest if you want to build a lasting relationship, and not (just) money, but time and effort. Because love is an art – and hard work – in life as well as in business. And in neither are shortcuts long lived.
How should your customers or any other stakeholder treat your brand with love and respect if you don’t? Why should they care about you, if you seemingly don’t even care enough about them to ensure that what you put out is a product of sincerity and integrity? And by this I don’t mean the actual products. Those are usually well done with a lot of R&D heart blood pumping through their veins. And for the rest there’s regulation. No, I’m talking about the going-to-market. The naming, the packaging, the design, the advertising, the merchandising, the staging – the brand. This is where it’s lacking in my experience. Brands are still very often treated as a mere wrapping, calculated for added value vs. being respected and lived as the true hero. Their heart, if they even have or had one, neglected or sacrificed for short-term effects and gains.
Which gets us to the point: Brands need meaning. Now more than ever. Not because we people or consumers are so much smarter these days, but because it’s human nature. We look for meaning in things, we try to construct our realities and make sense out of what’s around us. And in today’s commercially driven societies and cultures these are mostly if not all brands. They are the building blocks not just of our identities but of our lives, if we want to or not. Our only choice is to un-want those that aren’t help- or meaningful. And this we do more than ever.
That’s why there’s been a quite some talk about purposeful brand building in the last years. And that’s why it’s so dangerous for brands to meander around without a strong true north, or disrespect and undermine it willingly or unwillingly time and again. If you don’t start with a clear reason for being and make sure that it is reflected in everything, and I mean absolutely everything, you do, you are doomed to fail. You may have moments of success by being at the right place at the right time for the right price. But interactions with you will leave a shallow and bitter after-taste and certainly not lead to loyalty. Because the opposite of true love is love for sale. Or kitsch.
Brand’s need to believe in something for the rest of us to be able to believe in them. A certain level of spirituality and the willingness to suffer for one’s convictions aren’t lofty ideals for Sunday speeches or NGOs anymore, they have become prerequisites in today’s over-branded world. Even when the ultimate goal is to make money you need to have a mission and a firm set of values beyond formal success or pleasing (and selling to) as many people as possible. If brands continue to be treated as mere concoctions to dress-up the functional benefit or contraptions for commercial gain and flip-flop around, following every trend or focus group or competitive move, they will be extinct in no time. And we will all resort to hand-crafted, personalized or personally provided items again – as we are more and more doing in many categories already anyway. Because what’s personally made is usually at least imbued with soul and often also made with tears.