Mark Ritson: Brands’ inane ‘visions’ have lost touch with what consumers really use them for

Brand purpose, content marketing and the belief that millennials are looking for ‘more than just a brand’ are leading to brand managers creating brand visions that have nothing to do with their actual product or consumer.

Ritson featured image

I am annoyed by the new Barclaycard ad. It’s nicely made by BBH and the execution is innocuous enough, what with kids eating cakes and men chasing scruffy dogs, but just when you think it’s all over a twee voice pops up and exhorts you to use your Barclaycard to ‘Get more out of today’.

The moment I heard that phrase I had the same involuntary response I’ve been having a lot recently. It’s a weird mix of swearing, sighing and throwing up inside my own mouth – all simultaneously. Barclaycard is by no means the first brand to provoke this response.

I had a similar, smaller reaction when Coca-Cola started its ‘Open happiness’ campaign, and then a much bigger one when I looked up its brand values and realised that this was merely a small part of a hugely hyperbolic global mission that also includes the need to “inspire moments of optimism”, “create value”, “refresh the world” and (lest we forget) “make a difference”. Only the most inane employee or addled agency suit could read that list without thinking: a) that’s bollocks; and b) it’s only a fizzy drink.

It was a similar story at the start of the year when McDonald’s launched a new brand vision designed to “reignite” the ‘I’m lovin’ it’ tagline and make it a broader platform for the brand. McDonald’s was no longer simply a fast food restaurant, instead fast food was merely a catalyst to allow it to oppose “all the negativity that surrounds daily life” and to “celebrate lovin’ more”. McDonald’s claimed it was “in a unique position to use its scale to bring back the positivity with more uplifting content and conversations in the lovin’ spirit”. There goes the gag reflex again.

When Kellogg’s spent a year working out its global brand positioning and came up with the idea that its brand fundamentally stands for ‘Let’s make today great!’, the vomit almost escaped my mouth for the first time. I can understand how weeks at HQ and an out-of-touch obsession with Corn Flakes could get it to this point, but surely some brave soul inside Kellogg’s raised a hand and pointed out that the entire positioning exercise had departed from consumer reality and entered the kind of aspirational emotion zone that only ad agencies and the most deluded brand manager actually inhabit.

The worst thing about these hyperbolic brand visions is that they lead to equally fantastical and idiotic tactical work. Starbucks’ first big mistake was to come up with a mission that looks right at home next to the absurd efforts of McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Barclaycard. Apparently, Starbucks is not about coffee anymore, oh no. Its real mission is to ‘inspire the human spirit’. That’s bad enough, but if your brand positioning is a bunch of twinkly-ass horseshit that has nothing to do with the actual product or consumer, then it leads inevitably to tactical work that exhibits the same bizarre, detached quality. Remember the embarrassing stories about Starbucks baristas being encouraged by the brand to discuss race relations with bemused customers and writing #racetogether on their cups in an attempt to achieve world harmony?

None of it is any good of course. For starters, consumers don’t want brands involved in any of this stuff. They just want a coffee, or a burger, or to be able to use their credit card to buy a pair of shoes. On a higher plane they also want race equality and loving feelings and a great day – but they don’t want hamburger multinationals and credit card companies telling them what that looks like or how to achieve it. The marketers responsible for all this inanity should also note that none of these new aspirational visions have any kind of brand authenticity. I can happily swap Starbucks’ quest to “inspire the human spirit” with Kellogg’s dream of “making today great” or Barclaycard’s desire to “get more from today” and the statements make just as much or little sense for any other brand. So much for differentiation and heritage.

I blame all of this on brand purpose, content marketing and the belief that millennials are looking for ‘more than just a brand’. These factors have encouraged brand managers to climb all the way from product features past functional benefits and emotional advantages to the top of the ‘benefit ladder’, and emboldened them to leap dramatically into an aspirational swan dive that plummets into an ever growing sea of bullshit below.

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Comments
  • Tim Ball 21 May 2015 at 7:15 am

    I completely agree. These humanist messages are so detached from the product it’s unrecognizable. What has loving each other got to do with a high-cholesterol burger? McDonald’s should position itself as indulgence, a break away from a healthy diet etc.

    To make matters worse, marketers pushing this type of hyperbole are not nearly as eloquent as they feel. Ultimately, it insults the savvy customer who knows sees the brands for what they are doing – trying to push a product through exploiting the heart strings.

  • Jerry Arnull 21 May 2015 at 7:53 am

    I too agree. I have been fascinated by this trend of making brands solve the problems of the world. A decent cup of coffee, cola drink, burger, and hassle-free credit card please. Then we can all concentrate on saving the world (If we have time, of course)

  • Michael 21 May 2015 at 7:56 am

    I agree with your sentiments. A purpose statement should be a hugely valuable tool that gives an organisation focus and momentum. There’s nothing wrong with it including a degree of ambition, but when it is created as some kind of vacuous marketing tool, it destroys its real value.

  • Adrian Baldwin 21 May 2015 at 8:04 am

    Should have gone to Specsavers!

  • Al King 21 May 2015 at 8:24 am

    Both “a bunch of twinkly-ass horseshit” AND “an aspirational swan dive that plummets into an ever growing sea of bullshit” are classic Ritson. Hurrah! Not sure Coke deserve that though. It always was only a fizzy drink. Surely that’s precisely why it always needed such brilliant branding to make it something more?

  • Nicola Carey 21 May 2015 at 8:25 am

    I think a bigger issue is that brand purpose in many multi nationals has been something which marketers/marketing departments have been sanctioned to produce on behalf of the whole organisation for the purposes of ‘higher plain’/’god forbid we talk about the functional’ marketing. For a brand purpose, particularly a well meaning one to have any authenticity it needs to be something which everyone in the organisation can make sense of – from marketing to finance and everyone in between. It’s why I feel in the most ‘purpose driven’ brands or at least the ones who do it well the brand purpose and indeed brand more generally is not owned by brand managers or marketers but by individuals who are able to seed the ‘big message’ effectively into operations. As a brand strategist it’s why I use the likes of GE as an example of how to do ‘brand purpose’ well. Their brand purpose is implicit in everything and yet doesn’t ever feel shoved down their audiences throat.

    • E Roberts 21 May 2015 at 11:17 am

      Agreed. The best marketers see marketing as an adjunct to general management and think in an holistic manner – they work with Purchasing, Sales, R&D, Logistics, etc. to incorporate the views/abilities/demands of the 5 Cs before even thinking about the market(s) and segment(s) to target. Without this process, the brand identity/purpose that emerges down the line will not be rooted in the business, its context or its customers.

      One gets the feeling that these multinationals have fallen for the simple error in so many businesses: treating Marketing as a separate fiefdom, responsible only for soft sales-focused image-making. No doubt their operations are more sophisticated that that but if you get the basics wrong – as the article points out – all the good segmentation and targeting down the line is stillborn.

  • Jonathan Posner 21 May 2015 at 9:07 am

    I agree wholeheartedly. What these multi-nationals seem to have forgotten is that a brand is promise – a promise of a benefit that customers need / desire and that only this one brand can offer. By continually climbing the ladder of benefit they until step off into the area of subjective ‘well-being’, then they are making a promise they cannot hope to actually deliver, and which is not in any way differentiated. The test for any brand benefit statement should be ‘does it call out the deliverable benefit that is relevant to this audience and only this brand can offer’?

  • Nisatkinson 21 May 2015 at 9:37 am

    I think you’re right that the mistake is diverging too far from consumer reality. Fundamentally I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a brand promising an aspirational emotional benefit, but it’s got to be something that the brand can connect itself to and actually help deliver without making everyone go ‘whut?’. And sometimes that’s just not possible for a brand that is only part of a non-nutritious breakfast.

  • Alexander Beiner 21 May 2015 at 10:04 am

    Totally agree – this basically sums up what’s wrong with not just marketing, but company culture in general. Every brand and every company exists to maximise profits ad infinitum (already based on a faulty premise), and this is almost always a conflict of interest with anything conducive to planetary survival and happiness (sorry, CSR managers, your jobs are ridiculous).

    Great quote from a recent episode of Silicon Valley sums up the absurdity nicely:

    “I don’t want to live in a world where someone else is making the world a better place better than we are!”

  • Geoff Mann 21 May 2015 at 12:48 pm

    A few articles with no social media mention and look at the engagement levels below (ironically a form of social, but whatever). I reckon I’ll pop brand advisor to Mark Ritson on the old CV.

  • Marc Medios 21 May 2015 at 1:18 pm

    Certainly. This is a huge point. I think it is bigger than just thinking that millenials want this or that. There seems to be two other forces at work: in talking to many brand managers, there is some kind of inferiority complex. They don’t want to say “I manufacture toothpaste”, it’s more like “I manufacture dental health solutions” and the brand managers want to see that reflected on their slogans. Second, many brand managers do tend to forget that other people use brands too.

  • Yilmaz Erceyes 24 May 2015 at 1:07 pm

    Although I agree most brand purpose and vision exercises end up with superficial and generic statements as an output, I am surprised to see Ritson put coke’s “open happiness” campaign into the same bucket. After reading and learning about the advances in neuroscience and how people make decisions, including what to buy, I thought “open happiness” might in fact be very effective in driving sales rather than just decorating power point slides in HQ presentations.

  • Jordan Nikolovski 25 May 2015 at 12:16 am

    As many a politician can attest to, the easiest way to make oneself disposable is to give one’s audience the impression that one is trapped in a self-important bubble and views the audience as muppets. Perhaps the reason that so many (politicians and brands alike) fall prey to this kind of hyperbolic self destruction is that the second-easiest way to make oneself disposable (or at least irrelevant) is to be seen “to stand for nothing” (read “to be indistinguishable from the other guys”). Treading the fine middle line between these two extremes is particularly difficult in the brutally Darwinian world of branding.

  • Kat H 26 May 2015 at 9:23 am

    Whilst I agree with almost everything Mark has so eloquently stated in the above, I will say that in regards to Starbuck’s #racetogether campaign I thought this was a step in the right direction of brands trying to actually do good- and maybe even inspire.
    I’m sure almost everyone can agree that 95% of the time, Brands can’t win. Whether it’s a far-fetched campaign slogan, a questionably selected brand ambassador or a website redesign gone wrong- there’s always something they do that can be argued as being supercilious, “bullshit” or as we Millennials might say, “WTF?”.
    Consumers and campaigners often argue that people in high places often do little or nothing to harness their power and use it for positive effect on the masses.
    The #racetogether campaign was a prime example of a global brand starting to do just that, but unsurprisingly being shot down due to the love of criticism towards Brands.

  • Mark P Tomkins 26 May 2015 at 12:25 pm

    Brands are simply stepping into the ideological vacuum left by politicians. The latter lost our trust, so the likes of Coca-Cola have stolen the rhetoric. Churning out the same ‘let’s make the world a better place’ manifestos but grafting it on to their products… rather than a power play.

    Probably a smart move – especially when you consider that people seem more ready to pledge allegiance to a brand (Apple et al) than a political cause or movement.

    Is it not just mirroring the casual slacktivism of Facebook? We can solve societal ills with a bucket of ice and a winning smile?

    Mark, I agree, it definitely does leave a bad taste. And falls far short of the authenticity these brands crave. But you’re presupposing that most consumers are highly engaged political animals.

    Perhaps many think it’s great value for money?

    “£2.30 for a latte and packet of far-reaching social change please :)”

  • David Hardy 26 May 2015 at 12:45 pm

    I really enjoyed reading this! And I agree whole heartedly. I would however, like to point out the reasoning behind this ‘horseshit’: The majority of decisions are emotional i.e. from the limbic brain (various studies give different figures but all say over 50%). Need recognition and the decision to take action are always emotional and as the individual goes through the decision making process the decisions become more rational (cost comparison for example). To take one example lets use McDonalds. The decision to take action to get food comes from the limbic brain in response to a basic physiological need. The decision whether or not to eat McDonalds will depend on various factors, let’s say budgetary restrictions, taste and health concerns, all of which have various levels of emotional influence. How much money you have in your pocket is pretty rational, taste is pretty emotional, wanting to be attractive, healthy, live longer is an emotional decision. But McDonald’s problem is that the answers to the above questions has created a negative perception of the brand; people are ashamed to eat at McDonalds, even if no one is going to see them, they judge themselves. People like to be fit, strong, healthy, wealthy, all these things simply make you a better person and the McDonalds brand doesn’t fit with their self image. This is where appealing to the limbic brain becomes relevant. McDonalds are trying to make people feel like good people when they eat their food and stop them feeling guilty for it, it’s a big weakness with their brand and this kind of ‘horseshit’ is how they are trying to address it. The irony is that it takes a certain level of intelligence to see through this and so McDonalds have now added stupid to the list of traits of the typical McDonalds customer. I think all this pie in the sky stuff is useful for exploring the emotional elements of a brand but it needs a lot of cleaning up before it’s delivered to the public and that’s where your examples have screwed up. For an example of horseshit delivered well look at Apple.

  • Andrea Griffiths 26 May 2015 at 3:12 pm

    I was feeling much the same as I sat watching the latest AirBnB ad, wondering how by renting someone’s home you would be able to practically borrow their whole identity ‘sharing their friends, their hangouts and the sunshine’, as the ad attempts to convince us! Although I appreciate that brands need to make an emotional connection, I agree with Mark of the danger of losing brand authenticity.

  • erich joachimsthaler 27 May 2015 at 10:46 am

    Straight talk. So much needed! Mark is at his best. Thank you.

  • mark davies 27 May 2015 at 3:31 pm

    Well done lad you’ve just spit roasted brand purpose. Brand purpose is Ok if it stays in the office and influences a human believable dialogue with people. What always amazes me is how daft normal people become when they get the word brand in their job title. Just think what it feels to receive this sort of messaging, ask your mates, your mum. It’s actually destroying the little professionalism marketing people have.

  • Marcelo Ferrarini 30 May 2015 at 1:40 pm

    That would be a terrible marketing management trend if we were still in the 70’s, where brand was only about communications (an ad or, even worst, a tagline). We know it’s much more than that. I believe that most brands cited in this article do deliver emotional and functional benefits to its consumer, through a wide number of touch points. You don’t need to talk about how delicious your burgers are because people known that, and the competition probably have even better patties than you. I think that taking some space of your broader communication budget and try to build a long term vision that will drive future demand, command a premium and lower business risk, could be a better business case than striving to get your 0.1% share for the next quarter. And I love your articles though – they provoke our thinking in ways that should happen way more often.

  • Charlie Snell, Rethink Marketi 31 May 2015 at 9:08 pm

    On the money once again Prof. Riston. The problem stems from marketers trying to big up their own careers by showing how ‘clever’ they are. Keep it real, people!

  • Michael Gough 30 Jul 2015 at 10:39 am

    When brand purpose is totally disjointed from what the brand actually offers, customer trust is lost. Mark mentions some great examples of bad practice, but there are also brands using purpose well, with much less ‘cringe factor’, in the ethical fashion arena, for example. To achieve brand authenticity, you must think carefully and align your ‘higher’ purpose with what you promise or offer. Done well, a strong purpose increases customer loyalty and willingness to recommend.

  • Dennis D. 18 Dec 2015 at 10:26 am

    But isn’t this the repeatingly made mistake of mixing up lousy instant coffee visions and what should we do now campaigns combined with the lack of quality?

  • Mads Gorm Larsen 21 Apr 2017 at 10:15 pm

    Nice to know I am not alone in being a grumpy old man:)

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