Charles Vallance, VCCP: A brand’s number-one job is to simplify choices, not to sell

The word ‘brand’ is used to encompass a multitude of meanings; for some it is an expensive contrivance dreamed up by the marketing department, for others it is the growth engine for post-industrial businesses.

Given that I work in an ad agency, I tend to side with the latter school of thought. However, being a brand advocate is not always easy because so many people manage to make the entire subject so darned complicated.

You only have to look at the various ‘brand models’ washing around the chart-osphere to see what a riot of meaning it can become; onions, temples, keys, concentric circles, pyramids, carrots, funnels and parsnips abound (okay, I made the last one up). They all serve some sort of a purpose, I guess. However, none of them serve the main purpose of a brand. And that purpose, lest we forget, is to simplify.

There will be those out there who will wonder: ‘Isn’t the main purpose of a brand to create a positive pre-disposition to purchase?’, to which I would answer ‘no’. Others might wonder: ‘Isn’t a brand there to justify a premium?’ Again, I would answer in the non-affirmative.

There will be others still who will see the brand as a point of difference in parity markets. Again, they would be wrong. Not completely wrong, any of them; just wrong in putting any of these attributes at the top of the branding pyramid/parsnip, because a brand can achieve none of these benefits if it hasn’t first simplified choice. Indeed, one of the best definitions of a brand I have ever heard (and which I would attribute to either Marc Mendoza or Phil Georgiadis) is that “brands make it easier for people to buy things”.

It was always the case, but it is particularly true today. The arrival of the information age has served to make the human brain the most crowded place on earth. More crowded, even, than the North Circular road on a Friday afternoon when an Ikea sale coincides with an England game.

According to government data, we now spend more time looking at screens than we do sleeping. Through these thin, shiny rectangles we allow a tsunami of inputs to flood our brains: emails, texts, calendar appointments, TV shows, news feeds, goal alerts, auntie Nora’s Facebook page, granny’s Instagram, not to mention our wallet, our weather forecast and our watch.

The tyranny of choice

In this world of cognitive glut, choice may no longer be a benefit. It can become a form of tyranny, merely adding to the muddle in our heads when all that our minds crave is simplicity. But simplicity is tremendously hard to achieve. It takes determination, it involves difficult choices and, frequently, substantial investment. Legacy systems have to be replaced so that 14 clicks become three. Organisations have to realign so they mirror the customer journey rather the corporate organogram.

Rival departments have to cooperate to ensure the customer experience is seamless rather than jagged. Sacrifices have to be made and initiatives shut down so that brands retain cohesion and clarity.

Above all, the language we use needs to be concise and straightforward. Agencies and marketing departments are drawn towards jargon: we use phrases such as ‘growth hacking’, ‘verbalising’, ‘granularity’ and ‘having visibility’. We like acronyms (KPIs, AI, UX); portmanteaux (‘masstige’, ‘mumtrepreneurs’); and flannel (‘brand optimisation programme’). Complex, coded language will only make it more difficult to achieve the clarity we are looking for. Indeed, too often it is a thin disguise for the absence of clear thinking and definition.

That said, some jargon does make the grade – often from the world of coding and web design. For instance, I like the phrase ‘choice architecture’. I know what it means, and I know roughly what to do with it. In a way, it summarises the purpose of our day jobs, which is to make choice as easy, intuitive and effortless as possible.