On Brand

When I was first learning the art of copy writing (not to be confused, by the way, with the legal business of copyrighting), I had an instructor who shared with me the user manual for my BS meter. Loren Solomon, who in those days owned an agency in Atlanta called Solomon Says, taught an eager bunch of us newbie copywriters how to write radio spots. She would give us an assignment and we’d go away for a couple of days and come back with our efforts. Radio is an aural art, so we would read our work out loud to the class. The very first day we shared our work, Loren asked all of us to turn on our BS meters. Our blank faces gave away the fact that we were unfamiliar with just exactly what the BS meter was and where it was installed, much less how to turn it on. She explained that each of us should raise our hand whenever we heard something in one of the spots that didn’t sound real, that didn’t sound true. I’m pretty sure I was about 10 seconds into a 60-second spot when hands flew up around me. It was a hard lesson, but a crucially important one. And it meshed with a lot of what we were being taught by a number of other advertising professionals: the best advertising tells the truth. That really is Axiom #1 of the advertising business: TELL THE TRUTH. Consider the recent Pepsi debacle.

For those of you not in the business, you may have forgotten about Pepsi’s ad in which fashion model Kendall Jenner single-handedly defused a potentially violent clash between Black Lives Matter demonstrators and the police by offering a police officer a Pepsi. Woo hoo! Behold the power of Pepsi! At the very least you watched the spot and felt a little awkward (that was your BS meter going off, by the way). Worst case, you guffawed and shook your head at the audacity of Pepsi. Who in their right mind thought it was smart to put Pepsi in the middle of what was, and still is, a terribly contentious situation? But if you’re still asking what was so wrong about that ad—in its own way a pretty hopeful, optimistic sort of story—I’ll tell you. It wasn’t true. It didn’t seem real in the least. More importantly, there wasn’t a shred of human truth to it. The thought that this aloof fashion model would abandon her photo shoot in order to make peace by pouring the Pepsi oil on the angry sea of protest was just too unbelievable for even the most willing of us to suspend our disbelief. Lastly, and this is critical, it just didn’t seem true to the Pepsi brand. Which brings us to axiom number two: BE TRUE TO YOUR BRAND.

Being true to your brand may seem like a pretty simple no-brainer, but in this day and age when much of what we create is considered branded content that’s a lot harder than it seems. The best way to start is by having some sort of litmus test. What is your brand about? Which things fit your brand and which ones don’t? What are your company values and mission? How would you define your brand’s personality? Interesting content can be entertaining, but let’s face it: if your brand were a diabetes clinic, you wouldn’t want to be sharing branded content about how to make candy.

Pepsi survived the Kendall Jenner ad controversy. Smart big brands are adept at navigating their screw-ups. They pulled the ad quickly and moved on. But, the consequences would have been much more dire for a smaller company. Pepsi had the wherewithal to produce other advertising and to quickly address their upset constituents. Had they been a small company, however, they might have found themselves in a world of hurt.

So what do we take away from this?

Somebody needs to be in charge of your brand, somebody who knows it well, who has a well-calibrated BS meter, and who is empowered to say yay or nay.

A company must know its brand. Know your brand’s personality. Know what your brand would or wouldn’t say or approve of. Let that personality help guide content decisions.

Seek and share human truths. The strongest brands find these little nuggets of truth, key insights into human behavior, and tell stories that relate to them. The strongest stories illuminate the truth. The strongest marketing is story-telling.

Ergo, truth makes for the strongest marketing.

It’s worth noting that advertising can successfully depart from the truth. Nobody, for example, believes there’s a Coors beer train that magically turns everything but party goers into ice. But, the advertising is successful for two reasons. Firstly, it’s very clear that Coors is engaging in advertising hyperbole. And secondly, Coors is also leveraging one of the age-old human truths frequently touted by the mass producers of American lagers: typical American beer is best served ice cold. So, as with everything in the advertising business, the line between truth and trouble isn’t one between black and white. Just know this, if you’re out there with content and your BS meter is pegged out, you’ve abandoned truth for the worst sort of advertising tripe. And there will be consequences.