One of the most predictable and best pieces of advice we get in many situations. That’s because it is usually obvious when we are pretending to be something we are not, and our attempted deception makes far worse an impression on our audience than our real character actually would. Even if we pull it off, these acts can be extremely stressful to sustain, and we are very likely to get found out eventually.
The lesson generally holds for brands as well. Branding is not, as often appears to the casual observer and the counter-culturally minded, exclusively an exercise in pure, exploitative invention. While empathy and creativity are key, products and services beget brands. Once they are up and tottering on their own little legs, they can start to operate independently, and of course often start to govern or even jettison the products that first bore them, but in the long term they remain fundamentally an expression of and dependent upon some product or service. Branding is therefore not just about invention but about helping businesses to understand their strengths and weaknesses, their relationships with others, consumer and competitor, their goals and aspirations, and their personalities – in other words, helping them to know themselves.
From a position of self-knowledge a brand can begin to be itself – self-knowledge boosts both its confidence and very often its distinctiveness. Instead of being fearfully reactive and superficially appeasing consumers’ whims, it can start confidently and actively being something in particular. At this level a well-adjusted brand can often stop asking ‘what do consumers want?’, and start asking ‘what would the brand do?’. Witness the usual examples, of course – Apple, Innocent et al, but also Puccino’s coffee – whose coffee cups carry the message ‘worst cup design in the world’, and little biscuits say ‘stupid little biscuit’ on the wrapper. Wonderfully characterful and self-effacing, and I bet no consumers told them to write that, but now your coffee cheers you up in more ways than one because the brand has a deep understanding of its relationship with consumers.
Presumably someone told BlackBerry they were boring. I suppose it isn’t much fun being the cornerstone of cellular communications for the world of business and the businesses of the world, but it certainly seems to have been working out very nicely for them –according a Deutsche Bank forecast earlier this year, RIM are set for close to 20% of operating profit in the mobile phone market in 2009, with market share of around 2%. Likewise Apple, with very similar numbers.
BlackBerry has done tremendously well with a focused business proposition. I don’t talk about ‘my phone’, I talk about ‘my BlackBerry’: a triumph of branding. The handsets are, by and large, pretty good.
They have been sold in a very specific market space, and as competitors encroach on this territory it is right that BlackBerry should aim for independent consumer desirability, but the “Love” campaign is wildly, staggeringly off brand. You can’t move far round the tube without encountering exhortations to ‘Love what you do’. ‘All you need is love’ – BlackBerry dares to claim Beatles-grade love in gorgeously produced TV spots of beautiful people doing amazingly cool things. Love is, apparently, ‘at the root of everything good that has ever happened and will ever happen’.
Overblown, trite copy aside, the moment I see a BlackBerry ad with a picture of a great looking guy motorcycling across a desert that tells me to love what I do, I cannot help but think about how (much as I enjoy my job), I spend most of my day surgically attached to my laptop. There could hardly be a greater dissonance between the creative fiction and functional reality. BlackBerry has nothing to do with love and for me this campaign actually accentuates that.
The classic communication principle ‘if you want people to think you’re funny, don’t tell them you’re funny, tell them a joke’ applies here, as one facet of ‘being yourself’. BlackBerry cannot just tell assembled legions of office workers that the device that means they truly never leave said offices is actually the incarnation of love. There really is no reason to believe them.
All the more painful than the fact that BlackBerry lacks the confidence to be itself is that it is very clear who it is trying to be. Apple is a brand that appeals to a certain type of consumer, and BlackBerry is a brand that appeals to a different type of consumer. Part of the reason each has been so successful is this lean and differentiated targeting of a particular market space, deliberate or not. Blackberry cannot hope to beat Apple on its own turf – it simply does not have the credentials to do so, and as my colleague Kamil observed back in July, risks undermining the very things that make it great for its current customer base. In trying to be somebody else, BlackBerry risks losing differentiation, becoming nobody at all and spending an awful lot of money doing it. Much better to be yourself.