Welcome to a world of magic
'We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.'
IF THIS IS TRUE of people, it is also true of brands, which we are told have 'personalities'.
Those of us who work in marketing and advertising are sometimes called 'image makers'. We deal with brand 'identity', 'personality' and 'image'. A brand is more than a product in as much as a brand is famous, and what it offers over and above its functional and rational features evokes a subjective and emotional response in the user.
As Charles Revson once said of Revlon: 'In the factory we make cosmetics. In the store we sell hope.'
When we deal with people, we form opinions based on many things. We can be tricked but often we can have a sense of what a person is really like. Do they have a sense of humour? Are they thoughtful or thoughtless? Do they cheat when playing tennis? Are they 'one of us'?
We feel we understand the brands we use. If it doesn't do what it is supposed to do, then we will no longer have much to do with it.
We don't, thankfully, take brands too seriously unless they become involved in practices that we find abhorrent. There are exceptions - often, it would seem, to do with fashion. Kids have been killed for their trainers. Women fight over designer labels at the sales.
But I wonder how many people really cared where their fruit came from during apartheid? How many really care where their Nikes and Gap clothing are made and under what conditions? Or how the cattle and chickens that go into their fast-food meals are reared and slaughtered? Of course, some do and sometimes they're enough for laws to be changed or new ones to be introduced.
But these days, most people don't care too much about what happens beyond their ken, even though it may well affect them one day when it might be too late. Rain forests dying? Terrible, but there are still trees in my street. Global warming? I'll cut down on car journeys if everyone else does. One of the hardest communications jobs is trying to alert people to future consequences. That is why it is so hard to do advertising that has a significant effect on smoking teenagers, or drink driving, or cruelty to children.
Back to brands. I have always believed that the best advertising is based in some way on what might be called a 'brand truth'. Given that so many brands these days are all but identical in performance and features, the truth about a brand will reside not just in the product but in how it is seen and used by its customers or how the company behind the brand treats them. This might include service before and after sale or some recognition of loyalty.
More importance may be placed on design and functionality. The 'brand' might just care a bit more about doing what it is supposed to be doing. These 'truths' come from trying to understand the people who are or may become customers and what they want.
Some years ago, there was a film starring Dudley Moore about a guy who started writing ads that really were truthful. This caught on and became successful, with comic consequences. There was also a Doyle Dane print ad in the 1960s for Gimbels with the headline: 'I've got a great gimmick. Let's tell the truth.' But what is the truth? And do people want it? My guess would be not if it makes things difficult or boring.
Packaging now has to have a list of ingredients by law. Some people will refer to them (particularly if they have an allergy). Claims are legislated by such bodies as the Trade Descriptions Act in Britain and various federal bodies in the United States. In Asia, of course, there is still big business in pretending something is what it is not: Cartier watches, Louis Vuitton handbags, Calvin Klein etc.
Does it matter where a brand comes from? Or which company actually makes it? There is a new trend for companies who own a lot of brands to make the company name more visible. Nestle and Uniliver are examples. They do this for investors and to give greater credence to some lesser-known brands. On the other hand, you may not know who makes these brands: Bonaqua, Imperial Orchid Tea, Lift, Mello Yello, Thums Up, Ariel, Always, Cover Girl, Folgers coffee and Giorgio. The first five are all marketed by Coca-Cola; the rest by Proctor and Gamble (P&G). Coca-Cola may be worried about anti-American feeling in some of its markets. P&G may want to keep such different products as soap powder and cosmetics apart. The policies will depend in the end on whether or not there is a commercial advantage.
I found myself wondering about pretence while reading Fast Food Nation by Eric Schloss, particularly in the section on flavour. In just about every list of ingredients in the US you will find either natural flavour or artificial flavour - they both refer to man-made additives.
About 9 per cent of money spent on food in the US is for processed food. The act of processing food destroys most of its flavour, although this is the quality most sought for in food. You would not buy anything if you saw the chemicals that flavours entail (around 50 for 'artificial strawberry flavour', for example). The fact is, as Schloss points out, a natural flavour is not necessarily healthier or purer than an artificial one. The world of 'flavourists' is a magical one. They pretend that a drop of some chemical mixture is strawberry or the smell of beef on a barbecue, and to all intents and purposes it is.
Many years ago, when I worked for the ad agency J Walter Thompson, one of the directors said to me: 'Welcome to the House of Magic.' Not much is what it seems, it seems. So just watch carefully and remember what or who you're pretending to be.
Giles Keeble is a copywriter and brand consultant