Rule of the Game

Brands are born free, and everywhere they are in chains. Or said another way, why can’t a simple creative guy like me get a decent brand essence to work from?

It’s probably because the people who create the brand essence lose sight of what it’s supposed to be. They forget that it’s not a “creative platform.” It’s not a “reason to sell.” It’s not a “marketing plan.”

It is, quite simply, the essence of your brand—”the permanent, as contrasted with the accidental element of being,” to quote Webster’s. Not only is that definition poetic, it’s true. And it should be tattooed on the forehead of anyone brainstorming a brand essence.

So what is the “permanent” as opposed to the “accidental”? And how do you find it?

Look, I’m no Al Reis. I’m not clever enough to think up 22 laws of anything. But a good place to start is with what I call “The No. 1 Rule of Brand Essence”:

Never use a word in a brand essence that you cannot imagine someone, somewhere, reasonably using its opposite to great effect.

Why?

Because a brand exists in a universe of real choices. And because consumers, whether they admit it in the claustrophobic confines of focus groups, are looking for real choices. You help them choose—and, by extension, you help them choose you—by being clear about just who you are.

So back to the rule. How does it work? Well, take a word that always seems to pop up in brand essences that I see: “honest.”

The problem with a word like “honest” is it’s the wrong word in the wrong place for the wrong reasons. It’s a marketing word.

No matter how honest you are—or how honest the people who buy, sell, make, package or procure your brand are—your brand is not honest. You use the word “honest” to create an aura for the brand. But an aura is not an essence.

Returning to the rule, what brand in its right mind is going to claim to be “dishonest”? And even if it did, what would it mean?

Or more to the point, what is a “dishonest” beer, car or detergent? I don’t know, but then, I don’t know what an honest one is, either.

What about “American”? Can a beer position itself as a “real American beer”? Sure, because it is completely believable and acceptable for another beer to position itself as a real German, Canadian or Mexican beer.

Does the word “quality” work? No, because no brand is going to proclaim itself as being “anti-quality.” But you could use “value” since there are certain products that are bought for that very reason—the result of a complex interplay of price, product need and emotion.

“Value” also works because consumers buy products thanks to value’s evil twin: image. Therefore, “value”—and for that matter “image”—are valid words when describing brand essence.

“The No. 1 Rule of Brand Essence.” Use it and you will end up with a brand essence you can employ—to build great creative, to build a great brand.

Use it because you have nothing to lose but your chains.