Me-Too Branding and the Dearth of Creativity

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Nothing new under the sun, good writers simply steal well, homage, pastiche, parody, satire… the assorted excuses that come up for shamelessly ripping off other advertising ideas may as well be named Legion, for they are certainly many.

Emblematic of this phenomenon is the Mac/PC ad format. The initial idea was clever enough – personalizing the PC vs. Mac experience with actual actors standing in for the machines ties into storytelling techniques that have gone back to the Greeks and the Babylonians, if not further. We as a people have personified lightning, war and other concepts into gods and heroes for time immemorial, so there’s no reason the trend should stop now.

Inevitably, of course, the copycats came up. For example, consider Sprint’s recent G4 smartphone commercials. There is an element of delicious reversal in these; after all, Sprint is making fun of Apple’s iPhone the same way that Macs were trashing on PCs not too long ago. Still, the entire thing has an air of “we’ve seen this already.” The format is identical, with the white background, the two personalities bickering in passive aggressive wordplay… what’s new here?

Granted, this isn’t the first time the web and society have seen branding styles copied. Every new automobile model that comes out has scenes of it being driven over rough fields, empty roads, or racetracks depending on what the design is trying to accomplish. Medicine commercials all seem to have caring moms or smart people in lab coats; even telling action movie posters apart is an exercise in higher art criticism given the homogenizing trends that are making themselves known in that industry.

A Case for Branding Independence

Before we go down the road of originality for originality’s sake, let’s bring things back a little bit. Simply backlashing against the trend and coming up with something different for no other reason than trying to be different doesn’t work, either.

Thinking about it is enough to make anyone schizophrenic, so what is there to be done?

Well, consider how some of the branding success stories of the web have gone about making themselves known. The Nostalgia Critic, Penny Arcade, Google, Memebase/Cheezburger – they all have one thing in common that they did with their brand: They made it work.

Each of these examples put together an organization to accomplish a task the creators loved. Penny Arcade talks about gaming and various social issues touching on it, and appealed so strongly to its target audience with its simple adherence to this core concept that it was able to kick off a charity for sick children. Google started out as a web browser with a weird name, and now is basically the first course in SEO 101 classes, with every other browser out there filed under “other.”

These companies didn’t start out with the idea of making a powerful brand; they began with the idea of marketing a product, a service, an activity that they were good at, and stuck to it.

Take Google in particular – not only did Google make searching the web simple, they strove to make it ethical. They adopted their unofficial slogan of “don’t be evil” and leaked it into the world. This appeals highly to the dedicated web user – the Internet and the web gained the power they have because people were adamant about the freedom to share information and the technology to do so, and having the most powerful web browser in the world on their side appealed to them and brought them into the brand.

Now, there have been rough spots. Google’s wishy-washy policies with China, the potential privacy invasion of Street View and other projects… these all have Google’s fan base talking animatedly to Google about what’s seen as a problem.

But notice what they’re doing: They are talking. Notice what they aren’t doing: They’re not leaving. Google has established its brand as a company that listens to its consumers and tries to do the right thing. Whether that perception is true remains to be seen, but the brand has convinced people it IS true, because Google has MADE it true in the past, so the client/customer is willing to stay and talk things out.

What does this mean for your brand? Simple – do what you love, and do it well.

It is, of course, naive to say that Google doesn’t think about marketing at all, or that the guys behind Penny Arcade are some kind of gamer saints who never “sell out” for advertising considerations. But their branding efforts clearly come as an extension of their core, unfailing missions.

So if you want to build a solid brand, you have to build a strong foundation to support it. Don’t try to cash in on the latest style of advertisements, whether for popularity, edginess or “irony.” Instead, make sure your brand conveys that you do whatever it is you do the best way it has ever been done. Let your branding be an extension of your core business model, an effort to bring your passion to the world so customers will want what you have to offer, and your brand will thrive long after Sprint is still living down the shame of copying Apple.

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