Branding Truth vs. Branding Trends
You ever think you’ve invented something and find out later that 1) the thing exists and 2) is very popular? We did. And it still bothers us to this day.
The year was 2006. The client was Severino. They’re still Whitepenny’s client today. Severino partnered with Whole Foods to put their small batch pasta on the shelves of Whole Foods grocery stores nationwide. This was a huge win for the family-owned, New Jersey-based company that, until then, had only been sold as far as Maryland. We were hellbent on helping the Severinos max out this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
We filled and wiped the whiteboards working toward the brand’s new look and feel. We ate ravioli. We pontificated about what it meant to us. We ate more ravioli. Finally, we emerged with the perfect adjective for Severino’s brass-dye extruded deliciousness:
Here’s what we liked about artisanal: People knew its meaning – handmade – but the word felt fresh. No one was using it except a few elite chefs and some Santa Fe artists- and now, our newly national client.
We built an entire identity around Severino’s artisanal approach. We designed pasta boxes, labels, T-shirts, the works. It was the best, most expansive work we’d done up to that point.
The rollout was a success. Sales skyrocketed. Then something funny happened:
I spotted artisanal on a baguette wrapper at my neighborhood grocery store.
And on bus ad for a regional coffee joint.
And then on a billboard for a new McDonald’s sandwich.
We weren’t sure how to feel. Had Whitepenny kicked off a national trend? Or had we somehow stumbled upon a great little untapped word at the same time everyone else was discovering it, too?
Alternating between pissed, proud and pleased, we licked our wounds on one hand while throwing back a celebratory beer with the other. And then the real question dawned on us:
Why on earth was McDonald’s using the word artisanal?
The different Dilemma
A few weeks ago I took the train to DC for a client meeting at a Hyatt. The hotel had placed Hyatt-branded notepads at each seat around the boardroom table. The letterhead text jumped out at me:
A different kind of place.
I looked around. I like Hyatt a lot. I like Hyatt because it’s reliable. Clean. A cut above but not pretentious. But the last thing that comes to mind when I think of Hyatt is different.
Standing out can feel like a tall order in 2018, with so many brands vying for the same consumer loyalty and dollars. At Whitepenny, we’ve banged our heads against walls in our quest to find our clients’ sweet spots – that is, messaging that strikes the perfect balance of clear, clever, and original.
We understand that in moments when we need the figurative jaws of life to extract ideas from our brains, it’s easy to err toward words that work for other brands. Toward on-trend descriptors like artisanal and different.
But McDonald’s and Hyatt could have had dug deeper. Here’s why:
Say what you will about McDonald’s – it is a lot of great things. It’s fast. It’s convenient. It’s around every corner. It’s the same whether you’re in Portland, Oregon or Portland, Maine. It’s an olfactory delight. It makes your kids happy. It’s inexpensive. It’s nostalgic. And it’s delicious – yes, even after watching those eye-opening documentaries that tried to convince me otherwise. Any one of these characteristics are a goldmine for a killer campaign that would have resonated with me in a way that artisanal didn’t.
It’s similar for Hyatt. Hyatt’s the opposite of what comes to mind when I hear different – and that’s why I love it! For Hyatt to become different, it would have to lose some of the characteristics that draw me – and millions of others – in.
I want Hyatt to be exactly what I know them to be. Concepts like consistent and clean might sound dull at face value, but scratch a little further. There’s a way to tell the consistent or clean story creatively. You can sell this valuable, hard-to-find quality in riveting and action-inducing ways.
Here’s an added bonus to taking the authentic route: you never have to worry that someone’s hot on your heels, about to use your word or your look or your concept. Because what’s true always rises to the top. Those Severino pastas? They’re still flying off shelves today. No one cares that artisanal isn’t the freshest, because what’s inside is truly artisanal.
What’s trending will never resonate louder than what’s true. When brands start from a place of authenticity, they have less to overcome…less to hide…and all to gain.