Imagine, advertising’s been out on a drug-fueled binge-train of craziness. It’s way past midnight. In fact, it’s real late and by now, you’d rather be in bed and cry into your pillow, but your closest brands keep shouting rounds at the well-stocked media bar: Depraved TV, Radio, Out of Home ads – traditional stuff – in one hand and whole bunch of digital cocktails and mixers – that will put you on a skateboard before you know it – in the other. How do you talk to someone, coming at you in the dark, at high speed, on a contraption without brakes, carrying a drink in each hand? But consumers are insane anyway. The guy happy to order what’s on tap died when all the computers were supposed to crash. It took us 20 years to realise it’s a new millennium. What are brands supposed to do? People are waiting for ‘something block chain, maybe?’ to make them rich, happy or at least famous. Sell them something?!
Consumers are drunk on exuberance. By sheer chance their blood shot eyes might catch a squinted glimpse of your marketing efforts across the buzzing madness of a 2020 media circus. No. Only one eye! – Maybe not at all. It’s all about telling a story? Oh yes, grandpa! That’s terrific, but how-the-fuck-exactly do you tell a good one when our human connections look like we dropped a bowl of froot loops – memed, mashed-up, remade, shared, listed up, voted down, remixed, tagged, commented on or liked? Can we still give even zero fucks? Literally. Haven’t our brains changed since Twitter to see a page of text more like a horse’s eyeball sees nuts? 500 times as big?! Is this true? Literally now means metaphorically? Somebody takes syrup, lime juice and whiskey, shakes it like the devil’s maracas for two minutes, strains it over a chunk of ice and, in a fit of ill-conceived discernment, throws a maraschino cherry instead of a lemon wedge at it… Now, do you care what bourbon was used in your Whiskey Sour? And be honest.
A brand designer is not a graphic designer, a colour muppet or pixel pusher – well, if they can help it. Not everybody can do brand design, but a brand designer can be anybody that knows strategy is not ‘applied’ to a project like putting a hat on your dog before you let him drive the car. If you think strategy is something other people do; you’re smart. Let them do it. But since we’re here, I’ll try not to put one over on you and substitute ‘strategy’ (worse: strategically – adverb’s always worse) for what should be explained in some detail. That’s not what marketing and design are famous for, but what the hell?! Marketing and design are full of pontificating, soggy minds, spotted with left-over glitter and every one of those boobs has it’s own doctrine on strategy and creative, which – in a vile twist of logic – is making my complex and adversarial point for me already… We’ll get there, but for now, all the other opinionated boobs went home and you found yourself in the water. This is the deep end of the pool. The pool that I know and you have to take it for what it’s worth. Cause, what do I know?
If you’re running a business, you have a brand. If you don’t have a brand; you found yourself quite a business – congratulations. But if you have one, some pretty complex decisions need to be made. And since it’s business, it starts and ends with money. If brands don’t need to tell stories any longer, they still better add value – and save money. Fuck you, pay me. And not me. The other guy. The run-of-the-mill graphic design goblin you briefed to create a ’subtle sizzle’ for your otherwise boring email signature and use of alliterations. Nothing personal, just business.
A lot of people say, ‘Brand value lies at the heart of your organisation.’ A lot less people say, ‘Brand value is generated during digital interactions with boldly designed stock photography, optimised and promoted through search and meta data.’ That’s only what a lot of people do.
Let’s assume a brand is the collective audience’s sum total of conceptual ideas and emotions about a product or service. Close enough? Manipulating this half-understood, salty, soaking wet (it’s tears of joy, folks) clump into a sound brand requires the ability to orchestrate a stiff piece of work: Saying something worth giving a shit at every possible (sic!) interaction with your audience – not even at every conceivable one. Am I making sense? I’m saying, it’s impossible to fake it. A lot of people are right with their stirring believe that brand value is at the heart of a business.
Yes! This is it! Not stories, but stories from the heart! I get it now. We are inherently social beings, right? I knew it. The answer to a complex problem is always simple.
No, I switched narrators on you. It’s lazy writing, yes. But, well, it does make a… Look, I may or may not be drunk, but some people, who were just nodding and(!) shaking their head in a stupor, quickly succumbed to this pseudo heuristic and mumbled ‘… true’ to themselves. No. No, it’s not true. Real life is always more complicated than you are smart. Especially you. You have a heartfelt brand story, you’ve been thinking about for a while now? What is it? ‘Opulent Opportunities’? or ‘Everybody’s Essentials’? Both?! That’s hilarious. Let’s park this and simply concur that your message needs to resonate to have an effect. To be successful. To add value, make money. But does it have to be a story? What is that? If anything can be a story and we’re all story tellers, isn’t it useless to market because of inflation? But what if a story needed to be somehow true. Wouldn’t that be something?
We’ll sober up together and muster some first principle appreciation for the life-and-death art of sharing experiences with others…
Only after a busy day of hunting and gathering sustenance against impossible odds would our Homo erectus ancestors finally sit around their social media platform and warm their asses. Hunched down and stirring a stew, like a brain with a bone in its hand, at long last free from digesting raw food for days, we begin to understand our past and develop plans for the future – and our future cranial cavities. We share the lived experience of this temporal connection through stories, because every primate with a big enough brain can still learn from events playing out over time. That is, if they are logical and connected, which typically makes them true (epistemologically); which is why, if your stories are idiotic, nobody, absolutely nobody, wants to hear them. The representative tales however, evolve what presents itself like what wet dog smells like into a culture of understanding. Over time, they weave a working pattern to live by and provide appetite for learning. But the same memeplex also ‘votes down’ your horse shit stories, resulting in tribe-rejection and you hunting deep into the night, which sees to your skinny legs provide appetisers for non-readers. Stories that make sense fit in with other snack sized ideas we have grasped of the world around us and the social interactions within. We keep them in our brain back pocket. A pattern of representation (of the real world) we can extend to make some low res predictions; start collecting pebbles to suck on for the next drought. So, tell stories!… but you have to be truthful, you scoundrels, remember?
The right thing to say? Well, there’s at least two parts to this. First, say what you need to say, cause that’s the whole point. You got a brand and you want to sell me something and that is ok – if I like it. Point two: Make me. Make me like it. I’m open to anything. I like things and understanding how they work. That’s how the whole story thing worked out so brilliantly for my ancestral brain tree and now, I microwave carbohydrates and saturated fat in plastic trays. I’m complete. I like autonomy. But I also like how I feel about the exact same stupid thing for no good reason at all; and even more so, how everyone else around me feels about it – even if I told you otherwise. I like heteronomy.
– Alright, so can you say something that I feel about in a way that is accidentally also how it works and everybody else just agrees?
– Cause that would be like making a crazy person violent and then ask them to serve drinks at my party?!
– It’s not my party?!?!
I know, it sounds complicated. Can we go back to throwing feces and just call it a day? In all seriousness, I’m glad you’re taking the time to read this as it’s about to pay off – for us. Now, why would that be? Just because everything’s better personalised, it doesn’t mean it’s all about you or me. Let’s do it the other way round and I bet, we won’t be able to tell the difference: First, we try to get a firm grip on the pocket-sized thought patterns of our audience. Then we puzzle out how they work together on understanding, feelings, social interactions, culture… everything important on the subject. Once we fill our big brain pockets with all these stories, we can do something cool – and this is also one tiny part of the reason why this is published on the Blow Show Official Blog and not the Financial Times – we do something creative! We extend the collective pattern. For this to be a true (and truthful) extension it has to be coherent, otherwise it won’t fit the pattern. And what do we extend it with? That’s right! That thing you wanted to say. Our brand message. As long as it is designed with coherence to the pattern, everybody gets it and we – we won’t know the difference. I promise.
So useful for conceptual learning back when we started to make sense of lists, the quality of being logical and consistent has transformed exponentially towards an insane entropy in our digital age. We can barely keep it together without showing the 36 followers we like to think of as ‘the world’ what we’re about to shove down our pie hole next, or which Aristotle quote inspired us to live stream our squats. Yet, competence signaling through a narrative still requires the same careful practice – coherence – the adjunct, advertising and really every form of effective marketing – creativity. The base pair of brand design.
Although this is well-known, most brands’ efforts to build on experiences feel like a wet, warm hand on your face. It’s not well-understood. Advertisers are so thirsty to hit us over the head with their brand message, they obscure, delay or interrupt what we really want. And even if they don’t completely shit the bed, whatever self-aggrandising spectacle their advert tries to inculcate, is to your brain what Louis C.K.’s dick is to a pot plant – wrong; all shrivelled up and stupid, below anyone’s standards, and as degrading to you, as it is perversely gratifying to them. Which is a problem if you’re trying to extend your customers’ patterns of representation which, for obvious reasons, include your own brand. And while entire marketing departments in panoramic meeting rooms are getting their hands dirty to spin a message that connects with the audience, professional designers with dirty hands grab another mint at the reception desk and watch it explode in their faces. Doesn’t matter much if you’ve given up and just want to bang the CEO’s EPA by the end of the financial year or throw your MacBook into your client’s windshield next time you leave their office (no, you change it!) and become a hard-drinking artist after all. It can get a little tense around the dumpster fire of bloody band-aids and brown paper bags that smell like shit at the intersection of your marketers’ creative understanding and your creatives’ understanding of marketing. The overwhelming amount of mediocre work does not exemplify mediocre skill sets of the good people involved – It’s the smallest common denominator between them. If you are just diddling around with the pattern, you break it. If you break it, no one’s buying.
And even though the concept of coherent creative escapes them, most of the industry is bright-eyed and bushy-tailed like a fat squirrel on a sack of nuts about their prospects to bankroll a final solution: A state of constant surveillance over consumers – an insane machine to pack it all away; your digital exhaust fumes, your porn meta-data, your troll review of the leopard skin shower curtain you bought online, the colourful insults you screamed at your wall because you hate your job and your landlord is, if not a full blown demon whore, at least a werewolf nut job that transforms fortnightly. You’re an egg on a ledge. But your life is about to improve with a twist! Right now, your smart devices, ominously named the Internet of Things (IoT), are cooking up a plot, to turn you into consumption cattle – one user agreement at a time. It’s tickled pink, eats whatever it is fed and shits out shareholder value. No need for ingenuity. The algorithmic hyper quantity will produce the 0.0001% of fun stuff we need to get carried though this period of transition humanely. At least that’s the plan. The libertarian technocrats are secretly ‘closing the loop’ and turning consumers into fuel for their dystopian future-markets revenue operation. The machine intelligence will entertain us as prescribed until we burst like fat-balloons. That’s creative.
I’m not saying, that’s what’s being said out loud. But corporates, and even more so the vista-printing small businesses, have had it with paying someone to ‘come up’ with stuff. Data, and lots of it, has all the stuff already in it! And data is everywhere somehow. It just needs to be extracted. Extracted, yes. An algorithm whisks our subconscious into cerebral mousse, then powerful processing separates the wheat from the chaff, affirms which of our behaviours need adjustment to generate more of the metric you got duped into. Then you activate it – us. Applause. You’ve replaced creativity with a #headline, an unattainable stock photo and a too-good-to-be-true call-to-action (the ‘action’ is almost always a click, and that’s good enough in this scenario). The final, tiny – but most important – extension of this gargantuan automaton, the dick head possibly, will see you push a button and have the number that will make you happy pop up on your screen with certainty. You’re doing a great job!
The delusion couldn’t be worse if they started paying birds to shit in your milk and chirp, ‘Try New Coke!’ I’m waiting… In reality, as soon as a piece of branded communications leaves the domain of its inception, a c-level office suite with an ideas gong and a vertical garden, and is passed on to people who forego shopping for toilet paper to stay up all night on Reddit, the wheels are starting to come off. Don’t get me wrong, there need to be laws against selling your permanent record. Especially when it’s disguised as free Benzedrine for the populace to get hooked on while competitors are being stomped out of the market, privacy concerns held up in court and advertisers keep hitting their year-on-year budget like a snooze button. It’s repulsive. But I’m not too worried about these idiots ‘closing the loop’, no. Maybe that’s naive, but the soul-merchants in suspended plastic eggs overlooking the San Francisco Bay never got closer to honey-dicking yours truly than when they offered me free email for them to read later… maybe, after a terror attack? (Yes, of course they read your email.)
That new thing we want? It’s not free. It’s not certain. It’s not hidden in our brains somewhere for the machine to find – it does not exist yet. But what do I know?
Did we have to go back to these prehistoric noodles sitting around a campfire two million years ago? What was that all about? They did what?! Shit in their own hands to recount a cautionary tale from it? – Maybe.
Aren’t we too savvy to be technologically puppeteered to consumption with the noses of horny Silicon Valley Teenage Pinocchios up our butts? – Possibly.
Shouldn’t we be well underway to a wholesome new modernity within the safe-spaces of optimised designs, owned assets and… you know, ‘digital’? – Could be.
Or are we an industry of agnostic shit heads on stool softeners who think of reality as a given? The same people who subject us to their twisted, ill-fitted marketing messages with no understanding of how much they are leisurely standing – with fat fingers wrapped around an extra large bag of Adderall, cocaine or salted nuts – on the shoulders of said troglodytes.
Everything around you, unless it’s a tree or dog shit, had to be imagined by someone first. All of it. It only looks like it was always there. Yes, a long time ago, somebody set their brand new, squid-like frontal lobes to sharpening a stick with their cousin’s teeth. A little later, someone else renders the potential of the deep, jumbled pool our consciousness floats around in like a pickle to expand our collective pattern with something new – and pushed, and pushed until it became that Samoan faux turtle shell comb you got with your Hawaiian pale ale today. It’s a beautiful thing. Reality.
It’s so spectacular and electrifying, we should be chasing it like cranked up pangolins with spit flying out of our mouths. Instead, we embarrass ourselves with drooling artwork, trialled and drivelled copy, we call programmatic because it’s shot straight in the eyes consumers from an erect, semi-conducting plastic cannon from inside a burning circus tent. I didn’t agree to see your stupid ad, I’m walking here! Brands need to put their boobs on the table, their balls to the wall and take responsibility for our experiences – the reality they subject us to with their ad dollars.
Let’s look at some examples out there:
TV: I wouldn’t use peanut butter to shave my legs so why would I not buy the shaver with three lubricating strips today? Today!?! – Was some poor soul violently committed to a secret government gender reassignment program and chained to a radiator in a basement for three days to write this?
Digital: I want more of what I like and now I’m staring at what sure looks like a flightless bird, fucking the letter ‘D’ in someone’s kitchen to sell a dongle with unlimited data?! – Who has an apple slicer and juicer but no knife block in his kitchen and where are the iconic examples of graphic art on our screens?
Brands, pony up on brains and stop neutering brilliance to not piss on this quarter’s profits. Throw the people some gems to work with; for them to add something, in their own time, in their own stories. You want to become part of our shared reality; you want to change our behaviour so bad? – Take some responsibility and make it good… or we will come for you, with new pitchforks and new torches, eventually; if you keep pushing us. We will.
I’m old-school. I’m buying all your future domain names instead. It’s cheap.
So if you have a brand, it’s about to pay off again – this time mostly for myself. For this whole spiel is about what I want to sell you, and I hope you like it. I think, I mentioned earlier, ‘it’s impossible to fake it’ and quite possibly, it registered as aggressive ignorance and a natural instinct to mock the conventional wisdom. Now, I’m all out if ice (you can sober up in a clean progression out of madness by adding more ice to your drinks and eating raw broccoli) and would like to add, ‘but if you have your own ideas, a more unconventional – outside the way reality is actualised – way… in that case, friend, you have set up shop outside reality-ville.’ As you would expect, reality is one motherfucker to be up against and I wouldn’t bet the house on reaching your long-term KPIs. Maybe not today, but these evolutionary truths will get you. One day, when you’re not paying particular attention, a zebra will jump out of the deep grass and rip your head off.
Really, the only way out is in. But nobody in their right mind expects you to be in the pool at 3 AM, with no life guards around you and mind-altering drugs inside you. To go diving for something meaningful at the bottom of that pool, to extend the pattern of a representative, collective reality. You go down there – maybe you’re listening to some John Lee Hooker – you see people crying, hear the devil walking. It can get weird. Get a professional to help you, is all I’m saying. But what do I know?
Written under duress by March D’Altilia