Branding is often managed like a propaganda war for the hearts and minds of brand consumers. This aligns with Wikipedia’s basic description of propaganda: “As opposed to impartially providing information, propaganda, in its most basic sense, presents information primarily to influence an audience.” Propaganda is not really about the truth, but about influencing minds, and so may resort to a variety of tactics such as errors of omission, selective truths and the straw man fallacy to make its case. Interestingly, if you look at the history of advertising and propaganda, they both came of age as vehicles of mass persuasion during and after World War I and they continue to rely on the same essential insights about human behavior. Advertising is white propaganda.
Propaganda and its reliance on deceptive practices is clearly out of alignment with our general position on branding—that truth is the most powerful tool in the arsenal of the brand in its capacity to win the hearts and minds of the brand consumer. We still believe this to be true, but it has to be understood that the other guys may not play by these rules.
In the face of these attacks their ability to perry the blows is hindered significantly by their lack of a clear, cohesive and consistent brand.
I had an interesting conversation recently with the keeper of nationally recognized brand. Her brand was under attack by those who wish it harm. The attacks employ various tactics including the nearly ubiquitous straw man fallacy. (I should point out that straw man is used with shocking regularity in American discourse, especially on TV, and it is nearly universally given a pass by moderators and commentators—along with much else I might add. This is a good argument for more instruction in the neglected science of logic.) In the face of these attacks their ability to perry the blows is hindered significantly by their lack of a clear, cohesive and consistent brand. Popular argument and propaganda takes full advantage of people’s tendency to be lazy, to not make the effort to question what they are being told and to believe things simply because they have heard them frequently. Falsehoods take effort to expose and all propagandists and advertisers know that people are essentially lazy. In the words of Lily Tomlin: “No matter how cynical you become, it’s never enough to keep up.”
So one danger for the victim of a brand attack is having an ill-defined or inaccurate brand with which to defend. This lack of clarity makes it easy for the opposite side to mischaracterize and for these mischaracterizations to take hold in people’s minds. Lack of brand clarity provides ample opportunity for constructing straw men. A tightly managed and true brand, understood and internalized by your employees, supporters and all who know you stands by comparison as a powerful defense against such attack. It leaves less room for the mischaracterizations to be thought plausible. The key is to be absolutely clear and consistent in your message and self-definition, and to explain this in ways that are easily understood.
Lack of brand clarity provides ample opportunity for constructing straw men.
Into gaps and unoccupied spaces left by an ill-defined brand the opposition can insert all manner of untrue things. These can be hard to explain away and a light or lazy review by an outside party will supply them with little in the way of counter argument. In this way an oft repeated falsehood can become the accepted narrative about who you really are, and this situation is terribly hard to correct. This is a case where the choices facing an organization are to brand well or to be branded by others, and those others may or may not have your best interests in mind.
One highly public and striking example of an organization literally imploding after such an attack is ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) which once had 400,000 members and more than 1,200 neighborhood chapters. The now defunct organization was brought down by a video. In the New York Times Article about the implosion the situation was described like this: “That 20-minute video ruined 40 years of good work, but if the organization had confronted its own internal problems, it might not have been taken down so easily.”
If the organization had confronted its own internal problems, it might not have been taken down so easily.
Maintaining a brand expression that encourages your core supporters to defend and support you while at the same time deflecting the attacks of your detractors is key. This is not easy, but here are some thoughts:
1. Hew as close as possible to the truth. If you have the truth on your side, although it is not a guarantee of vindication, at least your supporters will know how to defend you.
2. Create one true story for all of your brand consumers. Don’t have multiple versions of your brand for different audiences. If you tell one story to one group and another to a different group, this can be easily exploited by your detractors.
3. De-emphasize but do not intentionally hide your weaknesses. Address them head on so that they cannot be used to define you.
4. Make sure everything that you do is in alignment with your brand position. Any time you stray from it you potentially confuse your core stakeholders and make it harder for them to defend you, and you provide another opportunity for detractors to use that as representative of your core activities.
5. Keep it simple. Create your brand story so that people can understand its essence quickly and easily. If your brand needs copious footnotes and explanations to be understood, it is ripe for mischaracterization. Your brand must stand on its own without your being there to explain it.