Brand Paranoia

Let’s talk about paranoia in branding. It’s something I’ve noticed a lot over the years - mostly with clients overestimating how much equity there is in their brand.

It usually happens when we’re rationalising a brand portfolio, or integrating new brands into an existing stable. Our objective view presents a pretty cut and dried choice to the client: Here are the brand elements you should keep, maintain and grow; and here are the elements that need pruned, cut or killed. This is when it can get sticky, and I get it. We don’t have any skin in the game and we’re not emotionally attached to the brands. 

But this is what we’re paid for. To help brand owners avoid the pitfalls of the halfway house. The political compromise. Where the emotional and short-term attachment overpowers the rational and long-term need to make the change. Quite often, the resistance is positioned as ‘you don’t understand, we’re different…our customers are so attached to our brand that to change any aspect of it is commercial suicide’. Even when the empirical research says something entirely different. 

This is a form of corporate brand paranoia and I was reminded of it again this week when I read the story about Hugo Boss trying to do the ‘right thing’ but just clumsily shooting themselves in the foot. 

So, you’re Hugo Boss. A massive, globally recognised brand in the fashion world, having carved out a little bit of space in the public’s consciousness. People know the name and the logotype. They don’t spend much time thinking about Hugo Boss, and not many people will know the heritage; but they have a level of awareness. And that awareness is built around the fact that Hugo Boss sells clothes.

In the same way that…

  • Tesla sells (electric) cars
  • Heineken sells beer
  • Colgate sells toothpaste

I suppose it speaks to the core business and what built the recognition in the customers’ minds in the first place. Add to that a little bit of salience about the logo and you’ve locked something powerful into the consumer mind.

Why then, do brand owners lose all sense of proportion when it comes to the occasional clash with other brands or names that sound or look a little bit similar? It’s as if their emotional attachment to what’s perceived to be “their brand” trumps an ability to remain balanced and proportionate in their response.

With Hugo Boss, they were getting their knickers in a twist about a regional brewery, Boss Brewing, in Wales. Apparently this brewery had been producing a beer that somehow used the Boss name. But, really? Does Hugo Boss really think that punters are going to confuse the two brands? That they’re going to wander into a local shop, pick a can of Boss beer off the shelf and think, “oh yes - I see that’s Hugo Boss gone into brewing now…”. I’ve had a look at the branding of the beer, and it’s fair to say that even a blind man running for a bus would know the difference.

But, apparently that’s exactly what they did think would happen. Hugo Boss have slapped the brewery with a cease and desist letter and are pursuing the matter from a legal standpoint, which forces the smaller company to rebadge costing thousands and thousands of pounds. This is the stuff that really puzzles me about the corporate mindset. Not only is it impossible for customers to get the two brands mixed up, it’s the inevitable David and Goliath story it stirs up in the press, which immediately makes Hugo Boss look silly. It might also do some harm to how they’re perceived by the public. 

Which is more important (and more attractive from a brand point of view?) To be technically and legally correct, winning the argument, but coming off as a petty bully determined to get its own way, no matter who they harm in the process. Or to take the higher ground, perhaps acknowledging that there’s crossover; but recognising that there’s little or no threat?

The law of unintended consequences is never far away. Joe Lycett - the comedian - has been following the story and has now changed his name by deed poll to Hugo Boss, just to piss them off. It’s pretty funny, and he’s doing it to make the point about corporate bullying, so it’s probably going to run and run. Some people will say there’s no such thing as bad publicity, but I’m sure that Hugo Boss would rather the joke wasn’t on them.

So, what’s my main message? Let’s have more confidence in our customers’ ability to discern difference and not ascribe value to things that are creatively and contextually at opposite ends of the spectrum. Let’s embrace some professional humility and accept that consumers don’t spend much time thinking about brands at all. They’ve got far more important things going on in their heads, like when am I picking up the kids, or I wonder what’s for dinner tonight?

I wonder what is for dinner? I feel like chicken tonight.