Why brand onions don’t work

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always had a problem with the brand onion, aka brand wheel, brand key, brand house.

I’ve never really understood what they’re meant to do. That’s because when I looked at them, although I understood all the statements and words in isolation, they never seemed to coalesce into something meaningful when I turned the page. They just exited my mind. Flew the marketing nest.

I’ve sat through countless meetings with brand managers methodically working their way through the brand presentation. The solemn sell in. The serious and detailed explanation of why Brand X really is better than Brand Y and Brand Z. Culminating in an attempt to sum it all up on a single page with type (point size 9) in little boxes, destined to be taped to a wall next to the office extension list.

In the past, this used to intimidate me. I thought there must be a secret marketing masterclass that teaches you how to design a deep, meaningful and overly engineered brand onion. I assumed that others in the room got it, understood it and the value, coherence and clarity it brings to all brand marketing comms.

Now I know it’s rubbish. Turns out people can only really hold a maximum of seven pieces of information in their head, plus or minus one or two. (Unless you’re Dustin Hoffman in Rainman). There’s a name for it too: Miller’s Law – The Magical Number Seven Plus or Minus Two (loving the name!). He did this work in 1956, so it’s been around a while. Looks like it wasn’t just me: everyone’s in the same boat.

Anyway – what of it? What does that mean for the Brand Onion and his pals? Well, to my mind it just means that it’s not quite finished.

At Good we approach the task of defining brands in an iterative and precise way. We think all brands need to understand their foundational ‘Simple Truth’ before they can build any meaningful, coherent and consistent marketing comms. The brand onion and its exhaustive list of supporting values, beliefs, essence, reasons to believe, intrinsics and extrinsics are all very well as additional info. Like an iceberg, they’re the 9 tenths that are underwater, out of sight. But they support the very tip: The Simple Truth. This is the bit that’s visible, clear and understood.

And it works. People can remember it. Whether they’re marketing people, sales people, HR people or even boardroom dwellers. If they’re part of the process, then they’ll fuse with it. That makes marketing a lot easier.

The Simple Truth acts as a guiding light, an organising thought or a north star for a brand. It’s a reduction of all the very best bits of the iceberg. Simple to understand. Any you won’t need to pin it to the wall to remember it.

To see how we can help you find your Simple Truth, drop us a line.