Thursday, June 11, 2015

Obsessive Branding Disorder (OBD): What It Is And How To Avoid It

Recent discussions with a couple of start-up entrepreneurs brought up a topic that used to be my favourite: Obsessive Branding Disorder (OBD). This was the title of 2008 book by Lucas Conley which made it to the Best Business Books list of Strategy&Business that year, with a simple and powerful idea that you can indeed brand too much!

This was a difficult idea to grasp for anyone involved in marketing, because our worldview can be summed up as, Brands eating the World! Our job, we tend to think, is to claim every piece of estate, real or virtual for the brands that we are custodians of. In the rush to better competition, we intend to leave nothing, urinals to the sky, if we can afford, to imprint our brands. We want to claim words, how cool is when someone talks about Googling something, and even emotions - feeling very Apple, anyone? The idea that we can overshoot the mark is indeed quite unsettling.

But, if we look to others, it becomes quite obvious. We suddenly start noticing all the merchandise strewn on the floor, all those banner ads and television commercials that irritate us, those free sample that leave us feeling tricked, all the jokes that fall flat and all those invitations that sound  pretentious! Worse still, we come across mystifying words that tell us nothing - McFlurry anyone - and leave us, alternately, diminished, confused, bemused and disconnected. It is, as if, we just needed a mirror to see our work - Disorder is therefore the right word for the disease - to understand when we overshoot the mark.

Brands are meant to be symbols, combination of visuals and words, that represent our messages and ideas to our audience. They are to be immediately recognizable, and simple conveyors of what we stand for. Therefore, our Disorder, we plaster our brand everywhere so that no one can miss it, but forget that it is not the brand, but the underlying message that we are trying to convey. Instead of communicating, we mystify. It is nice to be in a position like Google but it takes a few things become a verb, and Google did not achieve that by plastering its sign everywhere. It achieved that position by telling a story, stories really, and those symbols came to stand for those stories and ideas. Those stories and ideas really matter, not how many times you saw Google on the roadside.

The surest sign of OBD for me is when one starts changing the words, twisting them to create an intonation that resemble the brand. We may get the sound but start to lose the meaning. We complicate, rather than simplifying. We pretend, rather than relate. We sound childish, not playful. The words obscure, rather than communicate. And, yet, we feel good, as we hide in our echo-chamber, because we keep hearing ourselves intoning our brands again and again.

That the brand is for the audience is completely forgotten at this point. It becomes a narcissistic act, visual or verbal, rather than one of reaching out. It starts and ends with an insecurity about ourselves and our messages, as we reassure ourselves that others are seeing (or hearing) our brand by seeing it ourselves.

How do you heal this then? Honesty is perhaps a good place to start, and that usually means tearing down all that obscures, all that overwhelms and all that distracts. Simplicity is the objective, we should tell ourselves, and not vanity, which the pseudo-comfort of over-branding is designed to provide. Once we peel off the pretension, we start engaging with the story, it is what matters, and see the brand for what is, a device to connect. 

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