Brands: I don't want to be your friend

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It seems to be conventional wisdom in the marketing game that customers want relationships with brands. Well, I don’t. 

If my salad tries to endear itself to me with wackaging, declaring “keep me in the fridge” I make a point of leaving it on a windowsill just to spite it.

Every time my Facebook feed tells me that a friend “likes” Barclaycard, my soul dies a little because I know they don’t really harbour positive feelings towards Barclaycard and that they don't care whether I know about or not – they just had to “like” something to enter a competition.

I find there to be something very creepy about the train company I ranted about on Twitter replying to me and asking what they can do to make it up to me – it makes me end up apologising to them. A message to social media managers: sometimes online complaining is just like a kind of road rage. You don’t actually want a response, you just want a contained environment in which to vent. The last thing you want is the target of the venting getting out of their car, coming over and tapping on your window...

Despite what the US Supreme Court says, corporations are not people. Like most people, I want to relate to people as people and things as things.

This is why customer service departments are so keen to include “the personal touch” in their dealings – as if they’re trying to pass some kind of corporate Turing Test.

I realise that I am probably offending colleagues at Axonn and in the wider industry with every sentence I write here. Hey – at least it proves I’m a human! Or does it? Perhaps I am a committee or even an algorithm tasked with creating the persona of “content marketing’s answer to Katie Hopkins”.

Selling the lifestyle

Brands began as a way to differentiate mass-produced factory goods. This evolved into branding as “selling the lifestyle”, going further and further beyond the product itself – colonising culture and public (and mental) space. And so we have the Emirates Stadium replacing Highbury, the Etihad instead of Maine Road and so on...Please note the (to me) hilarious irony of directing you to this book at this location.

It leads us to people doing “what brand are you?” quizzes - for fun. (For the record, my own answer to that question is WD40 – it’s unflashy, it hasn’t changed for years, but there’s nothing it can’t do).

The internet has accelerated this colonisation: e-commerce allows brands to bypass retail middlemen and deal directly with customers; social media lets brands converse bi- and multi-laterally with audiences rather than just broadcasting one way.

My counterblast to the conventional wisdom is this: BRANDS! KNOW YOUR PLACE!

Our industry’s biggest superstar, Rand Fishkin of Moz, produced this excellent video earlier this month on “why no one pays attention to your marketing”. God – I am so jealous of that guy. I want to hate him, with his textbook hipster look and his super-American earnestness... but he’s always right and he’s always so damn charming about it!

I suppose I am making a rather similar point – albeit from the perspective of being a horrible person rather than a lovely one like Rand.

I don’t want to be friends with you, brand. I’m having a barbecue at my house this weekend, but I am not going to invite you. I will never ask you to be a godparent to my children. And that’s because you are a supplier of goods and services which I may or may not want to use now or in the future. Your evident desperation to be something you can never be is embarrassing – just embrace being an organisation that provides a service and accept that, no matter what Jiminy Cricket tells you, you will never be a real boy.

Not every relationship is a friendship

I may well have a “relationship” of sorts with many brands, insofar as I have dealings with them from time to time, I may be interested in some of the things they have to say and I may have more or less fixed opinions on how I perceive them and their products. But the relationship – such as it is – has to be on my terms. Of course, that’s not how we treat our friends, but brands are not real friends.

Aecht Shlenkerla Rauchbier is one of my favourite beers. I have been well out of my way to find that product over the years. The fact that the brewery’s website is absolutely hideous and looks like it was made using Geocities in 1995 only endears this brand to me even more. It’s completely appropriate for a 600-year-old brewery, just like Brewdog’s online presence suits them perfectly (I like their beer too, if anyone’s buying).

What am I trying to say? I suppose it’s this. The super-chummy “LOVE ME PLEEEEEASE!” approach that worked so well for – say – Innocent Smoothies and which was fresh and original when they did it cannot be the paradigm for how every brand should behave.

Brands need to think critically and honestly about what they mean – what they can ever hope to mean – to their audiences and conduct themselves accordingly.

Sometimes, that’s going to mean that less engagement is more. Sorry conventional wisdom, but sometimes I want to talk to a faceless corporation. Or not talk at all. As Abraham Lincoln (or possibly Mark Twain, or possibly someone else entirely) wisely said:

Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.

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