Transform Magazine: Five minutes with Andy Baron – 2021

Andy Baron, executive creative director of global branding agency Turner Duckworth, tells Transform magazine why brands should invest in what makes them distinctive, not necessarily “cuddly.” Baron argues that to truly be successful brands need a heart, a brain, and courage, in almost equal measure.

What do we mean by “huggable” brands? How can brands invest in what makes them distinctive rather than cuddly?

It might be a bit of an exaggeration to say that most brands today want to be your true friend. Highly active and conversational social media accounts for bath towels, chicken drumsticks, underwear, and sparkling CBD drinks. Newer brands with names of people like Billie, Casper or Harry’s. And most of the briefs that come to our studio, regardless of the industry, come with a plea for warmth, humanity, accessibility.

The truth is, at the best of times, consumers want to buy your products and services because they are good, useful, relevant, and distinctive. I promise you they don’t want to hang around, or that you tell them “the banks are cheugy” as was noted in a recent campaign. This approach may work in the short term, but the brands that have stood the test of time have all invested in what makes them unmistakable, not what earns them good points.

The advantage of distinctiveness is that it pays off in the long run. While a red and white slit, gold medallion, and script don’t scream “human” or “accessible” or “hot,” they do scream Campbell’s soup. And Campbell’s Soup, based on our own real-life experiences, is a brand that will always feel welcoming.

What are the ramifications of the brand for a world where companies are increasingly held accountable for their actions and their values?

One of the biggest consequences of holding holding companies to account will be deviation, mainly by brands that previously had hiding places. The realization that consumers expect brands to be “good” will create a growing gap between the virtues communicated and the realities of the goods and services produced. In other words, we will see a continued increase in the “we are good, we promise” brand.

We will see more cynical shifts. Brands like Juul, created to take your eyes off the obvious issues around cigarettes, designed to convince you that vaping is harmless when the reality is it isn’t. We will see plant-based alternatives on the menu of brands that still do a lot of trading in less virtuous things. We’ll see marketers continue to put the burden on consumers, for example, urging us to dispose of and recycle their polluting containers (a dynamic notoriously started by an ad with a single tear in 1971). We’ll see more cases of cultural cooptation where brands appear in conversations they don’t have to be a part of, in ways that make us all very uncomfortable.

The good news in all of this is that we will also see a lot more new and better brands for all to hit the market.

How has the emergence of a tech-driven culture impacted branding?

We’re still moving beyond the connotations of ’90s tech as something cold and indifferent. And because of that, we continue to overcompensate with literal humanization. You may see it displayed in instances of some technology-driven brand symbols. For example, Airbnb uses a heart, Facebook uses a hand, Amazon a mouth, etc. We also see it in branded photography. Try to go a day in your life without seeing an advertisement with an alien, disembodied human hand holding a product or package up in the air. While this trend is not specifically tied to technology per se, it is in many ways a direct result of it.

How does a brand go about finding the characteristics that best match its positioning?

The easiest way to think about it is to have an eye on a long term horizon. It is a pitfall to write a positioning, or to create a work against one at a particular moment in the culture. It’s also helpful not to be too specific and remember that the audience you’re trying to reach doesn’t need to know your brand positioning.

I’ve never worked for Nike, so I’m probably wrong one way or another (see what I mean about the public?), But it’s clear that they’ve always been there to help people to reach their full potential. It’s in everything they do. It’s a timeless idea that’s big enough to build an incredibly strong brand and allows them to talk about both the product and the culture as needed.

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