Non-Bland Brand Building

By Martin Lindstrom

Sometimes, irony is the best way to break down barriers. And sometimes, it can be the best tool in the brand-building battle.

We’ve all resorted to irony to defuse a tense situation. After a fight or grave discussion, a good joke or funny comment can break the ice and put everything back on track. For some reason, many brands avoid irony as a branding technique. Strange. Everything indicates you rarely go wrong with a well-prepared bit of ironic communication.

A couple days ago, I flew Virgin Atlantic. For me, as for others (I suppose), Richard Branson is an icon of the art of ironic, almost satiric, communication. The Virgin style takes good-natured shots at established values. In this way, with a nudge and a wink to its audience, it engenders goodwill and respect.

You’re familiar with check-in procedures and the contraptions that indicate the maximum size of carry-on luggage. Airlines go to great lengths to convey the legal and safety implications of oversized hand luggage. Virgin has its own way of telling customers the rules. Virgin’s luggage-size stands explain in a friendly font, “The size of your bag has a limit – but the size of your ego can’t be too large!”

Even before I’d booked my ticket, I was getting a handle on Virgin’s brand personality. While I waited on the phone, the usual “please wait, your call is important to us” announcement was supplanted by funny comments, often very ironic, making the wait time on the phone, if not exactly a pleasure… almost one.

Waiting to check in was just as painless. Happy staff were on hand, there was humorous signage, and friendly, helpful announcements, each of which began, “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,” acknowledging passengers who are so often overlooked. Once you’ve arrived at your destination, the Virgin brand sticks with you until you leave the terminal. Signs explaining where passengers collect oversized luggage say things like, “Size does matter! Just look here.”

We’re all human and love a laugh. The moments we remember in life are the extremes of funny and sad. We don’t remember the bland moments. Why would we? Yet most Web sites tend to the bland way, the safe way. These are the sites for which the legal department and a committee of 200 have approved every piece of copy. Results are the same for every site that manages itself this way: Just another site. Just another brochure. Just another ad.

If you don’t dare to be provocative, direct, funny, and even ironic, you can’t make a brand anything other than bland.

Are legal implications frightening people away from humor and irony? Perhaps. But I’ve never seen a major failure brought about by trying to make people smile. Do me a favor. Check your site once again. Read everything on the home page and some of the subpages. Does anything make you smile? If you’ve read your copy too often to see it critically, ask someone else to do it. Watch him. Does your reader smile?

Branding is about creating emotional ties. Strong branding is characterized by effective emotional ties. Humor and irony are two of the most powerful techniques you can use to create such ties. Unfortunately, not many brand builders make use of these techniques. Fewer deploy them online.

Use this to your advantage. You have a pretty good chance of making your customers smile before your competitor does.

Martin Lindstrom is recognized as one of the world’s primary online branding gurus. His latest best-selling book, “Clicks, Bricks and Brands,” written in partnership with the one-to-one expert team of Don Peppers and Martha Rogers, Ph.D., is the world’s first DualBook, a clicks-and-mortar subscription-based book concept.

Reprinted from

Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing addresses the technology needs of small businesses, which are defined as businesses with fewer than 500 employees and/or less than $7 million in annual sales.

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