Deceptive branding isn’t usually the goal of entrepreneurs. We are generally trustworthy folk. However, every now and then, a story comes up that really makes us scratch our heads! You see, some people believe that the truth is more flexible than other people, so building a great brand doesn’t always mean building an honest one.
Mostly, building a great brand just requires figuring out what your story is, and sticking to it! For some, any story will do. People will believe a story – even if it’s an outright lie – before anything else, as long it is consistent, and confidently told. In other words, creating a well-known brand can be like the Wizard of Oz to Dorothy: “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”
Here are 5 examples of brand stories that are questionably believable Deceptive branding at-best:
1. “Wal-Mart creates jobs in the U.S.”
A recent video (https://youtu.be/4kqVuuTJGPE) touts Wal-Mart’s commitment to “creating over 1 million jobs across communities like yours.” According to Wal-Mart, it’s “an investment in the American dream.”
Sounds great, right? Wal-Mart creates jobs at home AND reduces unemployment!
The issue? Wal-Mart doesn’t want to acknowledge the consequences that “Everyday Low Prices” have on our communities: closed factories and lost jobs. Don’t believe us? Check out “The Wal-Mart You Don’t Know” (http://www.fastcompany.com/47593/wal-mart-you-dont-know), in order to survive Wal-Mart’s demands, U.S. manufacturers have been forced to lay off employees and close plants and outsource products from overseas.
The local A&P grocery store closing after Wal-Mart arrives is “a common enough tragedy in rural America”. So what happens when Wal-Mart itself – now the only shop in town – closes? Basics, like food, medicine, and toilet paper, are further away. Imagine the cost of fuel, wear and tear on a car, and the impact on property values when groceries are 1.5 hours (round trip) away?
Do you see the video differently? Of course Wal-Mart wants the perception that it supports the American Dream, when many critics repeatedly show that Wal-Mart already killed it.
2. The Identity Crisis of Philip Morris, AKA “Altria”
Philip Morris long ago recognized its negative publicity associated with tobacco sales. This posed a PR nightmare for other divisions like Kraft General Foods, which were part of “Philip Morris Companies.” Solution? Limit use of the name “Philip Morris” to the subsidiary directly involved in tobacco products, and rename the parent company so that it has no negative associations in the minds of consumers. As pointed out by more than a few Ph.D.’s, the name “Altria” attempted to make “Philip Morris” invisible and perhaps play off the word “altruism.” However, the company risked the perception that it didn’t change the problem caused by a toxic product, only its name. Next step? Create an identity change! Altria became the #1 seller of “consumer packaged goods”! Wait, what? What’s a “consumer packaged good”? Can I eat it? Is there an app for that? Do I swipe up or left? Is it energy efficient? The identity change provided no predictable or understandable brand for consumers and left any mention of cigarettes in the past (despite still being one of their number one producers).
TIME named this move one of the “Top 10 Worst Corporate Name Changes”. Instead of making Philip Morris invisible, it emphasized that the company “wanted to avoid being blamed for the adverse health effects caused by its tobacco products.” The name change was perceived as a “business as usual” diversionary PR tactic. It didn’t work, initially. However, in the long term, many consider Philip Morris a distant memory, and few could tell you Altria’s sordid past. So, was the rebrand a long term success? Possibly.
Lesson? Re-branding requires a thoughtful and accurate assessment of the story (perception) it creates. Not just any effort will remove a stain. Particularly tobacco.
3. The Many Names of Sugar
Mothers and Dentists alike warn us about eating too much sugar. Excess sugar – which can be found in one 12-ounce can of soda – increases our risk of dying from heart disease, regardless of age, gender, physical fitness, or body-mass index. In other words, it’s bad. Real bad. The FDA requires food ingredients to be listed in order of quantity by weight. Seems simple, right? But what if sweeteners are given different names? What if several are used in the product? Each is listed separately, which can hide the total of all “sugar” in food. Do you know all of the names sugar goes by these days? There are at least 61 different names for sugars in 74% of packaged foods, according to one source, and 100 according to another.
Lesson? Brand perception can mask the underlying truth.
4. Donald Trump is a great businessperson!
What a great tagline for a politician who appeals to everyone’s desire for a strong economy! Is it true, or great branding?
Fortune magazine found that The Donald would be wealthier had he invested in index mutual funds rather than his own business ventures. One bank determined Trump’s self-assessed net worth of $3.5 billion to be over-inflated by $2.7 billion in a 2004 loan transaction, on which he defaulted. Are these signs of a good businessperson or a great storyteller?
In his book The Art of the Deal, Trump admits he exaggerates and appeals to fantasy. Do you think he’s at the top of NYC real estate development? According to the NYTimes, he’s not even among the top 10. Do you believe Trump is self-made? In 1974, Trump inherited ¼ of a family company, whose estimated value was $200 million. Are great business people self-made, or do they inherit their fortunes?
So what IS Trump successful at? Possibly in getting people to believe his success, when he’s perhaps no better than the stock market. Trump, by his own admission, shows that creating a well-known brand can exist through exaggeration and fantasy: by telling the story people want to believe over and over and over again.
5. FiveFingers shoes and the barefoot lie.
Remember the weird-looking shoes at the gym? The ones where you can clearly see each little piggy? Vibram claimed that this product simulated barefoot running, and, as a result, strengthened feet and prevented injury. Although experts did not agree on the benefits of barefoot running, studies showed these shoes actually increased the chances of injury. Although Vibram did not acknowledge wrongdoing, it settled a class-action suit in which it agreed to discontinue claims that the shoes strengthen muscles or reduce injury until new scientific evidence shows otherwise.
Lesson learned? Sometimes companies get caught when their brand perception is built on a lie.
What’s the point of all of these examples? Their power comes from the stories that they told. Each of the different examples did meet with some degree of success. A simple, marginal shift can breath a new life into a product or service, for better and for worse. Even a bad story can be rewritten. However, as with all 5 examples above, brand building can backfire when mishandled.
Creating a well-known brand isn’t foolproof and requires thoughtful consideration, but it never provides an excuse for deceptive branding, because at the end of the day, people don’t like to be lied to.