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The brand opposite

To build a strong brand definition, your ‘brand opposite’concept must represent a realistic and challenging alternative
Distinctive brand definition implies sacrifice
Helen Edwards

Helen Edwards has twice been voted PPA Business Columnist of the Year. She has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand.

So, you’ve emerged from the global workshop, and set down your new brand in its pyramid, onion or whatever happens to be your preferred model. And you are clear, wonderfully clear, about what the brand now means and stands for, and how its personality unfolds.

What you need now is for everyone else, everyone who didn’t have the benefit of those huddled, spiritual days, to be just as clear. So, you decide to expand on that raw model – bringing it to life a bit, adding flesh to the bones, for all your colleagues, partners and agencies.

This will take the form of some kind of ‘guidelines’ document, though you will probably give it a catchier title than that. It will showcase the new brand, and relate the workshop journey that led to it.

Since clarity is key, at some point in this document you will itemise not just the things your new brand most definitely is, but also the things it is not. You will describe your ‘brand opposite’.

This is a worthwhile discipline, and not just because it will clear things up for others; it might also bring home with horrible clarity something disturbing for you: that your brand definition, in the cold light of day, is little more than platitudes.

You start off well enough, setting down the positive terms that now define the brand – ‘vibrant’, ‘open’, ‘honest’, ‘clear’.

One page captures these terms of endearment, with little green ticks, perhaps giving examples of their practical expression. The next captures their polar opposites, with scolding, little crosses. It will inform everyone that your brand is not ‘cold’, not ‘closed’, not ‘dishonest’, not ‘vague’.

This is the point at which it dawns that your new definition doesn’t define very much at all, because its opposite could never exist – at least, not in a commercial space. No marketer ever sets out to describe their offer as the brand equivalent of a sociopath.

If your ‘brand opposite’ couldn’t plausibly exist, then your brand is living a half-life. It’s like opening a conversation with, “Well, the sun rose today”. It’s not going to stimulate anyone, because it could never be opposed.

So take the test. Isolate the defining words that constitute your positioning and ask whether a competing brand could credibly choose to go the contrary route. If the answer is ‘yes’, then your definition is hard-edged; if not, not.

‘Positive’, for example, is a word that many marketers venture for their brand tone of voice. Who, though, would ever decree their brand should feel unerringly ‘negative’? In the world of brands, ‘positive’ is a given, not a choice.

‘Vigorous’, on the other hand, is hard-edged; a different kind of brand might well oppose that one, and elect to be ‘relaxed’. A lovely word, that, but you can’t have both. So choosing here is meaningful and gutsy, drawing some people in, turning others away, but boring none.

Distinctive brand definition implies sacrifice. It means risking strongly-flavoured, opposable concepts, rather than settling for terms that gain easy consensus. Which is why, unfortunately, the one place from which it rarely emerges is a global workshop.