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Unreasonable behaviour

Most people involved in brand decision-making will see ‘reason-blockers' in action. So how do you overcome these brick walls in discussions?
You may be around the same table, but that doesn’t mean you’re playing by the same rules
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.

Now that so many marketing teams take what is laughably termed a ‘consensus approach’ to major brand decisions, everyone needs to be on their guard against linguistic manipulation.

You may all be around the same table, but that doesn’t mean you’re all playing by the same rules. When those with strong opinions and strong adversaries sense that methodical argument might not swing things their way, they will often resort to the deployment of ‘reason-blockers’.

These are ready-made ripostes designed not to counter an argument, nor move it forward, but to stop it in its tracks and momentarily unbalance whoever mounts it – the verbal equivalent of a stun-gun.

In social conversation, or political discourse, they are typically put-downs such as ‘that’s sexist’, calculated to shame or fluster a person who might actually have been making a fact based argument in the most sensitive possible way.

In marketing, ‘reason-blockers’ tend to be less personally charged but no less disruptive. Here’s one: ‘We can’t be all things to all people.’

You will usually hear WCBATTAP when the topic is targeting, pronounced by someone who favours tight segmentation, to sideline a colleague who has suggested that the brand shoots for the mass.

Delivered with enough theatrical flourish, and the appropriate look of disdain, it’s usually sufficient to derail the debate and get heads nodding. You certainly have to be quick-witted to recover from it.

What gives power to this reason blocker, and others like it, is its self-evident truth: no brand can be everything to everyone; even religions struggle at that.

What makes it devious is that it is not a logical counter to the suggestion it seeks to oppose. Instead, with deft sleight of hand, it deflects reason through the twin sins of inflation and conflation.

It is inflationary to interpret ‘mass’ as ‘all people’. Even those arguing for a broad target do not generally say ‘We’ll aim for everyone on the planet’. There are always some no-go groups or demographics.

Having left the impression of a scattergun target, WCBATTAP slyly conflates it with an imputed scattergun message: ‘all things’. Job done.

On the more plausible assumption that those proposing a mass target will have in mind a unified brand theme, a more accurate paraphrasing might be: ‘Can we be one thing to most people?’ Since brands from Coke to Nike achieve this, it is not an outrageous question to ask, but it doesn’t work as a reason-blocker, so you don’t hear it.

Verbal tricks are usually easy to see for what they are after the meeting, when you are mulling over why it felt all wrong. They are harder to defuse in the heat of the debate, with faces all around you. As a rule, though, if it sounds specious, and doesn’t address the point you are making, it’s worth a pause to think, and say: ‘Thanks, Simon. Let’s just examine what that really means.’

Some regular offenders are in the panel (below), and by all means tweet me yours. Brand decisions need to be based on the best arguments, not swayed by whoever is most unscrupulous at arguing.


They are simple, neat and have the ring of truth, but these ready· made marketing ripostes are often deployed to gun down reason, rather than engage with it.

1. Brands exist only in the minds of consumers.
Used by those who believe marketing departments are not in control of their brands and should let consumers direct the way in which they are interpreted and used. True about where brands reside, but silly in ignoring who owns them, the power of influence marketers enjoy, and the duty they have to exercise it.

2. Good enough isn’t good enough.
A favourite of the creative community – yet ‘good enough’ is often precisely what procurement is looking for, and they won’t be easily deterred by a cliché.

3. If I throw you an orange, you’ll catch it. If I throw you five, you will drop the lot.
Standard agency response to a client who wants more than one point put across in an ad. But did they specify five? And what if the points are naturally connected – doesn’t that make it easier for them to be ‘caught’? And why should anyone extrapolate from oranges anyway?

Oranges adland occupational hazard