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Why nothing kills a story quicker than brand messaging!

Nothing kills the appeal of a piece of content more frequently than brand messaging. Whether a company is talking to a journalist, through a journalist to a prospect or customer, or creating content for shared or owned media environments, the threat is the same. More brand = less interest.

Journalists see through it

Those of us in PR spend a big portion of our lives talking to journalists and encouraging them to have conversations with company spokespeople, or to use content to create and build their story. The more brand messaging that is in the pitch the harder it is to get beyond it. It’s not that journalists are disinterested in the company or the role it has in the world, it’s the fact that a company’s own messaging is never the story, unless the journalist is writing for a marketing title and the messaging is unexpected for a company in its category.

The reality is that everyone knows it’s twaddle. The client knows, the agency knows, and the journalist and reader know. Nobody is interested. Nobody cares. Forcing brand messaging on an audience is like mortgaging interest from the future, building up cynicism and resentment amongst the people that a company wants to be able to talk to and engage.

Tell the real story

The interesting parts of a business tend to be based upon what it does and what it can see. The impact it is having, the pain and problems it is resolving and the unique insight it has. Company messaging should direct and guide what a company does and should be evident in its actions and impact. There is no need to regurgitate and express branding in any media if the company’s behaviour and impact is a demonstration of it living its values. If a business needs to tell the world it is something, then it probably isn’t.

Nick Booth, journalist at The Daily Mail, Computer Weekly, IoT Now and CityAm, has a lot to say on the subject: “It’s not the idea of brands that annoys me. It’s that brands became one of those catch all phrases that means everything and nothing.

“One lunatic even claimed, in the early days of chatbots, that people love to have conversations with brands. (At the start of each new ‘revolution’ there’s always a period of lawlessness where disbelief is suspended, and everyone has license to talk absolute rubbish. Some people take full advantage of this).”

Awful interview technique

I ask Nick what he thinks when a spokesperson starts delivering brand messaging when you are interviewing him?

“It’s a bit insulting. Brand messaging is pre-packaged sentiment for people who can’t express themselves – or can’t be bothered. It’s a bit like when you ask someone a question and they hand you a leaflet. Or tell you it’s 'all on our website’. You want to say to them: Can’t you just tell us in your own words?

“Is it because you can’t explain things unless someone has written them down for you? Or worse, you just can’t be bothered to make the effort? Brand messaging is a bit like a mass-produced, off-the-peg piece of marketing collateral.”

Money is wasted on branding

The irony is that there are many marketing consultancies charging a lot of money creating brand guidelines, playbooks, messaging platforms and stakeholder maps which are designed to have exactly the opposite effect on audiences like Nick. All great work and good luck to them. These publications will create a nice digital file that nobody will ever read. They may even be printed off and sit on a bookshelf if the client has paid enough. They are very unlikely to change the way a company behaves.

I also ask Guy Clapperton, senior business journalist who writes for many publications including The Times and The Guardian, about his views of brand messaging. He says: “I once had someone say to me, ‘let me share our messaging on this subject with you. I managed not to reply ‘Let me go and boil my own head first’ but it was a struggle.

Guy adds: “The best messaging actually comes from someone's beliefs, so it shouldn't sound like a set piece. The very first time I media trained someone (from Microsoft as you'll gather) he started speaking in quotes about ‘collaboration’ and ‘workgroups’ and ‘Outlook’. When we stopped the interview, I asked him what he'd meant and he said ‘Look, people at Microsoft are working their backsides off to make your life easier no matter how complex your organisation.’ Which was exactly the same message without the clichés and the great thing was that he meant every word.”

Don’t follow a script

Guy’s advice? “Play down everything that sounds as if it's from a script. Everyone else can have the prefabricated quotes; if the messages are sensible and even exciting, they'll come out anyway.”

If a brand guideline document is designed to reflect what a company does, then what’s the point? It could simply show the world what it does and why and how. The implied messaging should be unavoidable. If, on the other hand, brand guidelines are there to highlight the bits of the business that a company is most proud of and wants to draw attention to, then perhaps it should stop doing the stuff it is not proud of or accept and embrace the fact that its bottom line includes a range of activity, some more distinctive than others.

“There is absolutely a place for hearing about a vendor’s position in the market in a press interview, and I’ll always give them a prompt like that as an opener,” confirms Gary Flood, an enterprise IT freelancer with 30 years in the business, including stints in senior roles at titles including Computing and Information Week.

“However, hold no illusion – this is to let the spokesperson get warmed up! I am not really interested in capturing this in any depth, it’s a bit of noise, really. The story is always the substance of what’s happened, if it’s news – a new product is being launched, an acquisition is happening, and so on – or their 'expert witness’ view on the issue, I need to walk through if it’s a feature.

“I’m happy, therefore, for 20 to 30 seconds of burble to make them comfortable, but then the client has to deliver some goods or I’m off. Best case: I’ll glance at the fluff to get a three-word descriptor out of it – ‘contender RPA brand,’ maybe? But that’s yer lot – the rest is fluff."

Brand messaging is not only costing businesses money to develop, but is evidently causing them harm. In which other circumstances do business leaders actively pursue an action which is both expensive and damaging to the company’s performance.

It is time to stop the madness. Businesses need to have the confidence to throw out the playbook. Stop updating the messaging bible. Instead they need spokespeople with research, data, insights and meaningful, substantive, interesting evidence.

Written by Richard Cook, director at agency Champion Communications

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