Amy Kean's four easy ways to avoid ‘brand ick’
Free plastic radios, chicken receptacles that double as hats and piles upon piles of tote bags; Amy Kean explores why brands need to more carefully consider the 'icks' factor.
I was inspired recently by KFC Russia, who have turned their iconic chicken bucket into a hat. It’s a fashion hat, perfect for millennials, Colonel Sanders sitting proud on the front.
I have a vision: that in years to come “wait… is this a bit icky?” will be a question on the lips of every brand manager before sign-off.
Regular readers of this column will know how much I like to make up new jargon and KFC have provided a lovely twist on one of the worst - yet prevailing - trends of modern marketing that has (until now) remained nameless. My new made-up piece of jargon – which I sincerely hope sticks so I can write a business book about it – is brand ick.
Allow me to explain and demystify.
My favourite episode of Friends is the one where Joey pretends he owns a Porsche (which he pronounces Por-sha) that’s parked on the street near Central Perk. To save face after the car is gone, Joey kits himself out in branded merchandise: a cap, baseball jacket and bumbag (fanny pack).
“Did a Porsche throw up on you?” asks Ross.
“IT’S POR-SHA!” Joey screams; the ultimate brand advocate.
In Wayne’s World: The Movie there’s a very famous product placement parody scene. When offered an ultimatum by his manager: “you can stay here in the big leagues and play by the rules, or you can go back to the farm club in Aurora, it’s your choice,” Wayne holds up a delicious can of ice-cold Pepsi, smiles to camera, and announces: “Yes… and it’s the choice of a new generation.”
Both examples herald from the 90s when Naomi Klein’s No Logo movement was gathering pace. They mock the cheap tactics and even cheaper tat that got pumped out in the name of commercialism. This kind of behavior isn’t offensive, it’s not disastrous, it’s just a bit… ick. Try-hard. Cringe. Short term-ist.
Brand ick shows a lack of understanding of the target audience and the experience they desire.
It’s like when your boyfriend, who you love very much, unexpectedly spits on the street. You know you shouldn’t dump him for it, but it’s hard to look at him the same afterwards. There was a time – in the 90s – when hardcore consumers were happy to emblazon a non-fashion logo on their polyester t-shirts and fridge magnets, but in 2019, thanks to social media, ‘brand ick’ (I’ve already registered the domain name) gets called out in stupendous fashion.
I was inspired by another brand this week, too, when on Twitter I got served an unintentionally hilarious ad. A ten-second video of Andy Murray telling us that American Express were giving out free mini plastic radios to cardholders at Wimbledon. Free radios. In 2019. Free radios with the AMEX logo on them, at Wimbledon. Tiny, palm-sized, portable radios.
Brand ick is more than just bad merch; it occurs when a promotion has been pushed out the door too fast, or money’s been wasted, or the environment compromised.
Portable in the same way that – oh I don’t know – a smartphone is portable. “Is this 1983?” replied one tweeter, while another posted a gif of Abraham Lincoln enjoying the music of a boom box. “Oh, look you have money, here’s free things,” said another. And one very astute tweeter commented:
“Ever stop to think what happens to these “free” gifts at the end of their life? Which probably in this case is just the day out. Then it’s just plastic #landfill. I wish companies would really think about the impact of these marketing initiatives on the environment.”
It’s not the worst thing I’ve ever encountered, but it’s just… ick. Brand ick shows a lack of understanding of the target audience and the experience they desire. Brand ick is more than just bad merch; it occurs when a promotion has been pushed out the door too fast, or money’s been wasted, or the environment compromised, or an international sporting superstar sells out. It won’t cause your share price to plummet overnight, but it will damage credibility.
Here’s some handy tips to avoid it.
I’m not judging consumers for wanting to elevate their social status with logos... We all do it: it’s why I ask for a huge Selfridges bag when I’ve only bought a lip gloss.
1. Don’t peddle pointless shit
No one needs your branded tote bag, man. And they’re not even good for the planet. According to research by the Danish Government a single tote bag must be reused at least 7,100 times before it has less cumulative environmental impact than a plastic bag, so based on the amount of branded tote bags I have in my house, that’s 71,000 Waitrose trips before I can shop guilt-free.
Brands need to stop producing crap for the sake of it. If you have to merch, make like Sports Direct and deliver something so focused and omnipresent it’s inexplicably found in every home and office in the United Kingdom.
2. Dodge the creepy data play
Remember the days when social media was all about competitions via Facebook apps to WIN AN IPAD? Your product or service must be shit if your competition prizes bear no relation to what it is you actually sell.
Competitions can be nice, but they can also be ick when it’s obvious the only role is to grab people’s data. I predict that in five years, crappy marketing competitions will be no more. Instead, brand promotions will be focused on widespread value for everyone (social, information, exclusivity) versus free shit for a few.
Brands like KFC calling out brand ick is a slightly weird yet excellent step forward in marketing’s evolution.
3. Say no to narcissism
FOR EVERY RETWEET THIS GETS WE’LL DONATE £1 TO PEOPLE SUFFERING IN FARAWAY LANDS. This is peak ick. Brands asking for retweets is painful at the best of times, and we all know that charitable pursuits are often drenched in self-congratulation, but when the destiny and livelihoods of human beings relies on sharing a brand message, someone in the boardroom has forgotten how to human.
4. Test your ads on the living
The Tube – as effective as it may be – is the second best place to find brand ick (other than the internet), and is often where brands try to shock and get people talking. Beware the shock tactics that drift into brand ick territory. An ad that jokes about date rape is literally so icky that people will rip it down.
Test your ads. Test them on men, test them on women, test them on nationally representative samples of consumers! For a brand to enter the market with ick isn’t funny, it’s potentially irreparable.
Like every good future author of a jargon-fuelled business book, I have a vision: that in years to come “wait… is this a bit icky?” will be a question on the lips of every brand manager before sign-off. I’m not judging consumers for wanting to elevate their social status with logos: it’s a reality of life. We all do it: it’s why I ask for a huge Selfridges bag when I’ve only bought a lip gloss. But brands like KFC calling out brand ick is a slightly weird yet excellent step forward in marketing’s evolution.
It’s time. And, as consumers get more savvy and skeptical, those cheap plastic tactics should soon become as unappealing to marketers as a Por-sha fanny pack.