What do you think of when you hear the word kitsch?

For some reason, my mind makes a mental beeline straight to a novelty nodding Jesus doll, possibly because I’m the son of a (non-practising) Catholic classic car dealer. A Google image search returns dogs playing cards, gaudy interiors and cat figurines. We’ve come to think of kitsch as a label to apply to cheap products of questionable taste. But there’s a deeper, darker side to kitsch and if you work in branding you may want to pay it some attention.

I recently (and probably belatedly) read Milan Kundera’s disquieting novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Like a lot of fiction, it’s not for everyone. Unlike a lot of fiction, there’s a valuable definition hidden in its pages that set my mind racing about branding and what it often sets out to achieve.

‘Kitsch is a German word, born in the middle of the sentimental nineteenth century, and from German it entered all Western languages. Repeated use, however, has obliterated its original metaphysical meaning: kitsch is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and the figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.’

This whole paragraph grabs me, but the sweary bit in particular gives me goosebumps: KITSCH IS THE ABSOLUTE DENIAL OF SHIT. And the reason it gives me goosebumps is because the ‘absolute denial of shit’ has become an unofficial, fundamental law of branding, from strategy to execution. Admittedly, it’s a dramatic way to state the problem, but this is a pervasive issue in branding. Walk through your brand strategy. Reread the introduction to your brand guidelines. Take another look at your brand video. Look at your latest campaign. The chances are they follow a similar tone to the Lego Movie song: EVERYTHING IS AWESOME!

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Milan Kundera describes a state of ‘totalitarian kitsch’ that existed under Communist rule: the cunning appropriation of universally appealing slogans and images (‘Long live life!’), which are designed to draw on the ‘basic images people have engraved in their memories’ so that they can be moved not just by the slogans and images themselves, but by their shared experience of being moved together with all mankind. 

If this sounds familiar, that might be because this is the ideal to which many of the models we employ in branding aspire. I’ve written about my distaste for marketing’s (mis)appropriation/interpretation of Jungian archetypes. In part, this distaste stems from the fact that marketers have been sold the idea that Carl Jung defined twelve archetypes, all of which are ‘nice’ (in every sense of that word). Brands can be heroes, or sages, or magicians. The edgiest archetype is the ‘outlaw’, which distinctly non-edgy brands like Harley Davidson and Virgin and MTV exemplify. But these archetypes are a fantastical departure from Carl Jung’s work. His archetypes aren’t a marketer’s dream – they are the stuff of nightmares. I’m thumbing through a book of his right now.

Here’s an excerpt from a random page I’ve flicked to, ‘Are you demanding a lust commingling with corpses? I spoke of acceptance, but you demand “to seize, embrace, copulate?” Are you demanding the desecration of the dead?’

And that’s a relatively light passage compared to the rest of the book. Jung’s work isn’t unilaterally nice in the way that marketing archetypes suggest. It’s really messed up. It has to be! Because it’s about the human unconscious and we’re messed up people! And here’s the issue with branding’s absolute denial of shit; we end up designing experiences based on a sanitised ideal of people as we hope they are, rather than building brands and experiences with a genuine empathy for the human condition. Just look at any Marketoonist cartoon and you’ll see what I mean, they are all variations on the theme of hopeful marketers looking at the world through the same set of rose-tinted spectacles rather than dealing with everyone else’s reality.

This isn’t limited to archetype theory, it’s everywhere! It’s in the language marketers use. It’s in the interactions we design. It’s in the ideas we express – even the serious ones. One of my favourite articles of all-time is a New Yorker piece by Jill Lepore that skewers the notion of disruptive innovation (and innovation more generally). Jill Lepore looks at the word ‘innovation’ and sees a better word – ‘progress’ – which has been scrubbed of its essential component: betterment. In her own words:

‘The idea of progress—the notion that human history is the history of human betterment—dominated the world view of the West between the Enlightenment and the First World War. It had critics from the start, and, in the last century, even people who cherish the idea of progress, and point to improvements like the eradication of contagious diseases and the education of girls, have been hard-pressed to hold on to it while reckoning with two World Wars, the Holocaust and Hiroshima, genocide and global warming. Replacing “progress” with “innovation” skirts the question of whether a novelty is an improvement: the world may not be getting better and better but our devices are getting newer and newer.’

Jill Lepore

I work with brands all over the world and many of the innovation models I see are best described as a leaky bucket. New products and services account for a significant percentage of sales but often fail by their second or third year, which means that innovation and marketing teams are caught in a never-ending process of developing novel products and services to compensate for the imminent failure of the previous wave of novel products and services. The question of whether these novelties actually represent any form of meaningful progress is beside the point. For many brands (particularly FMCG brands), innovation is crack cocaine and kitsch has become baked into their business models.

And let’s talk about brand purpose! Because we have to! You can’t be a proper brand without a purpose! And nothing in branding has come to epitomise the concept of kitsch quite so completely. I love the idea that any business has the potential to stand for something meaningful, and that defining and articulating this meaning is the first step towards creating genuine progress – even if all your business does is sell coffee or make widgets.

But the reality is so often banal.

  • ‘To empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.’
  • ‘We reimagine the way the world moves for the better.’
  • ‘To devote our talent and technology to creating superior products and services that contribute to a better global society.

These statements are the not-too-distant cousins of Milan Kundera’s satirical slogan. ‘Long live life!’

The problem with these universally appealing, unambiguously positive statements of purpose is that they aren’t written with real people in mind. Seemingly no thought has been given to whether someone could ever say any of these things out loud to someone they love or respect. For some reason we lower the quality of our language and our thinking when they are developed on behalf of a business. And that’s despite the existence of people like me whose job it is to achieve precisely the opposite. 

Milan Kundera describes kitsch as ‘the stopover between being and oblivion’ and this is particularly pertinent to branding: vacuous purpose statements based on universal psychological models make cynics of everyone and encourage the view that the branding profession does little to improve organisations’ culture and creative output. Put more bluntly, brands that are based on the denial of shit inevitably end up being shit. And shit brands contaminate organisations, they stunt recruitment, they demotivate colleagues, and they breed customer indifference. That’s because they are emotionally dishonest and intellectually lazy.

So, what do we do about this?

1. Ask questions

This is Milan Kundera’s prescription for combatting kitsch, ‘In the realm of totalitarian kitsch, all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions. It follows, then, that the true opponent of totalitarian kitsch is the person who asks questions. A question is like a knife that slices through the stage backdrop and gives us a look at what lies behind it.’

The first of these questions is to ask yourself if a brand is designed with real, messy people in mind, as opposed to a marketer’s ideal of a person. Does it allow for the possibility that people are anything less than perfect? For example, Nike’s mission statement would be humdrum, were it not for one small but significant detail, ‘Bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world.’

That asterisk. It makes all the difference. Without it, the statement would be another example of kitsch banality.

But the asterisk points to this: *If you have a body, you are an athlete. 

Bam! Suddenly things got interesting. This statement allows for all sorts of possibilities. If you direct movies, you’re an athlete. If you’re obese, you’re an athlete. If you’re disabled, you’re an athlete. If you’re fed up with racism, you’re an athlete. This is a brand that can engage in an emotionally honest way. This is a brand that can feature HIV-positive runners and octogenarians in its campaigns. This is a brand that works with disabled people to develop technology like FlyEase. This is a brand that’s prepared to face an imperfect world and agitate for change, even if people get so annoyed they burn their Nikes in protest.

 2. Accept that shit happens

Bad things happen to people and to companies. There’s no sense pretending otherwise. Racism exists. Sexism exists. Social isolation exists. Mental health is a popular euphemism and brands are happy to hop on the bandwagon, but how many talk candidly about suicide, depression and anxiety? It’s understandable that marketers want to focus on life’s positives, but this shouldn’t necessitate avoiding difficult issues, particularly when those issues are part of the social fabric – this is the water brands swim in.

Not everyone agrees. In the midst of the COVID pandemic, Byron Sharp dismissed businesses that get involved in societal issues as ‘talking about things that are just not related’ (Campaign magazine) to their brand and accused purpose-driven marketers of ‘getting very arrogant’. But a brand that fails to acknowledge, for example, that we’re in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis risks becoming out-of-touch with the people it relies on for its existence. Even more importantly, brands have an ability to help (as well as profit) in tough times. During the pandemic, Ford, 3M and GE repurposed their manufacturing lines to produce respirators and ventilators – not to boost their sales but so that their customers, their employees and the communities they rely on for their profits could see that they understand their role in society and are prepared to do the right thing when it counts. Ford’s president, Darren Walker, quoted Martin Luther King Jr. in a letter to colleagues to explain the imperative of directing the company’s assets towards social good, ‘We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.’

There’s very little point in establishing a brand purpose if you don’t also acknowledge that terrible things happen to people and that the flipside of a brand purpose is a responsibility to engage with important social issues.  

Often, that means picking a side. And it means being prepared to divide opinion. 

Dozens of US investment behemoths like BlackRock and Blackstone have added statements to their annual reports cautioning that ‘divergent views’ and ‘competing demands’ on environmental, social and governance issues (what some call ‘woke capitalism’) represent a risk to their ability to raise funds and grow revenues, as well as adversely impacting their reputation. The likes of BlackRock and State Street have been lambasted by Republicans for their ESG investing policies. There’s no way to appease both sides. People who take the climate crisis seriously won’t accept any watering down of ESG-driven investing policies and those who believe an investment firm’s sole priority should be to maximise investment returns will insist on the opposite. These risks are real, pretending otherwise isn’t just pointless, it’s potentially financially ruinous. Sooner or later these brands will need to pick a side: their purpose or mission statements should guide their choice.

The brands that command the greatest levels of love and respect also tend to be those that are most prepared to divide opinion. Apple has lobbied against laws that it considers to be harmful to the LGBTQ+ community. Disney voiced opposition to a bill banning gender and sexuality education in Florida schools for pupils aged nine and under. In response, it looks like the company is going to be stripped of its special legal status within the state. As a brand owner, if you’re not prepared to make big sacrifices for your brand purpose, then you really don’t have a purpose at all. 

 3. Anticipate the shit that’s going to happen

Remember that leaky bucket innovation model? 

One thing that amazes me is the striking difference between how people in organisations assess past innovation failures and how optimistically they anticipate future successes. The phrase I hear most often when past failures are discussed is ‘it was a great product, we just didn’t give it the support it deserved after it launched’. But this rarely translates into more support for the future pipeline, or a slower rate of new product launches so that the existing budget can be focused on supporting a more focused range. I spoke to a client about this in the context of an imminent product launch and she told me, ‘We have a Plan A, but absolutely no Plan B. We haven’t considered what we would do if Plan A doesn’t work out.’ There is rarely a plan B, or an idea of how the brand will respond if a new product fails in its second or third year (beyond replacing it with a newer innovation, of course). All of this is despite (or, perhaps, because of) the popularity of the idea of ‘pivoting’, which seems to encourage the idea that people in organisations should plan for the best, and then hope for even better if that plan ends up failing.

The problem with a lot of brand and innovation strategy is that it’s unrelentingly positive. An organisation establishes a bold vision, develops an exciting pipeline of ideas for making that vision a reality, and then gets busy making it happen. But experience shows that this approach doesn’t guarantee success, even the best laid plans often go awry and businesses are forced to pivot or abandon them altogether. So, why not plan for failure as well as success?

Can a premortem prevent toxic positivity?

Research psychologist Gary Klein pioneered the idea of a premortem in 2007, with the idea that imagining a project has already failed can be a powerful way to anticipate and manage risk factors from the outset. A premortem functions in almost the opposite way to the strategic approach above. Once you’ve established a vision and roadmap (whether it’s for a brand or a product launch), imagine your strategy has failed spectacularly. Share your failed strategy with people from different teams and invite them to note down every reason they can think of for the failure. Then work through the reasons. How could you identify whether it’s likely to happen? How could you mitigate against it happening at all? How could you respond positively if it did happen? And what changes do you need to make to your plan to make it more robust?

Premortems are a handy way to invite colleagues to provide frank criticism of a strategy. A 2017 study by Paul Green and Francesca Gino of Harvard, and Bradley Staats of the University of North Carolina found that we tend to avoid colleagues who provide precisely this type of feedback (technically known as “disconfirmatory feedback”) because it challenges our own view of how good a job we’re doing. The power of a pre-mortem is that it provides a safe space in which to critique a strategy that may already have buy-in from the very top of an organisation. It makes the denial of shit an impossibility.

Whether you’re a consultant or a client, we’re all complicit in an approach to branding that often amounts to toxic positivity at an organisational level. The more prepared we are to ask questions of ourselves and one another – the more we avoid the temptation to deny the existence of shit – the better the quality of our work and our brands. 

Cover image source: janvier