Clear Defendable Territory

Week #04

What’s the most offensive word in the world – in relation to your brand?
Week #04

What’s the most offensive word in the world – in relation to your brand?

It’s easy to think that the most offensive word - the one that would make a brand gasp in horror - would be a word like ‘boring’, ‘generic’, ‘unfocused’ or ‘inconsistent’

No brand wants to be described as boring or generic – unremarkable and unable to connect with customers or employees in a meaningful way. Nor do they want to be unfocused, unclear about who they are for, what they offer or what their message is. And they certainly don’t want to be inconsistent, presenting themselves differently in different situations.

But if everyone says that the most offensive word for them is ‘boring’, isn’t that just a little, well, boring?

For many brands, the truly most offensive word is often one that’s deeper than that. It’s a word that, although negative for them, can actually be positive for others.

For example, most brands crave visibility. They go to great lengths to build ‘distinctive brand assets’ by introducing a pattern, logo or label to every possible interaction. Not Muji. Their vision isn’t to be as visible as possible, but to be humble – stripping away every bit of brand expression from their products. This quietude helps them to stand out in the shouty, showy world of retail.

Similarly, tech companies typically like to be described as innovative – often disruptively so. Except PUNKT. They’re bucking the trend for feature-packed, smartphones that rapidly become obsolete, by creating beautifully designed phones that simply make calls and send texts. That’s it. Because ‘innovation’ is not the be-all-and-end-all for every tech company.

But not every brand wants to be associated with Hip-Hop. In 2006 Frédéric Rouzaud succeeded his father Jean-Claude as Managing Director of Louis Roederer, the winery behind Hip-Hop’s (then) Champagne of choice, Cristal. In an interview with the Economist magazine, Rouzaud took a dim view of the association between his brand and Hip-Hop culture at the time:

“What can we do? We can't forbid people from buying it. I'm sure Dom Pérignon or Krug would be delighted to have their business.”

What all of these brands have in common is a clear point of view of who they are and, importantly, who they are not. The latter part is an exercise that is often missed by brand owners – because it’s usually a difficult question to answer.

When we ask marketers to talk about their most offensive word, a lot of them go quiet. It’s easy for brand owners to talk about what they stand for. But it’s much harder for them to tell us what their brand stands against. Especially when we insist the word can’t be unambiguously negative – it’s cheating to say your brand is against ‘indifference’ or ‘negativity’ or ‘hate’.

As difficult as the conversation is, though, this is when we learn the most about the brands we work with. We know we have a great positioning if a brand can loathe a positive association its competitors would kill for. A good brand strategy tells you what to avoid as well as giving you a vision to strive towards.

If your conversation about your brand strategy isn't a difficult one, then you're not having a conversation about brand strategy at all.



What are Wild Cards?

The Clearing have been working with The School of Life to develop 100 questions designed to help you see your brand from new perspectives. We think great conversations begin with a great question. Each week, we’ll share another question and our response to it. Email us with your own answers on – we’d love to know what you think.