Don’t say what you’re not. Say what you are.

14 March, 2013

I saw an exciting film this week. It’s called ‘NO’ (see trailer here) and it’s about the advertising campaign that helped to kick General Pinochet from power in 1988. It’s really really good.

It reminded me how a big idea can change the world if it’s clear and simple. Also that the best brands tend say what they ARE, not what they aren’t.

For 15 years Pinochet’s military regime had ruled Chile with fear. But in 1988 he bowed to international pressure and announced an election that would allow the country to vote either ‘yes’ for him or ‘no’ for the opposition.

So the opposition began to hit Chileans with stories of oppression and torture. These were all true, and for many the regime stank, but the alternative was too unpredictable and risky. Meanwhile the Pinochet campaign was saying: ‘You may not love us, but stick to what you know.’ Nobody believed that the incumbents would be removed.

After a lot of agonising, the opposition realised it had to change the rules. With a little help from the film’s main character (an advertising copywriter), it made Chileans see the world differently. The ‘No’ vote had meant no more torture etc. Now it promised happiness. The opposition party even agreed to use a silly jingle to go with images of happy Chileans.

The solution sounds fatuous, but it was actually brave and radical. Why? As the campaign gathered pace, the Pinochet regime felt more and more compelled to attack it, and the more it attacked, the more people inferred that Pinochet opposed happiness. Once the opposition colonised the big idea, it was unbeatable.

There’s a great little book by Lakoff who is close to guru status on the subject of metaphors. It explains why the Democrats twice failed to stop George W Bush becoming president. It’s called ‘Don’t think of an elephant’. The point is that strong metaphors dominate the way we see things. The Republicans had established the powerful idea that the US was a family. Not just that, but a family in danger. What a threatened family needs is a strong father figure: Bush. The response of the Democrats was just to argue that Bush was not a strong father figure. If you were a Democrat you agreed. If you were not, all you heard was ‘Bush’…’father figure’. The Democrats were doing nothing to change the metaphor. Hence the title of the book. What was it I’m not supposed to think about? An elephant?…Doh!

People build their identity, and so do companies, by saying what they’re not. What’s Labour? Not Tory. What’s Pepsi? Every company startup promises to be the antidote to what went before. When I want to claim I’m interesting, it’s easier to compare myself with boring people.

But saying what you’re not can backfire. When Nixon said that he wasn’t a crook, which part stuck? The ‘wasn’t’ got lost because the Nixon/crook link was already too strong. The moral of ‘Don’t think of an elephant’ is: if you can’t influence the way people see the world you won’t change minds. Clever arguments are rarely enough to cut it.

And, weirdly, protesting too hard that you’re different can make you indistinct

There’s a lot to be said for blending in. But if the job is to stand out, then at some point we and brands have to say what we are – clearly and interestingly. And that means shaping an identity which makes sense on its own terms, and less by reference to other things.

All too obvious, or rarer than it seems?

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