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The Journey Of The Cliché; How To Avoid Your Brand Becoming A Parody

by Philip Koh on 12/11/2019 | 5 Minute Read

How do you know when it’s time to say goodbye to a cliché? To break away from easy, comforting, and unchallenged tropes, and are consumers ready to navigate brands without these easy signifiers?   

For many brands and their design partners, clichés have proven to be a handy tool. Ingrained in the public’s imagination, they serve as shortcuts and signifiers to specific sectors and stories. That can be an advantage, especially in virgin markets, where consumers have little or no exposure to the original context. 

But today’s audience is savvier. We have a wealth of information at our fingertips and a greater understanding of the line between parody and authenticity. Clichés, with their established expectations, are not just predictable, they’re increasingly meaningless. 

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Reality Check

Back in 2005, when the newly crowned winner of UK MasterChef, Thomasina Miers, was planning to open her first Mexican restaurant, the first thing she did was invite her creative team around for dinner. She wanted to show us that real Mexican food is fresh, fast, vibrant, and healthy—that first meal blew away all our preconceptions about the cuisine.

But when the prevailing wisdom is chili con carne, tequila, cacti, and sombreros, how do you create a Mexican brand that is different, yet understandably "Mexican?" How do you educate and take consumers on a journey so that they feel invested in and empowered by a brand, not patronized by it? 

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When 86% of consumers say that authenticity matters in deciding which brands to support, it is clear that truth is essential. 

But the word authenticity is too easily bandied about in branding. What does it even mean? Original? Real? Exact? It’s more nuanced than that. According to The Journal of Consumer Psychology, it is "the extent to which consumers perceive a brand to be faithful towards itself, true to its consumers, motivated by caring and responsibility, and able to support consumers in being true to themselves."

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Clichés won’t help here; they are, by definition, ubiquitous and expected, making it challenging to create a point of difference and stand out. The Scotch whiskey sector illustrates this point perfectly-dreich landscapes, majestic stags, and master distillers’ signatures may have their source in a truthful origin story, but repetition has made it all meaningless.  

Often, clichés no longer even represent anything that’s culturally real. Take Tex Mex, the very thing Thomasina wanted to run a mile from, with its ponchos, deserts, and bull horns.  

And even if culturally accurate, brand strategists and designers today have to be especially sensitive to accusations of cultural appropriation and the risk of causing a political storm. Recently, Dior had to pull its Eau Savage campaign starring Johnny Depp when consumers complained that its depiction of a Native American dancer was racially inappropriate.

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Honesty Rules

So how do brands avoid taking the same tired, potentially inappropriate path? How do you carve out a fresh direction? 

Take a close, honest look at your brand and search for its truth and beauty, even if it’s unconventional for its sector. British surf brand Finisterre did this effectively when it eschewed the "Californian dream" in favor of celebrating the UK’s version of the sport in all its wintry glory. Out went board shorts and golden tans, in came hardy folk bravely facing the full force of the North Atlantic. It succeeded because it broke the mold and smacked of authenticity; it celebrated the UK’s chilly USP.

For the same reason, when we started our journey with Thomasina all those years ago, we ignored the accepted composite version of Mexico and dug a little deeper, looking to the market traders of Oaxaca and the rich and layered street-food scene. 

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Our first step was to list everything that we associated with Mexico at the start of the project, from cacti to sombreros, tequila to the Mexico City Olympics. We put a big red strike across all of it and challenged ourselves to keep digging. 

The breakthrough in reframing Mexican food in the UK came during an immersion visit to Oaxaca, the culinary center of Mexico. Traveling through the markets, we noticed a specific culture to the street-food scene. This was borne out of a practical mend-and-make-do spirit, with painted signs and car boots repurposed as coal barbecues. Couple this with the nation’s love of color and surreal sense of humor, and we had found a fresh and exciting voice—vibrant, eccentric, an assault on the senses. 

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We distilled that into our first Wahaca, with clashing electric colors, hand-drawn typography, light-hearted tone of voice, surprising elements like matchbooks that turned into habanero plants. And not a sleeping donkey to be found.  

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London-based Mumbai-Irani chain, Dishoom, did something similar when it avoided the Anglo-Indian design cues with which Brits are so familiar. While there’s nothing wrong with going for a "Ruby Murray," Dishoom focused on the unique cuisine of the Iranian cafés that have made their home in Mumbai and tapped into a desire for a more genuine experience.    

It shows that if you have a deep understanding of a brand’s values and its source of inspiration, you’re more likely to arrive at a solution true in spirit, as well as being right for your market, not an ill-conceived replica.

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Learning Curve

The most effective brands find something new to say and take consumers on the journey, educating them along the way—the ones that do this well get rewarded with loyalty.

You’ll know that you’ve succeeded when you walk down the street and see competitors aping your language. Like Wahaca, you’ll have shifted sector thinking—and perhaps, in so doing, created a new cliché. And it’ll be time to move on again.

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