Sussex Royal, Ad Agencies, And The Danger Of Subjective Language

A friend of mine runs a film company, and as a result often works with advertising agencies. He once made a comment based on his experience which has always stuck with me:

“Any time I see an agency refer to themselves as ‘creative’, I immediately know they aren’t”.

I know I have many newsletter subscribers from the advertising and marketing world, and so for some this might make for uncomfortable reading – and yet I expect we all sense what he means. It’s like that Game of Thrones quote “Any man who must say ‘I am the King’ is no true King”: there are some things which one cannot claim, one can only be – and where to claim them is to immediately reveal that you are not, in fact, that thing.

We all instinctively understand that it’s ill-advised to go around referring to yourself as “kind” or “humble” or “sexy” or “intelligent”, and that ironically such claims are typically signals for the opposite. It’s not that one can’t be such things of course – it’s just that people for whom the terms apply are generally secure enough in those areas as to not feel the need to crow about them. Indeed you will far more often find the genuinely intelligent downplaying their intelligence; the genuinely sexy denying their sexiness.

The reason for this is because such claims are subjective. They are not binary facts, they are in the eye of the beholder – and as such are not the individual’s (or the ad agency’s) to claim. You will notice that we typically don’t mind people making self-aggrandising statements that are objective. Nobody gets rubbed up the wrong way by Usain Bolt calling himself “the fastest man on the planet” because there is no varying interpretation there. He either is or he isn’t – and he is. But when you make a subjective claim about yourself, you are in effect removing the agency of the observer, and their right to draw such a conclusion. And, perhaps more fatally, you are betraying a desire to be seen that way – which suggests that you are not seen this way currently.

In short, by claiming a subjective virtue for yourself, you succeed only in communicating the opposite.

When running a brand, it’s important to be mindful of this fact, as it’s incredibly easy to lapse into counterproductive self-aggrandisement. We lose the instinctive humility that protects us from doing this as individuals and make subjective claims we’d never dream of in a personal context.

A topical example of this cropped up the other day in an analysis I saw of the PR statements from Sussex Royal – the brand of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

(Note: I wrote this before their bombshell interview, so I’m afraid I won’t be commenting on that, only the language of their general press releases – sorry!).

They are an interesting case because although they of course are two individuals, they also operate in a consciously branded way – and this combination makes them uniquely prone to violating this rule we have outlined above. This in turn has contributed to them becoming increasingly polarising figures.

A typical recent example saw a statement sign off with:

“[We are] determined to continue [our] work building compassion around the world and will keep striving to set an example for doing what is right and doing what is good.”

Although they soften the blow with the inclusion of the word “striving”, we can see here a clear claim to the virtues of goodness and compassion – typical examples of the kind of thing you cannot easily say about yourself, whether a brand or individual.

Regardless of your opinion of the couple, and regardless of whether the claims are accurate, you can see that these represent poorly thought out, and potentially self-damaging comms.  Just as you would be cynical about a restaurant that claims to have “the best food in town”, so too might you be cynical of anyone who says these things about themselves.  In both cases, the statements might be true, but they aren’t helping their case.

As if to prove the point, in a recent Ipsos MORI poll on the popularity of different members of the Royal Family, the Queen emerged unsurprisingly as the favourite – orders of magnitude more popular than the Sussexes. Pretty much the defining characteristic of the Queen “brand” of course is its taciturnity, which says something for the reverse correlation between virtues that are claimed and virtues that are believed.

It’s obviously interesting to analyse this with such a peculiar organisation as Sussex Royal, but needless to say, the same error is repeated endlessly with more normal everyday brands. In the case of comms this is understandable, however, I also regularly see subjective claims being made in strategies too. The vast majority of brand positioning statements I come across amount to little more than unconvincing self-flattery.  “We are the best X”, “we create extraordinary Y”, “we offer incredible Z”.  They forget that such value judgements don’t belong to them, they belong to the consumer. Their job is to do something that will provoke that reaction, not simply claim the mantle for themselves.

To put it another way, strategies must always be objective (to a degree the same thing applies to comms, but there is a bit of creative leeway there). They must amount merely to a plainly spoken statement of fact – which is observable and actionable.  Which cannot be denied, even by one’s worst enemy.

The second you allow a superlative, or value judgment, or any other form of subjectivity to creep into your wording, your strategy loses its teeth. You drift from the thing you do, to the response you hope to provoke – and in doing so hamper your ability to make that happen.

Therefore I encourage you to expunge all words like “good”, “better”, “best”, “amazing”, “extraordinary”, “incredible”, etc. from your vocabulary (especially internally), and see what happens. See what you are left with. This exercise has great potential to sharpen strategic thinking.

Ultimately you are not in control of people’s reaction, you are only in control of your action.  Keep your eyes on the latter, and the former will flourish.

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