The power of nonsense
A view from Dom Boyd

The power of nonsense

It's the nonsense that makes brands meaningful and embeds them in our memories.

A wiser person than me once said if all you have is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail. (Hats off to you, Abraham Maslow.)

It’s a truism that’s annoyingly prescient when applied to professions. Ask a lawyer what to do about your party wall dispute and they’ll write a billable letter full of legal technicalities, not suggest mediation. Ask a doctor how to cure your rash and chances are they’ll write out a prescription for medicine rather than suggest homeopathy. And ask an ad person how to revitalise your brand, chances are they’ll suggest advertising.

Of course, the solution will appear on the surface to be different. The advertising might be based on a different insight. Or on a radical new idea. Or executed through dynamically applied personalised creativity.

And all that’s well and good, but it misses the bigger point. The solution of advertising per se is limiting because its start point frames the problem through the self-limiting professional telescopic lens of advertising, rather than applying an aerial view of the wider problem to be addressed.

We might talk the language of transformational big ideas, but we’re too often guilty of meaning actually just advertising. Which, by definition, is rather… smaller.

In a similar way, I sense we’re suffering under the collective illusion that because advertising builds brands, therefore brands are advertising. Maybe it’s a hangover from the old TV and posters era. Maybe it’s an (overly) simple shorthand. Or maybe it’s simply not something we care to think enough about too much.

But it’s a dangerous misperception. There’s a big gap between the two and that gap is pretty important.

This was brought home to me recently by an experiential event curated with artist Paul Schütze. Less a talk, more an immersive public experiment incorporating changing scent, sound, texture and colour, it exposed an uncomfortable truth: brands are made from something way more powerful than messages – they’re made by how we sense them.

And, as with people, the most important bit is the soft body language, not the hard logic. The stuff we feel, rather than what we think. Which can be anything from colour to design to smell to sound to texture to… well, any one of more than 25 senses. Because our bodies are hardwired to react and remember.

Or, put differently, brands are things we sense non-consciously. Made from stuff that often doesn’t "make sense" much at all. And it’s this nonsense that makes them meaningful. That embeds them in our memories. That gets us to do things we wouldn’t otherwise and feel happy paying more for doing so. Because it’s our feelings that make us act.

Of course, we know this instinctively as practitioners; the greatest advertising often works precisely because it’s entertaining nonsense – from Nike "Nothing beats a Londoner" (pictured, above) to Russian accented-meercats to the Smash Martians.

But there’s a far bigger point – we should focus a little less on thinking and a little more on feelings and where and how we might create those, way beyond advertising.

Doing that opens up a whole different palate of possibilities – you start focusing more on brand worlds, not just communications campaigns; moments, not just messages; rich ecosystems, not just reductive propositions; making brands come to life in 3D, not just 1D.

And that requires a different kind of brand thinking based not just on advertising-based stories and systems, but on senses embedded through brand experiences.

If all that sounds a little theoretical, then consider the hard logic behind Droga5’s recent marriage with Accenture. This is a deal where the commercial imperative starts with brand experience rather than advertising. It shows that – yes – brand value is still being built through brilliantly creative communications. Which Accenture clearly wants more of.

But it's also that creativity needs to be applied to brand experiences way beyond advertising. Experiences that defy categorisation, drive distinctiveness and ooze positive emotion. It’s a two-way street.

That’s an enticing prospect. 

It makes for more interesting problems for agencies to solve. More imperative to dream a little bigger. And far more opportunities to add bigger commercial value to clients by doing what agencies do best: rejecting the tyranny of logic and instead applying the most powerful weapon of all – the power of emotive nonsense to make us feel and act differently.

Dom Boyd is outgoing chief strategy officer at Publicis Poke and chair of the APG