The brands I care about are all yelling at me

June 30, 2012 | 12 comments

Update: If you enjoyed this article, you should vote for this SXSW 2013 panel. It should be a thought-provoking conversation.

Skype, a few weeks ago: “You should think of Conversation Ads as a way for Skype to generate fun interactivity between your circle of friends and family and the brands you care about. Ultimately, we believe this will help make Skype a more engaging and useful place to have your conversations each and every day.”

The brands I care about.

Brands that I care about.

Brands. Care. I. About.

I can’t make it make sense. Some thoughts:

  1. Advertisements are placed by the brand. Any advertisement I see isn’t there because it’s a brand I care about; it’s because I’m a consumer the brand cares about. The advertiser wants to reach me, not the other way around. To reverse the relationship and suggest that I’m clamoring to reach a set of brands is perverse.
  2. To the extent that I’m involved in the relationship at all, I’m interested in products, not brands. I use a computer for a living; I decided to switch to Mac because I worked out that the build quality would save me money and improve my productivity, not because I love Apple. I buy organic ketchup from Trader Joe because I try to avoid high fructose corn syrup, and Trader Joe is convenient. If another company came out with a computer that lasted as long, or another ketchup that was made without corn syrup and was equally convenient to buy, I might switch. I’m loyal to values, not brands. The idea that I might stick to Apple or Trader Joe because of an emotional attachment to the brand itself is, again, perverse.
  3. I can see why advertising companies want us to care about brands. The meme has existed for a while now, and the relentless hammering will doubtless have the same propaganda effect that, say, advertising for fast food has over time. After a while your sense of reality shifts and you accept that of course this is food. Of course we should care about product lines. Of course we should define ourselves by what we buy and consume.
  4. It’s bullshit. As an industry, we should be aiming higher. Eyeball-based economics has led us to a situation where everything we create exists to shill ads. The promise of computing is to improve the human experience, and it’s hard to do that when your goal is to bring in as many users as possible so they can click on very special messages, algorithmically delivered just for them.

I believe this strongly: ethical companies charge for their services. Display advertising is a legacy economic model, and the brands that control it are gatekeepers. There are better business models out there, waiting to be found, that allow sites and communities to be sustainable on their own terms.

Please, keep it simple

February 24, 2012 | 6 comments

I really feel like Microsoft turned a corner a few years ago, and I’ve been impressed with their decision-making for a while. Windows Phone? Pretty neat, actually. “Authentically digital” interfaces? A thousand times yes. Simplified Windows 8 branding? Completely agree.

Their decision to simplify their application line-up is another smart move. Your Windows Live ID is now just your Microsoft account; Windows Live Mail is just Mail; Zune Music Player is just Music. And so on.

Just as they’re removing all those bevels and shines with their authentically digital Metro interface, they’re removing the gimmicky branding that’s dogged software naming over the last ten years. Names like Windows Live Photo Gallery are confusing, they smack of design-by-committee, and, contrary to the presumed intention, they sap the product of any discernible personality. Just freaking call the thingĀ Photos and concentrate on making it useful.

Kudos to Microsoft on making that decision.

Startups should also learn from this. Don’t try and invent your own vocabulary: your users won’t thank you for unnatural branding that clutters up your interfaces and forces them to think about what your feature actually does. If it’s a photo gallery, call it Photos, or, y’know, Photo Gallery. If it’s a music player, call it Music. And concentrate on making it fantastic.

In other words, differentiate your product by making it the best damn product of its kind. Anything else is disingenuous.

Update: Note that I’m not arguing against brands here! But minimize your brands. Twitter has tweets, because a tweet was a new thing (a 140-character status message). But Instagram has photos rather than Instaclips, Asana has tasks, etc etc. I’m not arguing that Google should have been called “Search” at all – but Google Docs is a reasonable name, rather than Google Pro Suite or something.

Another update: Stephen Downes got in touch with me to let me know there’s a racist meaning for this phrase. As Stephen pointed out to me, according to Wikipedia, the phrase predates the racist version – but nonetheless, I will avoid it in future. Racism is against everything I believe in, and I apologize to anyone who may have been upset by the association. I’ve altered the post title.