Putting Brands in their Place – Why today’s brands should be servants

Brands as Teachers

We all know how the story begins – early marketing was, largely, one-way product messaging. The brand was the teacher, imparting its knowledge with an assumed air of authority. There were good teachers, like Smash, Marlboro and Levi’s and bad ones; but their mode of communication was the same – talking at people and assuming they would listen.


Brands as Peers

Around the turn of the century though, a new brand relationship emerged. Egg Banking, Innocent, and Ben & Jerry’s defined the peer-to-peer voice, with their friendly tone ultimately affecting communication across all categories. It felt like a new era for brands.

When the digital revolution came, it allowed the ‘brand as peer’ relationship to blossom. Theorists told the marketing community to expand their messaging for multiple platforms. Consumers were splitting their time across new environments and brands were advised to be there too: chatting, sharing, interacting – behaving like a friend.



Source: TNS, ‘Brand Friending’ Research, 2009


However, the truth is most brands don’t actually make very good friends. Apart from a very few exceptions, brand conversations always lead to the same self-interested, transactional conclusion. Brands waned to be peers, but most ended up being narcissists.



Hard though it is to face, in the majority of paid environments, brand communication, comments and invitations are at best tolerated, and at worst blocked altogether. Marketers get excited about ‘disrupting’, but, from an audience point of view, aren’t we just getting in the way?


To address this, most recently, marketing acknowledged the need to connect more meaningfully, to have bigger conversations.


Enter “brand purpose” – finding a role that goes beyond what your literal product does, to what drives it philosophically. Dove, Always, Lurpak and Pampers are examples of brands who have relegated their own stories in favour of something more meaningful. Whilst this approach may seem like to brands climbing the benefit ladder, the role they are actually fulfilling is one of servitude  – relegating their stories for a cause a consumers care about.



Looking at these case studies in humbler terms forces us to rethink whether it’s the emotional high ground brands should strive for when hunting defining their role.


Brands as Servants


From Uber to Airbnb, Instagram to Apple, Google to GoPro, many brands winning nowadays celebrate their function. Whilst marketers wax lyrical about “Think Different”, in reality (and in communication) it is the product that’s the focus for Apple. From the shrine of the Apple Store, to their ATL comms, Apple positions itself squarely as a servant to consumer need.
























The concept of ‘brands as servants’ may seem lowly, but it must not be underestimated. In this position brands show their use in everyday life. Whilst serving can be done with grand gestures, a la Dove, the helpful app, the useful tips, the personal encouragement, can be just as engaging.





Cannes Grand Prix Winner Whirlpool with “Care Counts” Serving the community with washing machines in schools to help underprivileged kids who struggled to get their clothes clean at home.






You don’t have to be a service to offer one. Nike and Pantene have found ways to serve




At PrettyGreen we add the filter of ‘brand as a servant’ to all of our thinking. It forces us to question whether the ideas we are generating are genuinely addressing a need, vs. generating PR for PR sake. It pushes us into developing actions for the real world instead of fictions for media.


Take one of our longest standing clients, Nando’s: from developing studios, running music workshops, helping students find the Nando’s in their city or even just offering free chicken, it has become a brand that’s integrated into youth culture via the authenticity of its actions over hollow tactics and stunts.


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In a world that doesn’t stop talking, adding to the noise does little for brand appeal. The dynamic brands of today know their place, and are not afraid to be the consumer’s subordinate.  They have learnt that being useful, supportive or even entertaining leads to them being depended upon and trusted which is, actually, the outcome all brands seek.