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Most brands, most of the time, talk about what they are – their values, their principles, their beliefs, their behaviours. When they talk about what makes them different, whether that is their ingredients, processes or benefits, their language is almost always positive.

And that’s a good thing, isn’t it? Selling a positive message to your prospective consumers talks to their better nature and helps them aspire to something better?

But if every brand talks the same way and uses the same language about being cleaner, faster, tastier, more effective… where is the differentiation? The positives can blend together into a safe huddle of motherhood and apple pie – who wouldn’t say them? And, as Bill Bernbach noted: “In advertising not to be different is virtually suicidal”.

Because what brands and products are not can be just as important as what they are.

In many categories consumers can identify their needs in terms of what they don’t want. “I want a toothpaste that is not minty”, “I want a coffee that tastes strong but not bitter”, “I want a breakfast cereal that does not contain added sugar”, even “I want a phone that is not an iphone”.

Of course, this is not new. Understanding meaning through what things are not is one of the key principles of semiotics: from a very young age we are aware of – and think in – oppositions and differences: hot to cold, loud to quiet, yes to no. Levi Strauss talked about the purpose of myths being ‘to provide a logical framework for understanding contradictions’. So we can unconsciously work out the meaning of a brand not being something as easily as when it uses positive language. This is not just academic, it was as long ago as 2001 that Ginny Valentine, of Semiotic Solutions, wrote her powerful paper on the application of ‘notness language’ in marketing.

So there’s a longstanding theoretical and practical basis for it but surprisingly few brands have built their messaging around what they are not – how many can you think of?

Among those that have, however, there are many ways in which notness language can be applied.

This can be their ingredients – “No added sugar”, “No GM ingredients”. Even “There is no spit in Cremo!” (Cremo cigars, 1929).

It can be an attitude – “Don’t be a maybe” (Marlboro cigarettes), “Never hide” (Rayban) or “Lived not modelled” (Jigsaw clothing).

It can be a behaviour – “We never forget whose money it is” from Nationwide Building Society and the British Caledonian’s related “We never forget you have a choice”.

It can be the benefit – Craven A cigarettes, it was asserted, “Will not affect your throat” or there is “Melts in your mouth not your hands”, a claim so good that Mars has used it, over the years, for Treets, Minstrels and M&M’s.

Or it can be the target consumer: “Cruises for people who don’t do cruises” (Ocean Village Cruises), Yorkie’s “It’s not for girls” and, in a similar vein, “Not for women” from Dr Pepper 10, with its “10 manly calories”.

When you think about what actually drives your consumers or customers, ask yourself whether it might be the absence – rather than the presence – of something. Understanding that can open up the gates of notness and help you to cut through more effectively, speaking to what really matters to them in your category. Whichever way you use it, defining yourself by what you are not can be clearer, more relevant, more differentiating – and more provocative.

As Mr. Spock nearly said in Star Trek: “It’s marketing, Jim, but not as we know it”.

By Chris Gowar, Head of Verbal Engineering at Verbalisation.

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