The challenge of labels


The powerful Coca-Cola brand

We like labels. The longevity and attraction of many of our favourite brands testifies to this and as every marketeer knows the label carries a lot of meaning. If you research what consumers think about Coca-Cola you will see people ascribe all manner of associations and values to the brand on top of its physical characteristics. These more even than the taste explains the persistence of the brand and they are the themes of the millions of dollars that Coke spend behind their product in advertising, point of sale, sponsorship and other marketing tools.

The label is a shorthand that is easy to identify and remember. The shape, colour and name all conjuring up these associations whenever someone sees it and instantly reminding people of familiar associations.

This patterning skill is a useful thing for us. We could never shop a supermarket with 30000 lines in 40 minutes without it! However, it brings with it other more difficult attributes in a situation of change, where people often resort to labels to describe those with different views, ideas or solutions and often with the intent of painting less attractive values onto them.

Labels needs to be very wisely used:

The associations that you and I have will not be the same – even though we use the same label. It obscures rather than illuminates.

The label has an exclusive quality. You either wear it or you don’t. It can often lead to either/or rather than and/and thinking.

With people, labels have a depersonalised quality. This can be seen in the recent television programmes that have looked at immigration in the UK and sought to pair up locals to look at individual immigrant stories. In every case the local view changes once people engage with each other. People cannot be contained within a label.

It is not mere rhetoric to avoid using labels when evaluating a situation or facing an aggressive questioner. It is important to challenge the use of them as frequently best resolution can be found under the surface.

Note to self – when I describe a person or group by a name, am I falling into the trap of painting them out of adding any value to the future solution?