No Bull*$#@ Branding: How Companies Use Trash Talk, Honesty To Charm The Right Customers

February 12, 2014

Fast Company

Plain speak. Salty talk. No bullshit. Call it whatever you like, some companies have built an entire culture around cutting the fat from their communications, both internal and external.

It starts with a name. Take the HVLS Fan Company (short for “high volume, low speed”). It’s pretty straightforward, right? But CEO Carey Smith says in the early years when all six employees would answer the phone, they’d greet customers with: “Thanks for calling the HVLS Fan Company” and get the same response multiple times: “Are you the guys that make those big ass fans?”

“It was an opportunity,” says Smith, to change their name to that colloquial term most people use to describe something huge.

The way he sees it, branding like that must be supported by culture. Smith admits he’s not big on business books and doesn’t have an MBA, but understands that branding needs to be authentic. “People talk about branding as if you can just go out and do it,” he says, citing Google searches that promise complete branding packages for the low, low price of $595. “Our brand shows we are contrarians,” he explains because the fans themselves move slowly, counter to the method an engineer might recommend to move a lot of air.

Smith embraced it with both arms, eventually dubbing himself the “chief big ass.” Since its inception in 1999, Smith asserts the company’s never worked with dealers or distributors, preferring to keep all its communication with customers direct. Smith says that’s been part of Big Ass Fans’ secret sauce. Those customers have boosted the business from $31 million four years ago to an estimated $175 million in gross sales this year.

In an age of social media overkill, Joe Silverman, CEO of tech service company New York Computer Help, says, “I always get to the point in the first statement. We advertise, ‘Hire a real tech, not a fake Genius or a Geek.’”

And then there’s Newcastle Ale, which preceded their Super Bowl campaign with Anna Kendrick with its “No Bollocks” positioning aimed to cut through the clutter of beer ads rife with good times and gimmicks. The results? Newcastle’s case sales volume rose 5% and its Facebook fan base saw a 600% increase.

Though it’s not an officially recognized trend, Dan Baack, associate marketing professor at the University of Denver’s Daniels Business College says: “Many consumers see advertising messages as manipulative, sneaky, and lies. Without credibility, advertising messages fall on closed ears.” He believes that straight talking brands communicate their honesty and trustworthiness to consumers which then becomes a key brand association, he says. “For the rare brand seen as authentic by consumers, advertisers find themselves in the enviable position of having consumers listen to them.”

Not every tactic worked for Big Ass Fans, though. Smith confesses that he tried alternately to get staff on board with having no titles, then moved to unconventional titles like his own. Team “Badonkadonk” develops new products, for example. He swapped traditional business cards for ones shaped like a baseball card with the employee’s “stats” on the back. “People liked it, but didn’t like it enough,” he explains, “They really do want to be a manager or vice president.”

But he stands firm on branding pointing out that even churches buy Big Ass Fans. “They think it’s funny,” he contends.

If you ask CEO Paul Jacobs, Klipsch, the audio speaker company, has taken a no-bullshit-just-great-products stance since its founding almost 70 years ago. But it wasn’t until CES 2014 that the company busted out tag lines such as, “Pissing off the neighbors since 1946” and “Stop buying crap audio. It’s embarrassing.”

The approach garnered rave reviews from attendees according to Jacobs and Time magazine even gave its displays mock props as the “best passive aggressive marketing” at the show.

Says Jacobs, “We feel that the whole market is so crowded. This is authentic to who we really are when we quit being someone else.”

That someone else, he says, is the 13-year-old girl looking for the latest and greatest cool gadget. Though he likens his company’s technology to breakthrough innovations at Apple, appealing to tweens is just not what Klipsch does, Jacobs argues. The company was built on high-fidelity innovation and they’re not changing that tune.