Sometimes it feels like advertising clutters every surface—from billboards along your morning commute to logos on household products and posts on your Facebook feed to jingles that get stuck in your head. It’s hard to find quiet environments.
In an op-ed for The New York Times, researcher Matthew Crawford compares this advertising noise to pollution. He argues that attention is a limited resource, one we should protect. He paints a vivid—and somewhat disturbing—portrait of our noisy world:
Consider the experience of being in an airport. I have found I have to be careful when going through airport security, because the trays that you place your items in for X-ray screening are now papered with advertisements, and it’s very easy to miss a lipstick-size flash memory stick against a picture of fanned-out L’Oréal lipstick colors. … I am not feeling especially receptive to the endlessly recurring message from the Lincoln Financial Group, applied to the moving handrail on the escalator: You’re In Charge®. Settled in at my departure gate with an hour to kill, I shift in my seat and try to avert my gaze from the chattering of CNN, but find that the fields of view that haven’t been claimed for commerce are getting fewer and narrower.
As consumers, we resent this clutter, but from a business perspective, branded noise can feel inevitable. Small businesses and large enterprises alike need to reach customers to sell goods to employ individuals to sustain life. Advertising helps the world go round, so we have to put up with it. Or do we?
Brussels-based copywriter Jasmine De Bruycker thinks that the future of branding is “debranding,” stripping away inauthentic messages and focusing instead on product quality. Rather than urging consumers to buy large quantities of cheap goods, she believes businesses should offer quality products at a higher price point—saving consumers money in the long-term. Durable goods, not flimsy plastic. Sustainable food, not cheap burgers. Compelling stories, not clickbait.
A few experiments in simplified business models offer a picture of what this could look like. German market Original Unverpackt offers groceries without wasteful packaging. “Here, the customer only takes what they need,” say the store’s owners, quoted in The Guardian. “We’d like to offer an alternative way of shopping—one where we offer everything you need but you won’t find hundreds of different types of body lotion or olive oil.”
Similarly, Everlane and other slow fashion brands emphasize durable products over a high volume of sales. In contrast to the frenzied, overstocked shelves you find at many stores in the mall, Everlane offers a pared-down product line—manufactured by workers in fair conditions and sold without markups or middlemen.
Both of these companies sell goods to consumers (and use marketing and PR to do so), but they don’t add anything unnecessary to the process. Instead of trying to shout louder than their competitors, these businesses whisper. And by doing so, they’ve captured our attention.
De Bruycker herself points out that debranding doesn’t mean eliminating advertising altogether. “As branding is, fundamentally, just a form of communication, it will never disappear. And it shouldn’t. But the focus will shift,” she writes. “Real people and real tones of voice will become the interface between consumers and products.”
Debranding results in more meaningful, but less flashy messaging. It means representing products and services honestly—no outlandish claims or grandiose promises. It means turning down the volume, eliminating fluff, and focusing on the reasons your companies exist in the first place. And when you elevate product over polish, quality over quantity, and craftsmanship over showmanship, everybody benefits.