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

Love it or hate it, some companies have capitalized on real talk that runs deep in their culture. Offended? "Get a f*&^%$# life," says Carey Smith, CEO of Big Ass Fans.

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?"

Carey Smith

"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.

Using a similar strategy, Eat24’s recent YouTube ads took viewers' impatience to get to their desired cat video to heart and encouraging them to just skip their ad. And people actually hung on to watch—to the tune of 91%. Eat24 averaged about 75% more downloads of its app during the weeks the campaign was running.

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.

Matt Eventoff of Princeton Public Speaking says this kind of straight talk is effective because we are deluged by lingo in marketing, but also in presentations, meetings, and elsewhere. "Too many messages and too little time make it increasingly difficult to have any staying power," he says, "Buzzwords no longer create buzz, they are now the rule rather than the exception."

Reaching deep into the company’s history, Jacobs recounts tales of Paul Klipsch, audio pioneer and founder of the company. "He wore a no bullshit button," says Jacobs, and would call anyone out for lame excuses to not strive for excellence by simply pointing to his lapel. "Paul even used that button in church to call out [the preacher]," Jacobs maintains.

That guiding principle, er, button, is what Jacobs says runs through the entire company even after Klipsch passed away. When he started in 1991, Jacobs says he took "a massive pay cut" but was grateful for the opportunity given his background as a musician. Working his way up through the sales ranks gave him an appreciation for how intimately tied the no-nonsense approach was to Klipsch’s corporate culture.

Although it did cause tension. Jacobs says that when you have engineers focused solely on the technology and sales dealing with the reality of market, the no bullshit button gets pressed a lot. "Tension can be okay," he insists even if the two sides don’t always meet in the middle.

For the marketing efforts, Jacobs underscores, "We did not do this to offend anyone," but that hasn’t stopped the letters from poring in. " It is a full time effort," he admits, "We get love and hate, but we believe in true American sound—we are not a vulgar culture."

Neither is Big Ass Fans, Smith points out. Though they do have critics who would prefer they clean up their act. Smith says customer service reps will apologize if a person received their materials and were offended and offers to take them off the mailing list. "Then they explode and use language and you can’t get them off the phone," Smith exclaims. For fun, he says, they’ve captured some of the calls in a YouTube video —with no identifying information. "We love every single one of them," Smith adds. For those who just can’t take it, he offers simply: "Get a fucking life."

[Image: Flickr user Josh Janssen]

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2 Comments

  • They way I read this, its less about branding and more about being honest with who you are and what you do. Your brand follows that. If you can't clear it up for everyone, especially for yourself, the lack of clarity will cause distrust with your stakeholders, and when you lose that relationship, you've nothing left.

  • Great read - it's so important to be truthful and honest as a brand and company; if you're not coming across as credible, people aren't going to believe your advertising message. Getting straight to the point does work!