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Against Storytelling

In branding, anyway.


My co-founder Rich Ziade and I are out in San Francisco for a conference. The hotel we’re in is very…designed. I think the designers wanted the rooms to look like a summer cottage designed by Muji but the overall effect is more like a timeshare designed by Sharper Image. You can feel the brand oozing out at you—in the little Buddha statues, the complicated clock radio, the daybed built into the window.

I love to see how brands are built—the stories big companies tell themselves—and hotels are particularly interesting in this regard because they literally envelop you in their big, weird narratives. I say this as someone who, when he stays in the Sheraton, will turn on the TV and then drift to the “Sheraton” channel and watch the 15 minute “Sheraton Values” video. Why is it in black-and-white? Are these the most excited people they could find? What would it be like to work 20 years for a hotel chain?

Here at the slightly pretentious hotel (call it “P”) we went down to breakfast early and got eggs. The salt and pepper shakers were tallish, stainless steel, with little plastic windows to see the spice. Atop each is a plunger—meaning each one is a little grinder. Interesting! Except they didn’t work.

“Sorry,” said our waiter, “the first time you use them you kind of have to warm them up.” And so we pressed them many times, making a loud, metallic crunching, like a broken toy motor, that echoed through the restaurant. Eventually we extracted some salt and pepper.

This led to us making fun of the hotel, and all of its pretensions—the big chairs, the weird wall hangings, the little Buddhas we’d mentioned—for several minutes. Which, brandwise, if you’re a hotel, is your worst nightmare. All that labor, planning, and all those walkthroughs, resulting in a huge eyeroll. And it’s not like we’re going to write a letter. We’re just…less likely to return.

Not too long ago we had the designer Craig Mod on our podcast and asked him what his favorite pieces of design were, and one he mentioned made us laugh: The Brother Laser Printer. I mean, it’s hardly a paragon of physical elegance, it’s just a box. Except: It costs a little more than $100, and it prints on two sides of paper, and with fine quality. I have one, and it sits there quietly sipping power until the Wi-Fi wakes it, and then it prints off a page, warm to the touch, with that familiar toner smell. When it goes I’ll buy another one. Honestly, it’s a great printer. I just hadn’t noticed it.

When people talk about brands they often talk about storytelling. We just got through another Superbowl and it served its purpose: First, to remind us that the universe is cruel enough to give the Patriots a victory; and second, to provide a platform for incredibly expensive advertising. America sat there and bore witness as brand value after brand value was poured into our eyeballs. Which ad broke through our politics-destroyed limbic systems just enough to make us collectively feel something? (Fun fact: Adolphus Busch thought Budweiser beer was “schlop.”) Americans are weird, we know it.

The thing that I love about the Brother printer is that it works when I hit print. The thing I don’t love about this hotel is that it has too many opinions and core brand values, and they keep interfering with my opinions and core brand values. As I write this there’s a bottle of wine in my peripheral vision, nestled into a crook in the furniture, and I can’t stop wondering just how extortionate the price will be on the minibar menu (the bottled water by my bed is $5.) The pillows are fine for no additional charge.

Walking around downtown SF, past giant Internet companies with thousands of employees, at some level you have to acknowledge that the things that really work just don’t have to try as hard as things that don’t. Or to put it even more simply: The best-designed stuff doesn’t tell you some high-minded story; it just gets out of the way, and lets you tell your own damn story.

Paul Ford is a co-founder at Postlight. 

Story published on Feb 6, 2017.