The coffee shop where I and my dog go to lounge and read the papers is not everyone’s cup of tea (or, indeed, coffee). Towards the bottom of the Goswell Road, it is right in the heart of Hoxton/Shoreditch hipster-land. As a result, I am one of the very regulars who is clean shaven and tattoo-free.
And the shop certainly knows its clients. The decor is eclectic, the sofas distressed (as often are the people occupying them) and the music loud. The coffee itself is proudly organic and single-estate. And while they don’t shout “brand” in quite the same way as, say, Starbucks or Costa, they sell the usual range of own-label ephemera — t shirts and coffee mugs etc — you’d expect to find in that sort of place.
But that’s where the similarities end. Standing there at the weekend paying for my usual large skinny extra-shot latte, my eye was caught by one of the cups for sale. A simple, white mug, it was emblazoned with the legend “Under all your tattoos, you’re still a mainstream c***” (the asterisks are mine; the original was less squeamish). When I asked its price, I was told it was currently for display only; they’d sold the rest and were awaiting another delivery.
I have run or been part of branding workshops in many different organisations and I don’t recall ever having been told that insulting your client base was the best way to win customer loyalty. But it is clearly working for my coffee shop. And one cannot help reflecting that if the traditional branding and communications nostrums of avoiding offence and carefully crafting your words to make all your listeners feel instantly comfortable were correct, the careers of Donald Trump and Nigel Farage would have taken a very different trajectory.
But this is not new. When some years ago I first got the job as CEO at Shelter, I initially accepted the standard communications advice and adopted a tone that was polite, cautious and measured. But the limitations of such an approach rapidly became clear. Not only does politeness and caution fail to make itself heard in a raucous and crowded media world, but for an organisation purporting to speak on behalf of the poor and dispossessed to use only measured tones was profoundly inauthentic. Nor was I speaking my own lines, and I was simply not a good enough actor to fake it. It was only when I junked the advice I was being given and began to talk from the heart — to tell the tales of the ruined lives I was seeing around me every day — that I began to be an effective communicator.
So for me, authenticity is the watchword. If you are true to yourself, if you tell it like it is no matter how unpopular your words, you have a chance of connecting with your audience. Sure, you will lose some of them — that’s inevitable. But what you say will resonate with some of the others, hopefully more than just a few, and that is what matters. That doesn’t mean you should not try to craft your words: as Donald Trump is learning (or at least should be learning) being authentic is not the same as firing off gratuitous insults at four in the morning at anyone who has in any way upset you. And authenticity is not the same as self-indulgence. You are occupying a role and have to be conscious of how that role affects the way you communicate. The sort of tone I had to adopt as Chief Legal Ombudsman was very different from the one I used at Shelter, even if the passion for the cause was no less.
And that, I think, is why my local coffee shop is packed with the very people who their cup appears to insult. The shop and its staff are being authentic to themselves. The slogans on the cups are all part of a sense of self-aware cynicism which is essential to the shop’s identity. Posters on the wall have sly pops at Vladimir Putin, Theresa May and, for some reason, Richard Madeley. And if the cups insult, they insult the staff as much as the customers: the levels of tattooing — and piercing — among the staff who are selling the cups are far greater than those of the customers who are buying them.
The slogan works. The cups sell. What appears to be challenging is, in fact, familiar and what appears alienating inclusive. And as Trump and Farage are demonstrating so well, the combination of apparently harsh language and hidden inclusivity is a compelling formula.