TMI: The phrase is inherently negative. It’s not just information. It’s too much! But according to branding and design firm Landor, which recently published branding trends forecast for in 2015, too much information is one of the hottest trends in the industry.
From coffee packaging that reveals the village where your beans come from, to Patagonia explaining the supply chain of its down, to Chipotle’s site, which shows you the company's pigs, to Whole Foods labeling the country of origin on foods across its stores, to Portlandia’s amazing take-down of the happy chicken farms behind seasonal/local cuisine, TMI is in.
Thomas Ordahl, Landor’s chief strategy officer, walks us through how and why TMI is the next big thing in branding. (And yes, he is a very self-aware fan of that Portlandia sketch.) "You cannot get away with bullshit anymore," he says. "Which is interesting for brand people. The cynical view of branding is, we’re in the bullshit business. But the branding business now—we’re in the truth business. it’s going to vary a lot client to client, but it’s about finding the value in their business. You can’t just be a sophistry that will distract people from reality. The days of that are completely over."
Ordahl sees the business benefits of too much information as a Venn Diagram. "On one side, transparency around health, safety, the quality of the product," he explains, pointing to the EU’s recent regulations on meat and dairy packaging as an example, as consumers worry about the spread of mad cow disease. People want insight into a product because it impacts their well-being. You could say the same about labels for organic, non-GMO, or gluten-free foods.
"The other side is what I’d call the search for authenticity," he says. "Where people are looking for the pedigree of the product. The story behind it. Who are the people who farmed it? What is the country they came from? Is there a story on the farmer? It’s a romancing of the product." The Portlandia sketch, basically.
For many of us, authenticity is really the new premium, Ordahl says, pointing to Mast Brothers chocolate makers in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The company brings in single origin cacao beans on its own schooner. "It’s hipster fetishisation of food taken to an orgiastic level," he says.
Hipster fetishization in the heart of Brooklyn is one thing. But mass market products, aimed at middle American products are another. So I counter with the example of McDonald’s, which recently aired a deep dive on how the company makes its McRibs.
It’s by no means romantic—or appetizing, honestly—watching pork be ground, peppered with preservatives, molded into a rib shape, flash frozen, and then reheated with BBQ sauce. So why should McDonald’s show us this bit of TMI? Why didn’t the company show idyllic pastures, like Chipotle, and give us a peek at where little McRibblets were raised?
"Maybe they can’t. They’re not going after organic happy chickens on the farm," Ordahl says. The Internet, and social media, have made misinformation far too easy to debunk. So when McDonald’s markets the McRib as flash frozen molded meat, the company must do so knowing it may not be the product for everyone. McDonald’s can’t change that without changing the McRib.
Listening to Ordahl, I hear sunny optimism about how these earnest narratives are shaping business. He works a lot in the C-suite of big companies. And he’s encourage to see that executives are actually answering the emails and tweets of their own clients, directly, because nobody wants to be the CEO who was called out for not answering five emails from a concerned mom.
What Ordahl is really spelling out is that we’re in a time of unprecedented corporate scrutiny. That, in turn, could drive companies to be more than just profitable, but better all-around entities—institutions that can no longer smile to our faces while dumping toxic waste behind our backs.
Of course, one customer's idea of what constitutes "good" TMI varies dramatically from another's. "Evil’s elastic," Ordahl says. "Think about Chick-fil-A. Some people might think Chick-fil-A is evil. Others might think they’re aligned to their value—and their business goes up for that."