Open a copy of any business publication in the next few weeks, and you’ll be presented with a provocative ad from UBS. It features an image of a successful looking business chap – shiny shoes, shirt, and suit trousers. But not ‘business’ in an intimidating, greed is good sort of a way. Think campaigning New Labour politician sort of ‘business’. His sleeves are casually rolled up and he’s sporting the look of an ageing rocker with messy grey curls and designer stubble.

The ad asks the biblical and intractable question of the reader: ‘Am I a Good Father?’

Big question.

But should UBS be grasping at such lofty puzzles in order to sell stuff? It feels a bit out of place. Does a bank have any right to talk about fatherhood? Or worse, to question what being a good father means? And if a bank, why not a car manufacturer or a toothpaste brand? How do you own an idea like ‘fatherhood’?

It’s understandable that UBS has gone down this route. Banks are boring places and most of the time we’d rather not have to think about them. And although essential to our lives, places like UBS understandably want to avoid any hubristic statements after the recent financial meltdown. Talking about being a father is not only safe, it’s also a lot more interesting than talking about equities in developing markets.

This simple thought of putting lifestyle ahead of product was a trick public relations firms had to figure out decades ago. Earning space is easier if you enter into an existing conversation (about love, life, celebrities, whatever) rather than try and force a new conversation about your product. The tendency has been accentuated by the web, where brands like Coca-Cola and Dove can wax lyrical and produce beautiful videos about ‘Happiness’ and ‘Beauty’.

This can be done well. But brands are in danger of taking this thinking too far. The UBS example is in danger of becoming completely decoupled from any product benefits, scaling the heights of a brand pyramid and reaching increasingly lofty notions.

Call this the ‘Bono problem’.

bono

People have long expected great music from rock stars like Bono, and they’re quite willing to put up with the noble sentiments and lofty ideals that attend their music. But go too far and you come across as pretentious, preachy or hubristic. You can seem irrelevant and out of place.

Yes, brands should be talking about something interesting and emotive beyond their product and a cold set of ‘reasons to believe’, but they should also avoid turning into philosophers and preachers in a bid to make a sale.