Design View | Articles and opinion on design professionalism, technique and culture by Andy Rutledge

White Labeling 2.0: Black Labeling

August 16, 2010

Likely everything you consider to be white labeling is not. It’s an easy mistake to make, but it’s not a good mistake to make. I’m going to clear up the difference between white labeling and what I call black labeling here. But first, here’s the cliché story of how black labeling misconstrued as white labeling came to be…

* * *

A long time ago in a land far away, there lived a beautiful and chaste young daughter of a Duke, named Tabitha. Lady Tabitha was chaste and kind and gentle and, of course, chaste; for Tabitha had promised her father that she would save herself for her wedding night…which was quite aggravating for a certain virile, young Baron from a neighboring estate who rather fancied the young woman but was not necessarily down with betrothal.

Day after day the Baron pursued Lady Tabitha, plying her with compliments and gifts and even immoderate drink…all in a thus-far fruitless effort to gain invitation to her bed. Long did the chaste Lady Tabitha refuse to offer such an invitation, for she was quite chaste. Moreover, being unfailingly chaste she was unskilled and unpracticed in the arts of love. But the virile, young Baron was unrelenting…as demonstrated by the way he never relented in his effort to get freaky with the Duke’s daughter [Author’s aside: Seriously, Medieval stories are only ever about wars and members of the nobility getting into each others’ pants. I’m going with the latter scenario here.]

The young Baron was nearly at his wit’s end when what seemed like a miracle happened. At long last, the supposedly-chaste young Lady Tabitha did indeed invite the Baron to come that very night to her bedchamber…but on one condition: that the Baron agree to be blindfolded for the duration of their tryst. Overjoyed at his impending success, the young Baron immediately agreed and the tryst was set.

That night, after sneaking past the guard the Baron quickly found the soon-to-be less-chaste Lady Tabitha’s bedchamber. He knocked quietly and was admitted. There standing before him in her nightshift was young Lady Tabitha, a vision of beauty bathed in soft candleglow. Awesome! Just wait 'till the guys hear about this, he thought to himself. She held in her hand a black linen cloth and bade him turn around. Then gently but securely she tied the cloth about his head, completely covering his eyes. She then led him to the side of her bed and turned him around in place a few times to disorient him.

While the now-dizzy Baron wondered at this playfulness, Lady Tabitha’s maidservant who had been hiding behind the wardrobe silently stepped forward and lightly embraced the Baron, planting a tender kiss upon his lips. Then all was up, as tenderness gave way to passion and the two quickly found the mattresses. The young and still-chaste Lady Tabitha then retired quietly to a chair to watch (C’mon, chastity does not preclude curiosity) as her maidservant accomplished with skill and gusto what she was unable and unwilling to do herself.

Sometime later the blindfolded Baron was led from the bed, tenderly dressed, then taken toward the door and his blindfold removed. Lady Tabitha—her hair tousled and nightshift in slight disarray (to maintain the ruse)—was no less beautiful than before. More so even. With a last smoldering smile the deceived Baron left and made his way home, never finding any interest in the Duke’s daughter ever again.

This story has two endings: In one…months later both the young Baron and the maidservant die of some horrible, mutual malady of the delicate regions. In the other ending, the Baron and Lady Tabitha are married by previous arrangement of their parents, but the Baron is surprised to find that relations with his new Baroness in no way resemble what he remembered from his secret tryst. Moreover, Tabitha turns out to be vicious and uncouth, nothing like the tender lady his previous experience promised. Surprised and dissatisfied, the Baron makes arrangements to live out his days removed from his Baroness, bachelor-like in a nearby kingdom as an ambassador.

In either case, nobody lived happily ever after.

* * *

Okay, I just made all of that up…as a parable. In our cliché story here the Duke’s daughter employed what most might believe to be a white-labeled service that her scruples, limited understanding, and untested abilities prevented her from otherwise providing. Today, “white labeling” with web applications and internet services is accomplished in much the same way, for much the same reasons, and often with similar results to these two endings described above.

No more fairytale

Though many in the web industries seek out and hold the practice in high esteem, the employment of so-called white-labeled products or services is not so much a pleasant fairytale as it is a tale of lies, deception, and ethical vacancy. Truly, offering some other more-worthy company’s service or product to clients under the guise of being one’s own is what feckless weasels do to make themselves seem more formidable than they actually are. Ahem. Note, however, that this has nothing to do with white label product or service. Nothing at all.

Okay, at this point it would perhaps be a good idea to differentiate actual white labeling from the sort of thing one typically finds in the web industries mislabeled as “white label.”

You find actual white-labeled products when you go grocery shopping and happen upon the store’s brand of milk or cheese or dish detergent. Everyone knows that the grocery store doesn’t manufacture these products and everyone knows that these products are likely of slightly-lesser quality than comparable, name-brand products. Furthermore, the store is not trying to deceive or mislead anyone by non-contextually applying its name to these products. On the contrary, the store is merely offering a lower-priced and lesser-quality bevy of commodities for those who want to choose economy over quality.

I said commodities. The condition of being a commodity is a requirement for a product or service ethically being considered for white labeling. White labeling is appropriate only for those things that are widely understood to be commoditized—and in contextual proximity to brand-name alternatives (I’ll leave you to contemplate the matter and discern why. Consider it homework.). This context is what allows for white labeling to be ethically achieved and presented.

These important distinctions are lost on many who, in an effort to gain market advantage, attempt to replicate the white-labeling idiom. The web industries are rife with examples of misguided and misleading attempts at white labeling. And there are often tales of woe in the wake of these contemptibly-deceptive and destructive practices.

Black Labeling

That which so many consider to be white labeling is not that at all. It’s black labeling, complete with all the dark and negative ideals and associations the name implies. As white labeling is the practice of offering a “brandable,” commoditized product or service as an option to contextually-presented brand-name products or services, black labeling is the practice of offering a ghosted service; where authorship, responsibility, or accomplishment (or all 3) are misrepresented in order to hide the truth of one’s inadequate skill, responsibility, or accomplishment. In plain English, by word this is known as lying; by deed this is known as deliberate deception.

Too many so-called web professionals confuse the two concepts, especially when they seek to utilize and pass-on a product or service that they are incapable of providing through their own expertise. Agencies and freelancers who seek to offer services and products to their clients under the explicit or implicit pretense that these services and products are their own and/or of their own make are bastardizing the premise of white label service or product. They’re also engaging in immoral and unethical practice.

These sorts of practices are unworthy of any profession. There is no room for web service douchebaggery in our profession and professionals should be cognizant of the distinctions between white labeling and black labeling…and of the associated ethical issues. Mistakes on this point destroy professionalism and cultivate an unflattering reputation. Be careful. Think.

Don’t be a feckless weasel. If you didn’t make the product or the app or if you aren’t the one providing a service you offer to your clients, tell them so. Be transparent and honest about what you do and don’t do, and of what others have done for your mutual benefit. There’s nothing wrong with giving credit where credit is due and supporting a good product or service provided by someone else. The alternative makes you unworthy of any client’s business.

For more insight into problems surrounding white labeling, Nathan Ford has written a detailed explanation of how and why black labeling and misused white labeling destroys brands and reputations and erodes public confidence, and I sincerely hope that you read his excellent article. It just might save your reputation from ruination.

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