News & Opinion

Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits

November 16, 2011


We all like to think that we ignore advertising. We change the channel during commercials, we don't click on banner ads, we hang up on telemarketers. But it's no use, we still have a sense of brands.

We all like to think that we ignore advertising. We change the channel during commercials, we don't click on banner ads, we hang up on telemarketers. But it's no use, we still have a sense of brands. We look at them and try to understand them in ways we don't even realize. Even by avoiding them, we're recognizing them. And that makes brands a pretty interesting thing. But just what is that thing exactly? Author, designer, and insightful thinker Debbie Millman has spent much of her life pursuing that question, and now, she asks some of the other brightest minds in the industry (and beyond) how they would answer this question. These discussions culminate in her new book, Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits. As you can see from the cover image, there's some interesting names listed, whose ideas on this topic are indeed fascinating. In fact, tomorrow, I'll be posting a chapter from the book where Millman interviews Tom Peters (c'mon back!). But what about Debbie Millman herself? Wanting to get her take on some of the ideas expressed by others in the book, I sent her some questions. Here's the discussion that followed: Acceptance or belonging seems to be a theme throughout the interviews you've conducted in the book. What is your take on a brand creating a sense of belonging for people that interact with it? Debbie Millman: In my introduction to Brand Thinking, I write about how scientists and anthropologists believe humans feel safer and more secure in groups. Psychologists such as Harry Harlow and John Bowlby have determined that we feel happier and better about ourselves when our brains resonate with other, like-minded humans. I believe that our motivation to brand, and to be branded, comes from our hardwired instinct to connect. Brands are so persuasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, moral, ethical and social consequences that they now reflect our behavior and our beliefs. People that share specific beliefs inevitably "find" each other and create tribes. As Wally Olins states, "Branding demonstrates (a) sense of belonging. It has this function for both the people who are part of the same group and also for the people who don't belong." Brands have become an extension of human facility, whether it is psychic or psychological. The brands we acquire telegraph our beliefs and affiliations, and in doing so, they create intimate worlds inhabitants can mutually understand. I think that any knowledge of culture is impossible now without an understanding of the implications of "brand." There are also multiple comparisons between brands and religion. However, religion deals mostly with the afterlife, and brands satisfy things while we're alive. Where do you see the correlation, if any? Debbie Millman: Throughout our history as a species, it seems that humans have needed faith and belief. Symbolism is a critical component of comprehending and telegraphing this belief. Despite this predilection, there is no agreement to one way of believing. We have thousands of religions followed by people who all deeply believe that they have a special, direct and intimate communication with God. But let's be honest; there is no scientific data for this, they are constructs that we chose to believe in—or not. In Brand Thinking, Brian Collins makes the argument that "we create the (same) constructs around Nike sneakers or Coca-Cola in order to create specific feelings or to satisfy specific human needs," and "For some consumers, it almost becomes a replacement for religion." Alex Bogusky even goes so far as stating, "If we are wired by a higher power for religion and for God, then I think we could be wired for branding as well." Can brands be good, while what they represent is bad? (ex. Godin's mention of tobacco companies) If so, what does that say about the position and responsibility they have, if any? Debbie Millman: It is fascinating to consider why a person will choose Pepsi over Coke or Dr. Pepper over Mountain Dew. Ultimately a brand does more than differentiate itself categorically—brands also differentiate the consumer attitudinally. I am not sure that this is a bad thing—it is evidence of choice and freedom and the ability to express what we believe to be our individuality or preferences. The consumer chooses the brand that makes them feel most socially confident and wears this badge of cultural acceptability. What gets tricky is whether or not it is acceptable for a brand to promise to make people happy or sexy or healthy or smart or athletic by the sheer virtue of acquiring and experiencing the brand. Can a brand really make the world a better place to live? If I wear Nike sneakers or drink Diet Pepsi, will I have less insecurity? Cheat less? Lie less? Smile more? Feel "alive with pleasure"? I don't think so. I hope that Jonathan Bond was right when he said, "Consumers are like roaches. We spray them with marketing, and for a time, it works. Then, inevitably, they develop an immunity, a resistance." I believe that brands have many of the same responsibilities of people, as brands are created by the very species they are created for: Be truthful, do no harm and leave the world a better place than when you arrived. Seduction is another concept that appears throughout the interviewees answers. Do you see brands as being seducers, or people just finding solutions to their needs with products or services provided? Debbie Millman: It may sound like a cop-out, but the easy answer to your question is, BOTH. In an effort to solicit the imagination of a consumer, a brand must strike the right notes of allure and "choose me" seductiveness to a specific type of consumer. This sex appeal varies by brand or by category or by psychographic, but the basic tenets remain the same. One of the great ironies in our society is how the anti-branding constituents use the very same tenets of branding they so vigorously disdain. They have logos, they have websites, and they have target messaging. Even Adbusters sells sneakers now! On the other hand, people only continue to buy brands that consistently satisfy their needs and expectations. Seduction only works once if the product doesn't deliver. What was the biggest lesson you learned about brands in working on this book? How did it change you? Debbie Millman: Better living through consumption doesn't stop when you've consumed everything you covet. Unfortunately, brands are elusive and they don't keep you happy for very long. As Dan Pink aptly points out, "The evidence is overwhelmingly clear that human beings metabolize (brands) very quickly. I'm specifically using the word metabolize because we are talking about hunger and thirst. If a big-screen TV is your symbol of stature and significance, it's a fool's game. These kinds of external objects do not provide enduring satisfaction." He goes on to talk about what psychologists call the "hedonistic treadmill." In other words, if you're always looking to validate yourself by buying things, then you are never going to be satisfied. He states, "You are on an endless, addictive treadmill. The brand's only purpose is to get you on that hedonistic treadmill. It may be good for the business in the short run, but in the long run, you're doomed." Dan has articulated this behavior better than anyone else, in my opinion. This has profoundly influenced how I feel about buying those new boots I have been coveting at Saks. --- Whether you're in advertising, marketing, an entrepreneur, or just want to better understand our relationship with brands as people, this is a helpful read. You get a variety of perspectives, with themes that develop yet each retain their own character, making this an insightful and useful book. And as I mentioned above, tune in here tomorrow for the book excerpt where Millman interviews Tom Peters about brands.

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