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On Understanding The Affects of Brands, Why We Publicize Our Purchases, And Our Desire to Belong

My friend asked me, “Why do people feel the need to tweet what they purchased? What is it proving?”


Image Found here.

It was an honest question, one that I wanted to find an answer to.

It got me thinking. Why do we post pictures of our dinner? How did that behavior even start? Is it natural? Does our connectedness and the tools that we use naturally incline us to share almost every detail of our lives?

When Instagram video was announced, within a few days I saw the most narcissistic 15-second videos on earth: girls and guys (mostly your wanna-be models or actual models) giving me a tour of their face. While sitting in traffic. In the driver seat. Alone.

Now that’s not everyone, but it’s still hilarious to see that kind of behavior when given the access. There are a multitude of ways to use these tools to express ourselves. I follow a few yoga instructors, and now they’re posting videos on certain poses while instructing. That’s a smart way of building an audience, providing value, creating opportunities to teach at a studio, etc.

The whole let-me-give-you-a-tour-of-my-face thing is just a cry for attention. But let me be less critical and look at it from a business perspective: the model giving a tour of her face may attract business inquiries, shoots, etc.. That’s something I would recommend to them.

When it comes to social media and humans, we’re incredibly strange. Almost like rats with levers.

But all of this makes perfect sense to me after doing a lot of reading on technology, psychology, and brands. Lori Deschene says it best in Manage Your Day-to-Day [emphasis by me]:

Psychologists suggest that social media appeals to such a wide range of people because it fulfills our most fundamental needs, including a sense of belonging and self-esteem. We all want to feel like we’re part of something larger than ourselves, and we all want to believe that what we do matters. Still, while social media helps us engage and expand our world as never before, it also presents a number of new challenges. As with any tool, we must be careful to use it for our benefit and not our detriment.

And here’s the best part, again by Lori Deschene:

Research shows that we actually get a small rush of endorphins—the same brain chemicals we enjoy after completing an intense exercise—when we receive a new message. Talking about ourselves also triggers the reward center of our brains, making it even more compelling to narrate our daily activities.

Whether we’re giving a tour of our face on Instagram, complaining about the airport on Twitter, or sharing what we ate for dinner, the idea of sharing something on the internet (where everyone is hanging out) fulfills our desire to belong or be connected. Whether people are paying attention to it or not doesn’t seem to matter.

Ultimately, we do it because we’re lonely. In fact, I think a lot of what we do is because we don’t want to feel lonely. We are social animals and we enjoy being part of a group. The entire notion is to obtain attention, probably because you aren’t getting it enough in real life. Attention is scarce, and therefore valuable.

So thinking about all of this—that social media provides our most fundamental human needs and that our brain releases the “feel-good” chemical when we talk about ourselves or get approval on a picture—I thought about my friend’s question.

What compels someone to share a new purchase? How can we explain this behavior?

Everything stated above is the answer to that question: to belong, to connect, to be noticed.

But let’s explore the thinking behind brands.

I read a book called Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits by illustrious designer Debbie Millman. In this book, she interviews authors, entrepreneurs, professors, designers and more, to get a better understanding of how brands play a part in our lives.

In the introduction, Debbie Millman fabulously explains how brands affected her entire life. There is so much vulnerability in this, so much clarity, that I am compelled to use it as a basis for unraveling our strange behavior in publicizing our purchases and how ultimately brands affect our lives [emphasis by me]:

My entire life has been shaped by brands. I became aware of their transformative power, albeit unconsciously, when I was a little girl and first discovered the packages of Goody barrettes hanging on the dazzling spinning display case in my father’s pharmacy. I’d ogle these colorful accessories and imagine that the act of donning them would remake me into a prettier girl, though I had no real reason to believe this. Nevertheless, I was bewitched by the abundant array of hair accoutrements until my teens, at which point my yearning transferred to what I considered ‘cool’ brands: Levi’s jeans, Reebok sneakers, and Lacoste polo shirts.

Nearly thirty years later, I look back on my all-consuming need for branded goods with both nostalgia and pity. I bestowed such power on these inanimate things! I believed that by the sheer virtue of acquiring these objects, they would magically convert me into a dramatically different person—the person I longed to be.

That last statement—the person I longed to be—is so raw.

When I was in community college, I witnessed plenty of students take advantage of student grants (not loans; grants are basically free money) and use the money not to buy books, but to buy Jordan sneakers or Gucci belts. At 7:30 a.m., these kids would be dressed head to toe like they were about to go to a club. Instead, they hung out in the hallways and hollered at every girl that walked by.

I once heard a kid say, “Man, I just got here, and I don’t feel like going to class.” So I watched him walk out of the door he came in.

Back then I laughed at people like that. Now I can understand why they did it: to fit in, to be liked, to feel important, to belong.

It made me reflect on my behavior in high school, and I, too, feel a sense of nostalgia and pity.

On belonging, tribes, and why we buy what we buy

Wally Ollins, considered a godfather of modern branding, defines branding as this [emphasis by me]:

Fundamentally, branding is a profound manifestation of the human condition. It is about belonging: belonging to a tribe, to a religion, to a family. Branding demonstrates that 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.

Makes sense, right?

If you watch a marathon, it’s clear what brands reign supreme. It is not only a sense of belonging, but also, I think, identification. You can spot a runner from a mile away. The same goes for the tennis player and a cyclist.

What we’re really doing is buying into a story that resonates with us. It is a way for us to find a like-minded interest with another human being. These articles of clothing (brands) convey a message. They also make us feel a certain way.

Debbie Millian asked Dori Tunstall, an anthropologist of design, “Do you think brands create hierarchies?” Tunstall responds (and the response makes me realize how important it is to study anthropology) [emphasis by me]:

Humans like to think of themselves as special and different from one another. Some people like to think of themselves not only as special and different but also as better than others.

(Why? asks Debbie Millman)

We almost always used ‘things’ as a way to identify ourselves and to identify others. Let’s start with the human body. In traditional cultures, the art of tattooing was about social coding. A certain number of tattoos meant you’ve been married. Another number of tattoos meant that you’ve had children. This many tattoos meant that you’ve killed a lion. Nowadays, we have a tremendous emphasis on dress and makeup in our rituals of buying. I use the word ‘rituals’ very specifically. But our rituals of consumption are no longer satisfactory to us.

Back to the idea of hierarchies. Do you notice a certain attitude within someone that wears only high-end brand stuff? Do they act a certain way? Treat people a certain way? These are ominous questions that I’m asking, but I’m sure you know where I’m getting at. It’s not everyone, of course, but most people who buy only high-end brands are using it to hide behind their insecurities and to bolster their self-esteem because they don’t want to feel lonely.

It’s a grand assumption on my part, but it’s a pattern that I’ve seen all too often. I’m calling it how I see it, not to be rude or mean or to criticize someone else’s decisions, but to avoid the need to create self-serving delusions about what we actually do and why we do it. There is a clear difference between chasing happiness and creating it.

I’m not saying owning nice things is wrong or vain (I own plenty myself), but what I’m getting at is why do people obsess and slave over these items. Why do we sacrifice our self-worth or stress to make ends in order to wear something to belong? Why does a 20-something-year old work 40 hours a week and live paycheck to paycheck, only to spend it on articles of clothing that makes him look like every other 20-something in his/her circle?

When Debbie Millman asked Seth Godin on the idea of why we need these things (brands), he offers compelling insight that boils it down to the core [emphasis by me]:

Ever since humans began collecting rocks and twigs, we’ve wanted to trade one thing for another. Sometimes, the reason we make these trades is to feed ourselves, but after we’ve done that, the primary reason for such exchanges is to generate joy or connection. The trade we have in contemporary society is this: You go to work all day at a job you don’t like and then trade some of the money you earn for something that you think will make you happy. The reason you think it will make you happy is that advertising and the like brainwashes you into believing it will. Some people live happily doing this for fifty or one hundred years, and die with no regrets. It is possible that this is a way to entertain and keep yourself happy. I’m hoping that over time people find other things. 

That’s true. Plenty of people will go their entire lives buying happiness instead of creating it. It’s easier to be a trend-follower than a trendsetter.

So back to the fundamental question: Why do we publicize our purchases?

It really boils down to our human condition: to belong, to be acknowledged, to feel important, to not be lonely. It varies between people.

Also, this builds our online profile, whether we’re being real without selves or not. Over time, when we look at someone’s profile, we can size them up—oh this person travels a lot or this person enjoys eating spicy food. We share specific aspects of our lives because that’s what we want people to see. I’ve seen girls on Instagram upload pics of their butt and boobs, probably in search of attracting a guy. Guys upload pics of their car or abs or a pile of money in search of attracting a female.

So no. Maybe it’s not narcissism or vanity. Maybe it is. But by understanding this behavior, by learning the psychology behind all of this, it should make us empathetic and accepting—not bitter and arrogant. To realize that the things we do is motivated by our human condition to belong, to be part of something, and to not feel lonely or excluded.

These tools that we use facilitate the attainment of these desires. That’s why the internet was created in the first place: for the sake connection. How we use that connection, however, is a choice that we can reflect on and figure out if what we’re doing is really adding value to our lives or really just masquerading as something else.