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Understanding How Brands Affect Who We Are & Who We Aspire to Become

cover__fullIf you were to look in my closest, you’d think I was sponsored by Nike—no sign of Reebok and very few Underarmour. This may be the complete opposite for you. As I was observing all the brands in my room, I questioned their role and effect—why this brand? What are the effects? And what does it say about who I am or aspire to be?

The concept of brands and the way we use them throughout our lives reveals the dispositions of the human condition. As Debbie Millman says in the Introduction of her latest and highly insightful book, Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits:

The word ‘brand’ is derived from the Old Norse word brandr, which means to ‘burn by fire.’ From this 11th-century Northern Germanic origin, the word has blazed a mighty path into the vernacular of the 21st-century modern life. Ancient Egyptians marked their livestock with hot irons, and the process was widespread in Europe during the Middle Ages, not to mention in the American West centuries later. Such branding helped ranchers, both ancient and contemporary, to separate cattle after they grazed in communal ranges; in addition, herders with quality livestock were able to distinguish themselves from those ranchers with inferior animals. The dynamics of the brand reputation helped build better businesses even back then, and the role of the brand—a barometer of value—has continued ever since.

From my own observations—and past pursuits of name-brand items to fit in and feel accepted—I can understand why brands possess the power that they do: They provide a sense of connection, a tribe, a badge or a symbol signaling to another like-minded individual that, perhaps, “I believe what you believe; our aspirations are similar. You aren’t alone.”

Wally Olins—one of the many interviewees offering insight on brands, connection, design, and more—offers a great definition of branding [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. The roots of branding are profoundly related to the nature of the human condition. A tribe is a brand—religion is a brand. When it manifests itself in a modern, contemporary form, you are likely referring to branding that began in the late 19th century. Then you are probably talking about this in relation to fast-moving consumer goods. But that is a distortion of what branding is. That type of branding is a manifestation of differentiation. It is an attempt to differentiate one fast-moving consumer product from another. When the functional differences are negligible or hardly exist—for example, in terms of price or quality—there is a requirement to create an emotional difference. That is how branding began in relation to fast-moving consumer goods.

Branding and design are like yin and yang. After all, the reason why we choose a brand is, most likely, because of its design. The emotional difference that Wally Olins is talking about is like buying a $100 no-name-purse or a $2000 Louie Vuitton purse. The function of the purses are the same, but how we feel about a specific one–what we tell ourselves—varies tremendously.

What I want to understand is, why?

Seth Godin, as always, provides real insight into why we buy things [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 makes 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

Debbie Millman asks Seth Godin if brands like Nike and Apple capitalize on these fears. Seth responds with:

When Apple is doing its best work, it’s doing exactly the opposite. If you go to an Apple store on the day a new product is released, you can see nerds walking out holding boxes lifted over their heads, and they’re being applauded by the very employees who have sold them the product. The sense of belonging, the experience of overcoming loneliness, and the thrill of reaching the pinnacle of geek hood can be yours for a few hundred or a few thousand dollars. The brand experience gives these people a joy that they don’t have in many other areas of their lives. So I don’t think Apple at its best is selling you a strategy that’s about avoiding fear. Something like Axe antiperspirant is, however, an example where half the time they’re selling to you by appareling horny avarice, and half the time they’re selling to you by tapping into the insecurity that only a fifteen-year-old can feel.

Virginia Postrel provides a definition of a brand, its role, and how they are changing our culture:

A brand is a promise of a certain kind of consistency and continuity over time. But that’s very different if you’re talking about a long-standing brand like Gold Medal flour or a newer brand like Nike or Apple. What is the promise of Gold Medal flour? The promise is that it’s consistent, it’s reliable, but it’s still flour. Whenever I talk about brands, I always start talking about Gold Medal flour. It’s important to remember that mass consumer brands began as a way of assuring basic quality. But it’s no longer valuable to think about brands in that way, because we have so much quality in the choices available to us now in the United States. Today, value is less about brand attributes, and more about brand meaning. Brands like Nike or Apple associate themselves with a lot of cultural benefits in addition to promising consumers certain brand attributes. And that’s where conscious branding comes in: How do you make these cultural benefits cool at a given moment?

I wholeheartedly agree with Postrel’s point. What we buy isn’t so much about its function anymore, but more about the meaning behind it—the story. Buying a $15,000 Rolex is about the emotional difference, not functional.

What’s interesting to notice is how brands have the potential to create hierarchies. This branding and differentiation of ourselves from others isn’t new behavior. Dori Tunstall provides an anthropological view:

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 better than others. 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 and in our rituals of buying. I use the word “rituals” very specifically. But our rituals of consumption are no longer as satisfactory to us.

As I was learning all of this, I realized how quickly and easy it was to become bitter about the kind of behaviors associated with consumer culture, shopaholics, and brands. But I’m not writing this for the intention of criticizing other’s spending behaviors or outlandish desires to chase after name-brand items for the sole purpose of fitting in and feeling accepted. No, this is about reaching an understanding of human behavior so that we don’t feel the need to criticize—so we aren’t ignorant to it, and in turn, bitter.

Virginia Postrel has an insightful thought on self-image and brands, and how hierarchies are formed through branding:

Status is definitely present as one of the determinants that shape what people are trying to communicate. The trick is not to confuse status with money, especially today, because there are different kinds of status hierarchies. And it’s not as simple as perhaps it once was.

The act of putting clothing on to become who you would like to be—as opposed to representing who you are—could be about status and signaling, but it can also be similar to the way a performer puts on a costume to become a character. Your outside self projects something to the world and also reflects back into you. The image of you in specific attire helps you imagine yourself as the person you would like to be. I think these projections allow you to imagine yourself transformed in some way. You are projecting outward and using what an economist would call “signaling”—the process of telling the world something about yourself. And this can be beneficial. Why do doctors wear white coats and why do soldiers wear uniforms? One reason is to allow that person to take on that identity, which includes their own sense of who they are, in a very fundamental way

As Seth Godin said, anything beyond survival is to generate joy and connection. However, this joy and connection can come at a cost if we aren’t mindful of what we’re purchasing and precisely why.

UltimatelyBrand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits expanded my mind on the psychology of brands and design, while also providing rich anthropological views on the essence of branding, tribes, symbols, and community. On top of it, some of the greatest designers, marketers, and thought leaders in this industry offer compelling insight on how they got into their field, what they did to make a difference, how they kept up with trends or create new ones altogether, what companies and businesses are doing to seduce us to buy their stuff, while still providing deep insight in the human condition.