How the Evolution of Branding Has Made Us Self Absorbed, Unfulfilled and Craving Conflict

How are you coping out there? 

I’m in Thailand and looking to book a flight out pronto. My visa expires in a week, Thai Airways aren’t answering the phone (I’ve tried literally evey number I could find) and there’s a hovering threat of airports in the UK getting closed. 

But this is still small fry compared to what most people are dealing with. I can still work and support myself, while humanity staggers through this viral tornado.

It’s still hard to believe we’re living a real doomsday scenario right now (or hurtling towards one) – an event we hunt for and dramatise to sell financial newsletters and supplements. But it’s happening here and now. 

A black swan in the flesh.

Until things go back to normal (if they ever do), my plan is to stay safe, stay active and keep my mind occupied before things go Mad Max. 

With that in mind, here’s the first of a series of posts from Project Persuasion – Marketing Gone Wild I promised:

Branding.

What does it even mean?

It’s a word that gets bandied about. But nobody seems to know what it means anymore.

Is anything with a label a brand?

Are you a brand?

Is your gran?

Branding has evolved and changed its definition so many times it’s not an easy question to answer.

Yet what branding is mutating into could have dark consequences for social cohesion… 

…and no I’m not talking about fighting over branded loo rolls.

Before we get onto that… let’s go back to where branding started…

2700 BC – the era of Cleopatra and Ancient Egypt.

A time when the idea of branding was first invented. A time when branding meant…

OWNERSHIP

Long before ‘Human Rights’ was even a concept… 

Rich Egyptians would use hot iron to brand their slaves with a delta (?) symbol for doulos, meaning “slave”.

 Image used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license courtesy of Mike Knell.

You probably knew that already.

But did you know that artists also used branding to claim ownership? 

But rather than hot iron, they’d use a paintbrush to hide their signatures in their artwork.

Meet Mona Lisa’s gaze for long enough and you may see initials imprinted on her eyeballs.

Onto the next step in branding’s evolution – The 1700s and the era of the Industrial Revolution.

A time when products started being mass produced. And sellers had to find a way of telling the difference between them.

So what did they do?

They branded crates to…

DIFFERENTIATE…

one manufacturer’s tin pots and crockery from another.

Now let’s move swiftly into the third era of branding – the era of TRUST.

It’s now consumers who need to be able to tell the difference between mass produced products.

So manufacturers started putting symbols on the products themselves… turning brands into marks of quality in the process.

Now the concept of branding is evolving at a rapid pace.

Because as we entered the era of consumerism, branding started to include… 

ENTERTAINMENT

The war for attention had begun.

And manufacturers of household items realised that encouraging people to spend more time with their products meant higher brand loyalty.

There’s no better demonstration of this than kids cereals.

They’re an onslaught on the senses of cartoon character fueled TV ads… games on boxes… and free gifts.

All designed to hook young minds, and make them the ultimate brand advocates when their mum is trawling the supermarket aisles.

Now, things are starting to get really interesting (and diabolical)…

Because branding next evolves into meaning… 

IDENTITY

The clothes people buy… 

The watch on their wrist… 

The car they drive…

ALL of them are now a form of self expression… 

A way for people to project their values, ‘character labels’ and STATUS.

Because as every marketer knows… what matters to people is how they are PERCEIVED by others, just as much as they perceive themselves.

After all, accomplishment is NOTHING without the trophies to show it off.

This means brands have become like an extra finger or toe… an extension of ourselves.

As philosopher and psychologist  William James said in 1890, 

“A man’s self worth is the sum total of all he can call his.”

So when we lose our prized possessions, it cuts us to the bone.

It’s why after a burglary, people say they feel “violated”… and have a caveman urge to sharpen their spear and seek revenge.

Yet the evolution of the brand doesn’t stop there. Not even close.

Because if brands are ‘identifiers’, they are also…

TRANSITIONAL OBJECTS

The brands we buy, use and wear signify who we are at any particular time.

Just like we abandon our teddy bears for toy trucks and dolls… 

the products we buy reflect our qualities and values at any given stage in our lives.

So we’ll happily abandon them as we reach for new identifiers… products that reflect we’re on the next rung of self-actualization.

It’s why we have gift lists at weddings… so a newly married couple can throw out all their old identifiers out and start anew…

And why we’re constantly upgrading our clothes, car, and social club membership to redefine ourselves and to attract a better mate.

This evolution of branding is as much a challenge for marketers, as it is an opportunity.

Because it means… 

A brand’s value can be shredded within a day.

It’s why Ferrari sends cease and desist letters to anyone that resprays their cars or posts a photo with their shoes on the bonnet.

Ferrari understands that people are constantly reaching for brands that mark them as having ascended up a rung…

And people on that rung will happily push those brands down if they think it’s value has dropped.

The moment you see a luxury brand in a department store you know it’s value is plummeting fast.

Want to know what else brands have become?

CHARACTER LABELS

They reflect both our status and who we are.

Brands have become an assortment of values we can slot in our totem pole.

Image used under Creative Commons 2.0 Generic courtesy of Terry Johnson

And thanks to social media, using brands as character labels is  running on steroids.

‘Influencers’ can project their character labels in a single photo… FAR faster and more precisely than a 10,000 word sales letter ever could.

It’s why Tai Lopez filled his early videos with lambos. He knew it INSTANTLY projects to his target audience the values and identifiers he wanted to project for himself.

And it worked.

As Eugene Schwartz in Breakthrough Advertising says, “When all things are equal the buyer will ultimately buy what gives them the best label.”

Ready to take a darker dive into this rabbit hole?

Want to know where branding is now headed?

Well, an early warning sign is the popularity of ‘reaction videos’.

That’s right.

Simple videos of people listening to music and watching standup comedy… videos that involve no production, no real content creation, and no script of any kind…

Yet they get MILLIONS upon MILLIONS of views.

Why?

Because there is a void in people’s souls.

People are more lonely, isolated and disconnected than at any time in history.

And they’re craving…

CONNECTION

The traditional structures that brought people together have broken down (and now everyone is on lockdown at home, this future prediction may gather pace).

People are desperate for a tribe and sense of belonging.

And they’re seeking this belonging from the shared experience and shared values that ‘reaction videos’ provide.

Think dastardly branding masterminds haven’t noticed this too?

Brands are likely prepping themselves to step into the void…

To give people the sense of community, belonging and shared experience they crave.

Which means the definition of branding is now hurtling towards also meaning:

COMMUNITY

This is already happening, right now.

Social media algorithms, preferences and click histories are shuffling people into silos…

Silos of shared thought.

Silos that give people a sense of comfort because they’re shared with people that think and act like they do.

But silos that also breed tribalism… bias reinforcement… and conflict.

All it takes is for someone from another silo to challenge their worldview and keyboard warriors from both sides march forth.

As brands seek to form closer connections with their markets, they’ll likely want to accelerate building silos of their own.

This will result in… 

Full circle ownership

Because in these silos it will be the customer who defines the brand as much as the brand tries to define itself.

Crossfit is a perfect example.

Crossfit’s identity is defined by its customers: their actions, values and ideas.

Crossfit’s community is built on positivity and self improvement, no doubt.

Yet this trend could take a darker turn.

Because not all brand communities will be so positive and open minded.

Could we see a Ford Vs. Ferrari style conflict in which brands openly conflict over ideas and attitudes, rather than just products?

Who knows.

This post is getting a little esoteric, to say the least.

But one thing’s for sure…

We’ll never have world peace as long as kids fight over toys…

And adults fight over ideas.

Based on the trajectory of branding, conflict over ideas may be just getting started.

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