A dying woman's obsession with eBay

"On September 17, 2003, in a chaotic intensive-care ward, just before being medically induced into a coma, my mother summoned all of her energy and whatever oxygen she could to make one request: 'Take care of my eBay.'''

So begins a story in the Wall Street Journal (Sept. 1-2, 2007) about a dying woman's request -- that her daughters safeguard her reputation on eBay by paying the bills for auctions "she might win while lying unconscious," so that she would not get "negative feedback from sellers that would tarnish her superstar status."

This somewhat bizarre story highlights a number of things about branding.
  • First, though it may be hard to believe, a dying woman's thoughts were consumed by her own brand--how others on the eBay community might perceive her. This is how ingrained branding is in some (many?) people's lives.
  • Second, top brands tend to connect people into communities. In particular, eBay has constructed a virtual community that is very real to its members. The article goes on to note how the dying woman made a connection through her auctions with another eBay member, and how the dying woman's daughter later looked him up to learn more about her mother's interest in auctions.
  • Third, top brands stand head and shoulders over their counterparts. It is hard to imagine this woman getting as worked up about her auctions on a no-name site: She is conscious of her own reputation in association with a superstar brand, eBay.

While some might view this as a cautionary tale about getting one's priorities in life completely mixed up, it can also be looked at as an example of the power of brand to organize our lives and create moral value systems. This particular woman did not want to die while leaving her auction bills unpaid -- she did not want to leave life having violated the norms of her chosen (brand) community. This makes me think that there are many ways branding can be used for good purposes in life -- not just conforming to the values set forth by the brand, but also uniting people around causes that they otherwise would not have found.

The bottom line: Brands are a serious moral force at work in the world today (for good and sometimes for bad, depending on what brand is being promoted). We shouldn't get carried away with branding, but we do need to recognize how much it affects people's psyches as well as their social and spiritual lives.