Brand Fanatics & the Symbolic Meaning of Brands Today
I remember the first time I became conscious of brands. It was summertime and I was a kid, maybe 13 years old. I was attending an expensive sleep-away camp, but was the camp nurse’s kid and had been granted a space for free.
At the time, I wasn’t aware of class distinctions. All I knew was that I wanted to be independent but that for some reason my mom had decided to come along. I vaguely resented her being there even as I was grateful for the privilege that having her there provided – like a cold can of soda from the infirmary fridge every now and then, or hanging around with her in the mornings while the other kids had to follow whatever drill they were supposed to be doing at the moment.
Anyway, like I said, until that day I didn’t know middle class from upper class. I had a house, I had food, and I had clothing. But the day I learned about brands was the day I became aware of the gap between those with status and those without it.
I was wearing a no-name T-shirt from a K-mart type store, and had never heard of a brand or a logo in my life. I was not at all focused on fashion. Instead I wanted to win every game of tetherball that I could (where you wrap the basketball around the pole), climb down ladders out of treehouses backwards, and go waterskiing. Wow, was it fun to make waves on the lake.
I was standing in my bunkhouse, watching another kid open up a “care” package from home. This wasn’t the Army; she wasn’t getting relief from fighting a war. This was a rich kid about to get richer.
When I saw what was inside that box I became aware of status for the first time. I also got hooked on branding, and have never let go. I wonder if much of our society, if not the world, has gotten hooked on brands in a similar way.
My fellow camper ripped open the box with her perfectly polished fingernails. There, nestled in tissue paper among the body lotions, lip glosses, chocolate bars, and other goodies, was a sweatshirt that spelled out, in big letters, the word “Benetton.”
I stood there looking at the shirt. Now, she and I weren’t exactly friends. In fact she probably didn’t even know that I was in the room.
I looked at the shirt and I read aloud the name that was on it. “Benetton,” I said, putting the stress on the middle syllable, the way it looked to my eyes and sounded initially in my ears. “Ben-E-tton.”
The girl burst out laughing. Then she looked at me somewhat pityingly. She said, derisively, “It’s BEN-e-tton.” As if I were subhuman.
I was, for the first time, ashamed of how I looked. I had no – for lack of a better term – decoration. I felt almost – again, what’s the word I’m looking for here? – unprotected against others’ scorn. Suddenly I wasn’t good enough. And it was all because of my lack of a brand.
(Of course, I blamed it on the clothes – a typical reaction for a kid when the emotions are so much more complex. But hey, as they say, tell it to the judge.)
Though I didn’t realize it then, looking back I believe that that single interaction planted the roots of my profession with me. As soon as I learned that there was a field dedicated to such a thing, I decided I wanted to study it and master it. And I have come to see brands from two sides at once, both as a supporter to producers of them and as a consumer.
So – to bring us forward in time and into the realm of the more objective and academic – Harvard Business Review’s April 2010 edition has a fascinating mini-story on “extreme consumers” and the brand managers who ignore them (“Behold the Extreme Consumers…And Learn to Embrace Them.”) The point of the story is that brand managers (more on the term “managers” in a minute) typically ignore the people who are most fanatical about their brands: 82% haven’t thought about how to use their energy to promote the brand, and 65% are “wary.”
This finding, to me, is stunning in its counter-intuitiveness, but it makes sense when you realize that the people running brands are largely managers rather than leaders. Unlike a manager, who maintains tradition for a living, a leader’s job is to change the status quo when necessary. And the power of a brand today, given our extraordinarily fast-paced environment, is not that it is static, but rather that it is dynamic and frequently takes its cues from its customers.
Based on a 2,000 “extreme consumers” (how they were identified with this label is not explained) in China, Europe and Japan, the findings of the study resonate with my own experience.
(Side note: It is fascinating how cultures completely different from the U.S.’s evidence such similar phenomena to ours. Although maybe this is not so surprising; it could just be evidence of the globalization of American culture and business practices, and that brand thinking has gone so mainstream in other economies that it has overtaken culture.)
According to the survey, of these “extreme consumers”:
--100% of respondents identify with and gain meaning from a favorite brand
--98% have defended it from attack
--96% say their brand is “part of the family”
--94% would never consider buying a competitor brand
--79% promote the brand on their own
--53% regularly put other brands down
--One respondent drinks only Coca-Cola and has done so for the past 20 years
--Another has filled their home with 99 pairs of Nike shoes
--A third eats only food that contains Arm & Hammer baking soda
Clearly what is going on here is more than just a brand satisfying a functional need for drink, shoes, food or what have you. Instead, I believe, the brand is serving to fill an emotional void or build up a psychological attribute that the customer feels they need. For example, wearing the right clothing brand offers, minimally, an escape from shame and maximally, a shortcut to status. The right food brands bring comfort and a sense of home. And on and on.
It is sad in a way that we have created these brands and use them to fulfill our psychological needs so superficially. Really we should work through our needs for belonging, status, family and so on by interacting with other human beings—not by paying a price premium in an impersonal setting. But that train has left the station, as one can’t simply transform either psychology or society by the wave of a hand. Also, as Freud aptly said, one’s issues and needs are often multi-determined – and brands also provide a shortcut to quality items in a marketplace where choosing can be risky.
For better or for worse, brands are here to stay. If you’re selling them, you need to understand the real reasons why they are powerful so that you can be effective. If you’re buying them, you need to understand the hold they have over you. But either way, nothing a brand does should be fully left to a manager. I believe it takes the insight of a real, empowered leader to truly make it worth the time and money spent to bring it to market and keep it there.