Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Redemption Road.

The little town where I spend part of my time is home to only about 1300 people. But today, for reasons best known to the mandarins of the organizing committee for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, the Olympic torch paid a visit. If you look closely at the picture above, you’ll see it, held bravely aloft by 79 year-old Gertie Gowan, who walked it half the length of our main street grinning like a schoolgirl. It was a curiously reassuring end to a long, strange year.

By any rational measure, 2009 has been a tough year for anybody who depends on the belief of others to sustain themselves, and brands surely answer to that description. 2009 was the Year of the Lie, perhaps even the final year of the decade of the same name. From Balloon Boy to Tiger to Berlusconi’s assault to Al Gore’s investment portfolio to General Motors’ house of cards, things in which we’d invested some faith of one kind or another inevitably seemed to dissolve before our eyes, in ceaseless succession, into sordid, embarrassing vessels for our naïveté. It was just a little bit depressing, especially for someone who sustains himself preaching the power of authenticity to corporations like I do. If we all become conditioned to believe that nothing is ever as it seems, then I don’t know how anybody is going to build a brand anymore, much less lead a nation, say.

Like a lot of people, I’m not really a fan of the Olympic circus, even as I am one of the Olympic ideal. My wife dragged me into the village kicking and screaming to see this spectacle. But standing there on Mill Street, I surprised myself. All around me, hundreds of bundled and be-toqued people were shaking hands and hugging, cops were smiling, the village’s resident clown was making balloon animals and playing arena rock anthems on her boom box while local kids played shinny on a side street, and the village’s poet laureate and official bagpiper stood bare-legged in his kilt in the crackling -12 cold, belting out The Maple Leaf Forever. And I realized (in a moment that was altogether too reminiscent of the climactic scene from The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, if I’m honest) that there is still one more thing to believe in: us. We’re tough little mammals. We’re not stupid, and yet we hope. We’ve got stamina, and yet we have a sense of humor. And we invite spectacle into our lives now and then not because we’re weak, but because we like sharing a good story and an excuse to get together. This is still our town, this world, and not even an army of philandering golfers and conniving attention whores can change that.

Thanks for dragging me along, Sweetie. And Happy New Year, everybody.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

All your base.

This was written as a guest blog for a fascinating web project called 5brand, which was created by some very switched-on branding people in Brazil. You should visit them and see if you can answer their provocative question: Could you define yourself with only 5 brands?

To me, 5brand was irresistible. I couldn’t wait to answer the question, and I did it with ease. But then, like most of the people who joined the 5brand party early, I am in the branding business. What reaction, I wondered, will this experiment get from a more typical mall-cruising consumer? Could they even perform the task?

I’ve spent the last several months working on a new book that deals extensively with the social meaning of brands. The book will contend that, in the difficult times we face both economically and environmentally, people should not turn their backs on branded marketing so as to punish corporations. Far from it. They should, in fact, engage deeply in that system of commerce. Brands, I believe, put power into the hands of consumers in the same way as democracy puts political power in the hands of citizens. Because we can choose, we control the destiny of marketplaces, whether we like it or not. And from the perspective this project has given me, I think the answers to these two questions are different.

What reaction will the 5brand experiment get from a ‘typical’ consumer, especially in North America? Tentative at best, I’ll bet. Ironic, maybe. Subversive even. And probably most commonly, they will simply decline the invitation. Consumers in this culture are uncomfortable with the fact of branding. They see brands as a shallow vanity. They worry that brands exist to manipulate them, and they don’t want to be seen as fooled so easily. And they’re more than willing to blame what’s wrong with the world today on the companies behind the brands they buy. A typical North American consumer sees himself as above brands, and as a profoundly rational creature. Not the sort of person who could summarize the essence of their character by naming their favourite computer, sneaker, cell phone, beverage or musical instrument.

Given that, if so forced, could the average consumer still perform the task? Yes, in fact. With ease. Whether people want to confess it or not, brands are a language in which we are all stunningly fluent. Assuming the brands involved are all familiar, I think that it would be a rare consumer who would look at another respondent’s answers and not feel that they knew them better afterward. I think it would be a rare consumer who could not name five brands that would provide a similarly revealing mosaic about themselves. And what makes this more interesting is the reason why. It’s not, as we might suspect, because marketing has taught these meanings to people the way your 10th grade Latin teacher conjugated verbs. It’s because it was consumers who actually wrote the language. It’s native to us. Marketers can give a brand its functional meaning, and they can try to charm us into granting them permission to make it mean more. But, in the end, the social meaning of a brand is entirely in the hands of ‘we, the people’. If a 5brander chooses to include Apple (as many did), it will not be because Apple claimed to be awesome. It will be because people like us anointed them so, and because, with our money, we fed this value judgment back into the system from which brands come.

The interesting and passionate people who built this experiment have their own motives, and they’ll learn from it what they seek to learn. But, daydreaming here in my frosty corner of the world, there is one revelation that I would love 5brand to deliver unto everybody who buys things, everywhere: Brands are whatever consumers say they are. And the fact that we ultimately control their meaning is our best hope that we might ultimately control their conduct, and the world that conduct creates.