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.