Get Back in the Box Thought Virus #6: Brand as Communication

I’m tired of the Ben and Jerry’s conversation. So here’s a new excerpt, from much earlier in the book. It’s a continuation of some of social currency and open source ideas from other posted excerpts.

It’s actually a more controversial idea – and one that I qualify in the book. For brands may not ultimately be the best symbol systems from which to make meaning.

However much attention goes into their design, products from Apple computers to Fleuvog shoes are less valuable to customers as objects than they are as enablers of experience. They are a form of social currency, making connections between people not just technologically but also philosophically. In our renaissance culture, just as retail space must take emphasis off selling and onto social interaction, so too must brands take focus off the products, and onto the opportunities for bonding and community they offer.

As we saw earlier, brands arose as a way to compensate for the dehumanizing effects of the Industrial Age. The more people had previously needed to trust the person behind a product, the more important the brand became as a symbol of origin and authenticity. Products associated with fraud, such as beer and liquor that could easily be fermented with sugar or diluted with water, had always depended on the reliable reputation of a locally known brewer. Maybe that’s why the very first brand, registered in the United Kingdom in 1875—the same year that the TradeMark Bill passed—was Bass Ale’s Red Triangle. It was the first registered symbol used to represent a product.

As various products became commodified, however, supply eventually surpassed demand. Branding came to serve less as a mark of authentic connection to some human producer than a mark of distinction all by itself. As customers realized that one detergent or box of frozen peas was pretty much the same as any other, brand identity became less about guaranteeing quality than providing additional value. Leo Burnett, founder of the Chicago school of advertising, was the first master in this pursuit, inventing characters from Tony the Tiger to the Green Giant. These manufactured spokes-creatures didn’t embody a product’s attributes as much as they broadcast the brand’s attributes, which were entirely less tangible.

Over the last several decades, all these brands have become something of commodities, themselves. Do we want the cookies made by elves in a hollow tree, or those brought to the supermarket by a little man in a lab coat? They all taste the same, and the commercials are all pretty much as entertaining as one another. Why pick one cookie or computer over any other?

Today’s marketers believe that the way to capture and retain customers is by engaging in a conversation with them. The strategy is to create a brand so compelling and layered that people want to have a relationship with it. Detroit’s brand mangers believe that kids will develop loyalty to one car brand by the time they are 10, and then—if properly engaged over the years—maintain brand “fidelity” throughout their adult lives.6 Homemakers are to pick one brand of fabric softener over another because they are endeared to the market-research-generated bear that appears in its commercials. Such surface distinctions are no longer enough. The commodification of brands, combined with the widespread use of brands as social connectors, rather than ends in themselves, has made this strategy obsolete.

In an age of interactive media, customers don’t want to communicate with brands or their spokespeople, anymore. They want to communicate through them. Brands for this era can become a form of social currency, offering opportunities for affiliation and, at best, even authorship.

This is new. Until just the last decade or so, products and brands served as substitutes for connections with other people. While brand names provided a sense of accountability and recognition, the products themselves gave a bit of comfort on an increasingly alienated suburban landscape. Americans had fewer friends and civic relationships, but they had more cars, appliances, TVs, and other objects with which to fill their homes and lives. Products substituted for people, as divorced midlifers established relationships with their sports cars, and latchkey children were greeted home by televisions instead of parents. The Bauhaus ethos that mass-produced objects that could fulfill our need for functionality and meaning reached its apex in a consumer culture where people were defined by the many manufactured things they bought.

But the last few consumer products off the assembly line—computers, cell phones, and other interactive technologies—shifted the focus off themselves or their creators and onto the connections they could make to other people. That’s when the overwhelming need to communicate more effectively arose, and where the new opportunity for brands made itself apparent: to serve as social currency.

Choosing a brand, today, is more like joining a club. It conveys not simply a willingness to be associated with that brand’s values, but a desire to associate with the people who have already joined. Those brands that can appeal to people on this level—as social facilitators and meaning systems—rise to the level of secular cults. The best brands today are not merely names on products consumers can own, but cultures to which people feel they can belong. And cultures begin with real people.

The most primitive form of brand culture begins where the spokesmodel strategy left off. While the big brands were busy conducting focus groups to determine which celebrity to artificially link to their products, entrepreneurs like Mary Kaye, Martha Stewart, and even George Foreman were busy launching products based, to varying degrees, on their own expertise.
Although these brands don’t necessarily give people the opportunity to connect to one another, they do provide a sense of connection to their creators. The customer can sense Martha’s design process as they examine the embroidery around her towels. An aspiring cosmetics saleswoman reads about Mary Kaye’s rise from poverty and feels she can follow in the self-made millionaire’s footsteps. Cooking a burger on a George Foreman grill creates a sense of connection with the happy, retired boxer and the indulgent but healthy lifestyle he seems to represent.

In these cases, the products begin to serve as media, themselves, between the customers and the people who really did develop them. After all, not every kid buys a record just to play it for his friends. There are occasions when playing the music creates a sense of connection not just to other listeners, but to the musician himself. For a brand to become an invitation to an entire culture, though, it must also provide a way for everyone involved to forge connections to one another. This requires the brand to develop itself into a form of social currency.

Brand cultures work by turning their customers into advocates and missionaries. This may sound far out of the box—as if a business is to trust its marketing to outsiders. As the ultimate enactors and beneficiaries of the brand culture, however, it is the customers who are in charge and most central to the brand’s experience. A business can set the stage, but the customers must act the play.

In that sense, the best thing a company can do is provide the tools for a culture to form, and then get out of the way.