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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Branding: Undrinking the Kool-Aid

We are drawn to the things we need to overcome in life.

I studied sociology in graduate school. At the time all I knew was
that I couldn't think of a better option. All my life "they" told me
to become a lawyer, and then I wanted to be a fashion designer, and
then a writer and possibly a social worker. None of these made any
sense for me, and I didn't have a career counselor urging me to go out
and get an MBA in marketing like I was probably meant to do. So I got
a fellowship to study sociology, which I knew nothing about, and
wouldn't have even followed through with if not for a former roommate
who – although we weren't best of friends – took mercy on me and let
me know about the offer after I had already moved out.

So I guess you could say that I became a sociologist because I
couldn't figure out what to do with myself. But as soon as I walked
through the doors of The Graduate School (CUNY), I felt like I was
(intellectually) home. Not to name drop, but what the heck: I read
Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Simmel, Mead, Goffman, Freud, (struggled with)
Lacan. I learned more about feminist theory, although frankly I didn't
like sitting in feminist class as much as I liked being the rebellious
kid in yeshiva reading Gloria Steinem's "Revolution from Within" (and
all variants of radical feminism).

I really liked graduate school. In fact I loved it. I loved that there
were people who spent all day studying really cool things (cool to me,
that is) – how narcissistic personality disorder among CEOs marries up
nicely with our social expectations of what a leader ought to be and
do (Catherine Silver); why most people, like sheep, study the liberal
arts when they will end up taking more or less narrow and technical
jobs (Stanley Aronowitz); how we seem to have little moral rules for
the slightest things we do, even such things as saying hello and how
are you (Lindsey Churchill). Also stuff related to mothering (Barbara
Katz Rothman). Each and every one of these people, I was fortunate to
be around and learn directly from.

I never, ever, in a million years, dreamed I'd end up in marketing. As
much as I struggled with all the 'isms in graduate school -
psychoanalytic sociology, structuralism, functionalism, conflict
theory, symbolic interactionism, ethnomethodology, postmodernism – I
somehow believed that one day I'd be teaching.

That didn't happen, but I have never felt for one day that my
schooling was wasted. It gave me the confidence to go into marketing
later on knowing one critical thing: The way things are is not a
given. You have the power to shape society, for good or bad, through
the power of understanding and (yes) manipulating group behavior.
Hopefully you use it for the good.

I also learned that what other people say is good or bad, or right and
wrong, is not the definition of reality. Follow your beliefs, your
conscience, your heart, or your freely chosen religious framework. But
don't let other people dictate who you are.

Unfortunately, the first realization came way before the second. When
I accidentally stepped into the world of marketing – almost as
accidentally as I became a sociologist – I became enthralled with the
wizardry of this incredible field. It was like finding gold. But at
the same time, I ended up in a profession that is all about
brainwashing people. And I brainwashed myself into thinking about it
uncritically, at least at first. All that mattered was learning the
trade; the social criticism that had always been so important to me
would have to wait.

Now I am reading more and more about the damage that branding, and
brands can do. I am still fascinated by them, but it is also time to
question and undo. Sort of like if you discovered the atom bomb, and
then had to develop a nuclear containment program, or at least a way
to deploy these weapons responsibly.

Not that I'm apologizing (OK, I am), but I was brought up not to
question. My family was untraditional, but also traditional, part of a
quiet, Jewish community in the suburbs. It was the Reagan years – "Mr.
Gorbachev, tear down that wall!" – and I watched shows like Family
Ties, where Alex P. Keaton lectured his hippie parents to stop living
in the counterculture and go along with the preppy materialistic ethic
of the time. It was funny, but then again it wasn't: We really were
supposed to think that way.

Interestingly, I didn't care one bit about logos or their importance
until my peers started to make fun of and exclude me for not having
them. Frankly, I was happier before brands entered my life, when all I
worried about was painting cool murals for Color War in camp, and
playing tetherball till my fingers broke – literally. But when brands
became an issue of honor, I strangely became enthralled with them –
they had the power to save me from uncoolness. And that was when I
became bound, brainwashed, to the redemptive power of the logo, even
though I had never heard of the term "brand."

Of course there were counter-currents. I read like crazy, for example.
And from books I learned that there were other ways of thinking and
doing. Not one any particular thing, but everything. But in my mind, I
still separated the world of books from the world I lived in. In that
world, particularly the world of the religious community, there was
certainty and fact. There was right, wrong; moral and immoral;
fashionable and unfashionable; and so on.

Everything got undermined eventually. I don't know when, I don't know
how. It wasn't any particular event. But it seemed like all my friends
and I went through the same thing. Like we were on our own, while our
parents worked. Seemingly all the time. And the things we learned in
school, didn't jive with reality. It was a faint and imperceptible
schism. But it was broader than me and my friends. It was reflected in
the movies I still consider "mine," where the main character is
disillusioned by hypocrisy, finds solace in friends or an individual
purpose, and moves on. All the John Hughes movies, Less Than Zero, Say
Anything, and other similar films portrayed characters that I
identified with, who were navigating a world where the sand had
suddenly shifted beneath their feet. Suddenly everything that seemed
reliable, wasn't. The adults were sleeping at the wheel. And we were
on our own. Later, every book by Bret Easton Ellis – despite them
being truly misogynistic, horrible, bloody – I gobbled up because I
sensed that he was onto something.

I found out later that I had grown up in Generation X. If it had been
an upbringing where conformity worked really well for me, I might have
bought into it. But quite honestly, doing what everybody else did and
thinking like a robot wasn't my thing and never brought me much
reward. Recently I read a column in The Wall Street Journal by Scott
Adams, the "Dilbert guy," that made the same point: Before he started
Dilbert, he worked for boneheads in a traditional workplace, and
noticed everyone suffering similarly. Everyone seemed to start their
own business on the side because they recognized that conformity,
trying to climb the traditional ladder, is a waste of time.

Anyway, I always knew that I should question everything. Graduate
school gave me the justification and the words: "social construction."
Meaning, everything we take for granted is created by people, more
specifically people in groups who tell other people what to do until
eventually they join the group themselves or leave to start their own.

Brands are a social construction. And the people who make them are
deeply invested in convincing as many people as possible that their
product is automatically right and normal.

I am starting to see the negative implications of this. I don't
understand how I've been blind for so long. Can it really have been
all about popularity? If so, how shallow and sad! Still – maybe it's
true. I read Naomi Klein's No Logo. I am a social critic. I have
always thought for myself. But still, there is something about brands,
and branding, that has held me as if in a spell.

How could I, along with many other people who thought they were savvy,
have been brainwashed by branding? I have some ideas, but the bottom
line it is, it doesn't matter. Though I love my field as much as ever,
I have decided that it's time for me, personally, to sort the wheat
from the chaff, to take some responsibility for the harm of
perpetuating a branded world. Aside from the obvious - exploitive
labor practices and pricing for example – there are others that are
quieter but no less poisonous. For example, in promoting a culture of
automatic decision-making, brands make it easy to do the wrong thing
and easy to demonize thinking people as "crazy" when they're actually
more sane than the people promoting bad brands.

Rather than dismiss branding altogether, It's time to examine and take
apart the things that are good about it from the things that are bad.
I have decided to spend more time talking about using brands for good;
making transparent what brands do that is bad; and thinking in general
about the ethical dimensions of branding. We'll see where this roads
leads to; I hope you find it interesting.