According to the U.S. State Department’s 2009 Trafficking in Persons Report:
- At least 12.3 million people are human slaves at any given time.
- Of these, 1.39 million have been sold into sexual servitude.
- 56 percent of all human slaves (“forced labor victims”) are women and girls.
The enslavement of women is nothing new: Throughout history, women have been the victims of every kind of oppression, and the horrors continue even today.
Yet what makes the current situation of women unique is that the victims themselves are perpetuating their own oppression. No other exploited group willingly buys into the symbols used to oppress them – no slaves ever thought that iron chains around their wrists looked cool.
Nevertheless, women today actively consume the commercialized images of women that are sold on Madison Avenue. More than that, we demand them. Often these images are literally pieces of the female body: faces, hair, legs, teeth, and so on. The popularization of branding is what imbues the broken-up parts with “personality.”
In other words, the products, as they work, make you a more whole person, say the advertisers: Crest Whitestrips make you bubbly; Neutrogena foundation makes you clean and pure; Pantene makes you strong. You were not OK the way you were before, but when you buy these products, they will restore you to being OK and even make you better.
The result of all this marketing is that women become brainwashed to copy what they see in fashion magazines, on the runways, on TV, and on the billboards.
In short, they become the very images that are used to sell women to men. And not only that – the images say that it is OK to think about women as pieces and parts, rather than as whole individuals.
And we women continue to pursue brands anyway.
I’m not saying that women are causing their own victimization – far from it. But I am saying that the cycle is continuing out of more than the pure greed of criminals or the financial desperation of those who are exploited by them. No – it takes other people to perpetuate the cycle of human trafficking. Some of those people, for example, are the “customers” of the victims, who may not even know that the victims are being held by a captor. Others are people who may know what is going on, but do nothing to speak out or stop it. And others, unfortunately, are women as uncritical consumers of brands.
The more that women unquestioningly buy into the brands that target them, the more we perpetuate the cycle. We must not allow others to dehumanize us, and we must not dehumanize ourselves. We are whole people, and we must stand up for the integrity of ourselves and our sisters.
(Yes, you’re going to have to suffer through my early Ph.D. years to get through this blog—stand warned.)
It was the early 1990s when I first began to study the work of the German sociological theorist Georg Simmel. At the time I was struck by the power of his work, by his incredible ability to articulate the subtle complexities of society – modern society in particular - and to put those complexities together in a somewhat scientific way that also rang as true and not forced.
Simmel lived and wrote at the turn of the 20th century, and much of his writing is relevant to society as it makes the transition from rural, interpersonal forms of culture to urban, impersonal ones. The key thing to know about Simmel is that he explains the money economy extraordinarily well – particularly in that in a money economy, people are bound together by rational financial ties rather than by difficult-to-quantify human relationships.
The core of Simmel’s work is his analysis of the consequences of that shift, and there is an undercurrent of sadness, of loss, as well as ambivalence that runs through the analysis.
A Sad But True Theory
Though some might say that the job of an academic is purely to describe reality rather than to judge it, Simmel doesn’t shy away from letting emotion show even as he objectively explains what is going on. And what is going on, in his view, is that the old way – what he calls “subjective culture,” which is based on unique individuals interacting with each other uniquely – is going away.
In Simmel’s view, subjective culture in modern society is being replaced by “objective culture.” This is basically what happens when people begin to participate in a society where the multifaceted-ness of the human personality is devalued. They become reduced to isolated and compartmentalized bits and pieces that can be sold at will, wherever it is needed.
Put another way, in Simmel’s view, survival in modern society depends on the individual’s ability to contribute selected parts of their unique selves to the collective whole, then interact with others on the basis of those objectively recognizable bits and pieces rather than as complete human beings.
That is why he wrote:
“(In modern culture) it becomes increasingly impossible to incorporate the total personality, which is part of the value…of the soul, into the product.” —The Philosophy of Money, pp. 466-67
When the total personality cannot be incorporated into the “product” (literally or in the interaction with others), the human being becomes spiritually bankrupt—and no matter what religion you are, that can’t be a healthy thing:
“Because of modern differentiation, the objective mind lacks this spirituality.”—Simmel, The Philosophy of Money, pp. 466-67 (continuing the previous quote)
All of the above is scarily well-descriptive of the modern (I use “modern” literally, to mean what the academics call “postmodern” as well as the “modern”) global move toward a brand-based economy, where people interact on the basis of symbols that mean the same thing to everyone.
In a brand-based economy, you can only survive if:
· You yourself are a brand
· You decorate yourself with brands
· You are affiliated with a brand
· You talk in language that is recognizable to other people who think in brand terms.
Yet from a psychological perspective, this reduction of the human personality to drilled-down bits and pieces is a shattering blow. The “nutrition” people’s psyches get from a brand-based “diet” is parallel on a food level to the nutrition they would get if all they ate were McDonald’s chicken nuggets or Burger King cheeseburgers.
Without intending to, Simmel accurately predicted the forthcoming rise of brands and their negative impact on the human personality when reliance on them is taken too far:
“The deepest problems of modern life derive from the claim of the individual to preserve the autonomy and individuality of his existence in the face of overwhelming social forces, of historical heritage, of external culture, and of the technique of life.”—Simmel, “The Metropolis and Mental Life”
I think it is not going too far to say that the international image of America is very much tied up with our creation of modern branding and the world’s top brands. We are the country of Coca-Cola, of McDonald’s, and of Starbucks. Even Wal-Mart, in many ways the symbol of the commodification of everything in our culture, has brand status.
Other countries, in a way, love us for this branded-ness, and want to participate in American culture specifically for that reason. However, they also hate us for bringing the brand mentality to their shores. Subtly and sometimes overtly, they accuse us of having destroyed something pure that they once had, an idyll that was the pre-brand society. Even though brands are an economic reality based on global consumer demand – and America never forced anyone to have them – we are still both the spokespeople and the scapegoats for all that is good and bad about living in a branded world.
The fact of the matter is that we live in a branded world – a global one – where not only do we all consume brands, but we must also produce them. More threateningly to our psychic health, in the end we must also become them if we are to survive. For other people, in business and increasingly in personal situations, look at us not so much as diamonds with many facets, both good and bad, but as business brands with equity and risk. Not as humans.
The Millionaire Matchmaker
Have you ever watched The Millionaire Matchmaker? It’s a TV show on the Bravo network that dehumanizes both women and men. (Yes, I watch it…even though it’s offensive it’s still an entertaining show.)
If you haven’t seen it, the” star” of the program is Patti Stanger, a matchmaker originally from New Jersey who runs The Millionaire’s Club, a “club” principally for men who literally are worth a million dollars or more. These individuals seek out Patti’s help in finding someone to settle down with and marry.
The basic premise is that rich men come to Patti for help because they’re jerks who don’t know how to treat women well. Through Patti’s intuitive knowledge of human nature, gender, and relationships, she “reforms” the men so that they are decent enough people to attract and remain with the kind of women who want to settle down and have babies.
There are many, many things to find offensive about the show. For example:
- The idea that only millionaires are worth setting up. (Don’t middle-class people, or even people who have no money at all, deserve lasting marriages?)
- The idea that men are supposed to have money, while women look pretty and are maternal (the show pays lip service to women’s careers, but Patti doesn’t choose female candidates for her male clients based on their professions.)
- Patti gets her funding from the men. So all the advice, and the advantage, is really for the men, to whom Patti is catering because she wants their business and she wants them to refer their friends. This doesn’t really help the female candidates find the support they need at all.
The show’s tilt toward male bias creates a typical setup where women are rounded up for cattle calls (“casting sessions,”) where Patti and her team look them up and down and tell them what is wrong with them, physically, that will prevent them from potentially participating in the “mixer” where Patti will bring them before the man, and he will choose one to go on a date with.
Watching the women standing there before Patti to be judged, historical images I’ve seen, of African-American slaves being shopped to potential buyers, rise to my mind unpleasantly.
The women’s sessions with Patti are clearly humiliating. No matter how happy and self-confident they are to start with, the women are invariably reprimanded by Patti for anything that deviates from her mold of perfection. Nobody (including Patti herself) can meet the Barbie-doll standard she seems to be aiming for.
Patti justifies her cruelty by shopping us the concept that she’s doing these women a favor. After all, who benefits if she makes them feel good at the expense of a real opportunity to “catch” a well-to-do man? Of course, she also tells the men off when they act badly and is sympathetic to the women as well.
However, it is the men’s money she is taking in the end. Never the women’s, unless the women are the millionairesses. (On one show, a millionairess clearly had a problem seeing men as anything but objects, so dehumanization in a money economy can and does go both ways.)
An Unforgettable, Bad Moment
I remember one episode in particular where a woman walked out of a “casting session” after Patti had gotten through with her. Her expression was literally the definition of the word “stricken” – she seriously looked as if someone had just struck her a blow to the face.
It was the kind of compelling television where you can’t turn away, and because it was at the expense of another human being, the moment was disgusting at the same time.
I hate how enjoyable this frequently disgusting show is. It’s interesting because people are interesting, especially people in relationships with one another. And Patti is made for TV. Yet the program really does reduce people, and particularly women, to objects that can be compared with other female objects and valued according to a scale of what is commonly judged to be feminine—just as Simmel predicted.
The most recent episode (March 23, 2010) was a prime example. Millionaire “Will” was clearly a severe narcissist from the start. He interviewed women rather than getting to know them, something Patti did accurately point out (“Who does he think he is, Stone Phillips?”) and chastise him for. He did other impolite things as well. But for a few minutes, things seemed like they might be OK, especially since he chose a nice-seeming type of woman to go out on a date with.
Of course, the show being what the show is, and the millionaires being who they generally are, the good times didn’t last. Will decided to humiliate his date right from the get-go—principally by bringing along, and leering at, his beautiful female “assistant.” The latter was so clearly an object to him, and even to herself, that she literally walked and talked like a robot. With no human worth except insofar as she could be a servant.
That connection, between Will and his assistant, absolutely crystallized for me what Simmel was talking about when he foresaw how people would become spiritually bankrupt as a consequence of the evolution of modern culture, and the growth of the money economy.
It also showed that in modern society, we live a very strange paradox: We treat real human beings as products, and imbue completely manufactured branded products with human personality and emotion. And this is done very frequently when it comes to women.
The enslavement of one human being by another, a shockingly pervasive crime in modern society (which is so educated and progressive that we should long have been rid of such phenomena), is not really very far from the scenario set up in The Millionaire Matchmaker. In both instances, money is king and principally women/girls are cattle to be sold for the sake of the king, victims of the highest bidder.
In the modern money-driven culture, human trafficking is supported by:
· The dehumanization of the individual—so that it’s OK to treat them as disposable assets, whether in marriage or as employees
· The tendency to look away from the suffering of others and even to blame them for their own pain (e.g. “poor people don’t work hard enough”)
· The tendency to treat people as embodiments of the brands they wear, or purchase
· Persistent sexism, racism, classism, religious persecution, and other forms of discrimination
Essentially, the only way that a crime like human trafficking can survive is if the victims of the crime are seen as less than human. And the only way that people can sustain such a dehumanized view of each other, is if there is some intermediary in the interactions between people that acts as a filter, stopping them from recognizing the humanity in one another.
That intermediary, that filter, is brands—because we tend to focus on the symbols other people wear before we have a real conversation with them. Sometimes we don’t even get to the conversation, because we think we have judged them sufficiently by identifying their brand affiliations (clothing, car, food, home décor, vacations, schools attended, companies worked for, etc.).
Unfortunately, the pervasiveness of brands has led modern consumers to dehumanize one another, to become far more insensitive to each other’s pain and suffering, than at any time in human history.
It is no wonder that the Nazis were masters of propaganda.
Gender Inequality In Particular
Despite all the gains women have made, as we celebrate Women’s History Month this March, it should be remembered that the situation of women worldwide is still severely disparate in many countries. The enslavement of women and girls, who compose the vast majority of victims, represents the marketing of something that should never be sold and is a tragedy for all humankind.
When I start to think about the scale of the sale of womanhood, not to mention the participation of women in perpetuating this evil, it is literally mind-boggling. Perhaps I will write more about this in the future. But in the meantime, suffice it to say that women are enormous consumers of brands; that we often use brands to define ourselves and make ourselves feel worthwhile; and that the world is conditioned to view the worth of a woman as equivalent to the extent to which her appearance matches the ideal that we see in Hollywood, in magazines, etc.
In addition to insisting on the essential human value of all people, as women define themselves less and less through brands, we can begin to challenge and shake free from the social conditions that support human trafficking.
The Jewish Faith and Our Escape From Slavery
This week, the Jewish people remember that G-d saved us from slavery thousands of years ago, as we made our escape from Egypt. And though it’s not part of the prayer book, part of the remembrance for me is the Jewish experience of the Holocaust.
The concentration camps represent the (fortunately, temporary) transformation of my people in World War II from vibrant, brilliant human beings to dehumanized objects who were hunted, brutalized and killed, sometimes just for nothing more than fun. I think this experience of dehumanization explains the Jewish capacity for empathizing with the pain of others, and of our determination as a people to rescue other suffering human beings wherever and whenever we can.
Back to Branding – An Ethical Way Ahead
Reading all this, one might wonder how the same person who writes it can also be so infatuated with brands, if after all it is brands that very much support the dehumanization of the modern individual. I’ve talked about it elsewhere, but in a nutshell I think it comes down to my own belief, as a child, that brands could give me the social status that I sought.
Decades later, of course, I know that brands don’t really do that—that it is a person’s behavior, not their clothes, that ultimately results in the respect that others accord them.
I know too that doing the right thing, not striving for social status, is what life is about.
But those insights don’t change the fact that:
- Brands remain incredibly important as personal identifiers for much of the world, including me at times.
- Something as in-demand as brands can be leveraged on the side of social good, if we collectively pay attention to that. The key, in a nutshell, is not to repudiate brands but to “go with the flow of the river,” so to speak, and leverage them to support ethical behavior.
On a very broad level, one way that branding can turn the word more ethical is as follows. Instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater and saying that all brands are bad, we can make it cool to be a good person, cool for example to buy things that have been made in an ethical way. That is only one brief suggestion and that is only the beginning.
Before we can take any such steps, I think, we modern people have to embark on a journey inside ourselves, and address the cause of the brand disease rather than just the symptoms. That journey involves coming to terms with ourselves, warts and all, and ultimately believing that we are worth far more than the market will ever say.
As Simmel (whose mother was Lutheran, but who was born to a Jewish family) hinted: We are not bits and pieces. We are integrated wholes, and our worth can’t be bought with a logo or a label.
Behaviorally, to re-discover and re-value our humanity, we have to make a commitment to take a look at who we were before every aspect of our lives was put up on the market, so to speak, for potential sale. Think about it:
- Coca-Cola put “pure refreshment” up for sale, when icewater might have tasted just as good.
- Facebook.com commercialized friendship.
- eHarmony did the same for marriage.
- Nike put the pursuit of athletic excellence up for sale.
- HGTV put domestic bliss up on the market.
- It seems like there is no end to the commercialization of womanhood, motherhood, the teenage years, and on and on and on.
- And now I read that marketers want to do geo-location tagging (or something like that), to have people willingly sell their locations at any given time. Not to mention buying attendance at rallies. Anything to pay for a piece of a person’s humanity.
Sometimes it seems like there is no area left in the world where we can escape the influence of marketing and brands, where they don’t take hold of our shoulders and start shaking them backwards and forwards until we comply.
If branding is a disease, then I am as “infected” as the next person. But I do think it’s time to put some boundaries up between the world of money and the world of ourselves as people, and to create a safety zone where people can exist in that space without being marketed to and commercialized at every turn.
I would say that a good place to start is childhood, and that children should be as protected as possible from marketing messages until they are old enough to begin to examine them critically.
“To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.” Branding/marketing is one of those things. Yet it seems to me, looking around at the world we live in today, that things have gone way too far, and that if we don’t stop the overconsumption of brands, we are going to wind up consuming ourselves, and our children, alive.
How To Make Functional Brand Equity Ethical
1. Real vs. Perceived Functional Benefit
In a recent presentation before the Federal Communicators Network, Carin Van Vuuren, executive director in the New York office of the brand consultancy Landor talked about the importance for brands of delivering an emotional benefit to the customer. Curiously to me, she did not talk about the functional benefit. I found this odd because other formulations appear to include a functional aspect:
- The WPP Group’s “BrandZ” method begins with the proposition that customers have both a rational and an emotional attachment to the brand and that the value of the brand derives from both of those factors.
- Young & Rubicam’s Brand Asset Valuator (BAV), talks about brands deriving equity from four sources. (Forgive me, but I am going to use an acronym here that means something nasty in Yiddish.) The attributes are “DREK,” for differentiation, relevance, esteem, and knowledge. I read “Esteem” as the functional one – a measure of the customer’s perception that the brand has quality.
2. It’s All Emotional
When I thought about it again, I realized that Landor’s worldview is consistent with the above. For both BrandZ and BAV treat the functional benefit as essentially a matter of perception, not reality.
- From the BrandZ perspective, for instance, it is not the functional benefit itself that creates brand equity, but rather the customer’s rational “attachment” that creates it.
- Again, in BAV, it is not the functional benefit that we are concerned with, but rather the customer’s esteem for the brand—the perception or belief that the brand is logically worthwhile.
3. If A Real Benefit Is Unnecessary, Why Does The Perception Build Equity?
I am willing to bet that few brand-driven buyers really do their homework in terms of finding out the truth about which product is best. Rather, it is enough for the customer to have the sense or belief that the quality of their preferred brand is actually better than its competitors.
Why isn’t the reality important when it comes to building brand equity?
The answer is fairly simple. Branding is based on image – perception – not a commodity advantage. Anybody can copy that. Plus, just because you have a functional advantage doesn’t mean that the customer knows it – a mistake I think a lot of otherwise good potential brands make.
Nobody is going to tell me that there is a serious difference between funny looking exercise sneakers that cost more than $100 at Skechers and less than half that price at Payless. Yet I will not set foot (so to speak) in a Payless store. Why?
Well – let’s answer this question with more questions.
- Do Sunkist oranges taste better than non-Sunkist ones? (doubt it)
- How about Chiquita bananas? (again, probably not)
- Or, dare I ask, how about any brand of water? (you can tell yourself otherwise, but I also don’t think so)
So why do I pay more for any of these?
Forget the non-functional benefit for now. Forget whether Chiquitas make me feel happy or Aquafina brings on the aura of clean.
On a strictly functional level, I fear the consequences of choosing a generic over the brand.
4. Fear: The Secret Ingredient to Functional Branding
Ever been to the dollar store? Where they sell everything from soaps, to foil pans, to coloring books? You know how you’ll only buy things that you aren’t afraid will break?
That’s why brands matter.
I saw an article this week about Wal-Mart, and how customers revolted when they decided to pull Glad bags from the shelves. (“When Brands Disappear, Shoppers Do Too,” March 17, www.thestreet.com). I can understand the logic on Wal-Mart’s part: They probably think that if people are going to their stores, they are not brand-driven but rather are looking for the lowest price.
But the response of customers proves that at every price point, people will pay more for things they perceive to be of higher quality. After all, think about trash. If you put it in a lousy bag, and it breaks, you’re going to have smelly garbage all over the place. So it pays to have a strong bag you won’t have to worry about.
Are Hefty trash bags actually better? Again, just like with the other products mentioned above, I don’t know, though I suspect that they’re not. (It’s like Papa John’s pizza, where they say it’s got “Better Ingredients.” Better than what? They won a lawsuit in the Supreme Court where the ruling was, the ingredients don’t have to be better at all, because the customer is going to know, or should know, that it’s just a tagline.)
Think about water. Why is it so hard to brand one water over another? It’s because the brand equity is all functional. In my mind, I’ll take any bottled water over the tap because I have bad images of drinking something from the sewer. The choice of Dasani or Aquafina doesn’t really matter because I’m trying to escape a fear of filth.
5. “Emotional Emotion” vs. “Function-Driven Emotion”
This, then, is the distinction between functional and emotional brand equity. Functional brand equity is the emotion associated with the perceived quality of the brand. Emotional is the emotion (yes, that’s redundant) that has nothing to do with quality at all. Sometimes they mesh (e.g. “Mercedes makes me feel pampered because I feel safer”), but not necessarily, or all the time. Either way, as soon as a product or service attribute generates a feeling in the customer over and above its actual value, brand equity has developed.
6. The Ethics Question
All of this leads to a difficult question about ethics.
By and large, I think most people know that they have a choice about whether to buy into the “emotional emotion” side of branding. That’s advertising fantasy, and they know it.
But I don’t think most customers know about the potential difference between actual functional benefit and the perception of same. I think that most people conflate the two, and are willing to pay more for certain brands because they have been tricked into believing (or trick themselves into believing) that the $60 T-shirt in the highly branded store at the mall is really worth more than the $5 street version.
Obviously this leaves the creators of brand with a real opportunity to be evil. For if brand equity derives from perception, not reality – whether functional or emotional – then theoretically, the smartest way to make money from a brand is to keep the cost of creating it as low as possible, and the perception of quality as high as possible. That way, you can sell it for a price premium, hopefully in high volume and for a long time before somebody else catches up.
If you’re living in a brand-based economy (which we are), and you need to make things cheaper than your competitors (which you do), then the pressure is on to cut corners, even to the point of breaking the law or at a minimum behaving unethically. Like using victims of human trafficking as slave labor. Like using inferior or counterfeit ingredients or components. It gets dirty pretty fast.
7. Help for Good Marketers
Despite all of this, it is not necessary to be evil in order to be a successful marketer.
In fact, it’s not even smart.
First all, evil is not a sustainable strategy, because we now live in a social media world. So whatever you are doing to create your brand, someone is going to find out about it. A good example is labor driven by human trafficking. There is growing momentum around the world to find and stop the perpetrators of this horrible crime, and those who practice it won’t be in business forever.
Second of all, evil is not a necessary strategy. It might be a little more difficult in the short term, but there are ways to ethically establish, and profit from, functional benefit in a way that creates brand equity. The logic here is that you offer real qualitative advantage to the customer in order to gain their trust that you will continue to do so in the future – a reserve of equity against which you can borrow time to innovate so as to keep ahead of the curve.
8. Five Specific Suggestions
1. Actually make your products better.
2. Add a disclosure to your price tag that explains why the markup is X percent to cover it – that shows the customer transparently what advantage they are paying for.
3. Make a public commitment to truth in advertising and put some teeth behind the commitment (a guarantee that you stand behind.)
4. Keep innovating so that your window of functional advantage remains solid.
5. Perhaps most importantly, set appropriate expectations upfront. Remember, your product doesn’t have to be the best out of all possible products to command a price premium. It only needs to be better than all the competitors in its class.
In a world where the perception of a functional benefit matters, there is a way to benefit from that perception without hurting people. You may have to try a little harder, but the long-term brand equity that accrues – both functional and emotional, because you are building the kind of trust that supports the customer’s willingness to buy into the positive brand fantasy – is, in my view, going to be worth it.
NextGov.com reports this morning on a study by National Journal Group (owned by the same parent company as NextGov.com) showing that while social media tools are gaining acceptance by federal government agencies, government employees themselves don’t get what all the fuss is about. To them (us? since I’m one of them), social media is blather, noise, babble—a distraction. Quote:
“The study, which looked at Washington insiders' media consumption habits, found that more than half of Capitol Hill staffers, federal executives and employees of corporations, lobbying firms, nonprofits and other private sector organizations view Twitter as "pointless babble." Nearly a third called the service a ‘passing fad.’’
This raises a few interesting questions.
- Which is the authentic government brand? Is it the view of the employees, or the official view of the agencies? Or is it perhaps neither, since brand is commonly understood to be the image of the product, service, or organization in the minds of its stakeholders? Moreover, can we say that there is such a thing as a brand for the whole government, when it is really divided into many diverse agencies with unique functions and a myriad of stakeholders?
- Assuming that the brand of the government is authentically anti-social media (which I do not believe to be the case), should the government or any brand change itself to meet the needs of its customers, or is the brand “entitled” to exist in its own right, and the customers must simply adjust? (This might seem like a stupid question for the private sector since brands require customers to survive, but the relevance has to do with long-term success and how an organization can perhaps stay solvent by setting expectations appropriately and then finding stakeholders who appreciate what the brand does have to offer.)
- With respect to the government as a brand (assuming that it is one, which I do), who is the customer, really? Is it the taxpaying public, since they (we) pay the taxes that ultimately fund the agencies? Or is it really Congress, which determines the level of appropriations given to particular agencies? Or perhaps it is key stakeholder groups outside the agency, who influence the public and congress to think a certain way about what the agency is doing?
OK, there is no way I am ever going to answer all of these heavy questions in a single blog post. But maybe we can just touch on a few broad concepts to get a philosophical base going for future discussion.
- I do agree with the view that the brand is determined by the image that exists in the mind of the customer (or stakeholder, in a government context). That image, in turn, is determined both by the official pronouncements of the agency and the informal communication from staff. The fact that government is experiencing a disconnect in terms of its attitude toward and use of social media means that its image is fractured before the public as well.
- And yes, “the government” is actually a brand in and of itself. This doesn’t mean that individual agencies can’t have their own brands, but the reality is that most of us associate the word “government” with a particular constellation of symbols, images and meanings. That makes it a brand.
- I would even go a step further and say, a brand can exist even when no one intends it to. Because whatever the public or a subset of the public is thinking about as a brand, becomes one by virtue of their collective image of it. In my view this is a critically important insight that too many organizations overlook, because they are so obsessed with wanting to define and control their own public identities. They can’t even begin to entertain the idea that they don’t really have any control over this at all, but rather can only try to influence it by engaging the customer. (First heard this from social media guru Shel Holtz, and he’s right.)
- What about the question of brand authenticity vs. customer satisfaction, which was supposed to be the subject of this post? In the end, I think, it’s really a Darwinian process—evolve or die, and most can’t evolve because their cultures are too entrenched. The notion that you can change a brand’s authenticity in order to keep it afloat with its customers is farfetched. You might be able to tinker with it around the edges or move it forward incrementally, but a major change – such as convincing a huge federal workforce that social media is really hip, cool and now and should replace the standard-issue PDF memos and formal press releases they are used to – is very, very unlikely and would probably cause more harm than good.
- Finally…who is the customer? And whose needs are more important, theirs to get what they need from the government or the government’s to be its authentic “self?” Again, this may sound like a dumb question, but is it really? Because if you look at the way government works, does it not seem to revolve very much around the authenticity of the brand, and not so much around the needs of the taxpayer? Not that this is intentional, if the image exists—rather, there is a lag between the culture as it exists and the development of the culture outside, and its own communication needs.
So assuming that there is a disconnect between government as a brand and American cultural demands, what can be done to smooth it over? My suggestion would be to avoid forcing the issue of social media in its more extreme forms. (Remember that I speak only for myself here and do not represent any agency or institution.) Rather, we might be better off focusing on language and tools that are more “serious” and formal – such as those associated with the President’s Open Government Initiative, and the release of high-value data sets—to accomplish the same goals, but in a way that more closely aligns with the government’s authentic brand. This could help move the government toward meeting the needs of its customers more effectively, but in a way that doesn’t feel like such an uncomfortable stretch.
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.
BMW’s new ad campaign, themed “joy,” shows incredible insight into the nature of branding. The true brilliance of a great brand is to create a compelling, credible, unique concept that people commit to emotionally before, during, and after the point of purchase. This is what creates long-term value that can later be leveraged in specific marketing campaigns focused on functional benefits.
Several recent marketing articles talk about the new campaign, which steps away from the company’s previous emphasis on “performance.”
One of these articles raises the issue of whether the new campaign dilutes the traditional BMW brand image (briefly, “performance”). For my part I don’t see how it does so at all. In fact, it’s just the opposite: BMW has taken the functional benefit of the brand to a much higher level. That a BMW will perform is now given. It’s the joy that the performance gives the driver that is now the focus of the customer’s attention. Excellent, excellent, excellent.
Never forget that people—their passion, their emotion, their experiences—are at the heart of every brand. It is people who define the brand and people who consume it. Billboards are not the brand. Commercials are not the brand. Magazine ads are not the brand. And believe it or not, the product or service itself is not the brand either. Rather, it is that intangible image in the mind of the consumer that is the brand. And that image is formed, by the way, as much by comments on Facebook and message boards and spoofed videos on YouTube as it is by official corporate communication.
In any case, by focusing on people high on the experience of driving, they are on their way to revitalizing a brand that for me had become a bit dull and staid.
Now, on to some other brands that are doing a great job—and leveraging “people power” to do it.
I personally am a huge fan of Trader Joe’s. It’s one of my go-to brands, like Banana Republic: Most of the time, I find that their products are reliable, useful, and that I can buy them without thinking, knowing that they will do what they are supposed to do every time.
I think that it is not a coincidence that the people who work at Trader Joe’s seem very – what’s the word – could it be human? to me. As we all know, service representatives often act very dehumanized, and often that is because they are treated as objects rather than adult homo sapiens. TJ’s staff, unless they’re great liars, don’t seem like people you often see working at the grocery store as clerks or cashiers. They seem to actually be happy, in fact. I often see them laughing. They enjoy their jobs, enjoy the customers, and even seem to enjoy wearing the shirts (unlike in Office Space where Jennifer Aniston resisted wearing “flare” in her job as a waitress at a restaurant chain.) TJ’s staff are always helpful, no matter what you ask. So when I heard the radio commercial promoting their new smoked trout – even though it is $3.29 a can, which is expensive, and even though I normally do not like any kind of fish in a can because I associate it with sardines, and even though I was a bit taken aback because I’d never heard them advertise anything on the radio – I hustled to the local store at my first opportunity to buy some. And you know what? It was great. Just like all their other stuff.
Same at Banana Republic. Knowledgeable, friendly staff, a great shopping experience, classy attitude and classy clothes that are fairly priced and always look good. I’m always happy when I shop there.
I remember once hearing Landor’s Allen Adamson say that the power of a brand is its ability to instill a “shortcut” to decision-making in the mind of the customer. You as the owner of a product or the provider of a service want to be that brand that the customer turns to when they simply want a reliable interaction that will give them a consistent result. It’s sort of like bookmarking a favorite site on your Internet browser—a brand is your go-to when you need to take care of something quickly.
In fact, based on my own experience, brands are even more powerful than they’ve been advertised to be. Not only will I pay more for brands I love than for generics, but I will absolutely ignore the generic completely – even if prices are slashed to a point where the product almost seems free – in favor of using a brand I trust.
Look, for example, at Amazon.com. I avoid buying from unknown vendors on that site. I would rather buy only from them, even if the product costs a little more. Why? Because I know that my experience will be positive, consistent and reliable every time. Whenever I have had a problem and contacted Amazon, it has been taken care of right away without any hassle.
Last example, real quick because I don’t want to go on and on here: The Art of Shaving. Went there recently with my husband, just to look around. Completely inviting store environment, extremely knowledgeable salesman who actually looked like one would imagine the brand.
All 5 of these companies embody great principles of branding, some of them probably unknowingly. But they’re great nonetheless. Worth taking a minute to experience and learn from.
I heard it on CNN this week and can’t get the phrase out of my head: “Toyota Comes Out Swinging,” they repeated, over and over again, echoing the carmaker’s claim that the so-called “runaway car problem” is not really a problem.
To repeat something I said in my first blog about the Toyota crisis: I have absolutely no idea how a brand so huge, so profitable, and so able to hire quality PR and brand talent can be conducting itself so cluelessly from a communications perspective.
Previously I speculated that the root of the problem lies within the corporate culture – based on a Wall Street Journal article that reported on employees’ dissatisfaction with the transparency of the company’s leadership.
Now I am thinking that there may also actually be a crisis management strategy at work here (no doubt one that Toyota leadership is comfortable with) that dictates a very aggressive “hit them back hard to avoid looking weak” type approach.
From a PR perspective this makes sense, in a way, because Toyota is trying to win back the massive amount of credibility it stands to lose in this scandal. It hasn’t lost that credibility yet – people, I think, are still wavering – so it is trying to show that people are just taking advantage of an opportunity to scam them, perhaps to make a quick buck.
Normally, I can see how aggressiveness in the face of attack could be a good approach. If marketing is war (read the book Brand Warfare; it’s good), you want to go to battle fully armed and looking strong, not weak and apologetic, because then the opposing army will see your weakness and destroy you. (Or from a marketing perspective, the consumer will see that you are silent or meek and assume guilt.)
The problem, however, is the perception that not only did Toyota scam the public by hiding the problem with its acceleration system, but also that the problem it was hiding or minimizing is life-threatening. If perception equals brand reality, the Toyota brand right now equals profit over people, a disregard for the human cost associated with selling lots of cars.
So now, the company’s external communication (PR + advertising) adds illness to injury: It offers a quick apology along with a “heritage” TV commercial, goes out quickly with different bright and sunny TV spots that seem to disavow the problem, and then launches a PR offensive against someone whose 911 call triggered an investigation.
Not only is this approach incompetent – because it actually damages the company’s reputation for quality and integrity – but it also destroys the brand, because it detracts from the fundamental attribute that is core to all brands: TRUST.
This is what happens when a company pursues PR, advertising and other efforts without considering the impact on its brand – the long-term effects of these communications, the fact that brand is defined by the consumer.
What the company needs to do now is rebuild the relationship it has very badly damaged. That means getting out in front of the cameras (yes, I’ll say it again), apologizing over and over, personally meeting with customers, holding town halls, you betcha. If somebody is exploiting the acceleration issue to make a buck they can deal with that issue fully, fairly, and legally. But they shouldn’t aim to assert any kind of moral superiority to a one-time scam artist when they seem to have scammed the public themselves, and on a much larger scale.
The other thing they ought to do is build a social media infrastructure that supports interaction between representatives of the company and the public that has been wounded, literally and/or figuratively. Without crossing the line into talking about confidential legal issues, they can open a window to the public and show a certain level of collaboration in developing a long-term trust repair solution that will work. Who knows, maybe it means opening up their plants to a lot of independent investigation for a while, both inside and outside the government. Or changing the name. Or taking some other less drastic measures in between. A lot of things can help move them forward. But continuing to pursue this same track of “deny, attack, and when in doubt stay silent” will definitely not.
"People are messy, brands are clean.” Somewhere in the back of the traditional brand managers’ mind this phrase always lurks. They see their job as one of control, policing, enforcement: The brand should always appear the same, nobody should co-opt it, and “infringement” on the brand has to be “punished” in some way.
Traditional brand managers have a suspicious attitude toward people, and the damage they can do to the brand. Aside from the obvious problem of counterfeiters, insiders, associates, or interested outsiders can do all sorts of “damage” with their right to free speech. After all, look at the laundry list of “problems” they have to contend with:
- Trusted employees who write tell-all books (so frequent one need not provide an example)
- Employees who prefer the competitors’ product (e.g., Microsofties using the Apple iPhone
- Interested parties who launch popular unofficial websites with the brand name in them, create videos about the brand, etc. (starbucksgossip.typepad.com, peopleofwalmart.com)
- Reporters who investigate and report unflattering things (the CNBC biography of Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas, whose TV commercials portrayed him as amiable, revealed a father usually not there at family events, who presented a stern, don’t-mess-with-me demeanor.
From the perspective of a traditional manager, the things above are horrible. After all – a manager is the steward of the status quo. When people mess with the brand they are disturbing the status quo. It is the job of a manager to stop them. Simple.
But maybe we shouldn’t leave the job of brand stewardship to managers. Maybe what we should do is put brand leaders mostly in charge, and have brand managers enforce what they say. Because a leader understands that the brand has to evolve according to the energy and the strategic environment of the times. And sometimes you can actually do great things with the brand when people do things that seem to undermine it.
Take the brand Walmart.
Now look at this screenshot from the website www.peopleofwalmart.com.
I heard about it from a friend, and everybody I talk to about it seems to have heard of it already. When I saw the photos and videos on this site, I thought they were hilarious…and everyone I speak to seems to think the same thing.
If you are Walmart leadership your first reaction might be to think that this site is a bad thing. That it hurts Walmart’s reputation. But I’ll tell you something – all the advertising in the world can’t get you this kind of publicity. It may actually be good for the brand. For in this case, it is social media that is defining the brand, and defining it in a way that is unique, compelling, and engaging for a mass audience: exactly who Walmart wants to attract.
We can apply what spiritual thinker and wellness educator Elizabeth Lesser once said to Oprah about finding personal peace - to the achievement of brand success:
"The soul is the river of energy which animates who we are. When you follow this river of energy, it's almost impossible to go wrong. This flow can lead you to your own greatness if you follow it with an open mind."
If I were Walmart I would absolutely go with the type of branding suggested by this site. I would embrace the weird, the wacky, and the wonderful. Because that is what the very essence of America is – we welcome all kinds of diversity, we don’t judge (although we like to laugh), and we like the spirit of independence. Who knows, maybe there is a partnership opportunity with American Idol and Coca-Cola here? (Ever seen an American Idol audition - like “Pants on the Ground?”