Lately I’ve been kind of critical of branding, pointing to some of the evils it supports, like:
- The tendency to treat other human beings as objects to be exploited for our own gratification
- The tendency to cut costs in unethical ways while profiting from an image of superior quality
We could add many more things to this list, no doubt.
But amid all the furor about how “brands are bad for you,” I think one thing is getting lost: brands are created to fulfill a few needs that are very, very important and very human. Without brands our world would be a lesser place.
Here are some examples of what I’m talking about.
First, at the most basic level, brands make decent-quality products available to masses of people at an affordable cost.
- McDonald’s has the dollar menu.
- Bounty paper towels come in a more affordable version.
- Coca-Cola refreshes consumers in rich and poor countries alike.
- Wal-Mart really does make good on its promise to supply Americans with the basic goods they need to survive.
By virtue of becoming a brand, brands open themselves up to quality control not internally but by a social media-savvy audience that keeps them accountable for their promises. When brands mess up, it’s all over the Internet.
When you think about food brands alone, this situation is hugely beneficial to the financially disadvantaged. If you want to eat but don’t have money to be choosey, you are easily at risk for food poisoning and worse when you go with unbranded food that carries no promise of quality whatsoever. Now, is it great that Kraft Macaroni and Cheese advertises itself as a good value for feeding kids at a price of 3 for $1? From a nutritional perspective – obviously not. And you wouldn’t want your kids to eat that at every meal. But certainly eating Kraft is better than starving or getting sick.
On a broader level, and still in the realm of the functional, brands enable people to know what they are buying before they buy it. They set expectations so the customer has no surprises. I know what I am getting when I get a Starbucks coffee versus a coffee from somewhere else. They actually do taste different. Is Starbucks worth more than $2 a cup? Probably not. But it is a service to me that I can relax once I choose to spend that money, knowing that the coffee will taste the way I expect it to.
Moving a bit higher, into the realm of the social-psychological, brands provide a shortcut to creating an identity, and to changing it once it does not work anymore.
Building on that, brands enable strangers to find community around the identities that they provide. So buyers of Timberland boots or Birkenstock sandals immediately have a bond with one another, just as do drivers of Harley Davidson motorcycles and wearers of Donna Karan business suits.
Some people blame marketers for creating illusions that people don’t want or need, but I think that people demand those illusions and appreciate it when brands provide them.
Finally and most importantly for some people, brands fulfill the human need to escape from an existence that is less than ideal. The brilliance and the true public service of a marketer, from my perspective, is to transport the consumer from painful reality into a world where they can literally be whoever they want to be, just by partaking in the experience that a brand provides. This is why shopping, for so many people, is literally a high.