catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 22 :: 2010.12.03 — 2010.12.16


Satisfaction guaranteed

Earlier this week I caught the tail end of a documentary on Donald Trump, narrating in part the way he has somehow outgrown America (I’m speechless). My brief insight into the Trump empire left me utterly depressed about one particular phenomenon — branding. The relevant scene saw a bubbling marketing executive (or something) describe how the Trump brand has become powerful enough to be able to sell or contract out to manufacturers. Among items sold today are Trump mattresses, Trump trousers and Trump ties.

Without blinking an enthusiastic eye, the exec offered two reasons for this expansion. First, people who buy or rent Trump homes can then fill those homes with Trump crap (I paraphrase), which she simply saw as a natural progression. Second, Trump-branded clothing and other items still allow those who can’t afford Trump homes and Trump planes to share in part of the Trump experience. The exec unashamedly explained that by branding items with the name of Donald Trump, they were essentially selling a lifestyle for consumers to buy into.

It never ceases to amaze me what some marketing personnel will say without the slightest qualms about the implications, and I was astounded once again. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so taken aback, since this approach to selling things comes right out of the advertising bible. The basic idea is that promoting the goods or services that you are selling simply isn’t good enough to catch people’s attention. There are so many different choices of similar goods and services that selling their intrinsic qualities doesn’t distinguish them enough from the competition, and making your product stand out is, of course, a key marketing goal. The solution then is to invent or adopt an idea or emotion, and sell that instead, ensuring that your good or service, but most of all your brand, is powerfully associated with that idea or emotion in your marketing materials whether they be radio, image, celebrity-adornment or, of course, television ads.

This seems an absurd strategy, but it’s extremely effective, and also efficient. Think about it — by advertising your brand with an inspirational idea, not only do you implant an association in people’s minds far deeper (the subconscious!) and more lasting than basic facts about say, average product longevity or high quality materials, but you also in turn advertise for everything your brand sells, all at the same time! Selling by emotional association is so powerful because it realizes that a great amount of purchasing occurs not out of a practical need, but because of a consumerist soul-hole-filling impulse. Often we buy things because we feel emptiness (temporary or chronic) in our lives, or we feel incomplete in our identities, and so we fix these problems by getting stuff. In this situation, the specifics of what we buy are relatively inconsequential — it is the psychological factor that counts. Therefore it makes a lot of sense to sell emotions, ideas, ideals or lifestyles, instead of the things themselves.

Donald Trump sells ties, mattresses, and God knows what else, but he markets success and wealth. Nike (just do it!) sells shoes, shirts, shorts and other sporting goods, but markets motivation and effort. A number of companies sell various items such as cars or deodorant, but market sexual appeal. One fascinating example of brand advertising is a Levi’s jeans ad campaign in the early 1990s produced by the famed late photographer Richard Avedon. He sets images of rugged, lower income citizens alongside (imagined) handwritten quotes from the individuals about jeans. What is so interesting is the way the comments verge on the negative. Grungy Levi’s-adorned men variously declared, “Because they fit… eventually,” and, “Every pair I had was different,” and, “I get around to liking them after two, maybe three years.”* Clearly these ads aren’t lauding manufacturing consistency or even consumer satisfaction. No, what is sold to viewers is a projection of independence, resilience and, cleverly, brand loyalty. It’s almost as if Levi’s are so good that they don’t need to actually be that good. Of course, there are lots of good reasons to buy Levi’s jeans — I gather they are high quality, and do tend to fit well. But quality doesn’t sell like lifestyle or character.

Brand marketing in the examples I’ve mentioned involves selling not quality, but unrelated concepts. This is to be clearly distinguished from “selling a vision,” although such a phrase still makes me a little uncomfortable. When companies pick out attractive ideas and lifestyles, unrelated to their products, and implant associations with their brand, they are lying to people. They are manipulating and confusing people, tricking their brains into irrational purchasing decisions. This is wrong and harmful. It is the only reason that the absurd bottled water industry has had any success, beginning with Perrier associating their brand with class and refinement.

Selling a vision or mission is very different. Organizations whose work reaches outside of simple manufacturing or service provision will almost always have some associated, conceptual, institutional identity. Therefore, we can see some legitimacy in a homeless shelter non-profit imbuing their marketing with ideas of caring or compassion, whereas it is absurd for McDonald’s to pretend that its identity is centered around family or community. McDonalds’ purpose is to produce food of high quality and sell a lot of it at a low price. And it is of course exceedingly adept at achieving one of these two goals. A necessary qualifier reminds us that making food for people is no less worthy an activity than providing shelter for the homeless. Both of these are good work, and good work is Kingdom work. However, making burgers is not about caring, it is about making burgers. Of course you can make burgers in a caring way, but this should be an expectation, rather than a selling-point.

I have a lot of sympathy for the blurry line between service/product and vision that often takes place in non-profit organizations. When Scope, a cerebral-palsy charity, invokes the idea of equality in its advertising, I don’t balk at its distracting and manipulative diversion tactics; I instead understand that equality is a central ideal behind their work as well as a goal. The concept of equality is a reminder of why their work is important. The goal is that when people are confronted with the name and brand of Scope, they think (in part) of equality, a tenet of Scope’s work. I see this as truthful marketing, and truth is what this is all about.

Truth as a rubric explains why I also don’t have a problem with brands marketing themselves on the basis of the excellence of their products or services. When a window-cleaning company lauds its quick service and guarantee of satisfaction, this is legitimate. And when McDonald’s tries to sell us on it high-quality American beef, we might be skeptical, but at least we are not being told the lie that our happy family dynamic relies on frequent visits to their chains. The positive brand reputations of companies like Apple and Merrell rely largely on consistent high quality of product and service, and are not contrived through smoke and mirrors.

One understandable, if predictable, concern with this framework for brand advertising is that any company doing the same things will have very similar advertising. I completely agree, and also admit that ads won’t offer the entertainment that we have come to expect of them. However, if the alternative is brand differentiation based on erroneous emotional associations cemented by the cleverest marketing executives, then I take boring ads.

Having sketched a rough spectrum from what I see as unacceptable branding (vague conceptual associative branding) to acceptable branding (product and service brands advertised for their inherent worth, or otherwise truthful conceptual links), I’d like to finish by questioning why we need branding at all.

I do think we need branding as things stand, but when I idealistically imagine a better society, branding fades away. Why? Well, branding solves problems of overstimulation, short attention spans, information overload and, fundamentally, disconnectedness. Branding is largely a memory aid, required because there is so much competing information about various organizations, manufacturers and service providers. When someone has expendable income, has a charitable-spirit-moment, and thinks “poverty,” WorldVision needs him or her to think of their organization first, instead of Save the Children or Oxfam. Likewise, when artistic-alternative-types need a notebook, Moleskine wants them to buy direct online or walk into a store and go straight for their products, instead of going to the nearest store and comparing a few.

However, the need for brands to self-differentiate and stand out among the rest is only necessary because we’re so overwhelmed by choice everywhere we go. Choice is often a good thing — it is a foundational aspect of a healthy market economy, encouraging high standards of production, service provision and charitable work. But when we walk right past the local independent coffee shop and into a Starbucks when the service and product are virtually identical, we have a problem. Our brains are full of coffee-provider information and the biggest brand-marketing budget wins. Our word-association psyches were given “coffee” and returned “Starbucks.” Similarly, smaller non-profit organisations, even when their size might allow them to better serve the needs of local areas, struggle to get funding. “3rd Ward Housing Association” simply doesn’t light up the mind like “Habitat for Humanity” does.

As a society we have become lazy — we don’t ever have to work to make choices. We don’t invest effort into learning in-depth about charities, we don’t ask friends and family which kinds of shoes have lasted well, and we don’t spent time learning about the details of political parties (which is why they resort to branding, too). Since organizations selling things can’t count on us to learn about what they make or do and remember what we’ve learned, they have to resort to selling their brand with a basic “hook.” It would, I think, be better if we simply tried harder. We would become more connected with those who produce for or serve us, and we would trust the people and trust our experience rather than relying on brand images.

The power of branding is a shame partly because it disadvantages those who aren’t making one kind of thing or providing one kind of service that can be easily distilled into the so-called “elevator pitch” (the phrase coming from the suggestion that you should be able to sell your product or service in the time you spend with someone in an elevator). At the risk of sounding pandering, I raise *culture is not optional, the organization behind this very publication you’re reading right now, as a charming example. *cino is a nightmare to brand conceptually because it simply isn’t (simple). An online magazine, a community development organization, a culture-forming something that also happens to have published a novel — that’s a challenge to coherently consolidate into a branding hook. Where does the *cino asterisk come into this? Well, the * is a very clever visual tool to help remind us that these seemingly disparate projects are all the output of one organisation. The visual aspect of branding is one that I haven’t really addressed here, because although it is part of our need for memory tools (our minds often remember pictures better than words), it isn’t, I think, especially relevant to what I’m saying. However, I would note that if we didn’t suffer from such information overload we wouldn’t need help to remember that *cino organizes ^camping is not optional (the * to ^ variation is so delighting, isn’t it!).

I don’t have a final word which sums up my concern with branding, but would suggest that when trying to gauge the legitimacy or worth of a branding moment, let truth be your overriding criteria. Truth separates Trump-ties as lifestyle-identity from Scope as equality-aspirer, while still leaving room for Staedtler as good-pen-maker.  So go out and navigate the murky, albeit highly creative world of branding, which is I’m sure far more complicated than I’ve suggested. After all we ARE living in a very, very big world with lots and lots of things to choose between!

*Avedon’s ads for Levi’s are explored in the essay “The Advertising Photography of Richard Avedon and Sebastião Salgado” by Matthew Soar in Image Ethics in the Digital Age (2003).

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