catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 22 :: 2010.12.03 — 2010.12.16


The maturing of brands and Sneetches

What’s good about branding? I feel cynical when I ask this question, despite knowing that branding is good. Even biblical. Moses asked the LORD, “How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us?” He continued, like a reverent client with his brand manager, “What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?” (Exodus 33:16-17).

I make branding bad before I make it good because I make the judgment while watching TV and it interrupts the plot of my favorite sit-com with irrelevant nonsense; or it bullies my insecurities. It improves when I view it as a public filing system. (Branding can be impartial like this: a foe one moment and friend the next.) Branding sets apart one item or idea or person or group from another. It categorizes as it characterizes by simultaneously assigning and bringing forth meaning.

I think of it like the old fashioned naming of a child. Assign the name Carter, meaning “driver of a cart,” and you might eventually bring forth a servant. Better yet, in business terms, assign UPS with the concept of reliability and you might eventually bring forth a company that lives up to its name. Moses knew this approach to branding and sought to employ it on the most sacred terms.

But what makes it effective? What empowers branding to have product success, cultural impact and even the capacity to stir emotions? Kevin Roberts says it’s love. A global branding expert and the author of Lovemarks: The Future Beyond Brands, he asks, confidently, “What if brands could grow and evolve with richer and deeper connections in the same way that people can in their lives? What if the emotion that could make this transformation was love?”

Love makes branding effective? Keep in mind that Roberts is referring to my Asics; my blue-handled Estwing hammer; my sweet onion chicken teriyaki Subway foot long on nine-grain honey oat. I love these items in a semantically generic way. He takes it too far.

The point, however, is not lost. Branding — even strictly of the product variety — has something to do with love. It can help me find it. Dr. Suess’s Sneetches reveal the bad side of branding through their star-labeling and unlabeling quite like we do in our corporate offices and public school halls. The act itself, however, doesn’t have to elicit a negative response. We naturally flock together. Branding simply helps us get there more quickly.

At 37 years old, for instance, certain outfits and hairstyles in an unfamiliar crowd still fail to draw me. Barring that our paths cross for a meaningful reason, I may never meet those folks. Not because I don’t want to — in fact, the broader my relationships, the more fascinated I become with the world. But branding tells me, albeit superficially, who I need to get to know first. It facilitates initial communications.

Eventually the Sneetches become like those who mature and take pride in being social bridge builders. “He had friends from every walk of life” is pronounced at funerals like a badge of honor. Parents of such teenagers question what their crossover kid might be up to, and Pharisees wash their hands of such mixing, but in the end, embracing a range of brands rewards us.

Here’s the thing about these folks. They find ways to push through the thin layers of brands because they recognize brand value where it counts. They love truth and meaningful expression. In their eyes — and here I’m speaking from the occasional personal experience — the Creator becomes more recognizably creative. God becomes bigger as a Brand Manager who delights in the full-range expression of God’s self.

For the rest of us who can’t see through all the layers of human brands initially — or, perhaps, at all — branding acts as an assistant in decision-making. I participated on a search committee for several years. Most applicants branded themselves well, making our decisions difficult. Others, however, like the guy who, when asked what he thought were his weaknesses, paused; paused a little more; wrinkled his brow and finally said, “I don’t think I have any,” made our answer clear. No brand — from cars to dish soap — makes that kind of self-indulgent promise without suffering eventual rejection from consumers. His fate was no different.

So we express ourselves not only as we wish to be seen, but also as we really are. It makes for a dance of sorts. Those who do it best win the most (good) attention. A million hits on YouTube may seem great, but who wants them if they come from dancing poorly?   

None of this goodness masks branding’s notoriety, unfortunately. We’ve been duped by neighbors. We’ve listened to endorsements only to end up tossing broken items in disgust. And don’t forget the heavenly images and language that drift into our Fios rooms, calling our hearts with paradise. The sting of undelivered promises is hard to relinquish.

If the challenge of sorting good branding from bad isn’t tough enough throughout the year, we’re now in Advent when reason conflicts with the season. Truth be told, I’m not convinced we don’t all secretly (and perhaps acceptably) love the excess. It’s our public behavior that thrusts unhappiness upon us. Asceticism deprives us of joy while the idolatry of product misconsumption threatens any reasonable honor we might give to this or that purchase. Add buyer’s remorse, holiday demands, whining children, unintentional favoritism, and one can see how an Xbox Kinect has little hope of moving us rightfully as God intended.

Integrity becomes us and the products we buy. Without it, branding of every kind fails. Moses understood this. His pleading to reverse God’s threat in Numbers 14 was a branding issue — the good kind of branding, of course, the kind that makes us remember, whether we’re discussing products or people, that the meaning assigned and the meaning brought forth must be one and the same.

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