brand meaning

By Chuck Kent, {grow} Community Member

Today’s post arises from a recent {grow} piece written by Gregory Pouy who observed: “We are not going to church as much as we used to, we are not concerned with family as we were before, and we are living in huge cities that make us all anonymous.  But the truth is that people want to be part of something – and in part, they are seeking this in brands.”

To be honest, the suggestion of substituting the transcendent for the transactional made me cringe but it’s nothing new. A 2010 study out of Duke University and NYU, “Brands: The Opiate of the Nonreligious Masses?” supports the theory that “brands and religiosity may serve as substitutes for one another because both allow individuals to express their feelings of self-worth.”

Is Gregory right? Are people identifying with brands as a way to give meaning to their lives?

So I decided to reach beyond my own parochial cringing and get a current take from an Ad Age columnist (and author Jonathan Baskin), two social media gurus (the aforementioned Gregory Pouy and Mark Schaefer), plus Rabbi Michael Shevack, a former adman, creator of campaigns including “Gillette, The Best a Man Can Get,” and author).

In a short post, I could not include all of their fascinating responses, but these four deep thinkers give us considerable food for thought. Please think about what they have to say and leave a comment of your own to this discussion.

Do you believe that brands can play a role in filling the core human desire to belong?

Jonathan Baskin: Nope, not in the least. I think it’s gross overreach and evidence that marketers haven’t yet come to terms with the fact that a focus on material existence is what has, in large part, created the existential void in peoples’ lives. The simplicity and Makers movements are two examples of trends going in the absolute opposite direction.

Mark Schaefer:  They can and they do. Have you ever seen somebody wearing a Harley Davidson jacket or a Nike logo on their shirt?  This is an outward expression of emotional alignment and belonging. I’ve often said in my speeches that it’s not just a brand, it’s a buddy. We form relationships with companies and brands just like we do with our friends.

Rabbi Shevack: Before specifically speaking about the role ‘brands’ have to play in filling the core human ‘desire’ to ‘belong,’ one must first be aware of what is fundamental behind the brand itself … A brand is – no differently than any religious experience which postulates mediators between the individual’s internal world and his/her outward fulfillment – a mediator. It’s purpose is to fulfill the individual’s sense of belonging, not merely to themselves, but, also, to others.

Do you think that brands will play a greater or lesser role in the future in consumers’ search for meaning?

Gregory Pouy: I feel in the future they will play a lesser role in the consumer’s search for meaning, for the simple reason that few brands are working on their core value. Most of them work on short-term decision processes… This is directly due to the fact that most marketers only stay in a position 18 months and want their resume to be outstanding. ‘Working the long term objective’ isn’t that sexy.

Rabbi ShevackBrands are social movements!  Brands can be revolutions!  Brands change worlds! Can a brand be a vehicle of salvation?  Yes, of course!  As ridiculous as it sounds. Why? Because incorrect desires— desires that don’t “govern together”, as the word “correct” means, are the vehicles of our fall-from-Grace in Life:  too much cholesterol, too much sugar, etc.  Correct desires – desires that link the individual with other individuals, for a common purpose, in harmony with nature’s design, for the shared-purpose, world-purpose of the goodness, happiness and, of course, monetary prosperity of all – well, that is the definition of salvation, at least upon the earth.

Belonging suggests mutuality. How can brands best overcome the ultimately transactional nature of brand-consumer relationships?

Mark Schaefer: There does not have to be a mutual connection to establish a relationship. I have followed Bruce Springsteen since I was kid. I love this man and his music. He has played a very important part in my life. Yet I have never met Bruce and probably never will.  I have a deep emotional connection to a brand who never knows I exist.

Gregory Pouy:  Here is something that brands really don’t get: a brand community barely exists.  There are existing vertical communities on any subject. Brands should try to enter those communities.  They should respect the codes and understand that they aren’t running the show.  They should just try to belong. I don’t see many brands successfully doing this, but some are. We hear much less from them because this doesn’t earn you a Cannes Lion. But they are the ones who will last.

Do you think that brands can overreach, so as to become unbelievable or counterproductive in trying to develop “brand passion” and “brand evangelists?”

Jonathan Baskin: I have trouble distilling my thoughts into readable sentences in response to this question because there’s so much inanity going on these days. The Internet has enabled marketers to discover that there are small communities of people who absolutely adore their brands, almost to the point of being clinically crazy. This isn’t a new phenomenon, only its observation is, but we’ve come up with a theology that claims these crazy people should be nourished and encouraged to share their nuttiness with others. It only makes sense if you limit your perspective to online dialogue. In the real world, they’re still not only crazy but irrelevant, if not counter-productive to reality-based transactional relationships.

Brands don’t need people to love their detergent or floor polish. They need them to use them consistently because they work the best for the least amount of money. There’s a lot of information and creativity required to establish and maintain this awareness, but all the jabbering about content, storytelling, etc. just elevates process over purpose.

Mark Schaefer:  Here’s the weird thing. We get all these snippets of communication from companies and brands. No tone. No body language. Maybe it’s even in 140 characters or less. And yet we can sniff out a fake a mile away. Research even shows Millennials are becoming more in-tune with authentic messages than their parents. So I think if companies overreach, they are going to hear about it and they better adjust. Overall, the social media feedback is loop is pretty darn efficient!

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Can brands satisfy our deepest longings? Do they? Should they even try? As you can tell even from my interviewees’ truncated responses, the subject provokes strong and varied opinions. What are yours?

chuck kentChuck Kent is a freelance copywriter, content creator and brand strategist who can be found at his Chicago-based company Creative on Call.

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