Dawning of the brands, or: why The New Yorker is wrong

Sérgio Brodsky

Sérgio Brodsky
Sérgio Brodsky is strategy director at OMD. He’s an internationally experienced professional (Brazil, Israel, the UK and Australia), proficient in six languages and holds a BA in IP law and an MBA in global brand strategy and innovation.

Twilight of the brands?! Oh c’mon, wanna get me (and a whole industry) out of a job Mr Surowiecki?! Not gonna happen, as shown by the wisdom of the crowds.

Regardless of the transparency the internet currently provides or the Human Genome Project may bring one day, the unspoken truth about brands is that they represent a reflection of who we want to be, not who we are. That’s why we’ll keep on shopping for symbolic values (read brands), so we can individualise ourselves and impact our social environments.

Among its many (and never ending) definitions, a brand is also an emotionally charged story. Brands provide an intangible quality to products, services, companies and individuals that cannot be measured through physical properties like weight, volume or height but through the subjectivity of a sentiment; where distinction and competitive advantage among otherwise almost identical items can be created.

The reason this works is because, according to MIT Media Lab’s professor Rosalind Picard, emotions tend to signal what really matters. Therefore, the more emotional the appeal, the more a consumer will be willing to spend. But then, there are just too many emotions to work with. How to focus on those that matter most?

According to evolutionary psychology, three main themes were responsible for the evolution of humanity’s story, namely: to attract, to deter and to impress. In practice, that’s what it means:

To attract mates or, simply make friends, alliances, be socially accepted; feel sexy, attractive, and desirable!

The evolutionary cost of developing colourful feathers on the peacock is enormous. It decreases its mobility, makes it more visible to predators and demands a higher ingestion of calories. Yet, the colourful fanned-out effect is key to attracting peahens and in this way guarantees the perpetuation of the species.

Brands that can ‘endow’ a pedigree, a desired attribute or somehow compensate the lack of a physical trait with an emotional one will enable the attraction factor. For example, those who want to be accepted by a punk crowd will buy ‘Toxico’ jackets or to gain popularity amongst geeks just display Alienware video-gaming computers – they are larger, heavier, less practical but… hell yeah they are geek-cool!

To deter rivals, competition or any foreseeable threat, nature has gifted us with highly effective signals. From bulky muscles, to protracting claws and teeth that are usually seen through a glare, these clearly state ‘outta my way!’

But, if you’re not a tiger, nor wealthy, nor carrying weaponry, simply buy a ‘license to kill’ brand. Hummer drivers bulldozing across peaceful suburbs are nothing but a pageant of dominance. The transformation of women when wearing Louboutin shoes is not a silly illusion. The shoemaker’s distinctive red sole is a semiotic reminder of the red line featured on Glock pistols, unconsciously making the ladies look and feel ‘dressed to kill’.

To impress parents, co-workers or classmates via worthiness is a sophisticated way to ensure our existences deserve consideration rather than obliteration. Have you ever wondered why babies look so cute? Parents risk their lives to discover scarce resources to provide for their cubs, kittens, fawns… yet, their instincts never question that it is the right thing to do.

However, babies grow, cuteness vanishes and… then what? On one hand, the need to impress still remains and we are constantly and instinctively reminded of that. Having the stamp of top universities on your CV is an aspiration that justifies fat loans. Beyond professional success, it also helps in finding and fishing for… in evolutionary terms, an Alpha-type partner.

On the other hand, we are also intuitively reminded we need to feel loved and cared for. At the workplace an environment with an active and constructive communication strategy and occasional perks will boost employees’ self-esteem and motivate superior performance; it makes them feel valued and generates league tables of ‘best brands to work for’.

As simplistic as it sounds, we all want to attract and be attractive, impress and be impressive and, at times, deter not to be deterred.  From anti-capitalist intellectuals to spiritual vegans, in one way or another our chosen lifestyles are recognised through the brands we consume.  Smart brands reap profits by understanding what makes their consumers and employees tick and responding to their motivations.

Brands are now writing the next chapters of our human journey. The transparency provided by technology does not remove the value of well-crafted stories, and never will. In fact, the more people interact, question and challenge brands’ narratives, the more engaged they will be. Beyond telling stories, brands are now allowing every one of us to be the story. Evolve in the dawning of a brand new world or become the prey.