Having chosen to swallow the red pill...

Saturday, July 08, 2006

The power of branding versus the power of personal choice

There is a lot of talk these days about brands. Which are the super brands, what are the right brands to be seen in or that him or her are brand-obsessed. But at the end of the day, what is a brand? In its simplest state, a brand is a way of giving an inanimate object personality. The reason for this is to create consumer loyalty, which then has a direct impact on the company's bottom line. In its unrefined form, branding is the manipulation of consumer perception with the aim of increasing profits. In its refined form, it is a complex mixture of psychology, statistical interpretation, research, fact and fiction, and some say, science.

The psychological element examines how people choose products, what factors influence that choice, what triggers give rise to those factors and how the eventual choice is related to perceived self-image. The research and statistics gathers information on buying patterns, consumer preferences and demand shifts. The fact side of things is based around two areas, firstly the concrete facts that come from the psychological and empirical research and secondly the fact that a 'problem' exists which requires a solution. For example, dirty dishes that need washing, a hole in the wall that needs drilling, dandruff needs to be got rid of. Effectively most consumer and business-to-business products and services are sold as solutions to a problem. Effectively I don't buy a drill, I buy a solution to my need to put a hole in my wall, or I don't buy a shampoo, I buy a solution to my dandruff problem. The essence of branding is the create consumer loyalty to your company's particular solution.

... and how do you create loyalty, well, that's where the fiction comes in. Firstly it should be noted that for me there is a difference between 'fiction' as in 'the creative use of the truth' and outright lying. So take our problem of dirty dishes, we now need a solution, so along comes company A and launches their product, which are dishwashing tablets with oxygen bubbles for extra tough cleaning action. You never knew that you needed oxygen bubbles before, but suddenly now you do. This sets the benchmark with which you assess the other products. You start to see oxygen bubbles as important and you won't buy a product that doesn't have them, unless there is a massive price difference. Soon, you get into a habit of purchasing the same products and you have become 'brand loyal.'

The benefit of brand loyalty for the consumer of fast moving consumer goods is that it saves time. Because the advertising industry has created so many messages, you are constantly bombarded with information everywhere you go, on the TV, in magazines and newspapers, on the radio, on the internet, on billboards, on the bus, on the tube, on your phone. The sheer volume of these messages means that it is nearly impossible for you as a consumer to make and re-make every consumption choice each time you are in the supermarket. Imagine walking up to the washing powder and trying to remember everything you have heard about each brand, then decide between them, pick out one and place it in your trolley and then do the same with the cat foods, cereals etc... It is much easier to just pick Ariel or Surf off the shelves and move on. The manufacturers know this too and naturally this is where they make their money, having already spent a lot to fix that decision process fixed in your mind.

The thing is though, the whole process is designed to get you caught up in a cycle of consumption, 'gotta do more, gotta be more'. I saw an advert for a leading watch manufacturer the other day that was saying that one of the most important parts of your first impression and of how people judge you is 'what watch you are wearing.' Really? When is last time you judged a person by their watch or even noticed what kind of watch they had on? What watch does your partner or mother or father wear? This is what I meant earlier about the 'fiction'. Creating a want, a desire out of nothing and one which, in the final analysis, is empty.

Why have I written all of this? Well, if you have been kind enough to read this far, I will tell you. I write it for two reasons, the first being that it was my business until a year and a half ago to create the strategy behind brands. After much soul-searching I eventually came up with the conclusion that I was helping to create castles out of sand. To imbue inanimate objects with a sense of personality, so someone could buy them and feel superior to someone who could not, or so someone could by them and display them as a measurement of their achievements and success. I became haunted by the truth behind the phrase, 'he who dies with the most toys, still dies.' - In other words, I had lost my faith in branding and writing this is cathartic.

The second reason I write is inspired by a statement from the Trainspotters movie, 'choose life.' I have thought about this statement for a while and for me it has come to symbolise many things, one of which is to stop and realise how much of my life is on automatic pilot. How my choices and habits just drop neatly into place each morning and before I know it, another, irretrievable day has come and has gone. In a paradoxical brands versus un-branding, I like Microsoft's old tagline, 'where do you want to go today?' because it put the ball firmly in your court. Where do YOU want to go today? you choose and you take conscious responsibility. Branding robs us of that ability in some way, it wants us going on automatic pilot and life slips by. I am not saying don't be brand loyal, but what I am saying is 'take your power back.' Make a conscious choice each time you shop and don't just be lead like sheep. Instead of buying the same washing power you always have, ask questions instead to ensure that your purchase matches your values. Is this washing powder the most environmentally friendly? Does a percentage of my money go to charity? Are these clothes manufactured in sweat-shop conditions? Am I ok with that?

This way you take the power back and ensure that if you give your loyalty to a product or service, then it is to one that truly matches your own personal values.