I never questioned the motion that we need to belong, and since we have existed we have had this need. The need to belong to our family, to belong to a tribe, in a friendship group. Just refer back to the hundreds of high school movie portrayals of the geeks, the hippies, the cool kids, the jocks. We all belonged to one group or another. Even in English schools where uniforms were mandatory, we found a way to distinguish ourselves and fit into a group.
It dawned on me that all those clever corporations are making us feel like we belong, and buying our loyalty with a branded T-shirt. But, here is my question. Is that such a bad thing?
Before answering that we need to understand what is branding, and why is it so effective.
When was branding born?
In an attempt to better understand where the idea of a “brand” comes from I did some research and came across Debbie Millman. Debbie is a designer, writer, educator, and she gave an inspiring speech about why we brand. She took a very scientific approach that I like, and took us 50, 000 years back to understand where branding started. She looks at the conditions, that led to the conditions, that led to the conditions of how we first constructed reality. In other words how we see the world. This moment in time is particularly important as it’s when our brain biologically reorganized into what it is today. Scientists call this the great leap.
What happened after is that we saw a change in how we made things, there was an explosion of tool making. We became makers and designers. Think about crests, or flags that evolved to be signals of identification. This is fundamentally how branding was born. So, the next time someone tells you that branding is all “fluff” or a modern day career choice, you can correct them.
This still poses the question as to why is branding so powerful.
The power of the brand
Apple computers are expensive Facebook machines. Have you heard this one before? It’s funny because it’s true, people will buy expensive apple computers just for the brand. How did we get to the point where brands are everything. We never left that point.
If brands make us feel like we belong, and to belong is routed in us, then we are all at the mercy of any brand.
We feel a connection to all other apple users, it’s that nod you give each other when you look across the coffee shop and see another member of the apple posse. That means if we hold a brand in high regard, we will get the T-shirt.
The story and the brand
Modern day branding is your company story told well. Let’s go back to 1938 and Henry Miller who wrote,
The dilemma in which we find ourselves today is that no matter how much we increase the purchasing power of the wage-earner he never has enough.
Mr Miller gives the example of money, but refers to our need of always wanting more. It’s instilled in us, nothing is ever good enough. It takes a lot of growth and personal development to accept oneself, to be ambitious yet satisfied. Or, as Alain De Botton always claims, we are all just struggling with everyday life. As humans we metabolize everything so quickly, which means that what is initially exciting and attractive to us eventually becomes dull.
Companies often make the mistake of overpromising in their branding message. They make a grandiose claim, a promise, which after the excitement fades and the promise isn’t kept, the customer leaves.
The one thing that will keep our T-shirts on is a personal connection. We are in love with how we can connect with people. Use storytelling to grow that connection with your customers. Stories work because they dig into our need to feel accepted. The best brands tell stories.
What works in branding today
We have become obsessed with our online personas. I say online personas, because often it’s not who we actually are. We value ourselves and others based on the number of likes, comments and general social presence. If we get to the office first, we take a photo and post it on Instagram so the world knows we work the hardest, we post photos of our loved ones only when we kiss, never when we fight. It’s like we have created a parallel universe where we are the best versions of ourselves all of the time. We compare ourselves to others who we perceive have more, and we aim to appear better, happier and more successful than we feel we are.
We are desperately trying to feel good about ourselves, and companies have the responsibility and the challenge to create a brand that makes us feel ok as is. That takes me back to the original question, corporations making us feel like we belong, and buying our loyalty with a branded T-shirt, is that such a bad thing? I don’t think so, as long as they can stand up to the challenge and keep our loyalty. Companies whose employees have worn out T-shirts are the ones that live up to their promise.
Tell honest stories, let us feel a connection and make us like ourselves a little bit more than yesterday, that’s the future of branding.