In these difficult times, we need our trusted comfort brands to help keep our spirits up. We still don't know precisely what lies ahead but we're gloomily reconciled to the higher taxes and public-service cuts that are coming.
However, it's the overall global uncertainty that really makes us nervous. The 24/7 news cycle doesn't help since the constant communications from the full-time/all-the-time media is dependably pessimistic. But, lest we forget too soon, the news was far scarier in 2008/09. Then we really were in the teeth of the worst global financial crisis since the 30s, with disastrous employment figures worldwide, disheartening tales of greedy bankers, stock markets that plummeted, and drastic drops in revenue for companies large and small.
So what happened to trust in brands in that dire environment? Well, while big-ticket branded products took a beating (buying a new car or a new fridge could be delayed), branded products that offered "life's little pleasures" mostly did well. How come? I suspect at least part of the reason was, and is, because of trust and the comfort of familiarity.
In a crazy world, Heinz still meant beans. And patrons of McDonald's were still "lovin' it". We all had to eat and while we shopped for lower prices, the values we sought were not all monetary. The supermarkets understood this and while the brand message was about better prices (selectively), the smartest retailers constantly reminded us that we could certainly trust them if not, by implication, our high-street banks. John Lewis has it right - they mean what they say.
I wrote my book, Go Logo!, because I believe that strong brands offer some certainty in an increasingly uncertain world. Some years ago, after hearing a lot about Naomi Klein's book, No Logo, I bought it. (How could a branding veteran like me not do so?) In truth, after I read the book, it was my antipathy to her virulent anti-brand thesis that motivated me to write Go Logo!. I am still diametrically opposed to her broad brush condemnation of the disciplined efforts of organisations to establish unique identities and differentiate their beliefs or products. However, as I wrote my text and compiled my examples of successful global branding, I did return to her arguments several times to clarify my own convictions. And while she certainly convinced me that she doesn't like branding (she accuses global corporations of "cocooning" us in a "brandscape" and offering us a "Barbie world for adults"), I believe that she simply objects, on principle, to the power of successful branders.
But the real difference between our two positions is that Ms Klein writes about brands in a lofty but negative Societal Persuasion context, never mind the social good that does happen as a direct result of Commercial Persuasion brands making lives easier for billions of people. Of course, she has every right to sell books by following her own narrow logic but I've concluded that, in the broadest historical sense, there really are two separate mega categories of global branding - and they are becoming increasingly intertwined. Not surprisingly, the really big guys in the virtual room are all the faith-based Societal Persuasion brands that societies throughout history have been good at inventing.
In my definition, all are dependant on compelling belief systems, promising results that can't always be delivered, usually represented by highly recognisable names/icons/symbols/stories, and structured to invoke strong emotional responses and motivate commitment and action. Need examples? Fervent belief in Communism, capitalism, Catholicism, Protestantism, National Socialism, Fascism and terrorism (in the name of God) are just a few of the "isms" that have caused bloody clashes and mayhem in our recent global history.
The other less violent but highly competitive category, the one I've been involved in for half-a-century (and what a tumultuous half-century it has been), is the even more diverse category of Commercial Persuasion branding. My view is that the most successful commercial brands, global or local, are based on widely recognised logos and identity systems, creatively positioned and represented by "little stories", and intended to evoke emotional responses strong enough to consistently motivate the sale of products and services.
Most of the great global brands, of both the Societal and Commercial Persuasion varieties, succeed because they are so emotional and personal. Branding is essentially about appealing to our need for personal identity. Who am I? Where do I fit in? How do I best target my hopes and manage my fears? These emotional touchstones should be very self-evident when we consider the lasting, ongoing appeal of "The Real Thing; Because I'm Worth It; and, putting aside the obvious topical joke, Just Do It". Overall, I'm convinced that the choices we make to address our psychological needs, from a menu of branded societal and commercial belief systems, constitute the core of our lives and motivate the actions we take. No Logo disciples claim that brands are the pathways of manipulation between companies and consumers. But the truth is: people like and need brands. Brands, for both Commercial and Societal Persuasion purposes, simplify choices, promise authenticity, and provide pleasure, interest and a sense of belonging.
Is negative questioning about the importance of branding actually topical in this world of increasing worldwide convergence? Isn't our addiction to branded goods and services a natural and generally positive factor in our lives? Klein is suspicious about global Commercial Persuasion brands that include a societal "call-to-action" in the positioning of their businesses and their corporate brand identities, but I see positive change. (Maybe not from Goldman Sachs, of course.) Even General Electric, one of the world's largest and most complex industrial giants, but hardly a consumer brand, adopted the corporate mandate of Ecomagination, and committed the business units to a greener way of doing business. Increasingly, companies of all sorts, knowing it's just good business to do so, are nailing their corporate missions to their mastheads and committing their companies to setting a course that embodies both their pursuit of profit and their commitment to better civic citizenship.
But are some brands bad for us? The answer, of course, is "it depends". Brands are now ubiquitous, and the most powerful ones are pervasive, persuasive and very habit-forming indeed. And, yes, some brands are bad for us, if the products or ideas they stand for are likely to be harmful to our health when used to excess. However, branded products that offer life's little pleasures and conveniences will not be going away any time soon. They are too comforting, and they make us happier, even if only for a little while. In fact, living without brands would not only be boring, it would be very bad for our financial health. Overall, the manufacturing, distribution, marketing and sales of consumer-oriented branded products and services is "the business" that makes the world go round.
Add in global business-to-business transactions, and the sum total of the world's brand-led business transactions is immense. Without the competition generated by opposing brands, prices would go up and consumer choice would go down. Contemporary thinking, positive and negative, recognises the ability of brands to communicate in significant mental shorthand about the products and organisations they represent. Although some think both Commercial and Societal Persuasion branding is exploitive, the great majority just take brands for granted. Businesses and organisations of all stripes (and politicians in particular) realise they can't do without them.
Effective creative brand warriors are a rare breed. So what does it take to be a really successful brand warrior in this dangerous and intensely competitive world? And why choose this particular, one-size-fits-all descriptor for the very eclectic roster of experienced, highly respected contributors I recruited for Go Logo!? After thinking a lot about how to best capture and pass along the lessons learned during 50 years of participating in clients' global branding battles, the old title of consultant or expert seemed a bit lame. And the guru label, used facetiously or not, didn't fit at all. With such a diverse list of contributors, only the phrase "creative brand warrior" seemed to fit everyone.
The essential requirement for successfully establishing a solid brand is to create a sense of partnership with all of a brand's key constituents, including the brand stewards within the parent organisation, the brand's distribution and communication channels, and, most of all, with the brand's consumers. Perhaps this was always true, but never has it been more important than today.
The Chambers Concise Dictionary (favoured because it is exactly that, concise) partially defines "partner" as "an associate, a person engaged with another in a business, a person who plays on the same side in a game, and a person who goes in to a formal dinner with another". These definitions are quite appropriate when applied in a branding context. Consumers today know that they have the upper hand in the partnering dance, with no allegiance to the partner who brought them. And the only way the marketer and the consumer are playing on the same side is when consumers consistently get what they want. In every instance, it is the buyers and not the sellers who control this particular kind of relationship.
Over time, bonds forged within creative organisations can fray badly, as the overall business changes or the interpersonal relationships begin to clash. The best creative relationships - whether they are in principal/subordinate roles, or in a client/agency situation - occur when mutual respect and a genuine liking for one another are a significant part of the working relationship. In a creative business, there has to be one person nominally in charge. Or, at the very least, there must be clearly outlined responsibilities for all equal partners, to ensure the company's collective energies are harnessed together in pursuit of agreed, common goals. Most creatives will experience working in different kinds of brand warrior tribes, including very large ones, but will gain most of their valuable experience from working in relatively small creative companies. Chambers simply defines "warrior" as "a fighting man". This disposition is a prerequisite to success in creative branding. William Kirn wrote the following passage to open his New York Times book review piece on Robert Stone's Prime Green, a personal memoir of the 60s. It captures what I feel is the most important lesson "of a creative life lived".
"Time passes, and what it passes through is people - though people believe that they are passing through time. And even, at certain euphoric moments, directing time. It's a delusion, but it's where memoirs come from, or at least the very best ones. They tell how destiny presses on desire and how desire pushes back, sometimes heroically, always poignantly, but never quite victoriously. Life is an upstream, not an uphill, battle, and it results in just one story: how, and alongside whom, one used his paddle."
What's the best way to prepare for what Kirn calls that long "upstream journey"? How do you first select the right paddle - and then learn how to use it really well? Perhaps most importantly, with whom do you hope to paddle alongside?
Ninety per cent of the decisions we make are made below the level of consciousness.
Which takes me back to "brands are us" and the recent election. As so often is the case in a tight political contest, brand personality was a crucial factor. Too often in the debates, the critical issues seemed less important than how the candidate came across on television. But we shouldn't be surprised at this - sophisticated branders now know that we are all essentially right-brainers, using our fabled left-brain logical thinking to rationalise emotional decisions we have already made in the subconscious. As with any branded product on offer, how candidates present themselves is critical in making the pitch for our vote. Good product performance is obviously the ultimate brand value judgment we want to ascribe to our electoral candidates; but as John F Kennedy said so many years ago, when asked why he ducked so many important governance issues in his presidential campaign: "I have to get elected before I can govern." History shows, however, that the biggest issues are there waiting. The candidate Kennedy worried about being elected as a Catholic - he soon found that the longstanding issues of American apartheid were the real Societal Persuasion question to be addressed.
So what will turn out to be the real defining issue of our future? In the recent election, neither of the two biggest Societal Persuasion brands won us over with their selling arguments. So are we going to have to live with a "product" designed by committee? I think we all wanted a real horse (even if it was of a different colour), but surely no-one wanted a camel? This is a different "product" altogether and we don't yet have a brand for it! So, Go Logo!.