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Posted Nov. 17, 2011 3:00 a.m. by jon
In - 800 CEO Read Blog
As mentioned yesterday, today we're featuring part of a chapter from Debbie Millman's new book, Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits. What's the book about? It's a collection of Millman's interviews with some serious minds from the ad industry (and beyond) about what branding is, how it affects us, and how to better understand our relationship with it (both as professionals and as consumers). It's a compelling read about a subject that involves us all (whether we like it or not).
In the chapter featured below, Millman interviews management expert and design conscious thinker Tom Peters. This is just one example of the type of thinking you'll see throughout the book (and a pretty good one, in my opinion).
Here we go!
(A reminder: Questions are by the author, Debbie Millman, and answers are by Tom Peters, taken from the book, Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits)
Why do people care about branded items? What do you think it does for the human psyche?
One part of it—which is less relevant today than it was in the past—is once they got connected with companies like the Unilevers and the Kimberly-Clarks and the P&Gs, a brand was a guarantee of reliability. This did not exist in my grandfather’s store in rural Virginia. Have you read Thomas Hine’s book on packaging? One of my favorite examples from his book focuses on Quaker Oats. Hine talks about how, in 1870, oats were something you fed to an animal. And suddenly, you had a cardboard box with a Quaker on the outside, and oats became a human delicacy—due entirely to packaging—in the short space of 20 years.
First, branding was about safety and reliability, but let’s also acknowledge that human beings are an emotional species. I was in China for the first time in 1986. As soon as Deng Xiaoping took the lid off of regulation, women went from wearing gray, shapeless Mao jackets to sporting colorful wardrobes nearly overnight. This need to express our individuality and vibrancy is obviously a fundamental, basic human need.
Why do you think it’s a basic human need?
I have no idea. It may be that giraffes are colorblind, so they have patterns on their bum that other critters don’t. I assume at some point, in some sense, it’s a version of peacocking. I assume that there was probably an aspect of Darwinian selection to it. My bet would be it has something to do with this, though I do have a proclivity for being fairly Darwinian in my beliefs. Frankly, I have no idea what the history is.
Let’s assume that we are hardwired to want to be attractive to each other for some deep-seated procreational need. How is this connected to oats transforming into a delicacy when the food is put in a package decorated with the image of a Quaker?
In Darwinian terms, we’re suckers for stories. Stories are the way that humans have always communicated. The Quaker Oats box is not only visually attractive, but it’s a story. Since Aboriginal times in Western Australia—and I’m sure if one goes back thousands of years, or hundreds of thousands of years before that, you’ll find the same dynamic—a good story has always been a good seller. A brand is a story. Period. Frankly, I would rather dump the word “brand” and use the word “story.” I think we’re in the process of wearing out the word “brand.” At some level, when I’m a brand, I’m more commercial. When I’m a story, I’m more human.
So what do you think the Quaker story was at the turn of the 20th century?
I presume that—to your point with plastic bags and diapers—as late as the beginning of the century, sanitation sucked. The pharmaceutical companies should get none of the credit for our life expectancy going from 50 to 75 during the 20th century. The two things that account for 90 percent of this improvement are sanitation and diet. So here comes a cereal that’s reliable and clean and that you could buy for your dearly beloved children without any fear they would get sick when they ate it.
How was the quaker telling that story? What did the quaker represent?
Doesn’t a quaker, in theory, stand for reliability? If it’s good enough for a quaker, then it’s got to be good enough for my little Martha.
One of my favorite stories revolves around the Morton Salt Girl. She is all about metaphor. Morton chemically alters a salt crystal so that it won’t stick to other crystals when it’s wet or humid outside. The Morton Salt Girl is holding an umbrella while the salt is pouring freely. So when it rains, the salt pours. But you don’t have to read a word—it’s all expressed by a visual puzzle that you have to figure out. I think this is why people like it so much. People love puzzles—they feel better about themselves when they correctly figure them out. That’s why people like the “I ♥ New York” logo so much. It’s a puzzle made out of a word, an abbreviation, and a symbol.
I remember reading an article about a social psychology experiment relating to this and being totally unsurprised, as I imagine you would be. Two sets of subjects are given two lists of the same words to memorize. One of the lists is of the words “farm,” “basement,” “bar,” and so forth. The other list is the same, except that random letters are left out, so instead of basement, you’ve got B–A–S, underscore, M–E–N–T. In terms of subsequent recall, the people who had the list with missing letters outperformed the people with the full words by a dramatic margin. Cognitively, you had to work your ass off, so it stuck in your mind.
Yes, the experience of figuring out the words creates a deeper neural pathway in the brain.
It’s extraordinary the way the brain works. . . .
I hate economists.
Why? Why do you hate economists?
Because they’re impersonal bastards. They believe in the rational model, which makes them dumb. When the great recession of 2007–2008 descended upon us, it was not an economics issue. It was a psychology issue.
How was it a psychology issue?
The behavior that got us there was herd behavior. The government has convinced people of the emotional need to own a house. If you look at the economics studies, in many respects the housing market doesn’t go up all that much over a long period of time. There are a million studies that will tell you that renting makes more sense than owning. But psychologically, owning a piece of turf is incredibly important. So I understand why people—who had no money and were given the chance to borrow money—were total suckers for it. And I use “sucker” not in an abusive sense, but in a realistic sense. Then again, you’ve always had herd behavior on Wall Street.
They’re now saying Silicon Valley is the “green” crash. The current punchline is that any human being, including you and I, can put together a business proposal tomorrow morning. And as long as we use a computer and include the word “green” a sufficient number of times in our proposals, the venture capitalists will be showering us with money by dawn the day after.
I’m obviously using hyperbole, but that’s where we’re seeing more of this herd behavior. In terms of the rational-mindedness, I’ve trained in that. I was trained as an engineer, but now I’m a reformed engineer, a “born again” engineer. The reliance on rational models—or models in general—to me, makes economists highly suspect. I don’t believe anything they say. That is very close to not being hyperbole. In the 1970s, when I was getting my PhD, my classmates and I read books by psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. Tversky and Kahneman invented “behavioral economics.” This is the hottest branch of economics right now, the “Freakonomics” branch.
Kahneman won a Nobel Prize in economics, but he was a social psychologist, period. I am royally pissed off that these f’ing economists have appropriated psychology and now call it the coolest thing in economics. Screw them. These straightlaced, rationally thinking economists have appropriated social psychology, and it pisses me off for reasons that are totally childish on my part.
Because it’s stupid. I’m delighted that the irrational realities are beginning to seep into economics. The rational me is delighted that irrationality is seeping into the rational profession, because maybe they’ll get some things right.
Look, I have a very strong smart-ass streak. I have learned to be “appropriate” and politically correct on many scores over the years. To the extent that I must, I guard my “smart-assery” when I’m giving speeches to middle managers from financial services companies. But the smart ass lurks no more than one glass of chardonnay below the surface.
I’ll remember that when I need to get your honest opinion on something. In the past, you’ve said, “Design is so critical it should be on the agenda of every meeting in every single department in the business.” Why do you believe that?
The term I’ve used for 20 years—and maybe I stole it from somebody or maybe by the grace of God they’ve stolen it from me—is “design-mindedness.” Design-mindedness is about bringing an aesthetic dimension into a discussion of anything. I am a great fan of Carly Fiorina. A lot of the reason was that she—kicking and screaming—brought a design aesthetic to Hewlett-Packard. I know this because I lived next door to Lew Platt, Carly’s predecessor, in college. Prior to Ms. Fiorina, Hewlett-Packard ranked 200 on a list of 199, in terms of design sensibilities. When she left, they were a significant consumer goods company, and that was Carly, pure and simple. When they gave her successor, Mark Hurd, the credit for having a great design team, it made me want to barf. Carly was not a good chief operating officer, and she probably needed to be let go at some point. I don’t deny that for a minute. And she had an ego that was a little bit out of control, and I don’t deny that for a minute either. But she brought about a cultural change at Hewlett-Packard, which makes the work that Lou Gerstner did at IBM and Jack Welch did at GE look like chump change by comparison.
Do you think that anything can be successful now without being highly positioned?
Well, we obviously would have to spend the next two weeks defining “highly.” As the ethos of quality that began to bubble up in the United States during the 1980s took root, the major fast-moving consumer goods companies started having significant problems going up against store brands. Once store brands became reliable, they began to market and brand themselves. Then Wal-Mart came along, and the average American started saving something like $900 a year, which isn’t small cookies for people making $45,000 annually. The things they’re buying at Wal-Mart might be much less sexy, but as long as they’re quality products, this is perfectly acceptable. The recession obviously has pushed people even farther toward this model.
Look, I own a Subaru. I own a Subaru because they’re perfect for Vermont. But the quality revolution has taken such root that, in terms of quality, I’m probably just as well off with a Kia as I am with a Subaru or a Mercedes.
Do you really think that the quality is that comparable?
So it is really just branding and positioning?
Well, branding, positioning, and people who like to have sex with their car. The electronics in BMW and Mercedes cars allow you to do a whole lot of things that you really don’t need to do. But in terms of a vehicle that can travel 30,000 miles without ever having to go into a shop, I would bet that a Kia is very, very close to these other brands.
Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits
Posted Nov. 16, 2011 4:24 a.m. by jon
In - 800 CEO Read Blog
We all like to think that we ignore advertising. We change the channel during commercials, we don't click on banner ads, we hang up on telemarketers. But it's no use, we still have a sense of brands. We look at them and try to understand them in ways we don't even realize. Even by avoiding them, we're recognizing them. And that makes brands a pretty interesting thing.
But just what is that thing exactly? Author, designer, and insightful thinker Debbie Millman has spent much of her life pursuing that question, and now, she asks some of the other brightest minds in the industry (and beyond) how they would answer this question. These discussions culminate in her new book, Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits.
As you can see from the cover image, there's some interesting names listed, whose ideas on this topic are indeed fascinating. In fact, tomorrow, I'll be posting a chapter from the book where Millman interviews Tom Peters (c'mon back!).
But what about Debbie Millman herself?
Wanting to get her take on some of the ideas expressed by others in the book, I sent her some questions. Here's the discussion that followed:
Acceptance or belonging seems to be a theme throughout the interviews you've conducted in the book. What is your take on a brand creating a sense of belonging for people that interact with it?
Debbie Millman: In my introduction to Brand Thinking, I write about how scientists and anthropologists believe humans feel safer and more secure in groups. Psychologists such as Harry Harlow and John Bowlby have determined that we feel happier and better about ourselves when our brains resonate with other, like-minded humans. I believe that our motivation to brand, and to be branded, comes from our hardwired instinct to connect. Brands are so persuasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, moral, ethical and social consequences that they now reflect our behavior and our beliefs. People that share specific beliefs inevitably “find” each other and create tribes. As Wally Olins states, “Branding demonstrates (a) sense of belonging. It has this function for both the people who are part of the same group and also for the people who don’t belong.” Brands have become an extension of human facility, whether it is psychic or psychological. The brands we acquire telegraph our beliefs and affiliations, and in doing so, they create intimate worlds inhabitants can mutually understand. I think that any knowledge of culture is impossible now without an understanding of the implications of “brand.”
There are also multiple comparisons between brands and religion. However, religion deals mostly with the afterlife, and brands satisfy things while we're alive. Where do you see the correlation, if any?
Debbie Millman: Throughout our history as a species, it seems that humans have needed faith and belief. Symbolism is a critical component of comprehending and telegraphing this belief. Despite this predilection, there is no agreement to one way of believing. We have thousands of religions followed by people who all deeply believe that they have a special, direct and intimate communication with God. But let’s be honest; there is no scientific data for this, they are constructs that we chose to believe in—or not. In Brand Thinking, Brian Collins makes the argument that “we create the (same) constructs around Nike sneakers or Coca-Cola in order to create specific feelings or to satisfy specific human needs,” and “For some consumers, it almost becomes a replacement for religion.” Alex Bogusky even goes so far as stating, “If we are wired by a higher power for religion and for God, then I think we could be wired for branding as well.”
Can brands be good, while what they represent is bad? (ex. Godin's mention of tobacco companies) If so, what does that say about the position and responsibility they have, if any?
Debbie Millman: It is fascinating to consider why a person will choose Pepsi over Coke or Dr. Pepper over Mountain Dew. Ultimately a brand does more than differentiate itself categorically—brands also differentiate the consumer attitudinally. I am not sure that this is a bad thing—it is evidence of choice and freedom and the ability to express what we believe to be our individuality or preferences. The consumer chooses the brand that makes them feel most socially confident and wears this badge of cultural acceptability. What gets tricky is whether or not it is acceptable for a brand to promise to make people happy or sexy or healthy or smart or athletic by the sheer virtue of acquiring and experiencing the brand. Can a brand really make the world a better place to live? If I wear Nike sneakers or drink Diet Pepsi, will I have less insecurity? Cheat less? Lie less? Smile more? Feel “alive with pleasure”? I don’t think so. I hope that Jonathan Bond was right when he said, “Consumers are like roaches. We spray them with marketing, and for a time, it works. Then, inevitably, they develop an immunity, a resistance.” I believe that brands have many of the same responsibilities of people, as brands are created by the very species they are created for: Be truthful, do no harm and leave the world a better place than when you arrived.
Seduction is another concept that appears throughout the interviewees answers. Do you see brands as being seducers, or people just finding solutions to their needs with products or services provided?
Debbie Millman: It may sound like a cop-out, but the easy answer to your question is, BOTH. In an effort to solicit the imagination of a consumer, a brand must strike the right notes of allure and “choose me” seductiveness to a specific type of consumer. This sex appeal varies by brand or by category or by psychographic, but the basic tenets remain the same. One of the great ironies in our society is how the anti-branding constituents use the very same tenets of branding they so vigorously disdain. They have logos, they have websites, and they have target messaging. Even Adbusters sells sneakers now! On the other hand, people only continue to buy brands that consistently satisfy their needs and expectations. Seduction only works once if the product doesn’t deliver.
What was the biggest lesson you learned about brands in working on this book? How did it change you?
Debbie Millman: Better living through consumption doesn’t stop when you’ve consumed everything you covet. Unfortunately, brands are elusive and they don’t keep you happy for very long. As Dan Pink aptly points out, “The evidence is overwhelmingly clear that human beings metabolize (brands) very quickly. I’m specifically using the word metabolize because we are talking about hunger and thirst. If a big-screen TV is your symbol of stature and significance, it’s a fool’s game. These kinds of external objects do not provide enduring satisfaction.” He goes on to talk about what psychologists call the “hedonistic treadmill.” In other words, if you’re always looking to validate yourself by buying things, then you are never going to be satisfied. He states, “You are on an endless, addictive treadmill. The brand’s only purpose is to get you on that hedonistic treadmill. It may be good for the business in the short run, but in the long run, you’re doomed.” Dan has articulated this behavior better than anyone else, in my opinion. This has profoundly influenced how I feel about buying those new boots I have been coveting at Saks.
Whether you're in advertising, marketing, an entrepreneur, or just want to better understand our relationship with brands as people, this is a helpful read. You get a variety of perspectives, with themes that develop yet each retain their own character, making this an insightful and useful book.
And as I mentioned above, tune in here tomorrow for the book excerpt where Millman interviews Tom Peters about brands.