Distributed Identity #2


Modernista's new website has just gone up and it has heartily embraced its distributed identity.

Rather than aggregating the places it lives online like the Zeus Jones homepage, the site itself is only a navigation bar that guides you around the elements of agency on the web - its Wikipedia page and Facebook profile, with the work displayed on flickr and youtube.

As Gareth says:

It's an interweb thingy that uses the internet.

[Via Noah]

Brands and the Paradox of Choice

One of the differences I've noted between London and New York is scale.

Everything comes in larger sizes (restaurant meals are best left unfinished unless you also desire to come in a larger size) and there are many more options to chose from - especially on the supermarket shelf, which groan under a bewildering array of alternatives in every product category.

Choice is equated to freedom and freedom is a necessary condition to ensure the unalienable right to pursue your own individual flavour of happiness - more options mean more freedom, which means more happiness.

Except it doesn't work that way.

Barry Schwartz points out in the Paradox of Choice (which you can read most of here thanks to Google Books) having too many options tends to make you unhappy, which is why he argues that hypercapitalist economies, which sanctify individual autonomy and thus force decisions at every possible opportunity, tend to less happier overall.

This insight is incredibly compelling because it feels right and yet wrong - freedom underlies the cultural foundation of western society and has been thoroughly internalised as part of your Freudian superego - so people know that they love choice, but find they hate making decisions.

The book is full of good examples of people doing almost anything to avoid making difficult decisions - ones where there is no clear, obviously better option, but the one that best highlights the conflicted drivers of consumer behaviour, is the jam experiment.

A supermarket experiments with sampling - alternating between offering 6 and 24 different flavours of jam to try. The 24 jam table always attracts more people [we love choice - amongst all those options there must be the right jam for me] but, having been attracted, they were forced to make a difficult decision [arrgh there are too many to choose from, lots of them are good, I just don't care this much about jam] which ultimately led to the 24 jam display selling 1/10 as many jars as the 6 jar table.

Dramatically increasing the number of options dramatically decreases the propensity to purchase.

Decisions with lots of options cause anxiety, paralysis, proleptic regret and a bunch of other negative responses mentioned in the Ted talk above. They increase the effort invested in the decision, the opportunity cost of any choice you make and ultimately can diminish the enjoyment you get from anything you do choose - the book explores these negative psychological effect in detail and suggests a strategy to avoid them, which is essentially lower your expectations and seek to make good enough, rather than the best, possible decision (satisfice don't maximise).

But we've developed another way to help deal with this problem, at least at the supermarket: brands.

We spend a lot of time thinking about what brands are and how they work - I started to wonder what they were for.

Brands are good for companies - they increase frequency of purchase, allow you to charge a price premium, drive loyalty, are a defensible competitive advantage and contribute massively to the intangible asset value of a company.

But what's the function for consumers? What value do they offer to individuals that leads to the non-rational behaviour that drives shareholder value?

The function of brands has evolved as the economy does. In early capitalist economies, economies of scale create large corporations that distribute across massive areas. Brands function as trustmarks, ensuring that you get what you expect.

But in hypercapitalist economies, we achieve functional product parity, which means that every minor purchase decision becomes difficult - there is no clear, obviously better option - which makes a supermarket a very uncomfortable prospect.

Brands come to the rescue: they function like heuristics - the take away the need to make decisions, take away the pressure of pretending to ourselves that we are rational economic agents, prevent us from breaking down every time we want some jam, by providing us with a simple rule of thumb: go with what you know.

Even if you don't choose the market leading brand in the category (although you usually will, by definition) you can anchor the category to it, allowing you to make a decision in relation to it.

So, as emotions are the lubricants of reason, brands are the lubricants of commerce.



Content and media are weird words.

They are the antonymic binary stars that all our industries circle around, feeding of the energy they pump out into culture.

They don't really exist without each other. Even in the very specific sense in which we use the words, they are both defined by what they are not.

A medium is a vector for content.

Content is that which is mediated.

Without a medium, there is no content.

Without content, you have no media.

Content might be king [or even possibly a kaiser] but all that really means, and has ever meant, is that people like stuff more than the absence of stuff.

Less facetiously, people like ideas. We live off them. We literally define ourselves by our ability to have and to hold them. But with ideas we hit another semantic issue - there is no other word in philosophy that has quite as many different flavours to it. 

I don't mean big ideas, innate ideas, platonic ideas or anything like that. Let's just say stuff in your head.  The desired result from any communication interaction. I have stuff in my head, I want to put it in yours.

Content/media is a way to do that over time and space and to many heads all at once.

Stories are one of the oldest ways of doing that. Stories survive because they are either entertaining [man's life is ugly, brutish and short, and we tend to like anything that takes our mind off that] but also because they are useful.

Originally that useful meant 'and lo did ugggg eat of the purple bush and verily did he die' [I'm doubt  that australopithecus used a bad Shakespearean register but you get the point] but later that came to be useful in the sense of telling us something about ourselves.

We are meaning seeking creatures. We think and therefore we wonder. And wondering very quickly leads us to some big [so far] unanswerable questions that underly existential despair.

So we craft myths that place us in a larger setting, and thus give us the sense that our lives have meaning.

John Lennon said "reality leaves a lot to the imagination" and stories  help resolve the contradiction between the  different kinds of human experience, physical and mental, providing our lives with a metanarrative that helps us explain ourselves to ourselves.

Brands have a similar cultural function, that allows us create and manipulate meaning in the commercial culture we operate within. As science overtook myth as the dominant paradigm for understanding the world, the importance of myths in our culture began to fade, leaving a gap we capitalists began to unconsciously fill with commercial icons, that became the myths that are brands.

Western culture is the child of logos [the opposite of mythos in Hellenistic tradition, it represents science and fact].  Without myths to provide context and meaning, we created our own around the newly powerful forces of consumerism.

Logos led us to logos.

Myths are stories that can be told in innumerable different ways without losing their core meaning. Just like brands. And right now we are learning some new ways of telling the same stories, updating the form to adjust for the current climate, which is the way it has always happened.

So, perhaps, if we can't work out how to tell these stories in a relevant way, we'll die.

Or, as an industry, we'll evolve.

Just like during the Cambrian explosion, lots of new kinds of brand meme carriers are going to try and find a niche to inhabit.

And lots of new kinds of agency will be born and some will die.

But some will survive and thrive.

Bring the Love Back

Microsoft have launched a trade marketing campaign with a blog and this cute video, showing the end of the love affair between advertisers and consumers.

It's smart and funny, reminding us that being narcissistic is a sure fire way to end your relationship.

Whilst it's true that most brands are never going to have anything resembling a relationship with their customers, that doesn't mean you get to take them for granted.

[I would have streamed it but Daily Motion was being weird. Thanks to Geert I've found the Youtube version. ]

[Found via Big Secret Pizza Party]

History of Brands


History is an oft neglected part of an education in communication. I don't know how many times I've heard grown ups complain that no one has heard of Lemon today. [If you haven't heard of Lemon, go and find out quick and then pretend you had.]

Just like they told you at school, those who don't remember the past are doomed to repeat it. No wait, hang on, Lemon was part of the greatest campaign of the last century, masterminded by one of advertising's greatest thinkers.  I would love to repeat it.

Ok, then, well those who control the past control the future. Except the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there, so maybe they don't. Maybe they only control other markets.

Ok, well, let's say that history is the only laboratory we have in which to test the consequences of thought. Except that Henry Ford said that history was more or less bunk, so the results may be unreliable.

Enough aphorisms.

"Educating you on our planet's most powerful products", the history of branding site carries succinct biographies of many of the world's biggest brands, which are probably worth knowing if you work with brands.

Although that isn't actually the history of branding per se.

The Dark Side of Brands


A couple of weeks back at that APG talk, I met an interesting chap called David, one of the very few who braved the Tuesday night to come out drinking afterwards. [Note to planners - You need to come out drinking more. That's how you meet the interesting people. Seriously, it was like pulling teeth. I know it was a Tuesday in January but that's no excuse. I may have to start some kind of booze, evening based analogue of the coffee mornings. Booze evenings.]

We had a chat and he told me about his theory of Sad-vertising, which I found very interesting. In an Admap article, and now on his blog, he posits that negative emotions are underutilised in advertising:

Sad-vertising spurns the convention of using upbeat positivity to stimulate trivial, fluffy emotions in the consumer. Rather it embraces a downbeat tone which flies in the face of superficiality, acknowledging that people, emotions and real life are a confusing mess of ups and downs, all blended into one and nonetheless enjoyable, meaningful and powerful for it.

David has already managed to get Eric du Plessis, of The Advertised Mind and Millward Brown, into the conversation - head over to Feel Anything to check it out.

When I spoke to David I mentioned his thinking resonates strongly with some ideas that my mate Adam, from Naked Down Under, has been developing [both Adam and David are trained psychologists - I suspect this is unlikely to be a coincidence].

Adam has been talking about the Dark Side of Brands as the next stage in the evolution of branded communication. To summarise, in the 1980s brands were all yang: superficial, aspirational, glossy and inauthentic: think  Pepsi, think huge logos.  In the 9os brands developed a more authentic voice, reflecting our values not our aspirations: think Dove, Innocent, Body Shop, Big Brother.

Now, brands need to embrace their shadows. Shadows are qualities deemed unacceptable and thus are usually hidden, by brands and by people. But if brands could tap into their shadows, they would allow consumers to express and normalise the negative feelings they all have, and thus build much stronger relationships with them.

To create stronger, robust, believable brands, we must turn to the dark side.

All of which brings me back to something Jon Steel said at the APG talk. Or rather, something he didn't say. He showed an example slide from a pitch document but didn't talk it through, that highlighted the fact that great brands resolve contradictions: Apple makes computers human, Persil makes dirt good, that sort of thing.

And this helps explain further why brands need to express their dark side. The dark side allows them the complexity required to resolve these contradictions. In fact, it is in the resolution of contradicitions that the role of brands may be seen to lie.

Brands function in the realm of myth. Myths are inherently complex and polysemous - this is why I fall down on the complexity side of the brand arguement. And the cultural function of myth, according to Levi Strauss who knew a thing or two about them, is to:

"provide a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction."

Life is full of contradictions. Brands, like myths, provide a metanarrative that helps people find meaning and thus resolve them.

Which is why we have Dark M&Ms.

Brands: Socially Constructed Reality


The definition of a brand that I see used most often is Paul Feldwick’s, the eminent sage of DDB:

“A brand is simply a collection of perceptions in the mind of the consumer.”


This is great because it constantly reminds us that, as Mr. Bullmore has pointed out:

Brands... are made and owned by people... by the public... by consumers.

This definition is part of the orthodoxy of planning and reflects the planner’s classic role as the voice of the consumer. It also led to a conceptual rift between two kinds of brand equity – that which exists in someone’s head and that which can exist on balance sheets as a form of intangible asset: almost all text books make this division very clearly.

I don’t think this definition is entirely adequate. And I think, with a slight reformulation, we might able to also begin to resolve the division between brands in our heads and brands that have a dollar value to accountants.

In the next few lines following the above quote in the article Posh Spice and Persil [a must read], Bullmore points out:

The image of a brand is a subjective thing. No two people, however similar, hold precisely the same view of the same brand.

And of course this is absolutely true. And yet it’s also not true. My image of a particular brand will be subjective – as my image of a chair is – and yet it will exist in relation to an understanding of the collective perception of the brand.

Wittgenstien argued that there is no such thing as a private language: a language unintelligible to anyone but its originating user is impossible – it couldn’t function as a communication medium for a start but also there would be no way for a user to assign meanings to its putative signs.

Equally, an individual brand makes no sense. My understanding of any brand exists in relation to the collective understanding of the brand. In fact, that collective intentionality dictates what the brand means – it assigns a type of status function on to an otherwise commodity product. I may personally disagree but I know what I'm disagreeing with - the collective perception. Brands can only exist if there is a collective perception of what they stand for.

This is what allows brands to be used in defining, or constructing, an identity and all those others things that brands can do up the top of Maslow’s hierarchy. If all that mattered is what I personally thought about the brand, it would be unable to perform any social functions at all.

So, let’s put forward a reformulation:

A brand is a collective perception in the minds of consumers.

This is why I think Mark’s work on the Herd could be so important in understanding the nature of the relationships between brands and people, as well as how people behave.

But how does this help resolve the division between brands in the head and brands on the balance sheet? Because by making it a collective perception, we can turn a brand from an opinion into a [type of] fact.

Here I’m going to steal heavily from John Searle, who wrote about the construction of social reality. In essence, he argues that, collectively, subjective opinions can create epistemically objective reality.

This seems counter intuitive – how can everyone thinking something make it real?

But in fact we do it all the time. The best example is money. Money is only money because we all agree that it is. Its status as money is not in any way derived from the physical qualities of the coin or note and it’s no longer linked to a gold standard. In fact, most money nowadays exists as magnetic impressions on hard drives somewhere but that doesn’t matter – as long as it functions as money, as long as it can be used to pay debts – it is money. Objectively.

If I go into a shop and try and buy something with some cash, my belief in its value is no longer required – it simply is money. This also can be seen to apply to government, property, parties, wars – all these things only exist as the things they are because we think about them in a certain way and yet they do exist.

Similarly, I would argue that a brand is a form of socially constructed reality that has attained an objective reality, which is why it can have a cash value that is dependent on the totality of perceptions held about it.