If 2016 was nothing else, it was a watershed year for the concept of branding. In the previous 12 months, we saw a decoupling in the two elements we have always believed make up brands. As fellow Spinner Cory Treffiletti said recently: “You have to satisfy the emotional quotient as well as the logical quotient for your brand. If not, then your brand isn’t balanced, and is likely to fall flat on its face.”
But another Mediapost article highlighted an interesting trend in branding: “Brands will strive to be ‘meticulously un-designed’ in 2017, according to WPP brand agency Brand Union.”
This, I believe, speaks to where brands are going. And depending on which side of the agency desk you happen to be on, this could either be good news or downright disheartening.
Brands have lost their position of trust
Let’s start with the logical side of branding. In their book “Absolute Value,” Itamar Simonson and Emanuel Rosen sounded the death knell for brands as a proxy for consumer information. Their premise, which I agree with, is that in a market that is increasingly moving toward perfect information, brands have lost their position of trust. We would rather rely on information that comes from non-marketing sources.
But brands have been aspiring to transcend their logical side for at least five decades now. This is the emotional side of branding that Treffiletti speaks of. And here I have to disagree with Simonson and Rosen. This form of branding appears to be very much alive and well, thank you. In fact, in the past year, this form of branding has upped the game considerably.
Brands, at their most potent, embed themselves in our belief systems. It is here, close to our emotional hearts, that lies the promised land for brands. Reid Montague’s famous Coke neuro-imaging experiment showed that for Coke drinkers, the brand became part of who they were. Research I was involved in showed that favored brands are positively responded to in a split second, far faster than the rational brain can act. We are hardwired to believe in brands — and the more loved the brand, the stronger the reaction.
So let’s look at beliefs for a moment. Not all beliefs are created equal. Our beliefs have an emotional valence. Some beliefs are defended more strongly than others. There is a hierarchy of belief defense. At the highest level are our core beliefs: how we feel about things like politics and religion. Brands are trying to intrude on this core belief space. There has been no better example of this than the brand of Donald Trump.
The nature of beliefs
Beliefs are funny things. From an evolutionary perspective, they’re valuable. They’re mental shortcuts that guide our actions without requiring us to think. They are a type of emotional auto-pilot. But they can also be quite dangerous for the same reason. We defend our beliefs against skeptics — and we defend our core beliefs most vigorously. Rationality has nothing to do with it. It is this type of defense system that brands would love to build around themselves.
We like to believe our beliefs are unique to us, but in actual fact, beliefs also materialize out of our social connections. If enough people in our social network believe something is true, so will we. We will even create false memories and narratives to support the fiction.
The evolutionary logic is quite simple. Tribes have better odds for survival than individuals, and our tribe will be more successful if we all think the same way about certain things. Beliefs create tribal cohesion.
So the question is: How does a brand become a belief? It’s this question that possibly points the way in which brands will evolve in the post-truth future.
Up to now, brands have always been unilaterally “manufactured”: carefully crafted by agencies as a distillation of marketing messages and delivered to an audience. But now, brands are multilaterally “emergent”: formed through a network of socially connected interactions.
All brands are now trying to ride the amplified waves of social media. This means they have to be “meme-worthy,” which really means they have to be both note- and share-worthy. To become more amplifiable, brands will become more “jagged,” trying to act as catalysts for going viral. Branding messages will naturally evolve towards outlier extremes in their quest to be noticed and interacted with.
Brands are aspiring to become “brain-worms.” Wait, that’s not quite right — brands are becoming “belief-worms,” slipping past the rational brain if at all possible to lodge themselves directly in our belief systems. Brands want to be emotional shorthand notations that resonate with our most deeply held core beliefs. We have constructed a narrative of who we are, and brands that fit that narrative are adopted and amplified.
It’s this version of branding that seems to be where we’re headed: a socially infectious virus that creates its own version of the truth and builds a bulwark of belief to defend itself. Increasingly, branding has nothing to do with rational thought or a quest for absolute value.