Does what we buy represent who we are?

This week’s episode of the delightful NPR podcast “Hidden Brain,” “I Buy, Therefore I Am: How Brands Become Part Of Who We Are,” explores how the stories that companies tell about their products impact our lives and intertwine with our identities. In the podcast, host Shankar Vedantam interviews Wharton marketing professor Americus Reed about how branding works, why it works, and why we should pay attention. It is well worth 33 minutes of your time.

What the podcast neglects to do, however, is distinguish among the different sorts of branding, a topic that I’ll take up in this column particularly as it relates to the digital future.

It’s worth reiterating that the original sense of a brand is a mark burned onto a cow in order to distinguish that cow from the many other very-similar-looking cows grazing the range. Branding at its core is about creating a distinction where there isn’t a naturally occurring one.

The three kinds of brands

The easiest way to think about the different kinds of brands is to determine how the branded products function in the lives of the people who buy them. You can tell a lot about marketers by how they refer to those people. If the marketer calls them “consumers” then the marketer isn’t interested in a two-way relationship with them.

On the other hand, if the marketer talks about “customers” (for whom buying the product is customary or habitual) or “subscribers” or “members” (often when it’s a service that is being purchased) then the marketer is interested in a beyond-transactional relationship with the buyer.

Here, then, are the three sorts of brands.

1. Functional brands exist in the customer’s mind as a way of saving precious mental energy. As I’ve written previously, we only have a certain amount of daily decision-making energy, and we don’t want to fritter it away on a close examination of different sorts of toilet paper or toothpaste.

Marketing organizations spend billions of dollars each year advertising their way into the backs of our minds to create a habit of buying their product over the generic or the other guy’s product. We do this because we don’t think it’s worth the effort to rethink which thing we’re buying.

This is why, as Professor Reed points out, many people still buy brand-name Tylenol over the identical generic even though the brand name is more expensive: they don’t want to expend the effort looking over the two boxes to figure out if they’re really the same thing. (They are.) Behavioral economists call this “availability.”

Functional brands represent most of the purchases we make in our lives.

2. Signaling Brands are a story that you tell about yourself to other people through the products you buy. If you drive a Tesla, wear Armani, or use an iPhone then in part you’re doing those things to tell other people that those brands reflect pieces of your identity–specifically that you have achieved a level of economic success and can afford to buy those products.

A signaling brand commands a premium (it’s more expensive) than its competitors because the marketer has successfully told a story about the brand that exceeds its function.

But signaling brands are vulnerable because people’s contexts change as they move through life, and therefore the stories they tell other people also change. The person who drives a BMW today may shift to a different car brand if she no longer needs to send out a signal about her success, perhaps because her success is obvious in other ways.

These other-oriented brands are also vulnerable to shifts in digital technology, which I’ll return to shortly.

3. Autobiographical Brands are a story that you tell about yourself to yourself through the products you buy. The brands may explicitly represent your values–-my friend Jeff Rosenblum calls these “passion brands” in his book Friction–-or they may simply be products that have become core to your identity.

This sort of brand/customer relationship is the hardest to achieve, is the most durable, and also will involve the smallest number of products over the span of a person’s life.

Although I have many enthusiasms, my only autobiographical brand is Peet’s dark roast coffee. I have been drinking Peet’s dark roast since my early twenties and shudder when I imagine shifting to a different coffee. When I lived in Norway for a year one of my toughest challenges was how I would get a regular supply of Peet’s. (I failed in this challenge and was unhappy with my morning coffee for most of that year.)

The stakes, and how this relates to the digital future

In addition to changing life stages and contexts, the social aspect of signaling brands means that this sort of branding is also vulnerable to new ways that people interact with each other online.

Our understanding of community has changed and expanded with the growth of focused online communities (Patients Like Me, Runkeeper) or social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat). What has also changed is to whom we are signaling and how we are doing it.

If I post about a product or purchase online, then I’m opening myself up to feedback from many more people than will see me using the product over the course of my week. Furthermore, if I post on an algorithmically-controlled social networking platform like Facebook, then what I see depends on who I interact with, what I do, as well as (secretively and therefore perniciously) who is paying Facebook to get my attention either through ads or through sponsored posts in the feed.

Although harmless if marketers use the changing nature of brand signals to convince you to try a new soda or shoe, the stakes went up in the 2016 election.

As you can see in this report created for the Senate Intelligence Committee, foreign agents used Instagram and other social media services first to aggregate a following (around, for example, a Kermit the Frog page), then to shift the following to something innocuous (Homer Simpson), and then shifted again to the “Army of Jesus” that spread misinformation.

The late philosopher Richard Rorty famously said, “We need to make a distinction between the claim that the world is out there and the claim that truth is out there.” Truth, he argued, is an agreement between people about what something means. Signaling brands work in a similar way: we agree that when a person purchases a certain product that act says something to other people either real or aspirational about the person.

However, when we no longer can have confidence that the people hearing our signals are who we think they are, then what the signals mean–and who we want to be–can become confusing.

And that can be dangerous.

[Cross-posted at the Center site and elsewhere.]

Futurist, strategist, researcher, startup advisor, writer, speaker, events veteran & family man.

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