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In our modern relationship with brands, who's branding whom?

In our modern relationship with brands, who's branding whom? Lauren Cascio

We love brands. Throughout his 13 albums, Jay Z name-drops 62 brand names. "The Lego Movie" -- 101 minutes of unabashed product placement -- was a runaway success. In 2015, a French couple would have named their daughter Nutella if their government hadn't intervened. What is it about a brand that induces people to tattoo the golden arches on their forearms?    

Is this a corporate takeover of our lives? Should we resent the control that corporations seem to have over us? Or, do we embrace the ability to express our identities through their creations?

For answers, we can start at the beginning of brand --- long before the first limited liability company. At the dawn of mankind, nature's visual language, like the black and yellow stripes of a wasp, helped us make sense of a complicated world. Early tribes, religions, and nations became the first true brands, representing powerful, emotional ideas. They simplified complex surroundings, created a sense of belonging, and built beliefs that were strong enough to die for.

For most of the industrial period, commerce didn't address these needs. Brands seduced us with functional distinctions, like quality and price. Ivory was touted as "soap that floats" and Campbell's was "the most delicious tomato soup you ever tasted." While a rise of competitors slowly unlocked the power of choice, they failed to connect emotionally.

Down deep, we needed more. Unfulfilled by commercial brands, we found emotional enrichment in Lennon-inspired haircuts, peace signs, and raised fists. These movements streamlined our choices and provided something to believe in and belong to.

Soon, commercial brands started catching on. In 1961, Pepsi moved its advertising from "refreshes without filling" to "for those who think young." Nike first uttered the phrase "Just Do It" in 1988, igniting not a campaign, but a lifestyle. Around the same time, Starbucks was developing the "third place" -- a gathering place and multisensory experience. Companies were learning, first through products, then with experiences and services, to embrace brand as a vehicle to fulfill our needs and enrich our lives; not just to sell more product.

This has led to an obvious shift in the balance of influence. Today's brands respond directly to our needs by satisfying us as strongly as other cultural, social, or political groups do. Service-focused brands like Airbnb sell neighbors and community, so it's understandable that we've let them into our lives and welcomed them as part of our identities. "Google" was officially added to the dictionary as a verb. Apple actually excites a neurological reaction in the brain similar to that of religious devotees. Babies are named Facebook, Ikea, and (almost) Nutella.

But just as we've let brands in, we can also shut them out. The 2010 Gap logo was recalled in a week. The 2013 Tropicana packaging update caused a 20 percent decline in sales and an almost immediate return to the original. When was the last time you thought about Blockbuster (defunct only five years ago)?

When brands connect with us, we give them power. And when they don't, we take it away. In this new era of heightened brand reciprocity, what is your bond with brands -- and who's branding who?

Lauren Cascio is senior manager, brand and marketing at Lippincott, whose exhibit "Like Me: Our bond with brands" will be coming to New York from September 26-October 7. 

On Twitter? Follow iMedia at @iMediaTweet. 

Lauren is Lippincott’s senior marketing manager, based in the New York Office. Here, she brings a design perspective to Lippincott’s brand development and communication efforts, focusing on developing and expressing the Lippincott brand.

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