When I write blogs or articles about branding, I like to start by reminding myself of a simple, though maybe uncomfortable truth which is: Brands do not actually exist. Yes, we create physical things that give brands a physical presence, but the idea of ‘brand’ is purely a figment of our collective imagination. To put it another way: Brands are a construct of the collective imagination we have developed with other people, over about the last 70,000 to 80,000 years.
When I was growing up, we were always told not to gossip – only bad things would come of it. But it is, in fact, a critical part of our social system. It’s through gossip that we share ideas and express our feelings on literally anything that interests us. Gossip is so important because it is unstructured and has no predefined outcome. It simply allows us to express what we’re thinking and feeling, without boundary or limitation.
One of the ideas that came from this gossip is the idea of ownership. And after ownership was established in our collective belief, the concept of brand soon followed. Brand was developed to define one person’s ownership of something over another’s. For example, a branded cow or a minted coin. And brands continued to exist as this simple method of defining ownership for many years, until the introduction of the free market, mass production and mass marketing in the mid-19th century. As soon as mass produced packaged goods came on the scene, choice increased and manufacturers had to work much harder to explain why their products were different and more suitable for us, the consumers.
The role of branding evolved from being a way of simply defining ownership to a complex system of defining why one product is better than another; or more relevant to my needs than another; or why one product is more suitable for me, because both the product and I share some unique characteristic or personality trait. Getting people to agree that a symbol on a sheep’s behind signifies that I own that sheep rather than you, is one thing. Getting people to believe that the shape, colour and marking on a bottle signifies shared values, characteristics and personality traits is quite another.
But whether you’re using a brand as a mark of ownership or, more recently, as a way to define, differentiate or trademark, it’s good to remember that they can only exist if we all willingly collaborate in their existence. Put another way, brands only exist if we believe: if we believe in what they claim to be, what they claim to do, and what they claim to mean, and have in common, with us. This is a collective phenomenon, because this belief needs to tap into the collective discoveries, agreements, and consolidation of ideas that we’ve all developed together through millennia of ‘gossip’ and that we now share.
It’s for this reason that effective modern-day brands rely on the power of archetypes to define their character and personality. Just as a film script will use archetypes to develop the personality and behaviour of the film’s characters to make them more believable to us, a brand will use archetypes to develop human-like qualities and characteristics that make it more believable to us.
But we’ll leave the archetype discussion for another day because there’s lots more to say about them! The thought I want to end with is this: the evolution of ‘brand’ is very much in sync with the evolution of people; as our systems of belief and social interactions have become more sophisticated, brands have evolved to give us new and exciting things to believe in and interact with.
In my next blog, I’m going to take the conversation a step further, and talk about a brand that has tapped into our collective beliefs to such an extent that it has not only transformed the way we think and feel about quite an ordinary thing, but has helped define the culture of entire nations.
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