By Dr.Lau Kong Cheen, - Brand Consultant at Temporal Brand Consulting
In the current article, we will focus on the provocative question that a segment of our society has raised towards branding: “Is branding morally right?”
There is no shortage of critics who claim that businesses tend to use branding as a tool to exploit and manipulate consumers. For instance, Elliot1 claims that marketers have been criticized for influencing the consumption of brands without regard for moral values. There are also those who argue that the seductive powers of brands have transformed our society to become more materialistic 2, 3. As such, brands have caused our society to become one that exhibits traits of envy, non-generosity and possessiveness. On the other hand, there are also those who contradict such claims. In research by Bone and Corey4 (2000), they demonstrated that brand managers do regard moral values to be as important as consumers perceive them to be. Brand owners recognize that it is by empathizing with the welfare and moral concerns of customers that they are able to satisfy their customers. Thus, to explore the question further, both perspectives will be examined in greater detail.
What the critics say
Let’s commence by examining what brand critics are saying. Brand critics often argue that consumers are regularly seduced into impulsive buying by the myriad brand advertisements that captivate their minds. It is claimed that the human weakness for instant gratification and vanity has been exploited, with brands promising to fulfil all consumers’ desired aspirations and emotional needs. This notion has driven some consumers to live in an ‘aesthetic’ hallucination of reality5 to such an extent that they are caught between the worlds of reality and fantasy. Let us consider these arguments in further detail concerning the criticisms of branding.
First, brand critics accuse brands of endorsing and dramatizing violence, sex, elitism and hedonism to entice the subconscious desires of consumers. In this era of “brand wars”, consumers are caught in the battle for the share of mind and voice in the market space among brands. This has urged many companies to push the boundaries of social values in their pursuit of attracting the attention of customers. For instance, a brand campaign from Skechers back in 2004 incited anger from the American Family Association (AFA) and the U.S.-based Centre for Nursing Advocacy (CNA)6. The campaign depicted Christina Aguilera in a suggestive and sexy pose while dressed in a revealing parody of a nurse’s uniform. The AFA and CAN felt that the brand campaign debased the nursing profession and concurrently demeaned women as mere sex objects.
Second, critics claim that consumers are often manipulated into becoming obsessed with the glamour, excitement, elitism and emotional appeal derived from luxury or symbolic brands. For instance, it is common to see luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton, Mercedes and Calvin Klein enticing consumers with images of success and glamour. Similarly for symbolic brands, the obsession for Hello Kitty dolls in one of McDonalds promotions back in 1999 has caused a series of mad rush by the public to possess them (see picture for illustrating the long queue!). The obsession for these dolls has caused people to act irrationally to the extent of wasting food, jeopardizing their health and losing their sense of civic mindedness. Such obsession for the symbolic gratification promised by the brands tends to transport the consumer into a world of fantasy where the emotions and expressions associated to the brand are “realized”. Once the feeling of gratification fades away and reality sets in, people will go out to shop for more. Apparently, this will help them to regain and reconnect with the fantasy that they seek.
Third, closely related to brand obsession is its correlation with the growth of the materialistic culture. Brand critics argue that the growth of materialism is partly a reflection on consumers’ obsession with brands. A materialistic outlook would evoke the compulsion to possess more branded merchandise. Such passion or greed for material goods would also drive society to embrace elitism in the belief that the possession of exclusive brands would elevate their social status. What consumers seldom realize is that the chase for elitism is a viscous cycle in which parity of perception will set in ultimately. There is only one clear winner in this instance…..the brand owners!
Fourth, critics argue that society has been influenced to evaluate or make social judgment on individuals based on the brands that they associate with or possess. For instance, a person who wears a Rolex timepiece is perceived to be rich and successful while one who is seen to wear a Timex is perceived to be a “common peasant”. Hence, “who we are” is being defined by the brands we consume. Brand critics have argued that brands consequently have made us conform to the identity mould that the brands convey rather than our individual identity. The identification is so strong that if we lose our branded possessions we will lose our identity as well.
Fifth, human activists such as Naomi Klein7 (in “No Logo”) have also accused brands of exploiting human rights. Klein argued that children in third world countries have been exploited by multinational companies with low wages; while on the other hand, exuberant prices were tagged on these products when they are marketed in first world countries. Moreover, from an economic perspective, these critics claimed that too much money has been spent on brand advertisements when they could be used to improve the miserable wages of the exploited labourers in the third world countries.
Finally, brand critics also allege that branding has been used to “brain wash” children into being brand conscious. Research has revealed that children as young as 8 are able to comprehend the status implications that are associated with different brands. A recent article in Brandweek contended that branded cartoon characters that children are familiar with are often transformed into merchandize for children8. We can easily see characters of “Sesame Street” and “Barney and Friends” filling up the shelves of departmental stores as toys, apparel and accessories. Children that are already obsessed with the cartoon characters that they watch frequently on television demand that their parents purchase merchandise that is associated with these cartoon characters.
What Branding Advocates Say
To see the other side of the question, let’s examine some of the positive impact and benefits of branding and what it really does. First, branding is about living up to a promise. It provides customers with the ability to clearly identify with the promise that each brand has to offer. Brand promise refers to the unique offering that the brand means to deliver, whether it is an expected utilitarian function or an emotional experience. The relationship that the brands establish with the customer will enable the brand to consistently stick to its promise. Brands that fail to fulfil their promises will strain the relationship with their customers and lose their trust. On the other hand, brands that continuously live up to their promise will strengthen their relationship with the customer. Ultimately, it is a win-win scenario for both brand and customer.
Brands also provide people with the avenue to construct and maintain their identity. Belk 9 and Elliot10 posit that the psychological existence of an individual is based on his/her possessions. They assert that our identity is commonly defined with items that we associate with. This psychological disposition had already existed way before brands were introduced to our social or business systems. More specifically, this disposition is innate in our human nature. Until the existence of brands, humans constructed and maintained their identity with their possessions such as their houses, tools, clothes and etc. However, the arrival of brands has facilitated a wider avenue for people to define their identity. It has given individuals a more vivid perspective to define his/her identity. Therefore, in this current age, people have a greater freedom and choice to express their personality with the wide array of brands available to them. Thus, one who is serious in projecting a sporty personality chooses Nike, while a person who desires to convey a youthful executive personality chooses Hugo Boss and Omega. Thus, it is unsurprising that research11 reveals that the stronger the relationships between the brand and the customer, the stronger the personality resonance between them.
Consumers rely on brands to avoid mental anxiety that is caused by the inconsistency between their actual “self” and the image associated to the symbolic meanings of their possessions12. Brands are commonly endowed with symbolic meanings that individuals exploit to pursue consistency between their social environment and their self identity. Brands will by nature assume a certain symbolic meaning through various means; namely advertisements, early adopters, packaging, endorsers and other various touch points. What the process of branding does is that it manages the symbolic meaning that is to be attached to the brand rather than to leave it to society to construct their symbolic perception about the brand. In short, it is inevitable that brands possess a symbolic meaning. And, it is inevitable that humans will use objects (which includes brands) to articulate their identity as a vehicle to assist them fit into their social structures or groupings.
Today, diverse brands with a wide variety of symbolic appeals exist. Our social environment has also become more complex. In each specific social environment, different personality are preferred or expected for a person to express an identity that fits well into the social grouping. For instance, a business meeting requires a competent and serious personality. This is a job for brands such as Rolex, Montblanc and Hugo Boss. On the other hand, a family outing on the beach will call for a relaxed expression of warmth. This will call for brands such as Coke, Swatch and Billabong. Thus, the concept of branding provides the platform whereby customers can select a brand that complements their desired personality as appropriate to a particular social environment. This will diminish the mental anxiety attributed to the inconsistency between one’s self and the expectations of the social environment.
People are known to be consumers of emotions. They like to enjoy positive emotions of happiness, excitement, nostalgia, love, pride and contentment. They also shy away from negative emotions of fear, anger, sadness and shame. These emotions are elicited from our interaction with our environment. Brands are also one of the elements within the environment and are sold based on the positive emotions that they can elicit. This is similar to owning and admiring a piece of art or listening to a virtuoso performance in a concert 13. Given this, the relationship between the brand and customer is often built upon experiential benefits that conjure positive emotions. Consumers no longer purchase a brand only for its functionality or service, but also for the emotional experience that it elicits. For instance, Louis Vuitton promises their consumers the feeling of pride and exclusivity in their brand usage. Singapore Airlines promises a feeling of contentment, security and warmth to their customers. On this basis, brands are commonly packaged with desired emotions. Brand touch points and communications are frequently constructed to stimulate and project consistent emotional appeals that attract and retain customers. In this vein, most brands have transformed themselves as a vehicle for channelling emotional experience that consumers sought after.
My say, your say
Branding is often defined as the building of relationship between the brand and the customer that is underwritten by a promise made by the brand. It entails endowing the brand with distinct personality and other relevant associations that would position the brand favourably to satisfy the needs of the customer. In short, the essence of branding is about relationship and living up to a promise.
To build strong and enduring relationships, be it between person and person or person and society or person and brand, trust is utmost important. Trust can only be built when there is sincerity and the desire to establish a common goal together. It’s about a win-win. Through the efforts of branding, brands have established numerous efforts to win the customers thrust. Of course, the basic requirement for trust is for brands to deliver the benefits that they promise. In addition, brands such as Boeing and Bodyshop have gone into cause-related marketing such as being environmental friendly. Brands like Coca-Cola, McDonalds, and Microsoft have gone into playing the role of good corporate citizenship by sponsoring and engaging in socially responsible activities such as building youth literacy14. Are these harmful to society or do they help society?
Cynics may argue that altruistic activities linked to branding are just a shrewd strategy for capturing the trust of the customers. Many still assert that the benefits of branding and their socially responsible activities do not justify the harm that brand critics have articulated15.Then again, is the harm attributed to branding a matter of branding itself or is it caused by irresponsible and unscrupulous actions of a few business people? Thus far, none of the comments made by the critics has been linked with customer-brand relationship that underlines the concept of branding. Most of the criticisms aimed at branding were pointed towards the exploitation of mass media and marketing communications; coupled with the uneven distribution of wealth between the MNCs and their labourers. Well, brands will assume symbolic meanings at some point in time as they integrate into our social structure, its either we allow society to dictate this or the brand owners to craft them. Thus, obviously it makes more business sense for the brand owners to managed their brand meaning rather than leave it to chance.
Branding does not totally determine how brands are visually depicted in advertisements; it only determines the personality and positioning of the brand. Nevertheless, it is totally legitimate that brands attract their customers for the right reasons. Thus, for instance, it is totally legitimate for Nike to shout that it promises top athletic performance when it really does do the job. Attraction deviates to one of seduction only when the brand promises a fantasy that it cannot deliver.
While brand obsession is partly attributed of materialism, this is a weakness that is inherent to humans. In fact, such human weakness had existed before brands were common in our society. Branding do not advocate the exploitation of such human weaknesses, it just addresses human needs. Further, the cause of our elitist social judgment behaviour is more likely attributed to the affluent society that we live in. Again, brands just happened to be exploited by people to convey their elite social status.
To conclude, is branding doing good? Is it moral? Medicines are called drugs when they are abused. Cars cause death in accidents when driven recklessly; otherwise, they are wonderful transportation vehicles. So addressing the comments by the brand critics, can we also construe that this a case of a few spoilt apples causing the entire basket to rot?
- Elliott, R. (1997), "Existential consumption and irrational desire ", European Journal of Marketing; Bradford, vol. 31 (3/4), pp. 285-296.
- Belk, R. (2001), “Materialism and You,” Journal of Research for Consumers, 1 (1), http://www.jrconsumers.com.
- Ahuvia, A. and Wong, N. (1995), “Materialism: Origins and implications for personal well-being”, in European Advances in Consumer Research, vol.2, eds. Flemming Hensen, Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research, pp. 172-178.
- Bone, P.F. and Corey, R.J. (2000), “Packaging ethics: Perceptual differences among packaging professionals, brand managers and ethically interested consumers”, Journal of Business Ethnics, vol. 24(3), pp. 199-214.
- Baudrillard, J. (1983), In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities, Semiotext, New York, NY.
- Walls, J. (2004), “Gere introduces J.Lo to Buddhism”, MSNBC, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id6207937.
- Klein, N. (2000), No Logo, New York, HarperCollins.
- Edwards, J. (2007), “Q+A: Is Elmo evil?” Book says babies are brainwashed, Brandweek.com, Link >>
- Belk, R.W. (1988), "Possessions and the extended self", Journal of Consumer Research, vol. 15 (September), pp.139-168.
- Elliot, R. ref. 1 above.
- Phau, I. and Lau, K.C. (2001), "Brand Personality and consumer self-expression: Single or dual carriageway?", Journal of Brand Management, vol. 8 (6), pp. 428 -444.
- Laverie, D.A, Kleine III, R.E and Kleine, S.S. (2002), "Re-examination and extension of Kleine, Kleine and Kernan's social identity model of mundane consumption: The mediating role of the appraisal process", Journal of Consumer Research, vol. 24 (4), pp. 659-669.
- Bradshaw, A. and Holbrook, M.B. (2007), “Remembering Chet: theorizing the mythology of the self-destructive bohemian artists as self-producer and self-consumer in the market for romanticism”, Marketing Theory, vol.7(2), pp. 115-136.
- Brierley, S (2001), “It’s time brands stood down from their moral high ground”, Marketing Week, May 3.
- Klein, N. Ref 7 above.