Brand Thinking: Seth Godin, Malcolm Gladwell, Dan Pink, and Other Mavens on How and Why We Define Ourselves Through Stuff
“The modern version of introspection is the sum total of all those highly individualized choices that we make about the material content of our lives.”
By Maria Popova
The art of the interview may be nearly obsolete, but a handful of its contemporary masters still hold its fort. One of them is Debbie Millman who, besides being an extraordinary artist and modern-day philosopher, is also a maven of design and branding who has spent nearly a decade interviewing some of today’s most revered designers, writers, artists, anthropologists, and various other thought leaders on her Design Matters radio show, which earned the prestigious Cooper Hewitt National Design Award in 2011. Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits (public library) is the equally fantastic follow-up to the 2007 anthology How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer, culling and synthesizing some of her finest interviews with such admired minds as Daniel Pink, Seth Godin, Malcolm Gladwell, and Wally Olins.
Cumulatively, the wide-ranging conversations — often optimistic, but never without necessary friction and the intelligent push-back that is the hallmark of a great interview — underline the little-appreciated yet invaluable fact that the best way to illuminate a discipline is by exploring its darkest nooks and furthest fringes, those myriad cross-disciplinary touchpoints where it connects to the intricate web of interdependencies that is life. And in a culture where we continually make sense of life, ourselves, the world, and our place in it through the stuff we consume — be it the books we read or the brands we buy — these meditations on branding, design, and psychology reverberate through the deepest, and at times most uncomfortable, layers of our behavior, constructing a powerfully introspective framework for what it means to be human.
In the foreword, the inimitable Rob Walker provides his seemingly simple but enormously insightful definition of branding:
My view is that branding is the process of attaching an idea to some object, or to a service or organization.
In the introduction, Millman herself offers a brief history of branding:
The word “brand” is derived from the Old Norse word brandr, which means “to burn by fire.” … In 1876, after the United Kingdom passed the Trade Mark Registration Act, Bass Ale became the first trademarked brand in the world after submitting its now-quintessential red triangle for trademark status. The act gave businesses the ability to register and protect a brand marker so that a similar icon couldn’t be used by any other company. In addition to clinching trademark number 1, Bass’s trailblazing history includes its appearances in Édouard Manet’s 1882 masterpiece A Bar at the Folies-Bergère and Pablo Picasso’s 1912 painting Bouteille de Bass et Guitare, ostensibly providing the brand with the cultural distinction of “first product placement.” … A little more than a century later, we are living in a world with over one hundred brands of bottled water.
The interviews go on to explore why we ended up where we are, what might be wrong with a world of 100 brands of bottled water, and how we can begin to steer the future in a more hopeful direction. Here are some of the most poignant observations:
I would define it two ways: from the sender’s point of view and from the receiver’s point of view. I don’t want to make it overly complicated, but from the perspective of P&G or Dell or any other company, a brand might be a promise: a promise of what awaits the customer if they buy that particular product, service, or experience. From the receiver’s point of view, I think a brand is a promise … a promise of what you can expect if you use the product or service, or if you engage in the experience.
When asked whether he thinks people chose products and experiences based on that promised expectation, Pink calls on our quest for belonging:
[T]ransactions between companies and individuals — or between brands and individuals — are in their own ways conversations. A promise can be one element of a conversation. It’s what draws people in. I think that’s why the dynamic is different when you look at this conversation after someone has bought the product or the service. I think the brand can operate in a somewhat different way then. When the brand is something that an individual takes home, the brand becomes something different. The brand becomes a form of affiliation, or a form of identification—a form of status. I tend to look at it as a form of affiliation. If I open up my laptop and it has the Apple logo on it, that might make me feel marginally more associated with a group of cool, interesting people than if the computer had another logo on it. … It’s deeply tribal.
One of the most discerning observations in the book comes from Millman herself, in a riff on Pink’s words:
Brands promise a certain affiliation that we end up benefiting from — the benefits come from the association and the affiliation. Then we can use them to project how we want to be seen in the world.
If a brand is making a promise that you’re going to feel better about yourself if you buy it, they’re making a false promise. Human beings metabolize their purchases very quickly. … This is an element of what social psychologists call “the hedonic treadmill”: If you’re always looking to validate yourself and get satisfaction from buying stuff or having a bigger house, then you’re on an endless, addictive treadmill. There’s no enduring satisfaction to this. If a brand’s only purpose is to get you on that hedonic treadmill, it might be good for business in the short run, but in the long run, you’re doomed. If you look at the components of long-term well-being, it has nothing to do with material goods. Once you’re past a certain level of material well-being, people’s long-term happiness and wellbeing is about having deep personal relationships, believing in something larger than themselves, and doing something meaningful that they enjoy.
When asked about the foundation of successful brands and whether market research breeds mediocrity, Wally Olins, godfather of modern branding, answers:
If you are going to create something that is truly a breakthrough, you have to rely on your intuition and your judgment. … Finding out what people feel about things that are happening today is extremely useful. Trying to get people to tell you what will work tomorrow is useless.
Entrepreneurship guru Seth Godin questions the very notion of a “brand”:
I believe that “brand” is a stand-in, a euphemism, a shortcut for a whole bunch of expectations, worldview connections, experiences, and promises that a product or service makes, and these allow us to work our way through a world that has thirty thousand brands that we have to make decisions about every day.
The reason we keep refreshing the way so many things look is because of our ceaseless race to leverage the feelings of safety and nostalgia this old thing imparts, while simultaneously injecting a sense of newness to seduce us into reengaging in the experience.
Workaholics are driven by fear, and I have not found myself in a position where I need to spend six or eight more hours at work because I’m trying to make everything okay.
If you’re in this frame of mind and need control, being a workaholic is a socially acceptable way to try to achieve that. Your boss thinks it’s great, and you can get a raise for doing it. In the short run, it works really well because you can — at some level — control what you’re doing and keep pushing the ball forward. You get into trouble when you get better at your work, and there’s an increase in the number of people who want to interact with you and have you do more. So this kind of working method doesn’t scale— you end up exploding.
The people who are doing great art and having an impact on the world aren’t approaching their work in this way. I recently did an interview with the architect Michael Graves. Michael Graves works a lot. He’s been in a wheelchair for more than seven years. He would be excused if he decided to scale back now after what’s been an amazing career. But, instead, he’s working on a multibillion-dollar development in Singapore, etc., etc. If you look at the way Michael works, he brings a good heart and the right attitudes to his projects at all times. He is doing important work — work that changes things. But he’s not a workaholic because he’s not doing it defensively. He’s doing it productively.
In explaining his concept of “designocracy” — the democratization of design — celebrated industrial designer Karim Rashid shares in the frequently blurred distinction between design and art, lamenting:
I’ve made couches that are very expensive, and they embarrass me now. But the reality is that I’ve learned. I know how to make people love design. The way to accomplish this is by designing democratic things. Our iconic designers are making things that are inaccessible. This is wrong. Design is not art.
An artist is somebody in a particular field who wants to make change, and doesn’t use a textbook to figure out what that’s going to be. They actually write a new textbook, and they move the profession forward. They evolve the profession. The artist is someone who seeks to do something original. That’s it. For many years, industrial design was a service industry. A company came along and told you how to make things. I came to this profession not wanting to do that. … For me, design has become a democratic art, because it allows everybody to have nice, beautiful things that make their lives more pleasurable, or more enjoyable, or more artistic, or more emotional, or more expressive, or whatever. But this “democratic art” is not art.
The tension between branding and the moral unease surrounding consumerism is a quiet yet palpable undercurrent in many of the conversations, and Rashid addresses it head-on:
I have no issues with consumption. I have issues with consuming things that we don’t need and that are badly made. I have issues with things that break down or cause harm. But there’s nothing wrong with consuming. A lot of what we consume gives us a better life. Our quality of life is better today than it’s ever been in our history. That’s a fact. Even if one-quarter of the world doesn’t have fresh drinking water, the reality is that the majority of the world is living a better life. Why is that? It’s because the things that we have in our lives make our lives better. You could argue that the original intention of design is the betterment of society.
In considering the power of design, Rashid echoes the famous Penguin design tenet that “good design is no more expensive than bad” and ponders rhetorically:
People are realizing the power of design on every level. Look, people invest money to make things, so why can’t they be beautiful? Why can’t they work? If something has to physically exist in the world, why can’t it be uncategorically better than whatever else is on the market?
One of the most provocative interviews, with advertising-rockstar-turned-conscious-consumption-champion Alex Bogusky, examines “the dissonance of his current work and past history.” In explaining his credo that “fear is the mortal enemy of innovation and happiness,” Bogusky admonishes that too many of us are driven by fear, but are rarely afraid of mediocrity — the real danger, which we naively fall back on as an antidote of fear. He argues:
If you’re afraid of mediocrity, you have to push past wherever mediocrity lives. A lot of people believe that there is a right and there is a wrong, and that there are creative rules. I think that trying to figure out what’s the right or wrong way to do things is a form of fear. This inhibits people, and holds them back. In creative departments, you need to create a culture where you can break lots of rules.
When asked why he left advertising after his rapid rise to stardom and status as the industry’s favorite wunderkind, Bokusky strikes at the most painful disconnect of capitalism and consumer culture:
The world was different because, at the time, we weren’t aware that we were bumping up against the physical boundaries of our ecosystem.
That’s the big change that has occurred. People have become aware of this at different times. Al Gore has known it for thirty years. For me, it’s been five. I realized that the current processes of capitalism are not going to provide a happy outcome. And yet people are beginning to redesign many aspects of business and industry. I felt that advertising was not in the center of this change — in fact, it was clearly outside where these changes were being made. I tried to take that kind of thinking to our clients, and our best thinking was not finding a very receptive audience. Actually, I shouldn’t say “our best thinking.” I felt like my best thinking wasn’t finding a receptive audience. … I felt like I was the tail trying to wag the dog.
In discussing how consumerism began as a movement to protect consumers and mutated into a signifier of overconsumption, Bogusky traces the shifting history of the word:
Words get corrupted, changed, and moved around, but the idea of consumers being empowered actually began with the term “consumerism.” when I started thinking about this, I went back and looked to see if there was a consumer’s bill of rights. I not only found that one existed, but I also discovered that John F. Kennedy wrote it in 1962 — in 1962. There was a lot going on at the time — the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam, and civil rights battles. Yet, somehow, he thought this was important. He authored the Consumer Bill of Rights, and it is amazing. Its principles are dated now, but the reality is the relationship between company and consumer has evolved and can evolve further. But we need to have more democracy in the relationship — in most cases, we’re talking about putting more democracy into capitalism. It’s not a democratic system right now.
On the role of design in shifting the balance, he offers:
Design has to instruct culture, and then culture makes the change. … The power of design is that it can start to create the awareness.
Bogusky notes the often ironic dualities of consumerism and anti-consumerism:
There is a “badge” value to brands that is probably both good and bad. I was originally going to suggest it might be all bad, but I’m not really sure it is . . . But maybe it is. If you take a very Buddhist perspective on this and notice that you have this inclination to badge yourself in order to feel worthy, then that is certainly a problem. You may still be able to take a Buddhist approach and consider badging yourself only with things you’re a fan of. And that would be okay, I guess. Then again, thinking about Buddhists— they wear the robes. That’s basically . . . a brand. It’s an impossible irony to avoid.
He revisits the swelling cognitive dissonance that led him to leave the advertising business:
The industrialized food system has changed the food for everybody in it. The problem is not necessarily McDonald’s or Burger King, or anyone in the food system. It’s the system itself that has subsidized the overfarming of corn and soy. Now corn and soy get cut up, sliced up, diced up, and turned into all sorts of different things. These kinds of transformations have also changed our beef system. So the beef that I ate as a kid isn’t anything like the beef that we eat now. As those realizations came to me, there was a values conflict. But that process only started about two years go. … As I looked at trying to bring the agency in line with where my values were moving, I couldn’t do it without firing two hundred to three hundred people. I didn’t feel that people should lose their jobs because my values had shifted and theirs hadn’t. That didn’t seem right. Particularly since I wasn’t 100 percent certain that I was correct. So I can’t say that I feel guilty.
You know what I feel guilty of? I feel guilty of not working harder to understand things earlier, when I could have.
Most of the decisions we made, we made with heart. The only things we screwed up were decisions where we only used our head.
Design anthropologist Dori Tunstall, who has “the ability to make seemingly esoteric issues grittily relevant to the real-world endeavor of design and branding” and “can make connections between social theory and design, between religion and creativity,” sheds light on the crux of her relatively nascent discipline:
Design translates values into tangible experiences. Anthropology helps you understand those values and how the process of making things actually defines us as semi-uniquely human. Design research attempts to understand design and the design process in order to improve it.
When asked whether worship is one of the signifiers of what it means to be human and a centerpiece of our creative capacity, Tunstall reflects:
There’s been a lot written about the evolution of creativity. One hypothesis is that creativity comes from our need to make things special. And this relates to worship because worship allows us to identify things in order to make them special.
We know very little about the symbolic life of animals, but one of the most fascinating aspects of human beings is our great capabilities to create and interpret symbolism, as well as our ability to make abstractions concrete. In many ways, this is the genesis of creativity.
The notion of making things special and the identification of something as special or unique — and the relationship to that thing as special and unique — are the heart of worship and the heart of creativity itself.
Of the ritualization of buying, she notes:
We almost always used “things” as a way to identify ourselves and to identify others. Let’s start with the human body. In traditional cultures, the art of tattooing was about social coding. A certain number of tattoos meant you’ve been married. Another number of tattoos meant that you’ve had children. This many tattoos meant that you’ve killed a lion. Nowadays, we have a tremendous emphasis on dress and makeup and in our rituals of buying. I use the word “rituals” very specifically. But our rituals of consumption are no longer as satisfactory to us … because they are empty of human relationships. There was recently a wonderful study done on garage sales. When people go to a garage sale to buy something, they actually feel very satisfied about the interaction. Most of the time, it’s because the object they buy comes with a story—a very real, personal story about where the object fit into someone’s life. Whether it’s real or not, you connect with that person through the object. So when you take the object, your purchase of it is more satisfactory. Whereas right now, when you go now to a store, there seems to be a lot of emphasis on branding that tells authentic stories in order to … sell more stuff.
In addressing the issue of why we’ve ended up with 100 brands of bottled water, which Tunstall recognizes is unnecessary and an exploitation of illusion, she offers a historical context:
Culturally, this all goes back to the 1920s during the shift from commodities to branded commodities. The force of competition along with the force of mass services and mass products made branding necessary. Sugar didn’t need to be branded when only the most wealthy and elite of the French aristocracy could afford it. The brand of the king was more important than the brand of the sugar. But once sugar became cheap and accessible for everyone, those who wanted to profit from sugar needed to distinguish themselves from the guy down the street who also wanted to profit from it. The same goes for the plantation in Haiti versus the plantation in the Dominican Republic.
But Tunstall herself, who has served as managing director of Design for Democracy and organizer of the U.S. National Design Policy Initiative, inhabits the flip-side of this conception of design as a force of capitalism and unbridled consumption:
I’m trying to use design and design technologies to make values more tangible and apparent to people. Design is not all about mass consumption and unbridled capitalism.
Values like equality, democracy, fairness, integration, and connection are values that, to some extent, we’ve lost. Design can help make those values more tangible and ultimately express how we can use them to make the world a better place.
Meanwhile, Malcolm Gladwell is more skeptical of the branding world and, specifically, the grab-bag nature of the term “branding” itself:
I have the same feeling toward the word “brand” as I do toward the word “Africa.” “Africa” is an incredibly problematic word for me. It’s a word used with great frequency to describe an intricately complex area made up of people, countries, and cultures that have no more in common than we do with Uzbekistan. But because it’s a convenient word, and a well-known word, and a geographically defined continent, we use that word to sum up and generalize everyone who lives within the continent. In a way, it really is unfair. But we’ve inherited that framework, and I think we’d be better off if we banned the word entirely. Getting back to “brand,” the word has similar implications. Yes, it’s of much smaller consequence — it’s a trivial example of the same problem, but it is a problem. The word gets thrown around so recklessly that I wonder whether we wouldn’t be better off setting it aside. Instead, if we could use more specific words that zero in on what we’re really interested in discussing, it would help the conversation.
When pushed to propose a better semantic framework, Gladwell takes branding apart and examines some of its key components:
I would start by trying to distinguish the different dimensions of “brand,” because there aren’t an infinite number of them. “Reputation,” for example, is a large component of “brand.” But very often, it’s the part of brand that you can do very little about. Reputation tends to be very stable. … [T]his can be very problematic, because you can quickly get into areas where you see that different organizations’ reputation scores don’t correlate well with more objective measures of their performance.
So what exactly is reputation if it’s not something that actually corresponds to how well an organization performs in the marketplace? We have the word “brand,” and a big chunk of it is this thing called reputation, and this thing called reputation is disconnected from notions of quality. This makes me think that I should treat reputation separately from the other elements of brand.
Much like the problem with the word “curation,” Gladwell resists the overuse and overapplication of the word “brand”:
The more broadly you use the word, the less useful it is as a way of distinguishing or describing complex phenomena. I object to its lack of precision.
On brands as uncomfortable pillars in the architecture of identity, Gladwell observes:
[T]he things people put on display inevitably generate a kind of inertia. In a world where we now have extraordinarily efficient ways of communicating and displaying, the question of who you are becomes incredibly complicated.
I think that brands are a part of this. When you surround yourself with certain kinds of objects, they become a public statement about who you are. There are hundreds of choices that are necessary to fill out your life with objects and things, and I think that requires an inner logic as well.
Maybe the modern version of introspection is the sum total of all those highly individualized choices that we make about the material content of our lives.
Above all, Gladwell argues, branding has shifted our relationship with products and services from one of utilitarian and passive consumption to one of political, highly engaged civic participation:
[O]ur material choices as consumers are no longer trivial. They are now amongst the most important choices we make. They have consequences well beyond our own selves — they have global consequences. They have consequences on our economy, on the community we live in. When you eat a McDonald’s hamburger, you are casting a vote for a certain kind of agricultural system, and for a certain kind of climate. In a sense, everything we do casts a vote for a certain kind of world. And this isn’t true in the same way it was one hundred years ago, or if it was, we weren’t aware of it. We weren’t forced to make that connection because our world wasn’t being driven on this macro level by the sum total of consumer choices — at least not in the same way. So it makes perfect sense that when you decide what car you’re going to buy, you think long and hard about the choice, and when you drive a Nissan Leaf, or a Chevy Volt, you’re saying to the world, “These are my values. This is the kind of world I want.”
Like Buckminster Fuller, who has argued against specialization and philosopher Roman Krznaric, who believes the cult of specialization ushered in by the Industrial Revolution is holding us back from finding fulfilling work, Gladwell ends on a note of admonition against the compartmentalization and labeling that confine our ever-shifting, multifaceted personalities:
At a certain point this takes us further away from meaningful human interaction, not closer. I have the same reaction to that as I have to people who take the Myers-Briggs test, and then declare to the world that they’re an “INTJ.” It’s not useful or helpful to define oneself according to this crackpot, incredibly narrow, restrictive personality typing system, and then tell the world, “This is who I am.” No. It’s not who you are. Human beings can’t be reduced to four letters. Fast-food franchises can be reduced to four letters because they’re selling the same burger over and over again, in the same context, and in the same kind of building, according to the same kind of rules.
I think that we should be fighting pigeonholing, not enabling it.
An indispensable introspection tool for modern life, Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits takes our relationship with the material world — a relationship that is at once inevitable and brimming with ambivalence — off of autopilot, inviting us into the driver’s seat of consumer culture and strapping us in with a very, very well-designed seatbelt. Complement it with a free subscription to the fantastic Design Matters on iTunes or SoundCloud.
Published May 1, 2013