Branding The (UN)Brand

In a recent New York Times Magazine, writer (and fledgling psychotherapist) Lori Gottlieb bemoans her entry into the grim circus of capitalism. Recently graduated, she finds herself in a Manhattan market chockfull of psychotherapists (go figure). She must now, to her horror, figure out how to market herself. Gottlieb is surprised to learn that there are actually people to help her do that. But. “I couldn’t imagine hiring a branding consultant to lure people to the couch,” she writes. “Psychotherapy is perhaps one of the few commercial businesses that doesn’t see itself as one….Branding is the antithesis of what we [do].”

Gottlieb’s regard for branding, although a bit misguided, is not unusual. Universities, artists, religious groups, and some professions reject the notion they must be promoted, marketed, or attached to any sensibility akin to the dark arts of branding. Some even project a rabid antipathy for brands, or even suggest the end of brands.

At a minimum, they reject and repel any sense of being brandwashed.

Consumers who don’t want to be sold.  The gesture itself is an act of defiance against commercialism and any ideals identified with a logo. It may seem different, but even those who rally around that defiance have, in a sense, branded themselves. Popular Japanese brand Muji (the name literally means “no label”), for example, sells to that group that sees itself as brand-less.

This notion (and Lori Gottlieb’s) springs from a misunderstanding of what brands really are. So let’s clear that up. Brands are communities of people driven by a common belief or point of view. And insofar as a brand is nothing more than a community of people with shared beliefs, brands are still as relevant, as resonant, and as vital as ever.

No one is trying to trick us into buying something. There are no breasts in the ice cubes. No psychologically hidden messages buried in the soundtracks in TV adverts. Brands are a succinct impress of ideals, values, sensory cues, and experiences.

What (un)brands clumsily try to declare is that brands have outlived their purpose and no longer matter. Not so fast. Brands are consensual communities driven by a core belief system that attracts others who share those beliefs. People can opt-in or opt-out of the brand. They can participate (or not) in shared community engagements and/or experiences. (It is the accumulated engagement of experiences that stimulates feelings of “brand”.)

Brands are backed by popular consent. No matter if they are cult brands, tribal brands, love brands, large brands, or small brands, insofar as they are communities of people drawn together by a central ideal, they are brands. Just as Apple, Starbucks, Nike, are brands. Just as Threadless, OBEY, and Brooklyn are brands. Just as U.S.A. is a brand.

Whether it is Burning Man, the Black Label Bike Club (a Brooklyn bicycle club that wears colors), the Bolshoi, or an East Side psychotherapist, each of these entities have core principles, icons, rituals, a specialized vocabulary they use to describe themselves, a paradoxical ideal they struggle against, not to mention a founding mythos and leader.

In other words, the building blocks of community and Brand.

There are rules. There must be a common understanding. There must be conversation. They must have a shared purpose or vision. And modern brands must necessarily be engaged in the accordion fold of social conversations.

We might wonder why. As human beings, we have a primal instinct to instantaneously profile people, the weather, inanimate objects, and situations. Our brains are instinctively hard-wired to tell us whether we should approach or avoid. Our brains are also hard-wired to bring human beings together to form protective groups and clans. If we are hard-wired to be communal, as scientists claim, then we are also hard-wired to accept brands.

Is Burning Man a curious annual Happening that draws thousands of men, women and children to a sacred space in the Black Rock Desert of northern Nevada, or is it a Brand? Yes. And yes. Its functional status is as a spiritual and recreational space. But Burning Man is also a brand that radiates with sacred rites, treasured icons, shared values, soul yearning, creative endeavor, and its own lexicon, and leadership. The event reminds us of what we might become and what we can never be. Its power as a brand community allows its values to be spread across interdisciplinary media including video and film, coffee table books, journals, blogs, magazine articles, tweets, and personal narrative.

A brand is a mutuality of consent. A promise of trust and shared values. A common regard. Because we share the same values, ideas or interests, we agree to be together. In one of the most advanced technological and consumerist eras of humankind, we gather around the primal fire of the burning man. Counter culture meets counterculture.

Social scientists suggest that we are hard-wired to be communal, to be part of something larger than ourselves.

Again, why? In our commercialized society, low-end estimates suggest that by the time we turn eighteen, we have been bombarded by (at minimum) 14 million advertising impressions. (High end estimates would put that at 14 billion.) So perhaps it has become second nature for us to parenthetically aspire to the hope of something new, different, the next next thing. The tillers of commerce—design, innovation, technology, manufacturing, and resources—create continual  expectations and the steady drip of dopamine tickles us forward. In ways that are simultaneously physical, emotional, and spiritual, we have learned to desire desire.

If we are dependent upon anything in modern consumerist society, it is our What’s Next? manifest destiny that keeps our eyes peeled for the horizon line, seeking out our next shiny object and (mostly) ignoring our past, which is so last season.

The desire by some to rethink and reject those values and try to snap the physical and emotional dependency for desire—is perhaps laudable. But it is important to remember that even as that paradoxical notion builds and creates a community of support it, too, becomes a brand.

Even if the thought seems to be, at least in the beginning, (un)thinkable.