René Magritte, Les Valuers Personnelles

Branding: It’s Only Human

Do you talk to your cat?

As humans, we tend to endow human qualities to a wide range of unlikely things. We give our pets names and we attribute to them the ability to think and understand us. We talk to the dog and the cat and the fish and the fern and allow ourselves to think that they “get” us. In fact, many pet-owners will say that their pets get them more than humans.

Our brands “get” us too!

Our brands feel the same way we do about child-labor (Nike), about ethical sourcing (Starbucks), about speed and elegance (Maserati, Alfa Romeo), about families (Apple, BMW, Heinz, Disney, McDonald’s, and many more). Our values are reflected in our brands and we choose our brands for their values.

This happens for the simple reason that a beloved brand (for us) enters into our DNA. It becomes a part of our identity, and while it is always possible to change this identifier, we only do so in changing ourselves. The change can be subtle as in a shift away from Nike to Puma, or it can be dramatic as in deleting a cigarette brand when we quit smoking. In the first case, it is a matter of our personal style and the statement it makes, in the second it is much more about deep-seated value decisions about your life. Marlboro cannot be part of your identity anymore if you have become a non-smoker.

On the other hand, people who quit smoking half-heartedly keep their identity in tact – and usually become backsliders.

Most people contain a number of brands within their personality mix. We do it in order to establish an identity both to ourselves and to the world at large. Since I am and have always been very sensitive to brands, I will use myself as a test case.

My Brands

When I am shoe shopping – which does not happen more than once a year or so – I do not go out with the intention to shop randomly until I discover what I want. If it is a new pair of sneakers, I look for Pumas. If it is work shoes, I favor Italian brands. In the first case, it is a quite specific brand. In the second, it is a specific category.

It might sound heretical to say so, but there is no quantitative difference among Puma, Nike, Converse, adidas, Reebok, or any of 20 other brands. Most have features to distinguish them, but before I leave my flat to head out to shop for them, I have already made my brand choice. I like Puma.

Why? God knows!

In my experience they do not last for more than a year without coming apart. They are less common and therefore harder to find. And they are priced at a premium compared to others. This is not a value for money choice – it is a clear brand choice.

A number of things go through my head – I like Nikes and they were among my first sneakers that I chose myself. I like how they look and feel. But I am annoyed that they are everywhere. I don’t like Reebok – the association I have with Reebok is that of a secretary walking to work with heels in her bag (that used to be a thing). And I like New Balance generally, but the name bugs me. I like Puma because it is none of these things. It seems like it is all about style. It’s about me. So my choice – in this little bit of stream-of-consciousness, which is automatically felt and never clearly articulated unless pushed to do so – is already made.

I once bought a pair on holiday because I needed a new pair (the old ones were shot) but did not find any that fit me well. But I bought them anyway and wore them for about six months while they actually hurt my feet each day.

Puma for me was an identity. It was not pushing sales down my throat. It was not about organizing contests and ten-mile runs. It simply is. And because I feel that way about the brand, I immediately filtered out the many others and concentrated my search on them.

Another of my brands includes a Mont Blanc Meisterstück pen, a brand that has been close to me for many years. I use the Mont Blanc for signing “important” documents. It is a personal ritual and part of my own brand. I also contain Alfa Romeo cars in my personal brand. Although I currently do not own one, I have had two in my life, and they are “my” car and thus a part of my brand. I will very certainly own another one again!

A few other brands – in no order – include:

Why would I include a city in my brand? For many people, their home towns are an integral part of their brands. The place where you grew up or spent your formative years becomes an integral part of your branding. For me it is Rome, Italy, even though I have lived in a number of European capitals and other countries and cities over the years. Rome is my brand without question – it is the one place that I love without needing to justify or qualify with reasons. This does not make Rome a “better” city than Paris, London, Munich, Belgrade, or Shanghai.

It makes it my city.

In all the examples above, the brands that are part of my identity are those that have had a lasting presence in my life, by my own choice. Pasta De Cecco, as another kind of example, is a remembered brand. It is unavailable in Belgrade where I am living today and I have not been able to buy it in years. But I remember how much I liked it. I can picture its logo and brand identity. I associate it with excellent pasta. And again, it may not objectively be better than Barilla or Buitoni or Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, but it is my pasta brand.

The brands we love communicate with us on a much more intimate level than those about which we are indifferent, only just “like”, or have ambivalent feelings. Looking at Place Branding (also called Nation Branding), we can break down the reasons for which Rome continues to be my brand. It appeals to a number of deep emotional triggers – nostalgia, familiarity, consistency, and trust. In Place Branding, one could use the same triggers to alter my personal brand by communicating heavily in all these areas regarding Paris, for example. It would not be a direct appeal to me – because the agencies working on Paris as a brand do not and could know me – but to the same base phenomena that attach me to Rome.

The brands that comprise me, moreover, need not be static.

Newton’s first law of motion is in play here. It is commonly stated as: “An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.”[1] In our context, it means that I will happily stick with my own personal brands until another one of sufficient impact comes along to bump the old ones out of the way.

Some will try. Many will fail. But some will get through!

 

 

 

 


 

[1] “Corpus omne perseverare in statu suo quiescendi vel movendi uniformiter in directum, nisi quatenus illud a viribus impressis cogitur statum suum mutare.” Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, Sir Isaac Newton, 1687.

 

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