Coming of age in the Mad Men era offered me exposure to what many call the Golden Age of Advertising. And well it may have been. It was then that Bill Bernbach hit on the idea of pairing a writer and an art director and sending them off to think about a product and return with words and pictures to pique the public’s interest in it. Writer-art-director teams inform almost all the advertising you see today and gave us what became the most iconic ad ever, the Think Small ad for Volkswagen — art directed by Helmut Krone and written by Julian Koenig. That was 1959, and since then, ad guys have been trying to capture our interest, occasionally breaking through the clutter of the marketplace and catching fire to become the next 1984 Apple, Where’s the Beef, or Whassup ad. These days they all want to go viral.
What was different back then is that hardly anyone — not the ad guys or the product managers or the advertisers — used the word brand. They talked about products (sometimes a service which is just a product but it doesn’t have packaging or physical properties, you know something you can actually kick or throw out or pick off a shelf or drive off a lot). Procter & Gamble is probably the most likely candidate for establishing our current concept of brands and branding, mostly because they have so many of them and was among the first to use research to help its product managers understand their products and discover why and how and when some sold better than others. It is a science I suppose. But that’s a different story for a different post. What I’m most interested in here is the term brand.
When I got into the ad business in the ’80s, everyone talked about and produced advertising for products. Things. Stuff you buy. Use up. Throw away. And if you like or need them, buy again. But over time the term brandsteadily overtook what we used to call products.
If you leaf through the Communication Arts Advertising Annual from 1987, the word brand appears NOT ONCE. In the Interactive Annual from 2014, the term appears 7 times in the editor’s column alone. Communications Arts, for those not familiar with it, is among the premier publications in the advertising trade. Getting into its Annuals is a huge deal for creative types and their agencies. It’s got columns by people whose life blood and incomes derive from succeeding in advertising. And hate them or love them, they are immersed in trying to separate you from your money on behalf of advertisers everywhere. They are brand junkies. They’re forever trying to help their clients and their brands. Hey, it’s a living. People don’t like car salesman either, but someone’s got to do it. Thing is though, they, like everyone, bought into the displacement of the term product with the word brand. But in the end, all that chatter about brands and branding comes down to selling stuff. Things.
I don’t know why the term brand supplanted the term product (or service), but it has. It has become so commonplace that you could probably ask 100 random souls what their favorite brand is and they’d have an answer. Of course, it might take some coaching. You might have to say, what’s your favorite beverage or beer or car or wireless provider (though favorite wireless provider seems like an oxymoron). In other words, you’d have to alert them to a category of things. Basically, you’d have to ask, what’s your favorite peanut butter or car or shampoo or computer or whatever. In short, you’d be asking about a thing. Not a human being. And this is where my feelings about branding drift from the norm.
Of late, we’ve all been encouraged to build or monitor or shape or revise our personal brand. It’s a saddening thought when you think about it because it asks you to think of yourself as a thing, a product, something to be purchased. People as products — things to be purchased — can have only one meaning: slavery.
You can find dozens of books and essays about building your personal brand and how important it is to have one. I’m sure some of them are helpful. The term brand, rightfully affixed to products, isn’t one I want to extinguish. But I do want everyone to remember that words matter. How we define ourselves matters. The metaphors we use to explain our identity matters. People have personalities and character and beliefs. But more importantly they have mothers and fathers and children. They live and die. They are struck with cancer. Win the lottery. Graduate college. Get addicted to drugs. Know joy and grief. Get jobs. Get fired. Go on the dole. Run for office. They constitute the big, baffling collection of mammals we call humankind. They aren’t brands. If they were, we would put Ghandi and Hitler and Beyoncé and Shakespeare in the same category as Nike and Subaru and Coke and Prada.
Some would argue that this confusion of human beings with brands isn’t confusion at all but a simple metaphor for how we describe ourselves, our habits, our predilections. And so it is that we are encouraged to have conversations with brands, think of brands as having personalities, and by all means connecting with them on Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr. But you can’t have a conversation with a thing. Well you could but it would be pretty one-sided. You can connect with a brand. You can buy it or ignore it or loathe it or put up with it. But you can’t have a human connection to it. That’s reserved for something you have with another person or a dog or cat or some living thing. Oh sure, you can read a manufacturer’s posts or tweets or pins, etc. But behind all that, there’s a person making decisions, typing away, being clever, playing a role, doing a job. Or worse, you could just be chatting away with a chatbot that’s just yanking your chain.
In his seminal essay, Politics and the English Language, George Orwell wrote: “It [the English Language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”
Let’s use the right words to the right things. Pretending we are brands, acting like we are brands, confusing our identities with product characteristics are foolish habits that diminish our souls, our responsibility to see each other as human. It allows us to see politicians as products. Workers as commodities. Our friends, colleagues, and mates as so many interchangeable parts.
Don’t ask me about my personal brand. Ask me who I am. What I’ve done. Where I’ve come from. How I can help you fix something, build something, make something, sell something. But don’t confuse me with a brand, a thing. Because, like you, I’m not a thing. I’m a human being.
©John Hofmeister. Find me at jhofmeister.com. @jwhirred. And LinkedIn.
When I'm not writing for clients, I write about things that interest me.