Is branding really evil?

April 05, 2014

Have you read the book “Brandwashed” by Martin Lindstorm? Quite a shocking read. For someone who has spent a lifetime building brands it was a rude awakening. Is everything he talk about true? Is branding really evil? Not so sure. Don’t get me wrong. The book is a must read for all marketers but in my opinion branding and ethical marketing are two different concepts. As a brand owner I have every right to market my product in the best way possible and in today’s competitive world means going beyond products and features to create experiences around every aspect of the brand, from the way the packaging looks and feels to the communication that goes along to market it, to the way a customer is treated after sale. However if the same is done to promote something unethically or irresponsibly then that is simply wrong. Period. And to say that it is not happening or that I have not been been involved in promoting something like that would be naive and in some way misstating the facts.

Sensory Coincidence

Let’s take marketing to babies in the womb for example. Is it really deliberate? Are marketers actively influencing babies that way? I am not so sure. But the research is spot on. The power of music is all too clear. What a baby hears while in the womb has a strong influence on how their taste develops when they grow up. Or the eating habits of a woman during pregnancy for example, not only what she eats affects preferences later in life but how much she eats. Women who gained “excessive weight” are four times more likely to have children who would be overweight in their childhood. Similarly women who smoke during pregnancy are more likely to have their children become smokers by the age of twenty-two. The biology is clear. Now for whatever reason if a certain brand is using sonic branding (an Asian shopping mall chain in this case, the name was not disclosed) to create a certain mood and pregnant women are repeatedly exposed to these sounds as they happened to frequent that mall then it is a mere coincidence that their children grew a fondness to that mall later in life. And yes those same melodies would trigger happy memories and they would be drawn to that mall over any other. But I don’t think there is anything sinister about that! In fact it is a powerful lesson on the impact of sound to build brands. And the fact that this affiliation was built in the first place had something to do with what the overall experience of the mall that trigged would-be-moms to frequent it so much.

Another case in point is the unique marketing approach by Kopiko, a popular coffee flavored candy in the Philippines. Personally I am not sure why they actually used clinics frequented by pregnant mothers to sample their product. Did they really do so knowingly to influence the tastes of newborns as their marketing strategy? Not so sure. I believe that too is simply a clever coincidence. The fact that Kopiko is now the third largest selling candy in Philippines does give some plausibility to the argument since coffee is not a flavor that would appeal to kids. The link seems obvious in retrospect. But I believe this is good example of narrative fallacy! (Daniel Kahneman would be proud :)).

Paranoia can save lives!

Of the many tactics that Martin Windstorm highlighted one of them was the use of fear. A product category, he strongly advocated, that should not exist is that of sanitizers and hand gels. His argument? They use fear and paranoia to solve a problem that the product simply can’t solve. The fact: The infections that these products were being marketed for spread through droplets in the air. If someone with the infection was to sneeze then they are likely to affect the persons nearby. Fair point. But to say that the category should not exist and that it is a useless product? I am not so sure once again. Clearly practicing good hygiene can be an effective protection against certain diseases and any product that enables this in some way has a role to play. Case in point. Let’s go back to 1847 when puerperal fever was a major cause of death among pregnant women and new borns (pregnancy seems to be a recurring theme in this post did you notice? Trust me it’s just coincidental like everything else I have talked about so far!). And this problem was not at some small made-up medical facility in the middle of nowhere but at some of the finest hospitals in Europe and one of them was the General Hospital (or Allgemeine Krankenhaus as it was known in German) in Vienna! Here at it’s peak 1 out of 6 healthy pregnant women who would go there for a delivery would die. This was a time when the concept of germs and bacteria was not common and wouldn’t be so for at least another decade or two. What was the reason? Turns out that these large hospitals were also places of research where at the time doctors were doing autopsies on patients to understand the human anatomy and some specifically to understand the causes of puerperal fever. And it was these same doctors who would move from the autopsy room to deliver babies in another and their hands would contaminate both the mother and their newborns. The story of this discovery is simply genius. Thanks to Dr. Semmelweis who single-handedly brought down the infant mortality rate from over 10% to just 1% by proposing a simple mandatory action for all doctors – to practice good hygiene by washing their hands with soap. Speaking of hygiene the proper way to wash hands in order to ensure germs are killed is a certain 40-60-second ritual which you are free to check out here! (You’re welcome!).

So what is the point? While certain infections are airborne and hygiene administered through hand gels may not address the root cause. But there are still too many diseases out there that can be prevented or avoided just by practicing better sanitization and these products can help in some way. Therefore in principle I am all for ethical marketing and making false claims to sell something is not ethical by any standard. However I tend to disagree with the larger premise of branding being evil. Regardless of my opinion there is still so much more that he has covered in his book which offers invaluable insight for any marketer and I would probably reflect on more of those learnings in a later post. For now feel free to share your thoughts on the book or this post. I would love to hear your comments either way.

Feature image by Yaoding used under Creative Commons License 3.0

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