Tuesday, June 14, 2016

#econfPSU Keynote The Third - Debbie Millman "Why Branding?"

MySpace and Beyond

Debbie was asked why MySpace, back in the day, did so well...based on its brand.  And she didn't know.  She went to MySpace, created a user ID, thought the UI was awful, and never went back.  She realized that MySpace was started two years earlier as an online storage site, but Debbie still didn't know why it had gotten so popular.

She did TONS of work and research on that very topic (including two books on branding significance) and FINALLY landed on an answer...which she's going to reserve for the end of the keynote.  Well played, Ms Millman...well played.

Back In Time

Debbie went back in time to how we branded to begin the process of picking apart the WHY as to how MySpace got big.  One of the first things she looked at was a supermarket...there's 100's of different brands of WATER...coffee?  Similar.  Hell, you go into your local Starbucks, there is nearly 19 MILLION possible combinations.  But they all look, fundamentally, similar.

Then there's the "anti-branders"...Adbusters, NoLogo, Buy Nothing Day...they're full of it, because they brand themselves.  So WHY...WHY do we feel the need to create new brands/branding?

Debbie went into a rabbit hole and landed on the conditions that lead to the conditions...50,000 years ago, no less.  At this point, our brains underwent a genetic mutation (a 3 in one brain) and they respond to markedly different stimuli than what they had.  It essentially became the "Big Brain Bang" or "The Great Leap Forward".  It's how we became the species we are today...no big deal, right?

Debbie covers the three portions/levels of the brain...reptilian, mammalian, and the true human element.  The "Big Brain", if you will, handles the cultural universals: Language, art, music, cooking, and self-decoration.  And it was at this point in our evolution that we started to focus on two things: Making or Marking.

Making or Marking

Our understanding of reality begins to be recorded on cave walls.  There's very little difference between cave paintings and what we put on our Facebook wall.  We start to apply makeup 10,000 years ago, to make ourselves more attractive to an almighty god, then create symbols to further explain the concept.  Crescent shields and flags begin to appear to designate friend v foe on the battlefield.  We used it because there was no way to mass produce uniforms, so flags it was.

The word "Brond" derives from "to make or mark with fire".  Livestock begin to be "marked", wooden surfaces, etc...Trademarks come into being in January 1, 1876.  The very first trademark was Bass Ale (yesssssssssss).  The first place the logo was seen in an advertisement (1882) was in an oil painting. 

So, what's happened since then?

5 Waves of Modern Brand Evolution

Wave 1 (1875-1920

Brands were guaranteed to be of quality and "premium".  People would spend an extra bit of money for something that was in a special kind of packaging.  Condensed soup, soap, Coca Cola...if you took a train from State College to California, anywhere you got a Coke you could expect it to be the same no matter where.  They'd be safe and they'd be of quality.

Wave 2 (1920-1965)
Ads and brands become Anthropomorphized - They were no longer reliant on a person or quality...they were about competition and differentiation.  Personality of a brand comes to the fore front.  Betty Crocker, Uncle Ben's, etc...these brands weren't based in reality...they were fictitious.  BUT, people thought they were real...and that's all that mattered.  You could relate to and project onto a character.

Wave 3 (1965-1985)
Brands become self-expressive statements:  The brand I'm wearing, carrying, or using says something about you.  If I'm wearing Levi jeans, I'm cool as shit.  A brand, at this point, could provide status.  It signified something about the carrier.  Levi, Nike, Marlboro, Volkswagen...Marlboro man hasn't been in an ad for 20+ years, and Debbie's undergrad students can still identify him without fail.

Wave 4 (1985-2005)
Brands as an experience:  From the brand, you would expect an emotional transformation.  Disney, Apple, Starbucks...if you engage with these brands, you would have a different emotional feeling about not only yourself but life itself.

The Path to Wave 5 (2005-present)
Our brains feel happiest when we are securely attached to those who take care of us.  BUT, now more and more people are living alone.  1 in 3 households, present day, are single person households and the perception of this has changed COMPLETELY.  SO...why was MySpace so big?  Sitting around the radio, black and white tvs, color tvs, cell phones...where next?

Pre-YouTube, Pre-Facebook, what were we doing online?  Emails, playing games.  That's it. 

Enter the iPod and "Isolation Nation" - Critics wrote that civilization was doomed because we were only interested in what was happening on our device.  Per James Katz, "The iPod psychologically depopulates social space view and increases isolation and anomie".  What does this mean for a species whose brains are wired to harmoniously resonate with one another?  What happens?

WE ADDRESS IT.  Enter Social Media.  And THAT'S how Social Media became so popular.  Wave 5, then, is branding as a connecter.  We're not in love with the device, we're in love with the feeling of connectivity we get from said device.  Social, shopping, dating, education...they're all in it.

So, Why Do We Brand?

Ultimately, we create brands to create tribes to help us feel bigger than we actually are.  What's alarming, though, (predicted by Henry Miller in 1938) is that no matter how much we increase the wage earning of the individual, they're always looking for the next rung.  If we are using the largest possible flat screen TV to equate happiness, we are kidding ourselves.  That feeling only lasts for a short period of time...the dopamine fades fast.

We are metabolism machines, and this also includes our feelings.  When you first meet someone, it's magic.  First six months of dating, awesome.  2-5 years later, you complain about how the other person breathes.  The same thing holds true in the social arena...the next Generation (D), where D = depressed, struggles to keep up with this "manufactured online presence".

We need to rethink the purpose of the brands we're manufacturing.  And it comes down to three things:

1.) Help People Feel Connected
2.) Inspire People To Feel Okay AS IS
3.) Make a Difference In People's Lives


Incredible talk about an angle I, as a mere consumer, have never considered.  Takeaway-wise, I'm going to be taking a much longer, harder look at how I consume, purchase, and (ultimately) brand myself.  Great retrospective on branding and society in general.