By Lorrie Baumann
Your store’s brand, encapsulated by the stories you tell about yourself and your business, can be a powerful tool for connecting with customers, according to design and branding consultant Debbie Millman. “Take your branding seriously. People see branding as devil’s work, that you’re creating a false image in the market, that it’s based on lowest common denominator and lies, and that is not the case,” she said during a presentation at this year’s Natural Products Expo East, held September 22-24 in Baltimore, Maryland. “You want to uncover your origins and share that in a way that is authentic and compelling…. You have to capture the imagination of your consumer in a very quick way.”
Millman is also the host of the “Design Matters” podcast, the first and longest running podcast about design. Over the past 11 years, the podcast has garnered a million downloads a year and a Cooper Hewitt National Design Award. iTunes named it one of the best podcasts of 2015.
The concept of branding first became legally recognized with the passage of trademark legislation in 1876. Bass Ale was the very first trademarked brand. “I love what this says about us as a species,” Millman said. Bass Ale’s trademark application was rather quickly followed by what may be the first example of product placement: the painting “A Bar at the Folies-Bergere” by Edouard Manet. Painted in 1882, the work includes depictions of a couple of ale bottles with their Bass Ale labels clearly visible.
Brands as we know them are late 19th-century products of the Industrial Revolution, with mass manufacturing of goods that began to be distributed beyond face-to-face transactions between the individuals who made them and the individuals who used them. Brands were what guaranteed the purchasers that they were getting an identifiable, distinguishable product, even though they didn’t know personally the individuals who made it. “Stories about brands were meant to inform us, to describe what it is we were receiving,” Millman said. “Part of it was a sort of guarantee that the things we were buying were safe and unadulterated. We were supposed to be able to have the security of knowing that we were interacting with a product that would keep us safe.” Early brand leaders were Ivory Soap, Campbell’s Soup and Coca-Cola.
In about 1920, products started coming onto the market that looked very much like other products already on the market. Pepsi followed Coca-Cola; Quaker Oats was followed by other breakfast cereals. Since some of these new products’ appearance or performance weren’t easily distinguishable from their forerunners, marketers began finding other ways to distinguish their products from others, and they started creating characters that would entertain and create relationships with consumers. Betty Crocker was a complete fabrication; Uncle Ben wasn’t a real person, and yet consumers developed real relationships with brands based on the way they understood these characters. “You could relate to and project onto a character, and these stories about brands engaged us,” Millman said.
Around 1965, brands began to say more about the consumers who bought them than about the products behind them. Brands like Levi’s, Nike and Marlboro didn’t say as much about the pants, shoes and cigarettes as they did the consumers who were wearing the Levi’s jeans and the Nike sneakers and smoking the Marlboro cigarettes. “Stories about brands reflected us, what we wanted other people to believe about us,” Millman said.
Then around 1985, brands like Disney, Apple and Starbucks began to stand for an experience rather than a specific product, and consumers began responding, not just to the specific item that carried the brand but to the way that having that item made them feel. “This is when brand zealots were born,” Millman said. “Stories about brands emotionally transformed us.”
“Why as a species are we so compelled by this?” Millman asked. “Why do we form tribes of our own around brands?”
She noted that nearly every species of animals on the planet prefers to congregate, organizing into some kind of pack for safety and comfort. Humans are not different in this respect, Millman said, pointing to scientific studies that have shown that given the choice between being held by his mother and not fed or being fed but not held, a baby will choose the connection with his mother. “If the baby has to choose between starving to death and being held, the baby will always choose to be held,” Millman said. “We feel happiest and most secure when our brains resonate with others.” Our symbols, including our brands, have been ways to facilitate this congregation – before there were military uniforms, flags identified that place on the battlefield where our fellows could be found, just as today, a product bearing the Apple brand identifies its owner as a member of a particular tribe.
Beginning in about 2005, the leading brands were no longer just identifying concrete, physical products and had begun to be about the ways we connect with each other. Think Facebook, Twitter. They’re means by which we tell each other our stories, regardless of the physical devices through with we do that these days. “The more popular brands of the moment are all around stories,” Millman said. “Now we’re being inundated with reality stories in everything we watch.”
That being the case, Millman advises that we make sure that we’re telling the authentic stories that will help others connect with us and that will help them feel that they are accepted as they are rather than judged for their flaws. “To create brands, help people feel connected and accepted and okay as is,” she said. “If you can capture that acceptance, you will likely grow your brands really quickly. I see a huge social shift about accepting as is.”
“Communicate something in your brand that will help consumers make a difference in their lives,” she added. “You must be absolutely, positively authentic. You can’t make these stories up. Consumers today have a very strong BS meter, and they know when they’re not being told the truth.”