Propaganda? The Business of Brands and the Brain

Branding is an interesting concept in the world of business. We have come to a point where some people buy brands more than the product. This is the goal of many businesses, that is, they want to make decision-making easy for consumers in favor of the brand in question! It is called loyalty and companies tout themselves for securing this brand loyalty. Some brands have their own brand equity which allows them to add more to a product’s value. And of course, the value is subjective and in the minds of the beholder.

These companies go on the offensive, searing that brand on to the brain of the consumer. Images of love, happiness, laughter, warmth, status, and so on become immediate associations of the brands over time. These associations are communicated through ad campaigns and news coverage, and brand loyalty is cemented. One is only left singing – it must be brands on the brain.

Just how different is this from brainwashing, indoctrinating, and the popular art of propaganda as practiced by some political movements out there?

Business is a strange arena to analyze. Somehow psychology has been allowed into the workplace and recently mindfulness. And yet this arena remains morally questionable. When we were studying business strategy the aim was to have and maintain a competitive advantage over one’s competition. And when entering a red ocean we had to be ready to fight – price wars, image/perception wars you name them. And victory for one business also meant defeat for the other business but we did not care. Win-win was reserved for the customer and business relationship.

One friend of mine described competition this way: My goal is to get more market share, and maybe all of it, and put my competition out of business. If rephrased it could say, “My goal is to get my competition to start laying people off due to decreased revenues and true victory is when the competition shuts down, people lose their jobs and their families lose their livelihoods – while my business soars and takes the entire market.” My friend suggested that we allow the first scenario but not the latter.

So much of what we don’t allow in regular life we allow in business. This pain from this caused me to call this 2-timing ethical enforcement. It goes beyond hypocrisy and jumps right into the deep-end of betrayal of all we hold dear as values of fairness and justice. One could say the difference is only in wording and the intentions implied, and I could not agree more. The wording is all that matters and this is how we circle back to the world of branding.

We are not ok with propaganda in politics, and brainwashing of any form except in business. The goal of customer-based brand equity is to move from salience to resonance. One begins by slowly making you familiar through imagery about the meaning of the brand. Like Gollum whispering into your mind, they make sure that through the media, corporate literature, signage, and advertisement you hear how precious the brand is or should be to you. They connect the brand to basic human needs or values and attempt to make the brand synonymous with something else that you may hold dear. You go from never having heard of the brand, you become aware of it, become drawn to it, and then your feelings and judgments get affected. Perhaps there is confirmation bias with the products as well, and soon you and the brand acquire resonance. Your resonance results in other people’s being attracted to the brand.

These wonderful steps almost sound unnervingly like brainwashing. They harken back to the Nazi era and sound like programming or conditioning. One of my favorite taglines is Sony’s “Make Believe”. It summarizes what brands are trying to make people do. And we find this ok in business but not in regular life. We don’t want people to lie to us until we believe it and yet we may be letting companies do it. We allow companies to create a collective illusion, that inflates the price of certain goods and brings to ruin some goods. But this illusion can not stand for long. Any reality which conflicts with other realities within and around us is sure to fail, or maybe we suffer in silence.

In 2014, a study claimed that the average person is exposed to about 5,000 ads or branded infomercials daily. Probably that number has doubled. What is the impact of these attempts by companies to stamp images on my minds about their logos, taglines, and products that have become associated with our values? Some studies have shown that when someone mentions a certain brand, areas of the brain associated with happiness light up. Can we truly blame this person when they reach out to that brand’s product for comfort when they feel sad? Does that product provide said comfort?

In a society aiming to be more than superficial are we stuck needing a certain product to feel important and of high status? Does that product truly give us this status or are we left biting the dust, empty, and yearning for more? Is this brainwashing and association we have allowed brands to do letting the world down tremendously and dismally? Some call the brand a promise, and the product how they deliver on that promise. Can this phone, this shoe, this soda, this chocolate, this bag, or this set of glasses truly be my values incarnate and deliver on love, happiness, worth> Or has it turned into my preciousssssssss; bewitching as it is enchanting but ultimately empty and maybe even detrimental to our health?

Brands may be leading us astray.

Could this implicit tension between the brands’ attempts at identifying with our values and the values themselves be a schism in our reality? Operating on one set of morals at work and in business while operating on a different set at home. We encourage our children to find meaning and happiness in their lives through service and contributing to a better world. Then we got to work and we sell to them the idea that they can find meaning through purchasing this brand or happiness through association with that brand.

The root cause of a rise in teenage suicide and depression is unknown really. We do know that the numbers are way more now than before. We have theories and a truly systematic approach is necessary to heal the world. I wonder if we can begin by applying the same standard in business as in life in order to start healing the schism. Stop the lying and the double standards. Stop the manipulation and brainwashing. Stop letting our children down. Stop letting each other down.

In Korea for example, one company chose to place coffee spritzing aroma capsule in over 350 buses. These capsules were set to be triggered by a certain jingle for the company that installed them. So when the jingle played on the radio, the scent of the particular coffee from this company would fill the air. Sales of coffee along the bus routes went up by 29%. Is this manipulation or shall we call it experiential emersion advertising? Or maybe we call it another fancy name and allow it in business? How far is far enough?

In my life so far, I have come to discover that we allow some things in business which cannot be allowed in other areas of life. Are we all double agents, in which case, life is way more exciting than I imagined it. It goes beyond hypocrisy really and jumps right into the deep-end of betrayal of all we hold dear as values of fairness and justice.

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Branding and double lives have plagued many an African leader and many other political leaders in the world. They desire publicity and notoriety and they want to be synonymous with wealth and luxury. Some want their names to go down in history as epitomes of certain brands and certain holiday places. They then work hard to brand themselves and the events. Coups are called strategic reorganizations and restorations of values people hold dear, bribing is called lobbying, and rigging election is called gerrymandering. When I was young I learned to always call a spade a spade. But branding allows me to bend that and called a spade a digging tool. And so when you ask for a digging tool all I have is a spoon, I am right. And maybe that’s what we have with these brands, an attempt at identifying with values which fails dismally. They turn our spades into spoons and our lives into pawns on a chessboard, searing our brains with images that heard us like sheep to offer our earnings in homage to what does not satisfy. Like people headed for a sham election.

Allen Matsika

Born and raised in the small town in the land of milk and honey in south central Africa, I moved to the USA to study philosophy. The hope was to understand where humanity had lost its way. I took a historical perspective on the trajectory of western thought and was especially struck by Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War. The memorable description of human nature in that book contributed greatly to my understanding of the human condition.

Life is a misery to be endured until we die. Even those with terminal illnesses find times of respite and laugh and enjoy their lives. So too is mortality a terminal illness. We will all die, I for one am glad this is so. But before that day I will define myself, I will not go without giving everything I have got, and I will love with all my heart.

I am proud to be an Afropolitan; a world citizen of African descend. I am called Allen and I love writing, eating, and singing in the shower!

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